Blackboard 9 or Taylorism in the 21st Century

Fasten your seatbelts: I am critically analyzing aspects of Blackboard 9. I tried to think through the positives as I use Blackboard 9 as my digital classroom. I am not convinced that universities should implement platforms like this without student and faculty collaboration prior to implementation. Overall, Blackboard 9 is not as collaborative or as pedagogically friendly as it could be but there are useful and important features. So far, the one feature I like is the wiki option, but guess what? Only one person can be on it at a time, apparently, and it’s very glitchy. Often the Java does not function well in ANY browser and so the buttons do not work or say what they should say (e.g. “submit” reads as “????wiki????” or some such nonsense). But why does the “submit” button say “submit” anyways? Why doesn’t it say what it really does, which is “save” or “save changes.” -Blackboard, I am sorry to say, has mediocre design; the functionality is clunky and glitchy; and the pedagogical choices are fair to suspect.  But this isn’t a rant without proof – read on!

In  Norman Fairclough’s Language and Power he writes that institutions are ideologically constructed by social relationships that are realized through particular discourses. In other words, social hierarchies and structures are constructed by overarching concepts, such as capitalism, that prescribe ways of behaving and thinking. In turn, these overarching concepts are the structuring principles of institutions, including educational institutions. Through this kind of analysis, we can envision the university as a workplace that places certain ideological demands on its workers, including faculty. How do these demands translate into digital spaces and what effect do such demands have on pedagogical practice?

Admittedly, Fairclough’s work seems rather out of date, with the bulk of his research published on the cusp of the digital age. Despite this fact, Fairclough’s theories are enormously important to understanding the networks of power that underpin the digital tools and user interfaces (the point of contact between human and machine) we engage with on a daily basis. Fairclough’s formulation of critical discourse analysis (CDA) is all about tracing and tracking the social relations of power that determine our social positioning. Further, Fairclough’s main purpose in using CDA is to make people conscious of the way power operates in their everyday lives, because such consciousness “is the first step toward emancipation” (Language and Power 1).

By using the loaded word “emancipation,” I mean to say that in order to use this platform and its associated tools effectively, we need to be aware of how this system is presented to teachers and students. Not to mention that through such knowledge, teachers and students can make requests of the Blackboard developers and their own institutions to improve the user’s experience.

What follows is not an exhaustive analysis, but offers a way to read the user interfaces in academic spaces that are becoming more common and institutionalized.  I know that I tend to use an interface as quickly as possible to tell the program what I want it to do. But what if we slow this process down and think about the content and form of the narrative voice that tells us how to use the interface? What rhetorical acts does this voice use and what kind of actions are we being guided towards? What are we being steered away from? These are some of the questions I am going to tackle in this post on Blackboard 9, the latest iteration of the enormously popular Blackboard learning platform. If you are a post-secondary student or teacher, dimes for dollars you have used or know someone who has used Blackboard. The latest iteration is much more 2.0 friendly, encouraging social interaction and more extensive use of popular social media tools (for more on the 2.0 functions and possibilities of Blackboard 9, please see the interview with M.J. Pilgrim). The user is invited to spend much more time within the digital space of Blackboard – so what does this mean for post-secondary education?

• Is this push toward collaborative, interactive communication inclusive or are certain users marginalized?
• What beliefs and values are narrated via Blackboard 9?

We will find that Blackboard narrates a digital form of Taylorism. However, if the user is savvy enough, this strict, almost frightening model of clock-time efficiency can be by-passed for a more friendly experience for teacher and student.

Please don’t get me wrong – I like to be organized as much as the next person, but there are so many calendars, reminders, bells, whistles, pokes, and shoves toward academic efficiency in Blackboard 9 that the effect, I argue, is overwhelming and feeds into  concept of efficiency first brought into being in the early 20th century. In 1911, Frederick Taylor published Principles of Scientific Management in which he claimed that worker efficiency could be increased by measuring production, locating inefficiencies, and then allocating tools to improve the speed of production. Charlie Chaplin satirized what came to be known as Taylorism in his 1936 masterpiece Modern Times. In the scene depicted below, the main character is subjected to a feeding machine that will lessen the time that he takes to eat lunch.

I bet someone took this machine seriously.

This principle of using tools to increase efficiency over and above pedagogy is at the heart of Blackboard’s design. There are calendars, reminders, and alerts that inform both students and instructors that they have work to do – so get to it! What Blackboard offers is a means to make sure everyone is efficient over and above collaborative communication, pedagogical innovation and communal learning spaces. Welcome to Taylorism in the 21st century.

The Sandbox:

I am going to use the sandbox area of Blackboard as a case study for the whole platform since it is the space in which instructors can let their pedagogical creativity loose and design test courses. As an aside, I really doubt that many instructors outside of software development actually know what a sandbox is. When I attempted to see if this information is readily available for instructors to look up, I was met with no results in Blackboard help – oh dear. The sandbox is meant to be a space of play and experiment and this one does allow instructors to build test courses, but there are some serious issues with this area. Case in point, I was excited when I saw the link to the “course module” link (see below) where I thought I’d find some really exciting content, perhaps linked with library resources at Trent….

No such luck: imagine my dismay when I was taken to a list of modules that included content by NBC? Yes, the U.S. network provides content from their NBCLearning.com enterprise. I am flabbergasted. If you don’t believe me, check it out:

Even if this is K-12 content, it’s pretty shocking that this stuff is in a Canadian post-secondary institution. Click on the image for a surprise.

Believe me, I wanted to like Blackboard 9 and I looked forward to its release since the previous version was, for want of a better term, clunky. Unfortunately, there is little for post-secondary instructors to use in the Sandbox, unless they want to use McGraw-Hill content or material from NBC. If we consider that social interactions and structures are formed via the conventions associated with certain social institutions, then what does this sandbox offer instructors? There are no less than five different organizational tools on the homepage: Alerts, To Do, My Calendar, Needs Attention, and What’s New. Even though these tools can be removed,  because they are located on the homepage, they are given importance by default. Fairclough states that we are constructed via the order of discourses that tell us how to behave and react. When faced with an overwhelming number of Taylor-esque modes of time organization, I can only assume that time measurement and not pedagogy is the main ideological thrust of Blackboard 9. Should these tools be given primacy? Why can’t instructors be given a list of digital tools and options on the homepage?

For another approach to online course management, check out Moodle, where instructors are invited to create collaborative communities that share knowledge. While these kinds of functions are available in Blackboard 9, the impetus is, again, on time management and organization, which is not collaborative or community building.

7 Responses to “Blackboard 9 or Taylorism in the 21st Century”

  1. Taylorism, but in the most ironic sense. The bugginess/glitchiness plus lack of actually useful features and bizarre counter-intuitive design makes Blackboard undoubtedly the single biggest productivity black hole in the University.

    • Perhaps we can say a poor attempt at Taylorism and also Taylorism has no place in the classroom? Thanks for the comment!

  2. Canvas – https://www.instructure.com/ is a tremendously better LMS than Blackboard. We have been running an expanding pilot of Canvas at Algonquin College for the last two years and have yet to find a teacher OR student who didn’t enjoy the experience and found that it enhanced their learning in a positive way.

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