Students are the ultimate technology drivers.  While a college or university can institute a course management system such as the platforms provided by Blackboard or WebCT, getting it into wide use is another matter.  Faculty adoption rates for technology-driven tools go up a little bit each year.  Yet, with the exception of fully online or proprietary institutions that can demand it, there is always a mix of faculty who use the system and those who don’t or only use it superficially. 

What does this feel like if you are a student?  To them, part of the faculty is in the information age and the other part is not.  Ryan Tansey is about to graduate from the University of Puget Sound.  Ryan not only was a Blackboard user, but he was on the university’s help desk.   It should also be revealed that Ryan grew up with a father who played a role in the evolution of course management system standards.

Q. What was it like when you were getting started using Blackboard technology four years ago, what was your experience?

A.  When I started at the University of Puget Sound I received no official introduction to the Blackboard system. I was instead introduced to the system via an afterthought of a paragraph at the end of a syllabus during my second semester.  The professor posted a few readings and a grade book on his Blackboard site.

Q. What about other students?

A. As I continued my college career, I discovered that my initial experience was not necessarily an exception, but I also saw a change.  A few of my friends are in classes where the professors are using more and more of the features. In some ways these students have a big advantage in those classes because they can tap all the resources the professor has posted.

Q. What happens to you if a professor doesn’t use Blackboard software, what’s the consequence for you?

A. When a professor doesn’t use Blackboard technology, I have noticed a significantly larger amount of class time spent for questions, clarification and document distribution. I end up having to email professors for copies of documents and I have to estimate what my grade is in a class.

Q.  What about when it works well?

A.  When I have a professor who uses the Blackboard platform well class goes a lot smoother. With electronic document distribution and grades, which are the two most commonly used features on my campus; I know that I will always have the information I need when I need it.  Class time can be used for lecture or discussion instead of long-winded clarification.

Q. What’s the difference to you between a class that is supported with Blackboard technology and one that is not?

A. The best classes have been those that make use of all available features. As students, we more often have access to a computer than a professor.  You could spend days trying to schedule a face-to-face meeting with a professor.  Or you can spend one hour checking a digital copy of the syllabus, asking for clarification on a bulletin board and submitting your work digitally.

Q. Does this affect your time management?

A. The life of a student is full of extracurricular activity, endless assignments and not nearly enough hours in every day.  The few professors who have used Blackboard technology to its fullest have saved me hours of legwork, which in turn lets me better focus on my assignments and my sanity.

Q. Let’s talk about the Help Desk, that’s another view into student and faculty in the digital world.

A.  During my sophomore year I began my current job as an IT help desk consultant where I discovered deeper issues with our Blackboard implementation.  At the help desk it is my task, amongst others, to provide troubleshooting and to answer questions from students using Blackboard solutions. On paper, I only provide Blackboard support for students, but in practice I frequently step in to help faculty as well.

Q.  Is there separate support for faculty?

A.  We have a dedicated full-time staff member who is responsible for faculty support and instruction, but the volume of work frequently overwhelms him.  That I have to personally step in to take on overflow speaks volumes. 

Q.  It sounds like a lack of full instruction on Blackboard technology causes difficulties – what results for inexperienced users and the experienced ones?

A.  A major concern that I hear from the average student regards a lack of instruction on the Blackboard system.  Sometimes this gives professors the impression that learning about Blackboard technology is not worth their time.  On the other end of the spectrum are those tech savvy students like myself who recognize the full potential of Blackboard software.  They, on the other hand, are understandably frustrated with the inconsistent and infrequent utilization of more advanced collaboration tools. 
Q. What would be a dream case for you as a student?

When I have a professor who truly understands the capabilities of Blackboard software, everything changes.  Whereas the average professor’s implementation is essentially an extension of a traditional classroom environment, a full featured implementation fundamentally changes the way everyone works and collaborates.

For example, one professor made it a habit of requiring a discussion board post and response for every reading we did.  At first I felt it was a burden to post every day, but I found that the discussion board provided solid preparation for in-class discussion. After a few weeks, everyone came to class ready to go, due in large part to the discussion board.

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