My name is Jon Kolko, and I recently joined Blackboard by way of the MyEdu acquisition. I’m now serving as the VP of Consumer Design, which means my team creates products that help and delight students and faculty. As part of our process, we conduct immersive, qualitative behavioral research, and use this research to provoke new design ideas. We’ve used this process successfully at MyEdu in order to inform our direct-to-student products; you can read a little more about that work here.

As one of our first projects at Blackboard, we decided to apply our process with faculty in order to better empathize with their experiences in the classroom. We spent a month observing faculty, working to understand how they plan classes, how they think about teaching, what political and cultural influencers are motivating their actions, and how we can better support them with meaningful products and services. We try to use a technique called “Participatory Design” during these sessions – instead of just conducting an interview, we try to have faculty build artifacts in order to express how they feel about certain topics. For example, we had faculty build a timeline of their course creation process in order to better understand how pedagogy decisions are balanced against the constraints of scheduling and policy.

We’ll use this research to inform new product development at Blackboard, and to help refine and improve the usability and utility of our current products. We’re also presenting the results of this research here, in the hopes that it will help others in improving the quality of products aimed at higher education. You can download a short-form of this research here; our key findings are summarized below.


  1. Faculty are subject matter experts, not teaching experts, and lack training and expertise in course development or content delivery. Many of the faculty we spoke with expressed surprise at how quickly they were given free reign over a classroom – and how their teaching and planning process was really based on trial and error.
  2. There is an increasing socioeconomic, political, and emotional divide between research faculty, lecture faculty, and adjunct faculty. Adjunct faculty, with little long-term job security, are playing an increasingly large role in educating students. This may present problems in curricular continuity and consistency.
  3. As a result of the pressures of outcomes – accreditation, job placement, and graduation rates – faculty feel a lack of academic freedom and perceive an increase in standardization. The faculty we spoke to expressed a nostalgic fondness for the early days of teaching, where little oversight meant increased flexibility and teaching freedom.
  4. The assessment process is perceived as overwhelming, unwieldy, and distinct from either knowledge production or education. The structure of outcome assessment is seen as cumbersome and extraordinarily time consuming, and faculty continually described it as a distraction from what they feel is their core responsibility.
  5. The “syllabus as contract” has reinforced an expectant, lackadaisical view from students, and has very different implications for students, faculty, administrators, and legislators. The utility of the syllabus is questionable, and our research indicates the need for a richer manner of communicating and agreeing on expectations between constituents.

You can download a short-form of this research here.

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