I have now been teaching my previously face-to-face classes completely online for two weeks. My campus uses Blackboard as a course management system. It’s ok. It has some glitches and some design flaws, the worst of which is the inefficient way it uses screen real estate. I’m pretty familiar with Blackboard because I have been using it to support most of my classes for almost 20 years. And before that I was using WebCT, which Blackboard bought. Yes, it has been that long.
Here is what Blackboard looks like when you are responding to papers:
The text box is really small. Lots of space is wasted at the top. The right side is taken up mostly by blank, unused, gray space. I can scroll down to eliminate some of the wasted space at the top, but I have to redo that positioning for EVERY SINGLE PAPER. I can make in-text comments (good) but it is hard to make the comment box go away without turning off the commenting feature, so it is basically, turn comments on, make a comment, turn comments off (bad). I can create, edit, and attach a rubric and score a paper by clicking in the appropriate cells (good), but if I score one paper and then find out that I have made a ridiculous error in the rubric, it will not let me edit the rubric. I have to score every subsequent paper with the defective rubric (bad).
Blackboard is full of issues like this. It has discussion boards and blogs, but the only real difference between them is that the discussion boards are organized by topic and the blogs are organized by student. They aren’t real blogs. Both tools are functional, but clunky. In the blog tool, in order to see other student’s blogs, you have to click a tiny down arrow underneath your own name, which produces a drop down menu. By default, it only shows blogs with posts, so at the beginning of the semester if you are the first one to post something, when you click on the down arrow, you see nothing. This causes a great deal of confusion.
So I am familiar with Blackboard, but I have never used it to teach a totally online course.
We also have access to Zoom for video conferencing and chat and Kultura for creating and uploading videos. The problem with video is bandwidth. Many of our students don’t have wifi at home and the places they used to use for wifi access–Starbucks, McDonalds, libraries–are closed. Besides, the whole point is to stay home and stay well. So they use their phones, but quickly blow through data caps.
Some of my colleagues are using Slack, which has a free plan, for chat. My grad students recommended that too. As near as I can tell, Zoom and Slack are overlapping products. Zoom emphasizes video, but does chat, while Slack emphasizes chat but does video. In my last seminar meeting, we did one hour of Zoom followed by one hour of Slack. They both worked well, but provided different experiences.
Genre Fiction So Far
For my “Genre Fiction” class, as I have posted previously, I have been producing podcasts for each story and giving them my notes. We are also using both blogs and discussion boards, using the Blackboard tools. Though there has been lively interaction on the discussion boards, there are six students out of 26 who are not participating. I have emailed them several times. Because I felt that I was losing touch with the class, I decided to have a non-mandatory Zoom meeting at the time when the face-to-face class would have normally met. Seven students showed up. It turned into a sort of focus group.
Only three students activated video, and one of these had arranged the lighting so that his face was obscured. The others not only did not activate video, but they were muted too. They communicated through chat or through icons like thumbs up. I had not expected such shyness.
They were all feeling overwhelmed, but they did not blame faculty. However, they pointed out that discussion boards were a lot more work than showing up in class. In a discussion board, everyone has to think and express their ideas. They see showing up for class as an interesting and even fun experience, but the discussion board is work. From their point of view, the homework load has increased tremendously.
This may mean that the ones who participate in the online activities are actually learning more than before. The in-class experience for them is more comfortable, enjoyable, but also more passive, at least for some.
After this discussion, I decided to eliminate one of the novels I was going to teach as well as the final, on the grounds that the discussion board work was ample evidence of their engagement and understanding. This will give them more time to work on their stories.
One of the books I am using in my seminar argues that teaching is “a path made by walking.” That certainly seems true for our sudden detour into online instruction.