Wednesday, January 23, 2002

UC's online Blackboard goes beyond lectures

Information enriches class discussion

By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When students skip class, lecture notes posted by professors on the University of Cincinnati's electronic Blackboard are a handy crutch.

[photo] Frederick H. Siff, UC vice president for information systems, with the home page for Blackboard, the university's course management system.

(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        However, more-demanding students use that same course management software to dig out more than lectures offer.

        “I love it,” said political science junior Darren Tolliver. “It's greatly increased the amount of information I get.”

        It has been a year since UC chose Blackboard and faculty agreed to a pilot project of 50 courses.

        Today, Blackboard has gone from challenger to industry leader, and UC is a leader in its applications, said Frederick H. Siff, UC vice president for information systems.

        UC now uses Blackboard's most sophisticated version, and faculty have posted more than 20 percent of its 5,197 courses with six or more students.

        Of those 1,078 courses, 823 are for undergraduates and 255 are for graduate students.

        If some faculty are standoffish, students are coming around.

    Blackboard is a family of course management software developed in the past four years by Washington, D.C.-based Blackboard Inc.
    In the Tristate, it has been adopted by the University of Cincinnati and Miami and Xavier universities. Nationally, about 2,000 schools use Blackboard.
    In its most advanced version, faculty and students communicate with e-mail and in chat rooms for specific subjects or courses.
    Blackboard permits faculty to post class syllabi, schedules, reading lists and other materials handed out in their courses.
    Blackboard also allows them to put complex, mobile illustrations on the computer that never could be photocopied for class, and to post lecture notes so that students can discuss them rather than write them down during classes.
    Faculty also can post tests, receive completed and time-stamped exams, and put up grade sheets, knowing that students will be able to see only their own results and not those of classmates.
        Almost 60 percent of UC's 32,098 part- and full-time students are taking at least one course in which the professor uses Blackboard.

        All of this — including licensing fees and UC support staff — costs about $250,000 per year, Dr. Siff said. “It's incredibly cost-efficient.”

        Few schools have moved as fast as UC, said a spokeswoman for Washington, D.C.-based Blackboard Inc., but the school stands out for other reasons:

        • Many schools use Blackboard primarily for distance-learning classes. UC uses it to enrich on-campus courses.

        • Most schools use Blackboard for undergraduate classes. UC is one of the few major research campuses using it in graduate courses.

        None of that impresses English professor Amy Elder.

        “What I need to do with my students I can do on my own,” she said. “ I don't see any advantage to it.”

        Pre-med sophomore Robyn Jacobs was delighted when biology and political science professors posted lecture notes.

        “I couldn't write fast enough in class,” she said. “I wish that more of my classes were on there.”

        UC faculty praised Blackboard's minimal demands on their computer literacy. They do no programming. Instead, they scan or punch in material. If they're unable, UC support staff will do it for them.

        The challenge now is how to use Blackboard in class.

        Geology professor Warren Huff said effective teachers use it to draw students to class with discussions that develop their critical thinking skills and synthesize and analyze what they've learned on Blackboard.

        “We'll have to say to students, "Come to class and we'll talk,'” Dr. Siff added.

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