Course management

I’m in the process of getting things in order for my fall class. The syllabus is pretty much done, and I’m putting off writing the assignments for as long as possible, so that leaves scanning readings and setting up the website to help me procrastinate the hard work of assignment writing.

In past years, I’ve relied exclusively on Blackboard to manage my course. As tools go, it’s pretty dreadful. Visually, it’s stuck in 1999. Customization options are limited and difficult to figure out. It’s slow and glitchy and bloated. But it’s the official university course management system, my students generally know how to use it, and it’s a secure, FERPA-compliant option for managing and distributing grades. Furthermore, the classes I’ve taught have been required introductory courses with high reading or writing loads, and I haven’t wanted to impose a technological component with a potential learning curve on top of that work. Though we like to imagine that our students are digital natives who are well-versed in blogs and wikis and all forms of social media, it’s been my experience that students often have difficulty with new applications. Troubleshooting their problems takes time and effort that I’d prefer to spend on issues more closely related to course content.

But this semester I’ll be teaching an introductory course for English majors, and I feel a bit more comfortable asking my students to try potentially new or unfamiliar tools. I want to encourage students to engage with each others’ ideas as they read and work on assignments outside of class. I’m also planning an annotated bibliography assignment that will create a common pool of sources for students’ research papers, and I need a tool for sharing those bibliographies.

Blackboard has recently added both blogs and wikis to the available tools, and I was initially optimistic that I might continue to hobble along with a flawed but easily-accessible tool. After actually investigating the wiki and blog features, though, I realized they wouldn’t cut it. The wiki doesn’t let me create folders or customize much of anything. Same goes for the blog. In fact, I think they have less functionality than the discussion board feature, if that’s possible.

My preference would be to create my own course website on university-hosted web space, but because I don’t staff in UT’s digital writing lab (I work at the Undergraduate Writing Center instead), I don’t have access to a convenient place to host a course site. I considered setting up a free blog with wordpress.com and closing it to public readers, but something about that felt insufficiently official. I like the way the format of a blog encourages ephemeral, changing content and allows me to post connections to readings and class discussions that might not be significant enough to mention in class. But that dynamic quality, in which entries are constantly receding from the front of the page, might make it difficult to locate resources students wanted to return to again and again, like bibliographies and reading responses. I want students to be able to add and comment on content, but I also want them to be able to easily navigate the different resources they are creating.

Having decided I want to emphasize collaboration, navigability, and content building over the potential for more informal discussion that a blog can bring, the best option seems to be a wiki. Unlike Blackboard, which is awash in confusing features and houses course pages for every class a student is taking, a wiki is clearly devoted to specific needs of a specific course, in this case collaborating on reading responses and research. My hope is that having a specific tool devoted to these activities will communicate their importance.

I’ve set up a wiki with PBworks, which somehow seems a bit more legitimate than a wordpress blog, even though they’re both external, non-academic sites. I’ll still need to use Blackboard to store readings and assignments, as well as to distribute grades, but I’m hoping to shift much of the day-to-day focus to the wiki. We’ll see how it works.

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