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November 10, 2006

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EB

Ok, I hear ya. But a few seconds for devil advocacy...

Maybe what you see as an inherent flaw is, for others, a virtue. Why is it inherently virtuous for all information to be freely available to everybody. Might not some people rather not expose their conversations to the public for any number of perfectly good reasons.

Through a student initiative, our faculty are starting to put reading lists and syllabi up into a pool of documents that is only available through Blackboard. The main reason it's using that interface is that many faculty specifically DO NOT want that information to be on public servers. Regardless of my analysis about whether that attitude is necessary or not, I'm certain that many faculty here would simply not contribute if the password/account barrier were not in place.

Is your complaint really about Blackboard? Information in Bb courses can be made private or public depending on the policies of the school and the individual instructors. We permit guest access here, but the instructor must also approve.

The job of the software is to enable the policies of the persons involved. It sounds to me more like your complaint is a more human issue.

Gardner

I'm with Bryan on this one. Also, I'm interested to know why a professor wouldn't want a reading list or a syllabus shared publicly. I can imagine why, but none of the reasons strike me as especially good ones, particularly if the professor has tenure. Back before Blackboard and its kin, many more of these materials were available on the web, and I learned a lot as a junior professor by looking at what my senior colleagues were doing in their classes. Even now, it's always a delightful surprise, and helpful, to see what other folks are doing where they teach.

Worse, systems like Bb continue to send the powerful message that education is a closed loop between students and professors. That message is responsible for a good deal of indifferent work from students (perhaps from professors as well). There are exceptions, of course, in which developmental stuff (drafts, etc.) or intensely personal writing shouldn't be shared, but those items should be the exception, not the rule, in my view.

Lanny Arvan

Not a perfect comparison, but this particular post from my blog
http://guava.cites.uiuc.edu/l-arvan/blog/2005/05/how-many-cms-are-enough.html
gets a fair amount of traffic, particularly from Moodle. One can log into the Moodle server and follow the thread, but if you are uninitiated, it's not easy to do. So it's not just Blackboard, but what the hey.

On a different but related point, you might want to cast some stones at big campuses like mine. Our campus information security officer loves CMS systems that are closed for enforcing FERPA and Copyright and so I wonder if the vendors just take the lead from (over regulated) institutions like mine.

Len

On the other hand, CNN has picked up on teaching possibilities with Second Life, which I first encountered on this site.

http://www.cnn.com/2006/TECH/11/13/second.life.university/index.html

Bryan Alexander

Thank you for that pointer, Len.
Just blogged.

Bryan Alexander

Greetings, EB, and thank you for posting.
A couple of responses.
First, I've written and presented about CMSes many times over the past year (for instance, here's a presentation I gave last month about CMSes and Web 2.0). My post is not a general criticism, but focused on one bit: Blackboard and its ilk blocking distributed conversations. I think we agree on that.

Second, yes, there are a series of good reasons for placing Webbed academic content behind firewalls. I think I have a slide in that presentation about this... privacy and copyright worries (specifically, using the TEACH Act for a fair use defense). Additionally, as you say, there's the chunk of faculty who won't use the open Web. For them, a closed Web space is a good first step.

But, third, it's important to listen to the arguments about what happens to the open Web as a result of the prevalence of such closed spaces. As Gardner and others have noted, encouraging faculty to move content to such locations adds nothing to the public Web; moreover, that encouragement can lead to faculty moving materials away from the open Web. Many researchers and teachers have remarked on the difficulty not only of getting to such content, but *even knowing it exists*. As the open Web continues to grow at an enormous pace, can we even know what's in the darkened academic siloweb?

Again, these remarks are in the service of my initial point about distributed conversations. And, as I say in my "About" page, these are my own opinions, personal things, not at all indicative of my colleagues' or organization's thinking.

John Lynch

First of all, I think that this is a very interesting discussion, since (as we all agree) it has dramatic implications for the nature of education. Second, I wanted to comment on Gardner's post about faculty desires to keep material confidential: It's not just the web! In my own field of (as everyone who was at the NMC Regional Conference now knows) Assyriology, the MODEL for the last 150 years has been essentially one of secrecy/private data. That is, you made your own personal copies and translations of cuneiform tablets that only became "public" either when you published an article or monograph about them or you gave them to a friend or student to use in their work. Scholars would regularly have massive archives of essentially secret tablet copies and transliterations that they never got around to publishing because they never quite found that "right article topic." I BELIEVE that this model originated in the inherent limitations/costs of paper publcations: When you are dealing with collections of 100,000+ cuneiform tablets, publishing paper copies, etc. of every single one was never practical. Neither could you easily share your accumulated data easily. And, over time, what was originally a technological limitation becomes a cultural norm.

With that in mind, the field is slowly changing. One example is the Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative (www.cdli.ucla.edu), started by Bob Englund here at UCLA, of which the aim is to put scanned images of every cuneiform tablet in existence online. Although they've received a lot of resistance from the more established members of the field, especially the major institutions such as museums and univerisities that possess the bulk of these tablets, they have also received a great deal of support from some of the more forward-thinking members of our branch of the academy. There are a number of related projects, as well, that can be seen in the Partners section of the CDLI webpage.

The points that I'm trying to make here are that the resistance to public disclosure of "trade secrets" often DOESN'T make good scholarly sense, and that change takes time, BUT it will come. Julian Lombardi was talking about the Croquet Project here at UCLA a month ago, and he made the interesting observation that Academia is essentially the only "industry" in which a person from 200 years ago, or even 100 years ago, could be plopped into place and would still understand exactly what was going on around him or her. You mentioned looking at your fellow instructors' syllabi. One of the main complaints of museums and universities to putting their cuneiform collections online is that they won't have any more control over who studies/publishes them, and they want to maintain traditional standards. As if every nutjob on the web is out learning Akkadian... But the observation at the end of the executive summary of the recent report on digital images on the NITLE website is an important one: They were assuming a changeover period of 5-8 years, and it looks like it will take 15-20. I think we'd agree that, although the limitations of most CMSs are great, they're a step in the right direction, no?

Mark Pearson

Just to concur with a point made above; the issue of information silos, or rather, information silage (since information like grass will rot if kept in a closed container) is independent of the nature of the password protected silo used to contain it. Thus Moodle is as equally noxious as Blackboard, WebCT, and all the other LMS's being litigated out of existence.

It seems to me that this issue springs from a condition of fear that can have an undue influence over teaching faculty:

  • fear of loss of control :
    • of the course material painstakingly accumulated over a period of years. Putting it out on the web just gives away my knowledge capital. And teaching is still Knowledge Capitalism isn't it?
    • of the learning process. Moodle is great because I can control what my students learn. Learning with others outside the class is dangerous.
    • of student expression. What if they write something nasty in their blog? If they only write for the prof within Moodle I can control this.
  • fear of possibility of blame. I am responsible for my student's behaviour on the web. If they behave on the web as badly as in class then who knows what might happen?
  • fear of looking stupid to the outside world. Making my syllabus accessible invites comparisons. These might be negative.

Yes, I'm overstating the case here, and some of these issues are especially sharp for High School teachers. But for us in Liberal Arts Higher Education there's still a comfort factor to the Moodle approach (no-one was ever denied tenure for using Moodle/Blackboard) which mitigates against taking the risk of opening up the teaching/learning process.

Two exemplar teachers stand out as having bucked this trend. Barbara Ganley is well known for her sterling work with blogging, eg bgblogging . Kathleen Fitpatrick gave a fascinating account at a recent NITLE LMS at LAC conference in Reed. Try as I might I could not find a link for this conference on the http://www.nitle.org site but here is a link to a (chaptered) podcast of here talk which also includes a couple of other interesting presentations at that conference :

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