Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Plunging into the World of Blackboard

No sooner had I returned from Minneapolis than I began a four-day intensive training on the system known to us as "Courseweb" and known to the rest of the world as Blackboard. (It turns out that the reason we call it Courseweb is that University of Pittsburgh was an early adopter of the system and it hadn't yet stabilized its name, so the university gave it one that was intended to stick.)
Blackboard, for those not in the academic world, is a means of preparing and disseminating course materials online. You can do everything from just posting the syllabus online to teaching an entire online course.
Blackboard is not mandatory, and I suspect many people in my department are still not using it despite the fact that they put parts of their courses online. I first used it several years ago, the last time I taught, when I used it to post the syllabus, a handout or two, and the Powerpoint presentations from class.
It seemed to me, however, that as I had only used Blackboard once and in a limited way, and as new versions had come out since then, I had really better see what it had to offer me. The university offers several different types and lengths of training, so I decided to go ahead and commit to four full days in the hopes that this would ensure I got more than just basics that I could have figured out on my own.
While tiring and sometimes slow-moving, this four-day version is thorough and goes well beyond Blackboard itself to address ways in which we might want to use it. We have learned, for instance, how to record ourselves digitally using the free software Audacity, and how to put the result up on Blackboard. I doubt I will be recording myself, but it did occur to me that I have mp3 files of some CAA panels and if I ever wanted to assign one of these instead of a reading, this would not be hard to make available. We also had a session relating to images, and while most of the information in that was painfully basic for me (definitions of pixel, JPG, GIF), it was well presented and not basic for most of the others, and I actually got advice on how to deal with the problems I encounter scanning many European books, which use a printing process that often causes a really horrible scanned result. Something about the arrangement of the dots can cause not a classic moiré pattern, but more of a nasty speckly effect, and this can be alleviated by scanning at 300 or more dpi and using the descreen feature, plus if necessary other tools.
We've also had a fairly long session on copyright, which was interesting but perhaps went into too much detail on some aspects of copyright and not enough on others, given what the participants seemed to know about the subject. People had a fairly good grasp of Fair Use, so it was good to have this refined regarding how Fair Use relates to classroom and distance education, but when it became clear that most people in the room (despite having published many articles and books) had no concept of the rights that can be transferred or retained in publishing, I thought that either this topic should have been left to a separate non-Blackboard training or that basic ideas such as First North American Print Rights and Work for Hire ought to have been explained. But I'm used to dealing with writers who have at least looked through Writer's Market or a comparable text before sending off a manuscript. Academic writers are notorious for ignorantly letting their publishers take ownership of their work in ways that no other freelancer would countenance, and this doesn't seem to have changed since I first began thinking about the problem in the early 90s (in a past life, shall we say).
Blackboard is in some ways a relatively complex delivery system, which while designed to give some amount of standardization so that students can easily find what they're looking for, also allows various arrangements of material. Part of becoming proficient at Blackboard is figuring out the best way to arrange the materials so that students can easily find and use them and not end up sending their assignments to the equivalent of Siberia, or send the professor messages that languish in a dungeon unknown to the professor. My needs are more straightforward than those of some teachers, since I rely heavily on Powerpoint, assigned readings, and a small number of writing assignments, but I want these things well placed, so I am looking forward to my private consultation with one of the instructors. I also want to learn how to set up discussion boards so that my students can easiily discuss their readings prior to coming to class and doing group presentations, as this will free up some class time and also give me a clearer sense as to which students are really contributing to the discussion.
That said, it's time to go to class.

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Blogger Kristen said...

Oh you masochist you!! I took the one-day version and that was PLENTY for me! I hope you are still alive to tell the tale...

June 19, 2008 1:26 AM  

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