Colleges Consider Using Human Skin Instead of Blackboard

—Another mock Chronicle article – or Chronicle mocking article. If it weren’t so easy I’d try to get it declared an Olympic sport.

original article here by JEFFREY R. YOUNG
footnotes, italics and a few minor deletions by me below

New York

Jim Groom sounded like a preacher at a religious revival when he spoke to professors and administrators at the City University of New York last month. “For the love of God, open up, CUNY,” he said, raising his voice and his arms. “It’s time!” But his topic was technology, not theology. A number of studies have correlated religious zealotry of this type with insanity and anti-social behavior.

Mr. Groom is an instructional technologist1 at the University of Mary Washington, and he was the keynote speaker at an event here on how to better run CUNY’s online classrooms. The meeting’s focus was an idea that is catching on at a handful of colleges and universities around the country: Instead of using a course-management system to distribute materials and run class discussions, why not use free blogging software — the same kind that popular gadflies use for entertainment sites? I’ll answer my own question. Because it’s for gadflies and entertainment sites, damn it. Trusting your course to something so common, so un-academic would be like settling for a non-terminal degree.

The approach can save colleges money, for one thing. And true believers (looney zealots) like Mr2. Groom argue that by using blogs, professors can open their students’ work to the public, not just to those in the class who have a login and password to a campus course-management system. Open-source blog software, supporters say, also gives professors more ability to customize their online classrooms than most commercial course-management software does. Unfortunately, these are unsubstantiated claims made by ‘true believers’ and ‘supporters.’

Organizers originally expected around 20 people to show up to the daylong meeting, which included technology demonstrations and discussions. But they ended up having to book an overflow room to accommodate the more than 120 attendees. Clearly, signage at the conference was inadequate resulting in over 100 uninterested people attending the session.

Blackboard Inc., whose course-management system is used throughout CUNY’s campuses, has become particularly unpopular there this semester after a series of technical problems. In March the Blackboard software was offline for three days, making it impossible for students or professors to access material for many courses. It is merely technical issues that have caused Blackboard to become unpopular. It has nothing to do with the quality of the software, nor the closed system.

“When Blackboard is down, it’s like the door to the college is nailed shut,3” said Joseph Ugoretz, director of technology and learning at CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College, explaining that some professors use the software to administer quizzes and teach online. Multiple choice quizzes have been a foundational element of colleges since their inception, without them we would have only community colleges and “trade schools.”

Those problems have caused many here to consider alternatives. At one point during the CUNY meeting, Mr. Ugoretz said the blog software the university is experimenting with, called WordPress, could be a “Blackboard killer.” University police were called in response to these threatening statements and Mr. Ugoretz4 was taken into custody.

But despite a slew of jokes about Blackboard throughout the day, many attendees admitted that when the course-management system works, it offers easy-to-use features that students and professors have come to rely on. Even those speakers who encouraged professors to use blogs instead of Blackboard said that universities should probably support both. When it came down to serious discussion the true academics admitted their interest in “blogging” was merely an attempt to “see how the other half lived” for research purposes.

Doing Something ‘For Real5

To demonstrate how a blog might be used in a course, Zoë Sheehan-Saldaña, an assistant professor of art at CUNY’s Baruch College, showed off the blog for her course “Designing With Computer Animation.” Students posted their assignments on the blog so that other students — and people outside the class — could see them. Students were encouraged to post comments on one another’s work as well. There were, unfortunately, no other examples of non-technology related classes using this upstart software. Ms.Sheehan-Saldaña, a mere assistant professor (of art, no less), seems to believe that people outside academia may be able to both write and express options. It is unlikely she will ever become a full professor.

Although new versions of Blackboard include a bloglike feature, Ms. Sheehan-Saldaña said there are benefits in teaching students to create blogs using systems they might encounter in future jobs. Clearly, there is no talking sense to Ms. Sheehan-Saldaña. She also declined my repeated offers of a Spam sandwich, which has hamlike features.

“It looks like a real Web site,” she said, noting that the course blog has a look and feel similar to those of other blogs. “For students to have a sense that they’re doing something ‘for real’ is very powerful. It is a shame this software is only for gadflies. I wish someone used it to make real Web sites, just one or two. That’d be amazing.

Unfortunately, this tendency to overvalue life outside of academia is typical of the demented and deranged. Luckily police were on hand to place Ms. Sheehan-Saldaña in protective custody before she could do further harm to her career.

Mr. Groom, in his talk, described a project he runs at Mary Washington in which professors create blogs for dozens of courses using WordPress. Attendees expressed interest in the approach but wondered how widely it would catch on. After all, Mr. Groom cannot even grow a proper academic beard and has also been accused of having emotions. CUNY is a proper institution, in proper state. It certainly doesn’t have more than 20 people interested in the topic.

Setting up a course blog would be more work for professors, said Stephen Powers, an assistant professor of education at Bronx Community College. “Blackboard has a fairly short learning curve,” he said.

“After all professors can’t be expected to have the intelligence, work ethic and skill of an average 12 year old. These entertainment loving gadflies are so darned computer savvy.”

Mr. Powers uses Blackboard for his courses and generally likes it. “I’m not against it,” he said. “I just want it to work.”

Other ringing Blackboard endorsements included “It hasn’t killed anyone yet” and “It only hurts my teaching a little.”

Some professors asked whether it was possible to run a blog that only students could see, noting that they had concerns about making course activities public.

“People might learn things who aren’t in the class,” worried one full professor.

In an interview, Mr. Groom said some people at Mary Washington had worried at first about opening up their online classrooms. Some feared that students might post crude comments on course blogs. It is a well established fact that student routinely post nothing but profanity and pornography until they enter graduate school. It is also common knowledge that unless professors are protected by a lectern and undergraduates are heavily sedated by PowerPoint horrible interactions can occur.

“A lot of people said it is going to maybe detract from the institution’s public profile because people are going to say things, and there’s going to be some sort of scandal,” he said. “But it has done nothing but reinforce what we’re doing as important — and get us press from people like The Chronicle.”

The Chronicle has since investigated all interviews with Mr. Jim Groom and found them to be lacking in academic merit. They were included in a misguided attempt at humor by rouge internal elements and have been stricken from the archive.

Looking at Alternatives

Manfred Kuechler, a sociology professor at CUNY’s Hunter College who serves on a technology committee for the university system, said he was optimistic that the technical difficulties with Blackboard had been resolved. Professor Keuchler is also know for his sunny outlook on the economy, the Palestinian conflict and global warming.

The problems arose this academic year, he said, when the university moved to a centralized Blackboard system for all of its campuses rather than continue to let each campus operate its own. Consequently the software had to serve some 200,000 students, with 6.5 million files.

“Blackboard was supposed to run a stress test last summer and last fall to find out how a system could work of that magnitude,” said Mr. Kuechler. “They never delivered on that stress test, and that forced us, in a way, to go to that system and keep our fingers crossed.”

“It’s the dedicated customer service and support like that,” Mr. Kuechler mused. “That helps us justify paying Blackboard such exorbitant fees. You can’t get that kind of service from Open Source providers. This is enterprise level software.”

He said that CUNY had since changed the way it manages the servers, and that Blackboard officials were now doing more to help out.

“It’s been rumored that for a mere $10,000 we may be able to get someone from Blackboard to speak to us on the phone,” said Mr. Kuechler hopefully.

Mr. Groom argues that the need for course-management systems. or CMS’s, may soon diminish, once professors switch to using blogs and other tools. It should be noted that Mr. Groom also believes in Santa Claus and is not a professor.

“I think the model for the CMS is outdated given the new Web, and I think that’s one of the problems,” he said. “It can serve certain functions well, but it’s hard for proprietary CMS’s, whatever they are, to keep up with the how the Web is changing.”

Blackboard is trying to keep up.

Michael L. Chasen, the company’s chief executive, has told The Chronicle that the latest version of the software integrates some Web 2.0 tools and still offers plenty of features that blogging packages can’t match, like online gradebooks.

“Lets keep the focus of online learning where it matters most, on gradebooks,” Chasen stated.

1 Not a professor

2 Cough, cough. He doesn’t have a doctorate. Don’t trust him. While he has a beard, it is NOT an academic beard.

3 Please note that I did not make that quote up.

4 Please note that Mr. Ugoretz does not appear to have reached a terminal degree and may not even have a beard.

5 Please note that ‘for real’ in this instance doesn’t seem to indicate getting published but, strangely, is focused on life outside of academia.

6 thoughts on “Colleges Consider Using Human Skin Instead of Blackboard

  1. Fun parody, thanks! And it really is almost too easy.

    All of us who were there experienced the event and its focus quite differently than the Chronicle did–but they told the story they were interested in telling.

    And for the record, I do have a beard, and a Ph.D., and before starting in my current role, I was a tenured full professor of English. But I try not to let those facts taint my perspective too much.

    If the Chronicle wants to call me “Mr.,” or even “Joe,” I’m a friendly sort of fellow so it’s OK with me.

    You can call me Joe, too!

  2. Joe-

    Appreciate you setting the facts straight.

    It’s hard to believe the Chronicle didn’t address you properly AND didn’t mention you had a beard. Their reporting may be getting shoddy.

    I attempted to weigh in on the Chronicle in the comments but was unable to answer the captcha properly as I have neither a beard nor a PhD. 🙂

    Stop by any time,


  3. You either have way too much free time on your hands, Tom, or your itching to start a fight with someone online. Either way, I love it!

    1. I think I’m taking out my hostility with the status quo on whoever’s available, but I’m glad it’s amusing some of y’all.

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