Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Blogs vs. Blackboard for Courses

One of my projects for the summer is to figure out how to create better on-line resources for my courses. One step will be to create a course page for my course on Law and War in 20th Century America. Ideally, the page could help students figure out whether this elective is of interest to them before classes start, and without registering and accessing a Blackboard page. And it could serve as a resource page for the class after that. This should be fairly easy to do, using the free software I use for my personal homepage.

For ongoing course use, I've thought about creating a class blog. That would be an easy way to organize course announcements and updates, and it would be more interactive, so that students could continue to discuss course-related issues outside of class. Blackboard now has a Blog Tool, but I haven't tried it out yet.

The issue of blogs vs. Blackboard is taken up today in the Chronicle of Higher Education. A scholar is quoted as urging the use of blogs rather than Blackboard as a way to open up access to course content. Blogs are potentially open to anyone on the web who wants to read them. But this is not a good thing if you want to restrict access only to course members, so that students can post comments more freely without having to worry about making a public record of their untested ideas. But blog software, at least the program I use, enables you to limit access. If I use Blogger rather than Blackboard to bring more interactivity to a course site, I will set it up so that it can only be viewed by members of the class. One advantage to a blog is that I could post via email when I don't have either the time or computer access for a Blackboard post post (e.g. while traveling).

I would be so interested to know about ways others are bringing web 2.0 into the classroom. Creating on-line resources and discussion opportunities strikes me as especially useful in legal history classes. There is only so much we can cover during a class period, and a website or blog enables students to go beyond that, and explore on their own, following links to on-line resources. The biggest barrier to doing this is no longer the technology, since it is now so easy to use. It is the usual one: having the time to do the initial work to pull something together.


dmv said...

Prof. Dudziak:

From a student's perspective, I have mixed feelings about Blackboard. On the one hand, it's incredibly useful when professors actually use it to distribute course content, though it can also be incredibly annoying when professors inconsistently use it. Honestly, I've had a total of 1 professor who has consistently used it. I find myself checking Blackboard maybe once a week or so, unless a professor says something in class about putting something on it. But with the one who consistently used it, I'd find myself checking it almost daily.

On the other hand, I've never found Blackboard a suitable platform for discussion. Friends of mine have had classes where professors explicitly take into account contributions to discussion on Blackboard as part of their class participation. I sort of like that idea, myself, though I've never had a class where the prof. does it. I don't think profs. should require students to make contributions to an online discussion, but knowing that the professor will take such contributions into account as part of class participation might stimulate the online discussion.

I'm very much in favor of professors opening their class content to the public as much as possible. I have often found myself accessing course content from professors around the country, and from around the world, on topics that I otherwise would not be able to investigate because I just don't have the time or resources to take classes on them. It's truly an invaluable contribution. See, for example, Brad DeLong's making available lecture audio and slides for his economic history class at Berkeley.

As for discussion content on a blog and the anonymity issue, you could simply have the students use aliases, either of their own choice or assigned. (For example, my school e-mail address is a combination of my initials and part of my student ID number. So, if my name is Tom Tootleberry, student ID 1234567, my e-mail would be: tt4567@school.edu. In that case, an obvious alias would be: tt4567.)

I don't know what factors you're using to decide what platform to use, but I'd just encourage you (1) to make as much of the content of the course open as you possibly can and (2) to be consistent in your use in whatever platform you choose.

Anyway, I know that these comments weren't precisely responsive, but I wanted to give you a student's perspective on the issue. I think one key mistake professors make is not directly asking students what they like, don't like, find helpful, useful, annoying, etc. about these kinds of pedagogical strategies. I know, that's what course evaluations are for, but a course evaluation is not a free-form back-and-forth. (I have my own grips about evals. As in, I hate them.)

Mary L. Dudziak said...

Thank you for this very helpful comment -- which reinforces my sense that using Blogger or other blog software might better encourage class discussion than Blackboard (since you don't have to sign in, etc.).

I have a question for you (and other student readers): I agree that having course materials available open-access is, in general a good thing. But my assumption has been that making a blog open-access would deter student discussion on the blog, even students have particular aliases, as you suggest. It would also open the discussion to non-class members. This could have value in itself -- but is not consistent with the goal of creating a community within the class, intensely focused on the problems we're commonly grappling with. Not everything works best when carried on in public, and the classroom (and web 2.0 extensions of it) should be a place where students can take intellectual risks. Doing that on a blog could invite criticism of a post from outsiders, while the strengths and weaknesses of a student's argument can be probed more gently in an academic environment.

I may be wrong, but I have assumed that some students would be comfortable posting for the world to see, but many -- especially when forming new ideas for the first time -- would not, even with an alias.

I would love to hear more from DMV on this, and from other students.

Pete Jones said...

I think you might look into using WordPress instead of blogger as a platform. I recently made the jump and while there are drawbacks (have to be a little more tech savvy, might cost some money), WordPress is the far superior platform. In addition, you can install a WP plugin called ScholarPress which has some of blackboard's functionality built into the blog (shows a schedule, class policies, class bibliography, etc).

One of the nice things about WP is it's customization options- so you could keep certain posts class specific or have others available to the world. Jeremy Boggs has some examples of using a WP blog in his courses.

Mary L. Dudziak said...

Thanks, Pete. I use Blogger for this blog because it is easy and it's free. My approach is that I don't make money on the blog (I could, but I don't want to turn it into a business), and I don't spend money on the blog (so I only use free versions of blog-related things like sitemeter and neocounter). But you've convinced me to look at WordPress for course use.

Pete Jones said...

The expense part comes in if you need to buy hosting space or a domain name- both necessities that your university should cover without any issues. Your school might even have a WordPress Multi-user account set up for just this sort of purpose (see Mary Washington for a great example).

Anonymous said...

I've been giving some serious thought to migrating all of my course webpages (which I design myself) onto a free blog service, but the one I'm looking at (Ning.com) charges $24.95 a month for an ad-free page.

I'd like more than just a blog feature; I'm also looking for a threaded discussion board, which Ning does offer.

Anybody know of another free blog service with threaded discussion boards?

I wrote about the Chronicle article on my blog this morning. Here's the URL: