Blackboard (and other closed LMS systems) make university a rip-off

Here is an anecdote (it happened to me today) outlining just one of the many things that is wrong with closed class websites and LMS in general:

I am currently working at a software company as an intern, writing a program. Now of course, as anybody who has taken Software Engineering knows (don’t worry readers who are not in Computer Science, I promise I will not lose you), when you make software you have to provide different types of documentation about it. Things like, why you made it, how it works, how to use it, who is going to use it… all these things and many more have to be written down formally and saved somewhere in order for your software to live a long and happy life.

Now, Software engineering (CPSC 310) is a class that in part teaches you how to write all of this essential documentation. I took this course with Meghan Allen, one of my favorite professors simply for the fact that she teaches like a human being and not an automaton. This is post is no reflection on her, just on the system that she is pushed into using by those above her . Anyway, in the course she would explain why this documentation was needed and how to do it. She would then provide us with careful examples of what it should look like. We were asked to use her examples as reference when creating our own documentation for our class project.

So far so good, pretty normal learning experience. But, we skip ahead to right now. My little program that I am writing for this big software company needs documentation. I remember why, but am very fuzzy on how. What to do? Of course, I can just go back to the example from class an… but wait. The examples were posted in Blackboard. I can’t see them anymore. They were a great resource… utterly useless as I have no way of applying it to a real life situation.

Ok, Well, not utterly useless. I still have the assignment that I handed in (thanks Google Docs for keeping it safe for me). I could still google the type of documentation and find other examples online, which works, although it takes time (less time of course than writing this post). The thing is, I know that the document is a fantastic resource, why should I have to go and search for others? Shouldn’t the university-provided example be better than most things I can find online anyway? Isn’t that the point of somone spending time writing it up in the first place? Money was used to create that example (mine and the government’s) so why should it be a one-time deal used only to help me complete an assignment? Can anybody come up with a sane reason why it should not be available to me always? I feel ripped off, because I had a resource and it was snatched away from me. If it had been given to me in good old-fashioned paper handouts, I would still have it.

This is just one example amongst a sea of them that I am sure most students experience often. I guess most don’t even realize that they are getting a raw deal for the time effort and money they put into the classroom. In three years of university I have taken well over 10 courses with Blackboard components. What do I have to show for it? See for yourself. Below is my list of blackboard courses. Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside doesn’t it?

My blackboard welcome screen
My blackboard welcome screen

The two fundamental problems of education

OLPC pilot Thailand - Ban Samkha - hiking
Image via Wikipedia

While attending the 2009 Canadian e-Learning Conference I was suddenly struck by the fact that there were two very different ways that people were trying to better education. There are simply two things that need to be accomplished before education is fixed. These are:

  1. Access
  2. Reform

Access is an obvious challenge, there are too many people in the world that do not have access to a good education.  Reform on the other hand is less obvious, but also necessary, even the best education that is given to the wealthiest of people is deeply flawed and missing something essential, that education has to be fixed.

Now, here is the problem, where do we devote the most of out attention in order to have the maximum impact possible? On the one hand, giving the uneducated even the most basic education seems to be the most important, but again, do we want to be giving them a deeply flawed education? However, we can’t ignore those that suffer while we slowly chip away at the entrenched problems that education currently faces.

Since both are necessary, the only real course of action is a two-pronged approach. Whenever dealing with one problem we need to constantly be mindful of the other. This can be done as they often go hand in hand. The best example of this has to be the open education movement. By creating open and free educational resources (as well as encouraging their re-use) we not only provide access (by lowering the cost of providing/consuming education) but also help with reform, as we allow (and encourage) educators to build on and refine what others have done… creating something much better, instead of continually reinventing the wheel.

Of course, open education is not the only way that we can marry these two goals. The one laptop per child initiative, efforts to utilize technology in the classroom, project-based learning and a whole host of other movements and projects are capable or bridging the gap between these two fundamental educational goals. All that it takes is some thought, creativity and awareness. I challenge anybody who is working to try and improve education to really think about which one of the problems they are currently addressing and to look for ways to augment their effectiveness by addressing the other problem.

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Under Construction

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Creative Commons License photo credit: carboila
So as some people have noticed lately my blog’s theme has changed. This is simply due to the fact that since last summer when I coded the old theme I have learned a lot about usability, accessibility and just general good practices on the web. As such I couldn’t stand the old theme any longer (due to its violation of those practices) and had to change.

While the new theme does still break a whole bunch of rules when it comes to accessibility and usability, I will be fixing those as soon as I can. The theme is chosen for its style and how I identify with it more than anything else. One of the key fixes is going to be a nice (really complex to code) JavaScript navigation. However, due to the fact that school is in crunch mode and due to my impending trip to Mexico, I will not be able to fix things up as early as I would like.

So there it is, new theme with many changes and improvements still to come. Comments, suggestions and all that jazz are welcome (especially as I am still on the fence about some of my ideas).