Trojan Horses and Openness.

Durham Blackboard User’s Conference 


Durham Cathedral and Castle
Durham Cathedral and Castle

In what has become something of a new year ritual for me, I took myself off to the wonderful little city of Durham (A bit likeLincoln, but with a much more impressive river to set off the cathedral and castle!)  The conference itself is, effectively, the annual meeting of UK Blackboard users and is a mix of keynotes, practitioner presentations, debates and presentations from the Blackboard executive about their plans for the future. And delegates get to eat the conference dinner in the Great Hall of the castle.

This is the first of two posts. In this one I’ll try and summarise Blackboard’s plans for the future, and the two (excellent) keynote presentations by Grainne Conole and Ray Land.  In the next, I’ll write up the practitioner presentations, and what proved to be a very interesting debate about whether institutions should try and specify a minimum threshold for content on Virtual Learning Environments


Blackboard’s plans for the future.


There will be a new look and feel to Blackboard released in February, although this won’t affect any of the existing functionality. From the demonstration, it did appear to have a much more modern aspect to it. Additionally, users will have much more ability to customise Blackboard to their own taste (or lack thereof!) Later in the year , although they were rather vague about exactly when this will happen, they plan to release an upgrade to the on-line submission process, which will allow instructors to mark student work using Microsoft Word’s track changes feature –. It will be possible to save the file, with the comments made, and then release that to the students as feedback. Lincoln users probably won’t see these changes until September at the earliest, since any upgrade needs to be thoroughly tested behind the scenes, to ensure that the upgrade doesn’t break any current services. There was also some talk of a new analytics product being released soon, which would give us much better information on how Blackboard is being used, although either the details were a bit sketchy, or more likely, my notes are a bit sketchy.


The Keynotes 1 : Using the VLE as a Trojan Horse:  Grainne Conole


First up was Grainne Conole, with a presentation on “Using the VLE as a Trojan Horse”. The argument is essentially, that the VLE can serve as a “nursery slope” on which academic staff can familiarise themselves with technology. That might sound a little patronising, but it is a fact that not everybody is at the same level of technology skills. The VLE also offers benefits such as centralised support and administration, development of consistent practice around teaching practices for example, online submission of assessments (and feedback thereon),


The idea of the “nursery slope” arises because there are lots of new technologies with apparently unlimited potential for new approaches to learning and teaching, but the reality is that the opportunities offered by social technologies, particularly those around peer critiquing, networking, openness, personalisation and user generated content are not fully exploited, and simply often replicate bad pedagogy. Of course that is a charge that might be levelled at the VLE itself.


It is true that many colleagues use a VLE as little more than a document repository, but that is hardly the VLE’s fault, and it seems to me that switching from one VLE to another is likely to delay the development of both digital and pedagogical literacy as colleagues familiarise themselves with the basics of a new nursery slope (Too frequent upgrades probably don’t help here either). But if you can keep your head (or at least your VLE,) People become more aware of the functionalities of the system, and will become more inclined to push at the boundaries.


Grainne then moved on to discuss some of the technologies that might be incorporated into the VLE  – content from mobile devices such as smartphones, study calendars, to pace learning, rich multimedia content, such as TED talks, self created podcasts and vidcasts, e-assessment exercises such as annotation tools, or online quizzes, social bookmarking and to do lists.


The Keynotes 2: The implications, meanings, and risks of openness in the digital academy: Ray Land.


Ray started with an interesting metaphor of the cloister. I’d never thought about the etymology of this before, but the word clearly shares a root with “closed” Academia is traditionally “cloistered”. Knowledge is enclosed in print, which is bound in books, which are stored in libraries. (In many libraries, the books were originally chained to the shelves). Not much openness there, and totally antithetical to the world we now live in which is characterised, not so much by openness, as by speed.


Digital knowledge however is constantly changing, shifting, being added to, and is essentially ungraspable. Even the concepts we use to talk about it are out of date. Have a look at this graphic showing what happens every 60 seconds on the Internet.

What happens every sixty seconds on the Internet
What happens every sixty seconds on the Internet


I suppose it’s a little disingenuous to present a global picture when most of us operate in a much smaller environment, (Planet Earth is quite a big place after all), but the case that there is no longer a stable body of knowledge in any discipline that can be mastered seems unanswerable. He then quoted the work of Virilio (1988) who argued that all technologies will ultimately fail, and of course the more connected they are,  and the faster the connections, the bigger the effect.  In other words, as Ray put it, the “21st Century Catastrophe, when it occurs, will affect everyone.” There will be no escape!



Putting the impending apocalypse to one side, we then turned to issues of how speed was affecting teaching. It seems unarguable that speed and quantity of information is antithetical the long established pedagogical techniques of discussion, thought and reflection. You can’t really have a debate on Twitter over a few weeks for example. Ray drew an interesting comparison with the slow food movement, which is primarily about people getting together to talk over meals, rather than gobbling sandwiches on the hoof. It seems to me though that the problem with “slow pedagogy” is that it’s very hard to step back from the complexity, or supercomplexity as Ron Barnett would call it, of the social media world. As university teachers we can’t really ignore it, and have to find ways of preparing our students for it.


Perhaps the biggest problem for academia is open text. There’s a lot of interest in Open Educational Resources, but the price of openness is the weakening of authority. That may be no bad thing, but, it is something of a threat to the traditional university. Ray gave examples of how degree programmes are changing – e.g. Coventry University now offers an 18 month degree “lite”, making extensive use of OERs (although evidently not those concerned with spelling!), and there are increasing numbers of web based learning organisations. That doesn’t mean the end of the University though. An interesting statistic is that 5% of the worlds population have had the benefit of a University education. 95% have not. Ray asked the question whether the cure for cancer, or a perpetually sustainable energy source was likely to come from the 5% or the 95%, if the 95% were given the opportunity! Apparently China is currently opening one new University a week. (Yes, you read that right! – A new University each week, not a new building).


Ray concluded by arguing that there is little doubt that being open carries risks. How do you ensure quality? Might individual teacher’s knowledge be marginalised by the changing “general intellect”? How do you ensure that knowledge is not misappropriated and commodified. by powerful technology corporations? As Ray’s other work has shown, academic knowledge is often “troublesome”. I’ve always felt that politics and commerce under capitalism have always been about pretending that there are simple solutions, and selling them on. In the end we need to think about how we can develop a new ethics of knowledge sharing and openness that acknowledges doubt and uncertainty, and most of all continue to research into the costs and benefits of open knowledge.