Utopian Promises, Institutional Imperatives, and Technology Refusal:
A Debate

Geoff Cragg
University of Calgary

Introduction

When we proposed this topic for Inkshed, Bert Deyell and I hoped that it would help to open up a larger discussion about educational technologies, their effects, and the values they serve. From his experience using Blackboard for the first time in a large introductory class, Bert has argued that the program did indeed work, that its bulletin board did encourage critical thinking, and that students were generally very positive towards it. In the next few minutes I would like to take a contrary position and argue that there are good reasons not to use course management software such as Blackboard.

II. Student Perspectives

At the end of my final exam for GNST 341: Information Technology and Society this last term, I included a bonus question. It read: “How can we use IT to strengthen the sense of community in large courses such as GNST 341?” I received a variety of responses, but most fell into four categories. The most common response was to create a class bulletin board because it would serve to extend in-class discussions and it would encourage the shy to have a voice. Opinion was divided about which platform was best: some specified ‘like on Blackboard,’ some made no stipulation, and a few were definite that we should not use Blackboard. The next most common suggestion was that we should set up a class website, with notes, readings, and links to other interesting sites. Here again a number of students suggested Blackboard. The third group suggested setting up a bulletin board, but noted significant drawbacks or limitations: they noted that the need to participate would put pressure on students and might cause resentment, and that such a forum would be vulnerable to flaming or takeovers by the mouthy. The fourth and smallest group turned the question on its heels by arguing that 341 wasn’t that big a class (sixty students) and that instead of turning to IT we should concentrate on improving the sense of community by increasing discussion and participation by traditional means.

III. Context

In order to interpret these comments, a brief explanation of the course and its institutional context may be helpful. GNST 341 is a critical and interdisciplinary look at the impacts of IT on North American society; it has been a part of the curriculum for the better part of twenty years, and has no prerequisites. It is therefore an attractive option course for many Science, Engineering, Business and Computer Science students, many of whom seem to focus on “IT” in the title more than “and Society”. Because the course is usually sectioned for between 60-100 students it is obviously harder to teach as a lecture-discussion course than a smaller one. Over the years, I have used bulletin boards (running on a number of platforms starting with Multics) to increase class participation and community. And on the whole, from a subjective perspective, I believe that they have been effective. Why, then, not continue the practice with Blackboard?

I have practical, pedagogical, and philosophical reasons. Among the practical reasons why I fought shy of using Blackboard this term are that I was on sabbatical leave when it was introduced last fall and had no opportunity to try it out; furthermore, it was buggy and crashed in a number of courses for several weeks. Further, the time required to become competent with a complex program was a deterrent. And the title of a course offered by the Learning Commons (the main source of assistance for educational computing at the University of Calgary) called “ How to Teach a Course Using Blackboard and Still Have a Life” didn’t offer much encouragement. The major pedagogical reason was that I felt I didn’t need Blackboard. Instead, I decided to employ assignments I had created the last time I taught the course: group presentations on topics of the students’ choice, followed by more extensive group term papers on the same topics. This seemed to be a way to build involvement, to give students an active sense of teaching content to their peers, and to reinforce the community of the physical class. To have a participation grade for discussion on a bulletin board would have increased an already heavy load of assignments. Furthermore, this class was composed of students who were not shy about emailing me if they needed to consult, and generally they had access to chat programs like Instant Messenger; they didn’t need Blackboard to help them with their group work.

Before I discuss my more philosophical objections, I need to offer more information on the institutional context of educational computing at the University of Calgary and my theoretical perspectives on IT. There are financial and political or rhetorical reasons why IT, particularly as it enables blended learning, is attractive to the upper administration at my university. As most of you probably know, the brilliant financial success of the province in recent years has not been accompanied by corresponding rewards to the universities. Rather, severe cuts of the early 1990’s were followed by a gradual restoration of funding to previous levels and an insistence that further money would only be granted to innovative projects – a wasteful, divisive and discouraging measure. Presently, the University of Calgary is facing another budget crisis: according to the President’s office, a shortfall of millions of dollars per year. This problem is exacerbated by the tremendous growth of the city since the university’s founding and by the province’s insistence that universities must meet the local community’s demand for access. Under these conditions, and given the provincial government’s infatuation with novelty, it is entirely predictable that blended learning is viewed favourably by the upper administration and that Blackboard was chosen as a campus-wide platform to support it.
Rather like student-centred learning, blended learning offers the potential of supposed growth in class sizes, greater convenience for students, 24/7 access to important information, and a greater sense of participation and belonging in the resulting larger classes. And if these goals aren’t achieved, the professoriate can be held responsible; after all, they have been provided with a clever new technology and technical support through the Learning Commons. Blended learning, in conjunction with Blackboard, offers the administration a way of distancing itself from the very real teaching issues of an overextended institution. Information technology is being hailed as the solution to problems which, at least initially, were not perceived as having a technological basis. But in a province which has made a striking investment in the Alberta Supernet Project in order to give all schools, government offices and hospitals high-speed Internet access, it is hardly surprising that technology in itself is seen as a saviour.

IV. Attitudes to Technology

Though the specific technology is new, the attitude of the administration and the government is not. The official attitude to information technology is an optimistic and uncritical one, which essentially sees technology as a tool to improve all aspects of human life. A striking parallel can be found in John Sculley’s address to Educom in 1987, when, as CEO of Apple, he forecast that the widespread application of personal computers in higher education would create a new generation of life-long learners, create a second Renaissance, and unleash an unheard-of wave of prosperity not just for America but the world (Scully, in Kling 1991). In its assumption that progress (in this case educational progress) can be accomplished by technology alone, our administration is taking a utopian or technophilic perspective (Kling 1996, Tehranian 1990). This positive and simplistic approach is not new and did not begin with the first influx of Apple II’s into classrooms. Rather, as Hodas (1993) points out, every new electronic medium has initially been hailed as promising a new age for increasing the scope and availability of education and high culture to the populace, beginning with the earliest broadcasting through the telephone network and continuing through the educational appropriation of radio and television. But generally these ventures have not been successful, and new educational technologies have not become tightly integrated into the education system. Two commonly held explanations are that computers cannot transform education without a much greater financial and organizational commitment than institutions are willing to advance (Becker) or that computers will not succeed until teachers are persuaded that they are congruent with their vision of pedagogy and that they will not usurp their control over their classrooms and their students (Hodas). However, the present situation in many Canadian universities, where lack of resources is fueling interest and organizational commitment to the educational use of information technology, indicates that there is now an imperative to demonstrate the effectiveness of IT.
 

Bert will probably not object greatly to my depiction of institutional pressures and the promotion of IT as a solution to them, but we differ in our perspectives on educational computing. Following McLuhan, Bert takes a deterministic and optimistic approach to the impact of IT; focusing on the speed of computers, he sees them breaking the limitations of time and space, and inherently fostering connection. While I agree that speed is one of the important properties of the computer, I believe that computers are too complex a technology and are found in too many varied environments to have simple and consistent effects. Instead of determinism, my perspective on IT follows what Tehranian (1990) labels “technostructuralism”, the attitude that technology is not inherently good, bad or morally neutral, but rather that its impact will be shaped by the intentions of its designers and users. Further, as Raymond Williams (cited in Kline, Dyer-Witherford & DePeuter, 2003) observes, the effects of technology are contextual and will differ in different circumstances. From this perspective, it makes more sense to talk about technology in particular situations rather than in general, and although I am taking a critical approach to Blackboard, I am not condemning it.

V. Pedagogical Reasons for Refusing Technology

Its proponents argue that Blackboard is a powerful and flexible program that can enhance any class. A major part of its appeal is that it offers students 24/7 access to materials and services which previously only their instructor could provide. Using Blackboard, instructors can post lecture notes and assignments, make links to online articles, host discussion groups, and make students’ grades available. These kinds of abilities are obviously essential for blended learning, because students spend little time together in class and presumably have correspondingly little opportunity for assistance from their teachers. Ironically, in a traditional class setting such as GNST 341, in which students meet each week for three hours, the power of Blackboard may pose a dilemma for students and instructors.

Most students will probably have some reason to appreciate the convenience of looking up a lost assignment or reviewing the notes for a missed class. Those who are too shy to talk in class or who wish to continue a discussion after class may enjoy participating in a bulletin board. And students being human, who can resist the temptation to look up their present mark? Some features of Blackboard may cause stress, however. If instructors make extensive supplementary material available, the conscientious student may become overwhelmed. Similarly, if the bulletin board activity is assigned a mark for participation, it may become an unwelcome obligation, and if it isn’t given credit, students may feel resentful that they are expected to use it. A program with the capacities of Blackboard may create pressure for already burdened students. And given the other communication channels available to them – phone, email, their instructor’s homepage, MSN Instant Messenger – they may feel that they don’t really need Blackboard.

For instructors, Blackboard may create some dilemmas. One involves how fully it is used. In my case, to use it only as a bulletin board would almost certainly cause students to wish more of its features to be employed and my refusal would probably reflect poorly on my ethos. Complying with this demand requires more time to learn and effectively use the program, time that I would rather spend developing course materials and working with students. More importantly, making full use of Blackboard’s features leads in a direction that I wish to resist. Posting lecture notes and assignments, creating links to interesting additional materials, making grades available to students, and hosting and monitoring a bulletin board is not just a large time commitment. It also creates a virtual class which calls into question the validity and purpose of the physically and temporally situated class that meets three hours a week. One of Bert’s students commented insightfully on this phenomenon in his concluding post concerning Blackboard when he stated that the program was wonderful because he only needed to come to class for midterms. One student is not going to make a major impact, but if a larger proportion of the class chooses not to attend, then the coherence and sense of community in the physical classroom will surely suffer.

My final concern has to do with the medium of electronic text, which is central to programs such as Blackboard. When we create an electronic extension or representation of a course, we do so through writing. But text, as Ong (1982) argues, is analytical, linear and isolating – in a word, cold - in contrast to the engaged, emotional and participatory lifeworld of orality. This criticism goes back to Plato’s critique of writing in the Phaedrus, where he warns about the unresponsive nature of writing. A bulletin board discussion may indeed foster critical thinking, but it cannot duplicate the spoken exchange of ideas in a classroom. Enhancing the sense of community depends on speech, and programs like Blackboard are biased towards text, reinforcing the already strong dominance of artifacts such as the textbook.

Bert and I created this presentation as a debate, in order to dramatize the issues of the topic. But we are not as far apart as the format of the presentation suggests. I have attempted to demonstrate that computer technology, specifically course management programs such as Blackboard, requires a critical perspective, and is not an unmixed blessing. Deciding to adopt information technology or not should be done on a careful and specific case-by-case basis. And there are times when refusing technology is the right action, for ourselves and our students.

References

Becker, S. (1993). "How much will a truly empowering technology-rich education cost?" In R. Kling (Ed.) Computerization and controversy: Value conflicts and social choices  (2nd edition, 1996, pp 190-196).  San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Hodas, S. (1993). "Technology refusal and the organizational culture of schools." In R. Kling (Ed.) Computerization and controversy: Value conflicts and social choices (2nd edition, 1996, pp 197-218).

Kline,S., Dyer-Witheford, N., & De Peuter, G. (2003) . Digital play: The interaction of Technology, culture, and marketing. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press

Ong, W.J. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York, NY: Routledge.

Sculley, J. (1987). "The relationship between business and higher education: A perspective on the 21st century." In C. Dunlop and R. Kling (Eds.), Computerization and controversy (pp 55-62). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
 


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