Blog Post

US professors choose tech for control, not collaboration

US professors who reach for technology in the classroom are choosing PeopleSoft and Powerpoint over blogs and wikis, as revealed by a study discussed in NMDnet:

Classroom technology to the rescue, proposes a new government report entitled "Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology." Not so fast, counters a recent national study. This assessment, the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement, found that most professors who turn to technology gravitate to tech that helps them administer classes, like Blackboard and PeopleSoft, rather than technology that empowers student expression and feedback.

I imagine these profs would have an aneurysm if their students ever got ahold of The Pool.

As empowering as blogs and wikis can be, Blackboard and PeopleSoft are simply modern-day equivalents of the Panopticon, designed to enable authorities to monitor and instruct rather than listen and enable. Is it fair to say our classrooms use 21st-century technologies, if those technologies are based on 18th-century politics?



I think the answer to that question can vacillate between yes and no depending on intent. For instructors who intend to use course management systems as monitoring systems (how many students downloaded the reading, how many times has Juan read his peer's comments) and not points of contact, I agree that Blackboard teachers can quickly look like prison guards hiding behind their screens and administrator privileges. Calling that particular use of a CMS "21st technology" is surely a disguise for instructors who have yet to grasp the intent behind 21st technology practices and who might be cynical of moving classroom interactions (discussions, oral presentations, generative debates) onto the web.

However, I would be hesitant to give the uses of all course management systems a blanket label of latter-day panopticons. In some ways, CMS applications and modules can be more enabling and more transparent than what a traditional classroom allows. Even with three fifty-minute periods a week, there is no possible way that even the most empathetic and empowering instructor can help students break through the sturdier prison tower of academic convention. Online discussions and resource sharing can allow the bigger questions of institutional power continue outside the (institutional) constraints of traditional class periods.

In the English department at Iowa State University, we use the open-source Moodle platform. As an instructor, I find the interactive modules easy to modify and shape for student-centered learning. I don't use Moodle for grading, attendance, or gauging student participation by reading access logs. I feel that 24/7 access to a CMS can give students a transparency that traditional classroom and office hours can't alone support. If they lost the assignment sheet, students don't have to wait for Instructor Overlord to accept their apology and grant them a new copy. If an epiphany about course material jolts them at one a.m. instead of in the class discussion the previous day, they still have a forum to access.

I could police my classes using the CMS. I choose to invite interaction that doesn't bear on any kind of grade. Again, I feel intention is the key.


I've heard mixed reviews of Moodle, but by choosing open-source software you are already modeling for your students the value of cooperative production.

If you're also modding your Moodle installation for your own purposes, then you are also teaching them that users should re-invent systems for each context rather than accept them from corporate or governmental authorities as unalterable monoliths.

I believe it is more in the nature of Internet architectures to promote reciprocal rather than asymmetric data sharing, and that platforms like Blackboard (and Facebook) are abusing this architecture. It sounds like you, on the other hand, are swimming with the current, and I'm sure your students appreciate it.

If you're an example of the next generation's approach to online education, I for one welcome our new Instructor Overlords.


Let's just hope the new Instructor Overlords change their names :)



The following article discusses electronic attendance scanners now being employed in Arizona.


I learned of this via Bruce Sterling, who enjoyed the irony of students making a group to protest this invasion of privacy–on Facebook.