Beyond Blackboard Course Shells: “What on earth are they using?”

Posted by: Howard Errey, Educational Developer
John Benwell, Principal Advisor, Learning and Teaching, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.

From a learning and teaching perspective it’s hard to think of a more important system in a modern university than its Learning Management System (LMS).

Alongside (and sometimes instead of) the physical experience of a campus, its buildings and facilities, a student now navigates an online set of hierarchies through the LMS.

There’s a great new tool available for RMIT staff that allows you to see what a student is seeing at the current point in time.

At RMIT, our implementation of Blackboard (‘myRMIT’) currently shows students that course surveys are about to close, deadlines for exchanges are coming, the availability of financial support, upcoming study skills workshops and various other announcements from whole-of-University groups.

And all of that is before they see any announcements, course materials or assessment links in their Program or Course.

There’s a renewed scrutiny on just how well and how widely myRMIT is being used by academics. Statistics showed that many courses have very low usage but there are notable exceptions and as that Swiss Army Knife expression goes, ‘pockets of good practice’. We knew anecdotally and from Program Managers that a number of other technologies were being used within and alongside the Blackboard environment.

This led our project team to ask “Well, what on earth are they using?” and a Learning and Teaching Investment Fund (LTIF) proposal to answer this question was developed. This Q&A explains some of the background to the project:

What do you think might be discovered by the project?

I think we will find a diversity of online tools that are not evidenced by the statistics. I think we will find new ways academics are using educational technologies for learning and teaching. We will discover why Blackboard’s capabilities fall short of the requirements of the creative and design disciplines and why designers/architects/artists take to alternate platforms.

I hope we will also find that staff are using many technologies in their teaching, but are simply not providing the links in Blackboard. Using the approved channel for assessment and course material has a number of advantages. It provides an enterprise-grade archive and ensures there’s a course ‘memory’ to name just a couple of benefits.

But it’s a bit like asking why people drive around in different types of cars. We look for a car that fits our requirements. At the moment I suspect some feel ‘illicit’ if they’re using tools like Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr or Google Sites to organise or run aspects of their course.

Think of it from the university’s point of view. We spend a lot of money on the LMS, and we want to see staff using it. A large organisation has to keep everyone happy and at the same time be adaptable. Yet we have different people and school personalities in a myriad of disciplines. So the reality is not all black and white in terms of teaching technologies. One size seems to not fit all.

One of the issues is that statistics are not analytics. What is being done with the data?

With the LMS we have never had a measure of how much it was being used. A considerable amount of our budget is being spent on the LMS and of course the university would like reporting back on its usage. However the only statistics we have are hits per course per student. This tells us very little. Yet there is a lot more going on that we know about. Staff and students are always working online – so what are they doing? This is what we set out to find out in the project.

Judgements are being made on the above statistics. There is no doubt that RMIT has patchy LMS usage, but we also know that so much more is going on.

Why is the LMS used so little is some places?

Blackboard is complex and can be difficult to use. I liken it to an old 16mm film projector. The films are what people want to see, but the projector requires a licensed operator. In the same manner, the LMS is not important; it’s the content that is. With a lack of operational understanding of the LMS, it often gets treated as just a document store. Unless lecturers are aware of what online activities can be achieved and the value to their teaching and the students’ learning, efforts beyond the use of myRMIT as a filing cabinet are hard to get excited about.

What influence would you like the project to have?

It would be a great outcome if the project discovered school/discipline specific learning technologies and how they added value to learning and teaching. We need a range of technologies that match the diversity of the university’s disciplines. We know we can’t have everything, yet we need to find some middle ground.

The imminent arrival of Google Classroom could change everything...

The imminent arrival of Google Classroom could change everything…

We also need statistics for all of the learning technologies we use, to enable meaningful learner analytics and of course to provide evidence we are using them and that they are worth paying for.

Do you see some middle ground with the suite of Google Apps?

There are quick wins for all with Google sites. The fact that RMIT students have Google accounts is an exciting and under-utilised aspect in all of this. The imminent arrival of Google Classroom could change everything.  Designers don’t want to follow what has happened before. They are not followers. They want to research, change, innovate and create anew. To some, Blackboard has a last century feel. I am surprised that there is not more competition in the LMS marketplace.

I know we will discover an enormous diversity in learning technologies in use during this project and much more than just Blackboard shells in this project.

We’ll be back later in the year with an update on the project and we have a Part 2 of this post that goes into more depth about the concept of learner analytics, but for now we’d love to hear from staff directly (email us) or through the comments section.

If you want to keep up to date with our project, follow us at www.whatonearth14.wordpress.com

Share your thoughts on Learning Management Systems comments section!

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