Will Blackboard make professors obsolete?

13 07 2008

I just finished Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors. It’s good in a depressing sort of way, but it’s best quality is Donoghue’s focus on both the past and the future at the same time. He tells you where Higher Education has been and where he thinks it’s going in the future. For example, I never really thought of this:

Using or not using the course management “shell” [course management software like Blackboard] is the professor’s choice to make, and, in the case of literature courses, for example, the professor alone decides what books will be required, which editions students will used, and what other readings will supplement the assignments. This balance of authority could quickly change though, if the course-management company also owned the publishing rights to those required books, as well as to academic research databases. Then faculty would have little choice but to use course management software, as it would be the only means of getting access to the books one wanted to teach.

Now this doesn’t bother me. I use monographs and even in my survey class I change textbooks every few years now when I get bored with the one I’ve come to know down-pat. But this should still bother every professor because, as Donoghue asks:

[I]f a university contracts with a company that owns the textbook or the novels on your syllabus, and the means of distributing that content, and software that manages day-to-day classroom activities (reserving reading assignments, tests, grading, even student evaluations), then who owns the course that you teach? If the university wants to own the course, what is to prevent it from hiring someone other than a professor to manage it?

Now that bothers me more. I’ve tried Blackboard and believe that it is entirely made up of useless bells and whistles. Anything you can do with Blackboard, you can do with the regular old Internet with just a smidgen of training. Everything I do (with the exception of this blog, come to think of it) is hosted on university servers. I refuse to post everything because I don’t want to make attending my class unnecessary, but what if others don’t and the University didn’t care?

Over fifteen years ago, the University of Wisconsin – Madison taped Professor Stan Schultz’s survey lectures and created a televised course. You watched the lectures on cable TV. All you had to do is come in an hour per week for class discussion with the TA. My good friend Steve told everyone who’d listen that this was the end of the world, that professors were going to become obsolete. I argued that students would demand a real live professor because it obviously made for the best learning experience. Human interaction, I claimed, was an essential element of education.

After ten years of teaching I still think human interaction is an essential element of education, but I’m afraid I might be part of a tiny minority.


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8 responses

13 07 2008
13 07 2008
Jonathan Rees

Yeah, I saw that. This was my favorite part:

“I don’t feel I get as much out of an online class as a campus course,” Ms. Miller said. “But I couldn’t afford any other decision.”

Now the two-tiered system of education in this country will become blindingly obvious, even to those people who don’t want to see it.

14 07 2008
Ben

I agree that the most rewarding form of education is classroom based, but aren’t today’s students accustomed to learning online?

The problem is that Blackboard and other academic suites do not have the tools necessary for the students to learn effectively and the professors do not see a great advantage to using the online tools.

14 07 2008
robertdfeinman

I’m afraid that much of what passes for “higher” education these days is about getting credentials, not an education.

My daughter is a public school teacher and she has explained to me how pay ranks are determined (in part) by how many credits you have past a bachelor’s degree (most districts now require an MA for permanent employment). There is no issue of how they additional credits are obtained, and little vetting of courses.

The result is the University of Phoenix is doing a booming business. They even run classes on schedules aimed at getting all the paper work done before the next semester starts so the teachers will get the pay raise without delay.

In the medical field the scandal has now reached epidemic proportions. Continuing Medical Education (CME) is required of doctors and the drug companies now run the courses as thinly disguised promotions for their products. The co-opting of doctors who are the presenters and who conduct the underlying “research” is now under investigation by congress. Nevertheless, if the doctor attends one of these PR sessions they meet their credential requirements.

17 07 2008
A caricature of the AAUP. « More or Less Bunk

[…] Donoghue, who I keep referring to these days, explains that that language is actually a compromise. It seems like a reasonable one to me. […]

2 03 2009
oonae

You are not part of a tiny minority, but rather a large minority. However, we tend to be less vocal than our opponent, since stupid people always talk louder and at greater length. Its easier to talk if you don’t have to stop to think.

But that they’re stupid doesn’t mean they won’t win this war. Technopoly rules. And students will flock to what is undemanding.

2 03 2009
oonae

Corrected version; please excuse errors in first one:

You are not part of a tiny minority, but rather a large minority. However, we tend to be less vocal than our opponents, since stupid people always talk louder and at greater length. It’s easier to talk if you don’t have to stop to think.

But that they’re stupid doesn’t mean they won’t win this war. Technocracy rules. And students will flock to what is undemanding.

10 10 2011
My class, my choice. « More or Less Bunk

[…] of us probably can make that decision…for now, but how long will that last? A long time ago, I quoted Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors on precisely this subject: Using or not using […]

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