David Fetters

There are few students and professors at Miami University whose lives have not been impacted by the piece of software called Blackboard Academic Suite. Whether in the rat race of class registration or in downloading the latest set of class PowerPoint slides, Blackboard has shaped the education of Miami’s students in a way unimaginable a decade ago. Blackboard is the jack-of-nearly-all-trades Web application that provides educators with many ways to communicate with their students out of the classroom. Its adoption is part of a larger movement by Miami to find ways to utilize technology to increase the value of the education provided to students.

The personal computer has revolutionized the ways in which individuals are able to interact both locally and globally-changing the educational process profoundly. In academia, the computer has gone from a novel-typing implement to the heart and soul of research, innovation and communication. The usefulness and role of the computer in education is at the center of learning technologies, a field that focuses on developing tools to help educators educate.

Learning technologies and the benefits they provide to the educational process will be what sets the “university of the future apart” from its contemporaries. Miami has a department dedicated to ferreting out and adapting the latest technology for use as educational tools. Advanced Learning Technologies (ALT) in Gaskill Hall is the fount of innovation in the ways that Miami’s most important “learning technologies” (i.e., the professors and instructors) interact with students. The dedicated, enthusiastic and extremely talented staff of ALT serves the university’s educators by helping them to develop unique computer-based tools for courses.

But even with all of the cutting edge technology available to educators at Miami, many timesaving tools go unutilized in the day-to-day transactions between student and instructor. The most basic and yet underutilized capability of Blackboard is the Blackboard Course site.

The appropriately named “Blackboard” sites allow professors to communicate with their students easily and directly, by providing a virtual message board for reminders, announcements, handouts and much more. In spite of its availability and relative ease of use, there are still many professors that do not create Blackboard sites for their courses.

Professors who haven’t jumped on the bandwagon should examine the ways in which Blackboard can provide students with guaranteed access to documents such as the course syllabus and homework schedules, as well as the occasional announcement about important upcoming dates. Students can better prepare themselves to interact within the classroom if their professors will take this step to provide better access to information out of the classroom.

With all of the technology available to educators, its hesitant adoption begs the question: Why? One answer that I have heard at the beginning of more than a few semesters is that in-class handouts serve as an “incentive” (read “reward”) for attendance, with the belief that there will be less incentive to attend lecture if students have access to all of the materials online.

But students already have their textbook, and if it were possible to learn just by reading a book there would be no need for professors. Elbert Hubbard wrote that, “One machine can do the work of 50 ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.” Barring the sexism of the times, his message is as true today as it was then.

Having access to the physical class materials online allows students to benefit from being fully informed. At the same time, no Web site or computer could replace the value of face-to-face interaction between professor and student. Hesitance to provide access to class materials, especially for the purpose of “punishing” those who skip class, collaterally punishes the students dedicated to attendance and their education.

Computers and technology are becoming an integral part of human life. The students of Miami expect the most from the first-class education that this university provides. Sam Ewing wrote that “Computers are like bikinis-they save people a lot of guesswork.” Technology such as Blackboard and Blackboard Course Sites enable students to take full control of their academic life by providing them unhindered access to the raw materials of their education. In the age of Google.com, YouTube.com and Wikipedia.com, when all of the world’s information is at our fingerprints, professors now have the opportunity to provide their students with unrivaled access to legitimate information both in and out of the classroom.