Metawriting posts from the new blog location

Monday, December 3, 2012

Google vs. Blackboard

I use a lot of collaboration and interaction in my online writing classrooms with assignments including reflection journals, class discussion, and writing workshop. My institution’s course management system is Blackboard (I know, right) and like many I have not been particularly satisfied with the way Blackboard supports my pedagogy. The discussion forum in Blackboard does not allow the conversation to flow and develop organically but instead imposes a formal structure and makes it impossible to easily connect entries due to the need to click in and out of posts. The journal tool does not allow students to comment on the journals of their classmates. Writing workshop in Blackboard tends to be a one-way street with little collaboration. Blackboard does not offer any fun social media options or alternatives to support community development. Navigation in blackboard is just clunky and counterintuitive. None of my reasons for disliking Blackboard are unique to me and probably are not news to any experienced user.

This summer I abandoned Blackboard and taught an online graduate class entirely using Google tools and Twitter. We built collaborative docs for our discussion, posted journals that encouraged the free exchange of ideas, and, best of all, created a robust and lively online writing workshop. While no relationship is entirely free from challenges, I was in love with Google docs and wanted everyone to know about it (read more in “Teaching With Google Docs”).

Still caught up in the heady rush of a young love affair, I leapt into using Google for my online writing classes in the fall semester and abandoned my long-time practice of using Twitter for Google+. I knew there would be challenges. I was now teaching much larger sections and working with undergraduate rather than graduate students as well as all the baggage that accompanies students who are taking a required class rather than an option or elective. However, I was sure that the good would outweigh the bad and that we could work through whatever ugliness Murphy’s Law threw in our path. Now in the final days of the semester I can look back at such naiveté and laugh. It wasn’t a complete disaster and certainly some good things happened this semester, but in the spring semester I will move the bulk of my class activities back to Blackboard.

Better Communication

Using Google opened up an additional channel of communication that Blackboard just can’t match and for that reason alone I will continue to use Google in some way. The chat option cannot be matched for an online class because I have my Gmail window open most of the day so students can usually catch me for some quick help. I wanted to use Hangout as well but it seemed most were just as comfortable using Chat and perhaps using the other features in Google docs made Hangout extraneous for them. I do love having that as an option though. I also like Google+. I love Twitter and continue to use it outside the classroom but I like the ability to separate groups in Google+ and I like the posting/commenting features better for the purposes of classroom communication and community building. Right now I plan to continue requiring students create a Google account (if they don’t already have one) and we will use Google+ as our social media and community building tool.

Messy and Distracted

I still love the idea of creating discussion documents and journals in Google rather than Blackboard as they are much more collaborative and organic than any options available in Blackboard but they are also messy and because they are removed from Blackboard I think for many students it seemed to be a case of out-of-sight then out-of-mind. I suspect part of the problem is that it was just one more place to check in and so students would simply forgot about it or put it off. It seemed to me that discussion participation was down (which did solve one of my initial worries about the number of people who could collaborate on a document without it spinning out of control) as the semester progressed. Journal posts also seemed to drop off. We can never know all the reasons why students don’t do their work for a class, but I suspect that in this case another channel created more problems and interference. Of course, it did not help that in the middle of the semester we were all forced to switch to Drive and I really don’t like Drive as much as I liked Docs (but that is another post). We had a number of problems with disappearing posts and folders. I expected some of that but it certainly contributed to student dissatisfaction and lack of engagement (understandably). Logistics was also an issue for me. With a full undergraduate class (rather than a small graduate seminar) it was often difficult to keep track of participation in discussion and while it was easier with journals I still had to do a lot of clicking. This was made even more complicated by the fact that some students did not follow naming conventions and did not always properly use folders. Of course these things happen in Blackboard too.

My New Plan

While I will continue to use Google for the chat and social media features, I plan to move journals and discussion back to Blackboard. However, this time around I am going to experiment with using the Blog tool for our weekly topic discussions and reflections. While it may not be as organic as a Google doc I think it will be more so than the discussion board and it will be less messy (and therefore better for logistics) than Google. I also hope that by keeping discussion and reflection in Blackboard so that students are not switching back and forth between tools will remove one obstacle to student participation.

I have not yet decided what to do about writing workshop. I still love the options that Google offers for this and as students will have Google accounts I can reserve that option. Traditionally, we don’t start off with workshop so I will have some weeks to ponder our options and perhaps by the time it becomes an issue students will be ready to make the leap with me or I will know that this specific group of students is not ready to use a new tool.

Once again I am reinventing my online classroom. Is all this innovation a good thing? Some days I wonder. Which Blackboard and Google tools do you recommend for fostering class discussion, reflection, interaction, and workshop?

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