EdTech


Upon seeing a possibly familiar name on my course roster, I wondered if I’d taught the student before, and I thought “why can’t I ask Banner ‘when did I teach this student?’ and have it return a list of all the classes the student was in with me, when, and the grade received.” I mean, Banner (or whatever system runs your college backend) knows this information.We just don’t have access to it.

So I mentioned it to my associate chair, and she said, “oh, they can probably do it at BigStateSchool, we’re just behind.”

And I said “I bet not.”

Do any of you have the ability to ask the system when you taught a particular student previously?

So, maybe the Kindle beats the iPad as an ebook reader (although, at $140, I could justify a Kindle now and still buy myself a second-generation iPad next year), but with the iPad, things like this are available to a mass audience with a couple clicks:

One example is the ‘Enhanced Edition’ of Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein, a chronicle of our 37th President. The book contains the full text of the book first published in 2008. It also includes 27 videos of the former President and newsreels that put those turbulent years into perspective.

Or things like this:

Civil War: America’s Epic Struggle (US$4.99) from MultiEducator Inc. is a full history course in an iPad and iPhone app. It contains at least as much information as most textbooks on the Civil War at a fraction of the cost, while adding elements that no textbook can. There are 24 multimedia presentations, some as long as nine minutes, a nice selection of music popular during the Civil War, and a wonderful navigation system that just makes sense.

So, Blackboard 9 has an Assignments feature, Calendar, and Tasks.

You might think, that if I created an Assignment, and gave it a Due Date, maybe it would automatically show as a Task and on the Calendar. Maybe, from the Calendar, you could automatically click to go to the Assignment where the handout and instructions are.

But you’d be wrong.

Okay, let’s dial back my expectations. Calendar and Tasks are both about helping students manage their time, so maybe Tasks will automatically be put on the Calendar even if there is no integration with Assignments.

Still wrong.

Oh hey, the new course home page offers direct reminders to Calendar and Tasks. That’s cool, but wait— Gee, Calendar only shows stuff in the next 7 days. And Tasks shows a list, but you have to click More to see the due dates.

Seems sub-optimal.

Hey, how about a “download calendar events and import into my calendar” button. JUST KIDDING! Blackboard would never be that useful.

Despite knowing how screwed up this is, I decided to enter all the assignments as Tasks, and the major due dates in the Calendar. More crappy decisions made by the Blackboard designers:

  • all new tasks default to Low Priority. Really?
  • default shows 6 tasks per page. WTF? Plenty of room on the page.
  • doesn’t list My Tasks in date order, but in creation order. Too bad I skipped Essay One first time around, hope my students aren’t depending on this bullshit system.

Damning with faint praise: BB 9 does appear to have improved something such I’m willing to even press the little buttons to experiment with these features, instead of just logging out as soon as possible. On the other hand, I’m avoiding doing syllabi, so it didn’t really jump a high bar there….

Fucking Blackboard.

I decided to experiment with the “add a custom photo banner” feature in Blackboard 9 (not a new feature, that’s just the version we are using. We just upgraded to it. I used to be functional with Blackboard. Now I don’t know how to do anything. EdTech are holding workshops but offer no FAQ or anything. Neglected to update their own default note on how to make the coursepage available to students. To hell with workshops, I’m just going to telephone every time I have a question, workshops are a fucking inefficient means of communicating information. Almost as bad as video. Okay, anyhow….).

No notes on size of photo or anything, so I just uploaded any old photo, assuming either it would let me crop it, or would automatically crop it to banner shape and size.

No. It did seem to crop it, in that the photo seemed to be vertical instead of the original horizontal, but it loaded the entire thing, zoomed larger, so that any user was forced to scroll down past a whole lot of blue sky, past a couple screens worth of photo, to get actual information.

Why, Blackboard, why? Is this hard? How hard can it be to automatically crop a photo?

I gave up on Instructional Technology my last year of grad school.

My “smart classroom” had one of those fancy document camera projectors—where you just flop a book on the screen and it projects? no need to make transparencies or handout photocopies. This was a while back, when those things were very expensive and not so common—it was my very first lecture course.

At one point during the semester, I decided to try the document camera. Turned it on, put the book on, nothing happened.

I puzzled. Futzed with it for a while. Finally, a student said, “You know, I don’t think it’s hooked up.” We pulled some cords and realized that indeed, they didn’t go anywhere.

I called the IT people. They told me the document camera wasn’t set up because they didn’t have the budget to buy a table that could sit in the necessary location for the camera to project onto the screen.

For the lack of a table, this expensive piece of equipment sat unused.

I’ve been exceedingly suspicious of all instructional technology promises since.

So, entering grades in Blackboard is really easy. It’s almost just like a spreadsheet—type a number, hit enter. All keyboard, no mouse. A wee bit slower, but a minimal amount of extra trouble, and it will show students their grades, calculate the running weighted total, show the average and median, and generate some nice reports I can print out.

EXCEPT:

To get Blackboard (this appears to be version 8.0) to calculate average and median, I can’t enter grades that way. Grades entered that way will show up in the running weighted total, but aren’t read for the purposes of calculating statistics. WTF kind of design is that? WTF kind of database is running on the backend, that one type of calculation pulls a number but another type of calculation doesn’t? I typed in all the grades for the outline assignment, just like Blackboard says I can, but when I click on Column Statistics for an assignment, it tells me every single outline Needs Grading.

After taking this to EdTech, who had to call a superior for help, it turns out that to get Blackboard to calculate statistics, every time I enter a grade, I have to:

  1. hover over a small box inside a column to bring down a dropdown menu
  2. click Grade Details
  3. click a teeny-weeny button that says View/Modify Attempt
  4. click in a box
  5. enter a grade
  6. hit Submit or Save

REPEAT FOR EACH STUDENT. FOR EACH ASSIGNMENT. There is a Next Student button that will combine steps 1 and 2, but isn’t bright enough, seeing as how I am clearly entering grades, to bypass 3 and 4 and automatically take me to the Enter Grade field. However, I only run into this problem if I actually use Blackboard to collect uploaded files—if I just use it as a spreadsheet, I would be fine. But then what’s the point?

What complete and utter bullshit.

So, I might as well go back to Excel and not bother with Blackboard. Students know their grades—I tell them how to calculate the math themselves, and I can mail-merge a report from Excel to Word easier than I can click through the same series of 5-6 buttons for every single grade, and include the average, if I really want to.

Other annoyances, while I’m at it:

Blackboard makes it pretty easy for students to upload files and me to download them in all one zipped folder. That’s nice. And the download page gives a nice neat list of papers received when, which I print out and use to write the grades on. But that list is in some mysterious order that corresponds to nothing I can figure out (not firstname, lastname, username, or student ID number). So when I transfer the grades from the printed list into Blackboard, I can’t just go down the line, I have to constantly say, “okay, third name on the list, eighteenth name in the gradebook.” Thanks, Blackboard.

Is it really so hard to design something that makes life easier instead of harder?

Under the pilot, the reading materials for three courses due to start in the autumn will be loaded on Kindle DX devices. Participating students and faculty members in the selected courses will receive a free DX that they will be allowed to keep.

The $30,000 (£20,000) cost of the project is being met by a sustainability fund, and its aim is to reduce the number of pages printed throughout the University.

Last year, Princeton printed 50 million sheets of paper at the cost of $5 million (£3.3 million) and 25,000 trees. If e-readers can cut down that printing by 1 per cent, Princeton will have more than made up for what was spent on this pilot.

Certainly sounds good, doesn’t it? But:

I suspect the pilot is not even mathematically capable of affecting 1% of the printing load—-can just these three classes involve 500,000 pages? (well, yes, they could: let’s say Eng 101 is reading a novel a week: 200 pages/week x 14 weeks x 200 students gets you well over a half million right there).

However, I’ve rarely seen a very large class that makes excessive use of PDFs. Large classes tend to order books, don’t they?

Princeton’s article says the pilot will run about 50 students, but they haven’t decided which classes yet. Let’s say they are history classes assigning 4-6 articles each week in PDF form: maximum estimate 150,000 pages of total reading (at 30 pages/articles, 6 articles/week, 14 weeks/semester—I think that’s unrealistically high but just barely conceivable).

Probably still cheaper, if not more environmental, to force professors to do a paper packet with copyright fees than to buy Kindles (and packets should have a lower real printing cost than 10 cents/page, and a lower environmental cost as well).

Last semester, I used a fair number of PDFs and tried to give my students tips on zooming and annotating to make reading them better. I’m not sure anybody changed their habits. I’ve mulled the idea of trying a self-contained download, to break them out of the Blackboard/browser window limitations.

I polled my students on why and how they read PDFs. Small complaints about difficulty taking notes on PDFs. More likely to print short readings than long. Answers mostly boiling down to they prefer paper and don’t like reading on the computer, which isn’t that helpful. But the Kindle does apparently export your notes with page numbers and the associated text, which might be enough to make reading on it actually happen.