By Doug Ward

Learning matters.

That may seem like a truism in the world of education – at least it should be – but it isn’t.

All too often, schools and teachers, colleges and professors worry more about covering the right material than helping students learn. They put information above application. They emphasize the what rather than the why and the how.

In an essay in Inside Higher Ed, Stephen Crew of Samford University makes an excellent case for the importance of learning. He does so with an anecdote about why instructors win teaching awards. For instance, the award-winners may have made sacrificed to pursue their teaching. They may have inspired students or made classes engaging. Perhaps their student evaluations were stellar.Education matters logo: Recent news, research, trends and thoughts about education

Crew doesn’t dismiss those aspects of teaching. Rather, he says they are simply too shallow.

“The implication is that award-winning teachers are not any more effective at engendering student learning than the rest of us,” Crew writes. “Rather, they devote more time and attention to their teaching and students than we do, or they persevere through greater challenges.”

He asks – rightly – whether those instructors have really helped students learn.

Crew makes an important distinction between learning-driven teaching and information-driven teaching.

Learning-driven teachers help students challenge their thinking, including their metacognitive skills, and demonstrate the importance of deeper understanding. They provide meaningful opportunities for students to apply skills, and then assess students’ understanding and nudge them toward a goal.

Information-driven teaching, on the other hand, is a relatively straightforward affair than nearly anyone can do. It emphasizes accurate, up-to-date content; presentation style; and perhaps the newest technology. “In this approach, the teacher either cannot or should not influence learning beyond the method of delivering information,” Crew writes.

Instructors may be popular and passionate and engaging, Crew says, but if they simply deliver information to students, they haven’t really taught anything.

Angelique Kobler of the Lawrence Public Schools made much the same point last year, saying that if instructors don’t embrace the idea that today’s students learn differently from those even a few years ago, “we will become irrelevant.”

A question that Kobler asked when she spoke with the KU Task Force on Course Redesign still resonates:

Has teaching occurred if learning hasn’t?

Related: What does a learner-centered syllabus look like? (Via Faculty Focus.)

* * * * * * *

Follow-up: The ups and downs of Blackboard

It will be interesting to see how a sale of Blackboard might affect the positive changes I wrote about earlier this week.

Reuters reported on Tuesday that Providence Equity Partners, which owns Blackboard, is looking to sell the company for more than $3 billion. Blackboard, which was created in 1998, had been a public company until Providence bought it and took it private in 2011, paying $1.64 billion and assuming $130 million in debt.blackboard logo

To put the Blackboard price into perspective, here are a couple of comparisons: Forbes estimates the value of the New York Yankees at more than $3 billion. After an initial public offering, the online marketplace Etsy is worth more than $3 billion. So is Donald Trump.

A sale wouldn’t be surprising. Companies like Providence buy lagging companies, revamp them and try to sell them for a profit. Blackboard has become more responsive to customers since Providence took over and hired Jay Bhatt as president and CEO. And news of a possible sale comes just after the completion of Bb World, Blackboard’s annual conference, and the announcement of a slew of changes that would finally pull Blackboard’s design and functionality out of the dial-up web era.

My colleagues in IT say, though, that Blackboard’s promised design changes probably won’t be practical for most schools to adopt for two to three years. That’s because Blackboard is building a new platform for Learn, its learning management system. That new platform lacks many of the integration capabilities the current system has, including grading for discussion boards, integration with SafeAssign, and integration with university enrollment systems.

So adopting the new platform, called Ultra, may depend on how much schools are willing to give up in terms of integration to gain a system that looks and acts like the modern web. Adoption will become even trickier for schools as the company pursues a pricing strategy that resembles that of the automobile industry. A college or university pays one price for the basic Blackboard Learn platform, and then must decide on an array of add-ons that drive up expenses but that contain the most sought-after functions and tools.

For instance, a school has to pay extra for access to the new student app and for the updated instructor grading app. (I wrote on Tuesday that I couldn’t get those apps to work. That’s why.) Blackboard Collaborate requires an extra fee, as does the assessment tool and a host of other digital goodies.

So even as Blackboard promises many positive changes, it is still acting very much like the behemoth it is.

We interrupt this post to report on the teacher draft

That’s right. I said the teacher draft. The comedy team Key and Peele take an ESPN-like look at what the world of teaching might look like if it were elevated to the status of sports: the $80 million salaries, the No. 1 draft pick whose father “lived from paycheck to paycheck as a humble pro football player,” and the “teacher-of-the-year play” in the day’s highlights. If only.

Briefly …

A participant on the E-Learning Heroes discussion board set off a flurry of responses with this question: “Do learners really care about learning objectives?” Trina Rimmer offers a useful overview of the discussions that followed. … First-time smartphone users said their devices distracted from their learning even though they initially thought they would help, The Journal reports, citing a study from Rice University and the U.S. Air Force. … Personalized learning, which allows students to choose the direction and the pace of their learning, provides a critical means to engage at-risk students, Rebecca Wolfe tells The Hechinger Report. Wolfe is the director of the Students at the Center project, which is part of the nonprofit organization Jobs for the Future.

By Doug Ward

I’ll be blunt: Blackboard Learn has all the visual appeal of a 1950s warehouse.

In terms of usability, it’s like trying to navigate an aircraft carrier when you really need a speedboat.

To Blackboard’s credit, it’s not that different from other learning management systems, which emphasize security and consistency from class to class as selling points. The company has been listening to user complaints, though, as upstarts like Canvas, Desire2Learn, and Moodle (in which Blackboard owns a stake) have chipped away at its dominant market share over the last few years.

screenshot from blackboard student app
Screenshots, above and below, of pages that Blackboard supplied of its new Bb Student app.

Last week at BbWorld, the company’s annual conference, officials said that Blackboard Learn would get a much-needed facelift. It also announced changes in its Collaborate service and in its mobile apps.

Jim Chalex, a senior director for product management, said the changes in Blackboard Learn would focus not just on visual appeal but on ease of use both on PCs and mobile devices. (You can watch a recording of the session, as I did, but you’ll need to register. It’s free.)

Chalex said the company wanted Blackboard Learn to look more like social media sites and other websites that students and faculty used regularly.

“Those are modern designs that are constantly unfolding and evolving and staying on the bleeding edge,” he said. “We want to be right there and to stay on that edge and to actually drive it, to innovate along with those. We think that leads to a more engaged learner.”

Within the next year, it plans to offer layered navigation (think of the site breaking into several vertical strips for you to choose from), the ability to drag and drop material from a computer’s desktop, easier access to analytics, and easier access to often-used tools. Keep in mind that access to those features will depend on each university’s adoption time.

In the future, it plans redesigned discussion boards and rubrics, better integration of audio and video, easier organization and use of groups, ability to create customized pages, improved integration of plagiarism detection, and better integration of material from outside publishers.

The company is calling these changes the “Blackboard Learn Ultra Experience.” (I’d call it “Blackboard: Beyond the Warehouse,” but no one asked me.)

The company has devoted a section of its website to the design changes it plans, along with the philosophy behind them. It also has a page to sign up to try the technical preview of the coming changes.

Blackboard Collaborate

Blackboard says it has overhauled Collaborate, the software for interacting with students remotely, in both the look and technical framework.

The changes, it said, will allow for easier creation of virtual office hours, student study groups, and webinars. It will also allow for high-definition video and an ability to record sessions and publish them in .mp4 format for download.screenshot from blackboard student app

Rather than opening stand-alone software, the new version of Collaborate “starts in the browser and stays in the browser,” said David Hastie, senior director for product management for Collaborate.

The new version of Collaborate is also responsive, meaning it will adapt easily to any type of device. It also adapts to the type of content being displayed and will allow for real-time closed captioning of live sessions. (This requires someone to listen and type the content.)

In future iterations, Collaborate plans better integration with Blackboard Learn, an ability to zoom in on content, revamped polling and breakout rooms, integration of teleconferencing, and an ability for instructors to load content in one session and have it remain for future sessions. Blackboard has also established a partnership with VoiceThread to allow for easier integration of that tool.

Mobile apps for Blackboard

In June, Blackboard announced the availability of a new mobile app called Bb Student.

Dan Loury, senior project manager for mobile, said at BbWorld that the student app was one of three apps that Blackboard was creating or updating. (The other two are for instructors and parents.)

The student app, available for iOS, Android or Windows Phone, creates a streamlined view of critical information for students, he said. This includes an “activity stream,” which is a bit like a to-do list of assignments and due dates, along with updates on comments and announcements. The app also provides an outline and timeline for all courses, access to the gradebook, and an ability to create assignments and take tests on mobile,

Blackboard says that future versions of the app will provide integration with Dropbox, OneDrive and Google Drive; an ability to activate push notifications; an ability to search within courses; and group collaboration with mobile devices, including virtual meetings with instructors or other students.

A faculty app, called Bb Grader, has been available on iOS for some time. The last time I tried it, it lacked the ability to do the tasks I needed it to do. That has been some time, though. I downloaded it again this week but have not been able to get it or the student app to connect. Mobile versions of Blackboard Learn are also available, but I’ve found them dreadful, at least from an instructor standpoint.

All of the changes that Blackboard announced last week sound good, and I look forward to seeing them in action.

When I talk with faculty members about Blackboard Learn, I hear two common refrains: Make it easier to use, and make it more visually appealing. So despite my harsh comments about Blackboard, I applaud the company’s willingness to listen to faculty members and students, and to start modernizing the system. I just wish the changes hadn’t taken so long.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The online training site Lynda.com announced this week that it was canceling its lyndaClassroom program.

The classroom program allowed instructors to choose up to five online tutorials for students in a designated class to use during a semester. Students then signed up through Lynda.com and paid $10 a month, or about $35 for a semester.

It was an excellent, cost-effective way to help students gain technology skills. The cost was less than most textbooks, making it a useful tool for instructors in many fields.

Lynda offers nearly 4,000 training modules in everything from web development and design tools to photo, video, and audio creation. It began mostly as a site for technology training, and that training is still its mainstay. It has expanded its offerings over the last few years to include areas like business strategy, marketing, teacher training, and even grammar.

Lynda didn’t say why it was ending the program, although the company was acquired by LinkedIn earlier this year. Changes are inevitable after any acquisition.

In a brief email announcement, the company said the classroom program would end on July 17 “in order to focus our efforts on building even better experiences for educators and students.”

That sort of vapid corporate-speak usually means that prices will increase.

I had planned on using Lynda’s classroom program for a class this fall. I emailed Lynda’s customer support on Wednesday in hopes of finding out more about the changes. A representative emailed me back on Thursday saying that the company had been inundated with similar requests and would get back as soon as possible.

I certainly don’t begrudge Lynda’s desire to revamp its approach. I just wish the company had done a better job of communicating the changes and, ideally, had provided more time for educators to find other options.

Briefly …

A third of students in a recent poll said that anxiety about finances led them to neglect schoolwork, Money reports. About the same percentage said they had cut back on their class load because of financial worries. … A growing number of students see textbook purchases as optional even when professors say the books are required, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The School of Engineering at KU will open several new active learning classrooms this fall.

I’ve been involved in planning some of the summer training sessions for the rooms, so I’ve had a chance to explore them and see how they will work.

I’ve written before about the ways that room design can transform learning. Well-designed rooms reduce or eliminate the anonymity of a lecture hall. They promote discussions and learning by creating a sense of community. They make collaboration and sharing easy, and they allow instructors to move among students rather than just stand at the front and talk at them.

The new engineering rooms provide all of that. The 360-degree panorama above shows the largest of the rooms, which will hold 160 students. (Use the controls on the image to move around the room, or just press the “Ctrl” key on your computer and use the cursor to move around.) The new building also has a 120-seat classroom, a 90-seat classroom, and three 60-seat classrooms. You’ll find images of two of the smaller rooms below.

All the classrooms contain a key factor in active learning: tables that allow students to work in groups and that effectively shrink the room size. The tables in all of the rooms have wired connections so that individual students can project to their group or classroom screens with laptops, tablets or smartphones. They also have miniature Elmo document cameras.

The smaller classrooms have monitors at the ends of the tables; the 160-seat classroom has large-screen monitors on the walls, one for each table. The lecterns in all the rooms have large Wacom touch-screen tablets that will allow faculty members to draw on the screen, and most of the wall space consists of whiteboards.

Even the common spaces in the new building provide opportunities for learning. For instance, the atrium (see below) provides a marvelous gathering space for individual study but also for conversations that often lead to informal learning.

The creation of these rooms is a huge step forward in active learning. Six other classrooms in two other buildings will also open this fall. They won’t be as fancy as these rooms, but they reflect the reality that learning is changing and that learning spaces need to change, too.

New engineering building (resized) (31)
Staff members in one of the new classrooms.

 

New engineering building atrium (resized) (13)
The atrium for the new building.

 

New engineering building (resized) (1)


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.