Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Threshold standards for Blackboard courses: Innovation Prevention?

Image: Simon Howden /
At the Durham Blackboard users' conference last month, there was a panel discussion on threshold standards for VLE courses: whether we should have them; at what level; and what they should include. Others have written about the discussion including Julian Beckton's excellent blog post and Matt Cornock's summary.

Here are my thoughts on the issue of threshold standards  for Blackboard courses at NUIG.

Since Blackboard went mainstream in 2007, we have never required that academic staff use Blackboard to support their teaching. We make it easy for them to use, authentication is via ldap so no new userids or passwords have to be remembered, the courses are created and ready for use, the students are automatically enrolled in the correct courses, we provide training and support. Uptake has been massive, with very few staff not using Blackboard and, I estimate, very few students who don't have resources (at some level) available to them on Blackboard. So why would we need threshold (minimum) standards?

For a start, we couldn't enforce such requirements. Every single module code on our records, whether active, defunct or redundant, has a corresponding Course created on Blackboard. So, we have a huge number of Bb courses, many of which are empty. Moreover, we have no central system that records who is responsible for what module code. So instructor associations with Bb courses is still largely a manual process. Who would be responsible for a non-conforming or empty Blackboard course?

Blackboard is used to support teaching in different ways at NUIG. For distance and blended learning, Blackboard is central to teaching and learning activities. For primarily face-to-face teaching, Blackboard might just be used to provide administrative information, with readings and lecture notes. There is a whole spectrum of potential use between these two points. The important thing is to focus on the teaching and learning and to use Blackboard ( or other appropriate tools) to support these activities.

I can understand the point about consistency for students, so that there is a standard way for students to access materials. It is true that some Blackboard courses are very disorganised, with documents thrown into folders, using a mix of formats and no logical thinking behind any of it. I would suggest though, that what is needed is good signposting, and some thinking and planning on the part of the instructor on the course. After all, we don't dictate minimal standards for other teaching tools: minimal requirements for PowerPoint slides; the threshold form of a 1 hour lecture; standard teaching methods. But we do expect that these elements are organised and planned.

What of innovative, creative and effective course designs that don't fit into the standard template? Do we run the risk of having people subvert the requirements, making organisation more confusing for students, or driving the innovators out of the VLE altogether? Are threshold standards for the VLE an invention of the Innovation Prevention Department (IPD)?

At the School or Programme level, it may well be worth considering a standard, but flexible, Bb course structure. This is particularly true where distance or blended learners are involved.

Course information, learning outcomes, reading lists, staff details, handbooks, timetables, assessment information, are all examples of information that should be available to students. The VLE is an excellent place for them, but there may be other, more suitable distribution methods. The requirement is that they are provided somehow, not that they are all contained in Blackboard.

Returning to the image of the VLE as a Trojan horse; at NUIG Blackboard is an easy first step into using technologies to support teaching. I believe that by imposing minimal required standards on Blackboard courses we would be creating an impediment, giving lecturers a reason to reject the VLE completely.

There are other things we can do to encourage better use of Blackboard. For example, each course is created with a standard menu, including menu items for Course Information, Learning Outcomes, Feedback. This is a reminder that these elements are expected, though many staff just ignore them. We can also put together guidelines and recommendations for effective Blackboard courses, in a non-threatening, non-judgemental way. See, for example, Leeds University's 10 Tips for improving a Blackboard course.

So, in CELT, let's continue in our role as guides, supporting academics in their use of Blackboard, and avoid becoming the VLE wing of the IPD.

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