Let a hundred flowers bloom.

26 04 2012

I woke up this morning to find that yesterday’s post about Blackboard usage had made me somewhat big in Australia. [Kate has that effect on people.] Working off her tweet, it appears that Ray Fleming from Microsoft down under is the person who has reproduced my chart in full. He then goes on to ask:

“So, does that mean you don’t need an LMS? And if not, what do you need?”

I’ll answer those questions, and I won’t be subtle about it at all.

We need universities to step out of the one-size-fits-all LMS business and let faculty do their own thing. When I first started here in Colorado, they bought me a Mac. Eventually, Tech Services told me that I could keep my Mac, but they wouldn’t service it at all. As I have enough to do already, I gave in to their demands. These days though, I bring my laptop in every day and work off it instead.

Why were they so hung up on PCs? Because their programs (like the one that allows anyone in ITS to take over your computer) didn’t work on Macs. Also, servicing Macs would have required them to hire tech people with a greater knowledge base. Tech people with a greater knowledge base usually cost more money. Of course, Blackboard costs more money too, but Blackboard isn’t about cost. It’s about centralized control. Call me paranoid, but I’m convinced that Blackboard exists solely because administrators like to keep faculty off balance in order to keep their demands in check.

So what do we need to make this situation better? What we need is the kind of tech support help that will allow faculty to make the best use of what the whole Internet has to offer. That means support personnel who have the time and the inclination to learn new tools and programs with faculty on an as-needed basis.

We also need administrations to make tech decisions in direct consultation with faculty. After all, we’re the ones who’ll be using it the most. Most of all, we need administrations to trust that faculty are smart enough to utilize the tools they buy for them well without Big Brother peering over their shoulders.

While checking the Mao quote I titled this post with, Wikipedia told me that the full quotation is:

“Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.”

I realize that turned out to be pretty lousy in practice for a Communist dictatorship, but if you drop the word “socialist” from the above and it’s not a bad description of the benefits of academic freedom in a democracy. So most of all, I want my tech choices to be considered part of the rest of the academic freedom that I already enjoy.



18 responses

26 04 2012
Rohan Maitzen

“What we need is the kind of tech support help that will allow faculty to make the best use of what the whole Internet has to offer.”

I couldn’t agree more, though at the same time I realize what a tall order that is. Still, for the price of Blackboard…

Exploring my institution’s newest installation of Blackboard I was surprised to come across a raft of pre-installed content available–from NBC. Listed just below this material, though apparently not yet part of our installation, was a bunch of content from McGraw-Hill. This is where things get even more worrisome, I think. Already we endure a ‘tyranny of the majority’ when it comes to Blackboard: though it’s cumbersome and closed off and otherwise unsatisfactory to almost everyone I know who uses it, it is ubiquitous and the pressure from above (admin and IT) to use it is increasingly matched by pressure from students to make things available on it. Doing your own thing requires not just a great DIY spirit on our part but a lot of effort (at least in my experience) overcoming student reluctance and unfamiliarity, and there’s no IT back-up. What if the same thing starts to happen with course content? Now that some McGraw Hill material is already in Blackboard, how long before there’s pressure to use it? If there are already short features from NBC installed, how long before there’s no way to make a different choice, or it becomes much harder, anyway, to put in pieces that aren’t part of the corporate partnerships? I asked my IT support about the NBC material and she said they were “just trying it out to see if people liked it.” That would mean more if we ever saw ‘consultation’ with actual users have any effect.

27 04 2012
Kevin Lowey

Let me get this straight. You admit you have never used the McGraw-Hill content. But because you see it in your blackboard menus that automatically means it is a BAD thing that is some kind of plot by your IT department to control your teaching.

Paranoid much?

Look, if an instructor is ALREADY using a McGraw-Hill textbook, doesn’t it make sense to make an online version of that textbook available for students to read on their iPads? Isn’t it useful for instructors who want to use textbook quizzes to already have the quizzes built and available in their LMS (ready for them to fully customise to their needs)? Isn’t it a good thing to supplement the text with additional interactive material, media, simulations, etc?

Nobody is going to say “you must use McGraw-Hill”. In fact, similar partnerships are available for almost ALL textbook manufacturers.

Nobody is saying “You must teach only according to the textbook”. Usually instructors can pick and choose what pieces of the supplied material to include in their course, and you can definitely add your own material. In fact, with McGraw-Hill you can even pull bits and pieces from many different textbooks to create your own custom text for the class.

There is also a merlot building block that lets instructors easily find learning materials shared by others. If you saw that in your blackboard menus would it mean there is a conspiracy to force everyone to use Merlot? What about the built in tools to include content from YouTube, Slideshare, or Flickr in your courses? Are those attempts to control your teaching too?

This is why I have trouble taking blogs like these seriously. You SAY you want an open system that can respond to your needs. But when we use the openness in the system to provide a tool that makes it easy to utilize your textbook online ithen suddenly we are trying to control your teaching.

If we use the openness in the system to add “cool new features” for faculty to try out and see if they like, somehow that gets twisted into “we don’t consult” because we didn’t refer it to some faculty committee to deliberate on for a year before spending the 15 minutes it takes to make it available.

If we try to leverage tools provided by our corprate partners that make it easy to use those products in the LMS, suddenly it is a conspiracy to force you to limit your options.

If we add freely available tools that make it easy to integrate the LMS into social networks or other Web 2.0 services, suddenly it is a conspiracy to stifle innovative use of those systems by forcing people to use them through our LMS instead of using the systems directly (but of course if you do use them directly instead of using the integration with the LMS then you complain there is “no IT Backup”.

I will let you in on a little secret. IT administrators could really care less what you do in your courses. We are NOT trying to control your teaching. In fact, we are trying to make it easier for you to do whatever you want.

Sure, we make it easier by integrating everything to a common platform (the LMS) because it has the common core features we need like class list management, grade book to store grades, etc. that just makes good sense.

Most of what I see here about “Lack of openness” and “institutional control of my teaching” are simply not true. We could care less if you put all your files in Dropbox and collaborate with students on Facebook. We just scratch our heads at why you would do that and add all the extra admin overhead when you can do all that in the LMS.

Here’s an example. We had a faculty member quite upset because he couldn’t download a class list. So we showed him how to export the grade center. He was then upset that it downloaded all the columns, so we showed him how to select which columns to download. Then he complained that the columns were in the wrong order so we showed him how to change the order of columns in the excel spreadsheet. He then goes to all the faculty in his department complaining bitterly about how Blackboard was crap because it wouldn’t create the class list in the format he wanted. So we offered to write a tool that would format it in exactly the format he wanted (a word document). He declined to work with us on that and continues to badmouth the IT department and the LMS. Then he manually creates his own class list by typing it in.

Sometimes, we just can’t win.

27 04 2012
Rohan Maitzen

I don’t think I proposed that it’s a plot by the IT folks to control my teaching. If you are already using McGraw-Hill, then yes, the extras you describe are probably nice to have. And as long as you are right that “Nobody is going to say “you must use McGraw-Hill,” that’s fine too. I can certainly imagine someone saying “why don’t you just use McGraw-Hill because that’s the one we’ve already partnered with, but if there are similar partnerships for “almost ALL textbook manufacturers” and there’s a comparable menu of options for all the options we prefer, then great–but that’s not what I see so far.

I’ll keep exploring and learning about our new Bb installation, particular to see those “freely available tools that make it easy to integrate the LMS into social networks or other Web 2.0 services.” So far what I’ve seen is internal programs for wikis and blogs that do, less elegantly, what external tools do, plus keeping you inside the LMS, when much of the point of these tools is interaction with the rest of the world. I’m sure there are features I haven’t seen yet. This will be the fourth version of Bb I’ve had to learn my way around in not that many years and I’ve just begun working with it. The two specific questions I’ve had for IT so far both turned out to be things that could not be done.

26 04 2012

Well, you asked the question, but never answered it: Whence cometh the funding? And while I, as a tech, love doing long-form, project-oriented support, my day is unfortunately subject to the demands of everyday support calls from faculty who just want their printer to work, and to the need to actually do some long-range planning and management.

So who’s paying for this Wild West technological paradise you envision? Students? They’re already opting for community college as it is. Alums/donors? I’m thinking “technology support staff” measures up poorly against “basketball scholarships”. Maybe faculty would be willing to give up some salary and transfer some department funds to IT to fund more support staff. No?

Don’t get me wrong. In principle, I’m completely in favor of support standards like “Feel free to use any word processor that can write RTF files” and “Bring any computer that can connect to WiFi”. But the practical hurdles inherent in trying to manage that kind of system are (a) a money suck, and (b) part of the reason people who work in that kind of environment eventually end up hating IT anyway.

26 04 2012
Jonathan Rees


Well, we could start by re-directing Blackboard licensing fees towards actual education. Then we could convert just about every program on the campus servers to open source.

I could then start a speech about administrative salaries and the second climbing wall in the gym, but I have draft papers that I have to grade before bed time.

26 04 2012

I agree about admin salaries and excessive amenities, but open source? Really? That’s a bit of a shibboleth. You won’t save money…just redirect it.

26 04 2012
A Meta-Blogging Moment » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

[…] Jonathan Rees is writing all kinds of great posts about the wrong-headed embrace of technology, including Blackboard, on our campuses. I’m not anti-technology but I’m anti-Blackboard and skeptical about […]

26 04 2012
Todd Conaway

I love the lines, “hundred flowers blossom” and I think not long ago I tried to draw it as it relates to how my daughter sees the thing called the internet. Here is drawing: http://paganpiratearchives.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/web1.jpg

And then I tried to describe it in words… I said, “I have drawn this in sharing the idea with peers and still trying to figure out if she “needs” a “homebase” like her own domain” and you could easily replace “domain” with “Blackboard” or other LMS.

Here is post: http://paganpiratearchives.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/experimenting-on-kids-is-using-your-own-ok/

This longer story tells how one can exist well, wonderfully in fact, on their own, with no tech support and no budget. And build a huge learning network that functions so so far beyond what any “management” anything can do. Largely because it exists in a place that is nearly opposite of “management.”


I have this vision of self-sufficient educators. I know a few who can do, and are doing, better schooling without the help of the institution they work for save the part about getting students to sit in front of them or computers. It ain’t gonna be tomorrow, but as the learners become more free range and their skills can often become more advanced without the restrictions that classrooms can place on them, instructors will have to become this way too.

Note to self: Schools are not inherently bad. They are challenged when it comes to speedy adaptation. And there are many many places and reasons to keep them public, accessible, and funded. In fact, I love schools. I have spent my whole life in them as a student or as a teacher. I just think they can improve by letting some of the flowers bloom.

27 04 2012
Kevin Lowey

I admit I am one of these “big bad administrators”. The utopia described above sounds reasonable. Let instructors use whatever they want and education becomes better right?

Of course, what REALLY happens is the instructors then come to us administrators saying “I’m using google docs in my class (substitute hundreds of other services) because I hate Blackboard. But it is taking all my time just managing the 300 student class list so they can get into Google Docs.. Why isn’t the IT department doing its job by making it easier to handle all this administrative stuff for my favorite programs?”

When I say “we have already integrated Google Docs into Blackboard for you so you don’t have to worry about the admin stuff” the response is “yea, but I hate Blackboard so I won’t even bother trying that”.

Blackboard is NOT a closed system. It is completely extendable. It has been integrated with hundreds of open source services and other systems. WE have integrated it with Confluence wikis, lecture capture systems, web conferencing systems, and built dozens of tools to integrate with local systems like our homebuilt podcasting system, libraries, open courseware system, etc.

When implemented correctly, blackboard and the systems it is integrated with can free up instructors from the drudge of administrative work and free them up for … You know … Teaching.

We big bad administrators DO need to consult with faculty and DO need to work with the faculty technology choices, but our job is to make sure those technology choices don’t cause a ton of extra administrative work for faculty. You do your jobs of teaching, but let us do our jobs of making the tech nuts and bolts of using technology for doing that teaching as easy as possible for you.

Trust needs to go both ways.

– Kevin Lowey – University of Saskatchewan

27 04 2012
Todd Conaway

“because I hate Blackboard” Hating things never helps. Teachers who makes such broad statements have issues other than not seeing the value of a particular tool…

We need to use the best tool when possible to do the things we want to accomplish.

I worked in a rural, small, and private high school for most of my teaching career and I always thought that the teachers who worked in crowded urban schools were the real saints in the world. I still think that. I also think that “administrators” are saints too. They have stepped up to a larger challenge than I. And for you Kevin, you have stepped up, and by participating here in this space shows that you are in my best guess, a good role model where learning is concerned. Like trust, learning needs to go both ways in classrooms, and administrative meeting rooms too.

The IT vs teacher battle is lame. Blaming the other guy never solves the problem.

I think that when we “integrate all the systems together,” at least in the case of an LMS and student data, we are actually doing two things. We are containing our institutional data, and at the same time losing “integration” with all other systems. The “other systems” being the web at large.

Finding that happy medium between what needs securing and what might be more useful, productive, cost effective, and dare I say, aesthetically pleasing, is the crux to this conversation.

27 04 2012
Kevin Lowey

You say that by integrating some systems with the LMS we are somehow “losing integration with all other systems. The other systems being the web at large”.

Given that the LMS has a “web link” tool that lets you link to whatever web site you want, I fail to see the validity of that statement. How is it restricting integration to web sites if you can add links to whatever web site you want?

The LMS provides the benefit of managing administrative drudge of grade books, automatic grading (or at least simplification of hand grading) of assignments and quizzes, and use of LMS-supplied tools (like wikis and discussion boards). If you don’t like the wiki tool in Blackboard, then you can use any of the many external wiki systems WITH THEIR INTEGRATION WITH BLACKBOARD to manage the drudge of getting your students into them, etc.

On top of access to all those tools, sure, you can add web links in to other resources that don’t have such tight integration yet. For those you may have to manage the class lists in the external tool manually, but you’re doing that now anyway. However, if people would work WITH their administrators instead of considering them to be the evil enemy, then they could probably help you get better integration, because most of those systems (like google docs, etc.) already have integration with LMS systems like Blackboard available.

Talk about openness, we have instructors who wrote their own Statistics evaluation tools as perl scripts running on their computers in the Math Department. In one afternoon they used the IMS Basic LTI (Learning tool Interoperability) specification built into Blackboard to make a minor modification to that tool so that it could work as an evaluation tool within Blackboard with automatic classlist management, single signon into the tool, etc. (For the tech savvy all they had to do was build a form handler that accepted the right information). Not only that, but since it was using a standard, the exact same tool now works with Moodle, WebCT, Angel, Desire2Learn, or whatever. (The big bad administrators are not trying to tie them to the evil Blackboard).

THAT is what we are trying to do at the University of Saskatchewan. Provide a core set of services (through the LMS) that instructors themselves can build upon and extend to meet their own needs, both on their own, and in cooperation with the central administrators.

I think that is MUCH better than either just putting a vanilla Blackboard system in place and forcing people to use it, or telling people “the LMS concept is crap so spend months to learn a dozen different web-based services and do everything yourself”.

Other posts have mentioned that instructors who try to do it themselves supposedly get pressure from the administration on one side, and the students on the other. Students because suddenly they are forced into a completely unfamiliar universe from all their other courses (like Mac users forced by their instructors into having to use Windows in the class). Administrators because we know usually these other things can be tied into the LMS, but are almost impossible to support (with automated student enrollment, etc.) if the instructor insists on not using the LMS to do that work for him.

There’s a reason why your students complain.

27 04 2012
Todd Conaway

When I think of the web at large I guess I am thinking of qualities like access, duration (or lack of), the ability to engage in some fashion. One example of a LMS challenge is, at least for us, is that when our courses end all of the discussions and content in the course disappears to the student. The only exception to that is the content that many of our faculty have places in other places. Usually their own domains. We would not be having this conversation if the author had posted this in some LMS.

It is an exciting time to be in this eLearning world. The learning world in general! There are many challenges to wonder about and overcome. As an instructional designer I am in between the administration and the faculty so I hear both sides. Too much bickering, and are absolutely right, we have to work together.

I asked some folks a couple years back for a single sentence about the future of the LMS and a colleague of ours, Stephen Downes emailed me and said, “The next LMS your students use won’t be your LMS, it will be theirs.” Or something very similar. I think that is insightful, even though Ii am unsure how it will take shape.

I guess I see this all as evolving, just as Blackboard in particular has done in the last two years. And the evolution is happening at both ends, for the teacher and for the learner. As a learner myself, I would prefer to engage in the content I learn right here,
with you, in this space which is free for the author, and for both of us, and looks nice, and can be shared with anyone, anywhere, and anytime. And I can bookmark it or add it to Diigo, or who knows, maybe the author is a super nice person who will someday be a part of the people I learn from?

Your points about jumping from one tool to another are well taken, as is the grade book challenge. We do have instructors using external grading software, but in general it is easier/convienient in the LMS.

1 05 2012
Kevin Lowey

The point that courses may need to contain material, discussions, etc. that live beyond the life of an individual term’s offering of a course is well taken. We address that in several ways.

We can leave courses on the system longer. Perhaps 4 or 5 years, so that they stay on the system for the full life of the student on campus.

We can create two “courses”. One is the course created by our SIS each term. The other is a separate course that is permanent. The permanent version can store the shared wiki, discussions, etc. that you want to permanently use from year to year. Since we can rewrite the registration process to meet our needs, we can make sure anyone who enrolls in the “official” course also gets into the “permanent” course.

We have integrated the LMS with other campus tools like the Confluence wiki. An instructor can hit a button, answer a few questions, and a wiki space is created in Confluence for the course complete with the automatic management of class lists. However, that space is independent of the course and they can reuse spaces used in previous years for other courses. They can also use Confluence to extend who can have access to the general public. Thus getting a full permanent space for the course while still keeping the advantages of the LMS.

Or, if you really want to use something off campus, you can still use it. Then inside the LMS either make links to the external resource, or better yet use the open source plugins we added to display the RSS feed, twitter feed, etc. for this external resource within the course.

On top of that, our LMS is starting to realize that content lives beyond a single course instance. We have a learning object repository in our BB system. You can store content, quizzes, etc. centrally then link to them from multiple instances of the course. Change the central information once, all the copies are updated. Long term, I think this may be expanded so that “discussions” and “wikis” can be some of these centrally shared resources.

Again, all this is possible. None of it is prevented by the LMS. But it does require funding and a good working relationship between the administrators who can implement these features and the faculty who need them.

1 05 2012
Kevin Lowey

“The next LMS your students use won’t be your LMS, it will be theirs.”

I agree completely with that statement.

The biggest mistake we administrators can make is to think “We will put an LMS in place for faculty to teach”. Instead, we should be thinking “We will put an LMS in place for students to communicate”. The fact that faculty can supplement that space by adding course related materials etc. should just be a bonus to students.

When we first rolled out our LMS we decided to make a course space for every course offered by our campus. We realized we would need to put something as an initial starting point into those courses. So we put together a team of faculty and instructional designers to design the default starting course.

The biggest mistake we made was not having any students in that design committee. We ended up with a nice blank course that faculty could easily add content to, but was useless to students until faculty actually did something.

Since then, I have been thinking about rebuilding the default course from a student perspective. How can we make something that is useful to students even if the faculty member never logs into the system? How do we make this a community space for students?

Imagine a default course that has a discussion forum and perhaps a Web Conferencing meeting room for students to communicate with each other and a wiki space where they could collaboratively write class notes. One that automatically links to the library reserve list and the bookstore’s textbook list for that course. One that pulls information like the course description, meeting times, etc. from data already in institutional databases to create an initial automated syllabus for the course. Automatic links to the central course evaluation at the end of the class. Automatic import of lectures recorded in our Echo360 or Matterhorn system, or podcasts done by instructors into the central podcasting system.

All this without any need for instructor involvement in the actual LMS. They post a podcast, or do a recorded lecture, and it just shows up inside the LMS.

The instructor can then choose to supplement this with assignments, tests, posting of content, etc. but that would just be gravy on top.

I think that’s where we should be going. Unfortunately, the biggest obstruction to setting that up is the faculty themselves, who don’t want to release control of the course to their students and are worried about things like “what will the students write about me in the discussions if I am not there”.

According to the latest stats I gathered yesterday, 49% of our courses offered each year are being used by instructors to at least share files. 79% of the faculty who are assigned to courses over the last year have used the LMS and 66% of those for things more than just posting files.

What I would like to see is 100% of those courses used by students for setting up course communities, even if instructors don’t use the system at all.

– Kevin Lowey – University of Saskatchewan

27 04 2012
Kevin Lowey

The main problems in the original post sound like local political issues on your campus. An IT department that is dictatorial, doesn’t consult, and non responsive to the wishes of their faculty.

As a similar IT professional at another university, I resent having all of us tainted with that brush.

In any case, you shouldn’t blame the LMS for the shortcomings of your IT department.

1 05 2012
Todd Conaway

I think we have run out of “replies” to the thread above 🙂 So this is in response to the comment above this one.

Good stuff. I like the idea of more student involvement from the start. Part of that equation is having learners that are pretty self directed. That is a problem with the current model. We are often creating very passive learners. I like the idea though and relate it to good formative evaluations. And those are another part of the current model that is missing. At least in my best estimation.

I like the quote about the future LMS too. I really do see it in my daughter. She sees the internet ass a bunch of connections and not a bunch of “spots” or “dots” or whatever. Fun to image the future learners ten years out!

Blackboard is used at our institution at just over 60 percent in some way shape or form. Often just the grade center or a place to put the syllabus. I think that is pretty normal, as you are experiencing too. Many others are moving to a more hybrid type of course even though it is labeled “face to face.”

I have experienced “course communities” only once really. It was in the ds106 class. Still is really. The class “ended” a year ago and I am still engaged at various levels. Not all classes need or should be that way, but is it wonderful to find one.

27 04 2012
Kevin Lowey

Note in the original graph one of the top tools is theGgrade Center. The comments trivialise that as “posting marks” which is a huge misdirection.

The Grade Center means there is a place for other components like assignments, quizzes, and third party tools to post and store their grades. It isn’t just the equivalent of posting an excel spreadsheet for all your students to download (which by the way violates privacy laws if all students can see everyone’s grades). The key is it also can automatically fill in that spreadsheet for you from automatically graded systems.

Something that is impossible without an LMS to provide the central grade book and tools to integrate all the systems together.

11 01 2013

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