Will the Center Hold?

I took part in a very interesting meeting here at Mason the other day. After many years of a pretty hands-off approach to distance or at least distributed education, it seems we have decided to move into this market in a more coordinated way.

By “more coordinated” I mean that rather than reactively supporting to individual faculty members who decide to launch a distance or at least partially distance course, the University is going to throw some of its weight, that is to say funding, behind proactively encouraging faculty members to develop new approaches to high demand courses that will use new media to deliver content to those off site.

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, as the meeting wore on it became clear that this otherwise laudable approach—one that is anchored in student needs rather than in faculty whims—has a tragic flaw. This flaw will, in my view, make the entire experiment much less likely to succeed. The current version of the plan for promoting  distance education at Mason restricts university support (especially funding) to courses developed for our campus course management platform. In our case, that platform is BlackBoard.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no BlackBoard hater. In fact, I’ll admit up front that I have never used it. However, I was a WebCT user for a number of years and finally gave up in frustration. I walked away and never looked back.

But that’s just me. I know plenty of people who are quite happy with BlackBoard, or at least happy enough. So what’s the problem?

The problem is that the tendency to centralize curriculum development around a single platform means that all innovation by faculty members will be restricted to the capabilities of that platform. Nothing is possible unless the platform allows it.

To take an approach to “innovation” closes off access to all the products of the open source and open access movements. Anyone who has been paying attention in the past few years can see that much, if not most, of the exciting innovation in software has come not from big companies like BlackBoard or Microsoft, but from the open source community.

Thus, it’s a real puzzle to me why we have chosen to choke off any possibility of innovation beyond the vendor we are locked into. And, given that open source solutions are almost always less expensive than single vendor packages, I am especially surprised by Mason’s decision at this particular moment of economic stress.

The better alternative would be to give any and all innovative approaches to distance education a chance, see which ones show the most promise, throw some money and staff support behind the ones that seem to be working, continue to monitor the results, and improve the products based on what we learn.

The center may hold for a while against innovation taking place on the margins, but I’m a believer that our decision to try to strengthen the center at the expense of a free and open approach to innovation means that whatever we develop here at Mason will be outdated even before it’s rolled out.

If I’m right, then we’ve just decided to put off real innovation in distance education for another five to ten years. If I’m wrong, I promise to write a mea culpa.

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9 Responses to Will the Center Hold?

  1. The decision to standardize may have had something to do with the desire to not overwhelm the campus IT, which would have to provide tech support for all kinds of open source alternatives to Blackboard. But there might be compromise possible. I think Blackboard has been developing (and maybe released) plug-ins for Sakai and Moodle. And there is now a Blackboard app for the iPhone. So maybe there is some hope.

  2. Mills says:

    Yes, I had heard about the BB iPhone app and that they are beginning to release some other plug ins. This is all to the good. And I want to add that I think it does make good sense for the university to promote the development of courses using our current course management platform. What I don’t think is a good idea is limiting development to that platform. Many faculty members will need the centralized support that the university provides or will simply want to use that platform. I think that’s great. What bothers me is the lack of opportunity for those working outside that centralized system.

    And there is another issue that I didn’t discuss in the main post. George Mason is a public university, but many of the popular course management systems are closed environments that deny the public access to the content of courses being delivered on the taxpayer’s dime. As I have written previously I don’t think those accessing course content for free ought to be able to get academic credit for the course. But why we deny them access to the content of the course is still a mystery to me.

  3. I guess it depends on how strictly GMU requires you to use Blackboard. One way of fulfilling the letter of the law, for instance, would be to use Blackboard as an empty shell from which the students enrolled for the class could follow a link to a different web site that you had built and customized for the course. Another thing to consider is that some schools are using something they call the “Open Access” option in Blackboard. Apparently this allows students who are not enrolled for credit in a course to nevertheless still join the course and participate within Blackboard without obtaining any credit. So if Blackboard can open things up this much, maybe your school could negotiate a deal where anyone could sign up for a Blackboard course, but only those who paid for tuition would receive credit.

  4. Mal says:

    The bigger picture is that Mason is taking a big step and they are starting out with a goal that they can bite off. Blackboard has been around for a long time now and it’s been used in many Universities with excellent results. The IT department can handle it and the Professors will manage nicely as well.
    I was searching local VA blogs and noticed your Cambodian Flickr set. I’ve been to Vietnam 10 times and Cambodia a couple times… those are really great photos – thanks. I’ve always envisioned some sort of online standardized learning for Cambodia and well – everywhere really. Cheers –

  5. jmcclurken says:

    People I know who believe strongly in the closed CMS model (which generally means Bb) for distance/online learning have tended to raise three issues when I’ve brought up my concerns about its closed nature. [Note these are not my own thoughts on the matter.]

    1) Closed is good when you’re looking to encourage students in their contributions to reveal their work for the class (FERPA often cited at this point) or their own experiences. The latter issue can be either the normal reluctance to share ideas/personal info online or a real issue of confidential information (think a grad business class in which people talk about private issues related to their current jobs and the places they work).

    2) Students in distance learning appreciate a standardized format. Without a classroom meeting to provide structure, an online class without Bb or other CMS can be disorienting. [In this case, closed is just a by-product of the most common form of CMS, not necessarily an objective.] [A related issue: managing consistent curricular standards for online courses is also easier for the institution when everyone is using the same format]

    3) Many faculty are more comfortable with an online class being closed because they don’t feel as if someone (or lots of someones) are staring over their shoulder while they teach.

    I think these are powerful forces in favor of systems like Bb for distance and online learning, though some of them reflect what I suspect can be seen as larger issues with teaching in higher-ed.

  6. Mills says:

    Hi Jeff:

    Thanks for these very good points (even if they are from other people). I’ve certainly encountered all of these in one form or another over the years. Here are the responses I give when I hear them:

    1. Imagine a blog rather than a CMS as the platform for a course. Blog software allows posts to be marked confidential/password only access, so that solves the problem of reluctance. Also, I’ve found that there is a reverse argument here as well…Each semester I have a number of students who don’t speak in class but who are very happy to speak up in an online forum and the open nature of the blogs I use doesn’t seem to deter them. Also, at least a few scholars who have done some thinking about the nature of online writing have argued that the open nature of the medium tends to encourage a little more precision from the students–when they know lots of people might read what they’ve written, they are more likely to pay closer attention to things like spelling and grammar. The last point raised in this number made me smile. If the issues raised in a business course are private to the workplace, then they have no place in a class, whether posted online or spoken out loud. FERPA only comes into play in this matter when grades or assessments are posted online, so that’s a red herring.

    2. There is a real benefit to having one format across the university when it comes to consistency and learning curves for students. I can appreciate that it’s a pain to have one professor using blogs and another using a CMS. But, isn’t college supposed to be training for the “real” world? In the world our students plan to work in there is rarely such standardization (and for sure there are no course management systems), so learning to use multiple platforms for displaying information, accessing data, and interacting with others seems like a good thing to me.

    3. Don’t get me started on faculty being afraid of someone watching them teach! I first wrote something for Perspectives on this topic way back in 2001. I have no patience for the idea that we should be afraid of someone watching us teach, especially those of us who work for publicly funded universities. Teaching is not a private act. It is work made for hire and so belongs to the institutions that pay us, no matter what we might think. And, I would submit that having someone looking over our shoulders while we teach just might help us be better teachers. Lord knows our students “look over our shoulders.” Maybe the folks mentioning this to you have never heard of ratemyprofessor.com? I’m happy to stipulate that there are those institutions or departments with a poisonous culture where open teaching would be a problem for the person teaching the class. But I’ve been working in higher ed since 1983 and have spent time on probably 125-150 college and university campuses in various capacities and the number of such places I’ve encountered is pretty darn small. I think we tend to let the few bad examples of campus cultures turn into urban legends much too easily.

  7. jmcclurken says:

    Mills, the points are from other people because I’m much more sympathetic to your perspective on this issue.

    Still, I raise them because I’ve heard them often and it seems to me that they often motivate administrative choices to require single source, proprietary software and/or standards.

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