Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Life in the Pissant Swamp: Learning Technology as Utopia?

One of the things faculty at colleges and universities have at their disposal in these brave new days of the digital revolution are what are called learning management systems. I teach at two schools at the moment, SUNY Oneonta, which uses the Blackboard learning system, and SUNY Cobbleskill, which uses the Moodle learning system. Other schools, I am told, use other learning systems though Blackboard dominates the market with a 41% share.

I have used the Blackboard learning system off and on since 2008. I first learned to use it at SUNY Albany and used it to teach a number of online summer classes. It wasn't perfect. It was somewhat clunky. It worked, however, and was relatively easy to figure out how to use. Over the years Blackboard has become even easier to use in my opinion and compared to another now defunct learning system which I unsuccessfully tried to use once, Angel, a learning system that didn't allow me to write an assignment with 0 points, Blackboard was a teacher's delight.

Moodle, an open source learning system developed in Australia, and, as a result, a cheaper alternative to Blackboard, and which I have been learning about on the job since I was hired last Friday to teach courses at SUNY Cobleskill, is proving to be only marginally better than Angel in my opinion. I have several complaints about Moodle. First of all you have to make courses visible for students to see. I don't understand why visible isn't the default setting. Second, there is a message in Moodle that tells the user to go to the faculty orientation page to learn how to make courses visible. When you go to the faculty orientation section, however, there are no instructions to be seen. I eventually learned how to do this by trial and error. Third, Moodle doesn't, as far as I can ascertain, have a mechanism by which you can increase font size. When I put my 12 point font syllabus in Moodle it suddenly became rather difficult to read because the font size is so small. As I said, I haven't figured our how or even if I can make the font size larger. Fourth, Moodle does not support Safari, my browser of choice. It does support Google's Chrome. Conspiracy theories anyone? Fifth, I went to Moodle this morning to see if students had begun to hand in assignments, some said they had, and the classes I spent hours frantically putting together had suddenly disappeared like a dissident in the USSR during the reign of Stalin. According to Cobleskill's IT experts Moodle is dropping some classes, mine among them, because of problems with the Banner and Moodle interface of grade rosters. As I write this blog, Moodle is still down for "unscheduled maintenance" some thirteen hours after I noticed that my classes had disappeared into the proverbial technological rabbit hole.

I remarked to IT when I noted that my classes had disappeared from Moodle that what had happened hardly inspires confidence in the system. It doesn't. They found such a statement "rude". Beyond damning me for my forthrightness their suggestion is that I make arrangements to use Blackboard or some other learning management system on my own. This is, to say the least impractical for a number of different practical reasons. The other more realistic option, of course, is the old tried and true one: I can have students hand in their assignments like we did in the old days, as hard copies. It is increasingly looking like that is the only real and viable option I have given the technical problems with Moodle.

Isn't technology wonderful? Can the best of all possible worlds be far behind?

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