A Clean Slate: Chalk One Up for Blackboard
In spring 1999 a web-based communication tool named Blackboard made its debut at Northwestern in four classes with a total of 200 students.
Five years later about 1,000 faculty and instructors teaching 10,000 students use the application each quarter to post syllabi and course documents, conduct online discussions and post grades, according to Bob Taylor, director of Academic Technologies."It's the broadest-based system of our efforts to support teaching at Northwestern," says Taylor, who cites Blackboard's communication efficiency as contributing to its spread."It's very easy to begin."
Michele Weldon (J79, GJ80), assistant professor in the Medill School of Journalism, began using Blackboard after taking a weeklong Teaching, Learning and Technology workshop in summer 2003. She now requires students in her Editing and Writing the News class to submit 100-word posts several times during the quarter.
She has seen multiple benefits."I've seen a distinct difference in quality since I've had them post," says Weldon, who reads more than 600 posts per quarter."[Posting] also helps them feel known and builds a sense of community and accountability."
Malika Bilal, a Medill junior from Chicago, is a former Weldon student who appreciates the system's accessibility."Blackboard is just so useful because it's a direct interaction between you and the professor, as long as you check in regularly," Bilal says."I like the online forum better than paper because it's always there, anytime I need it."
Jacqueline Chmielnicki, a Medill junior from Wilmette, Ill., says communicating through Blackboard allows for greater efficiency."Commenting on Blackboard allows us to talk about topics we wouldn't otherwise cover," Chmielnicki says, citing her philosophy class about ethics. She says that writing comments also adds depth of thought to the discussion of hot-button issues such as abortion, the death penalty and animal rights."It's a little more reflective quality. Even though it's conversational writing, it's a little more coherent than speaking in class."
Chmielnicki also explains that being able to write anonymously allows some students to communicate more openly."Lots of people afraid to say their opinions in class would express their opinions online," she says.
Tom O'Sullivan, a Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science senior from Tinley Park, Ill., says he appreciates it when professors use Blackboard to post the week's lecture notes."I can sit there with the notes and not try to copy the entire lecture," O'Sullivan says."I can sit there and and listen and try to understand it."
Several professors have extended Blackboard's use in their classes. Cynthia McGregor (GMu95, 01), senior lecturer in music, used the system to help students access audio excerpts and scores in her Music Theory class, saving them a trip to the music library. McGregor posted an accompanying anthology of the scores and developed interactive exercises for the students.
"I think I've seen an increase in motivation because students feel I've reached out to them more," McGregor says."I've picked areas that they would be interested in. If students are playing in the school orchestra, I try and find out what pieces they are playing that quarter."
But many students report that, although access to Blackboard among professors is universal, its use is not."A lot of the time the students are more tech-savvy than the teachers," Bilal says."Even though the class would be accessible through Blackboard, the teacher wouldn't use it. It's up to the University to offer courses that teach the professors how to use [Blackboard]. The equipment is there. Some training is needed," she says. - J.K.L.