The value of a liberal arts aggravation

By Brian Goedde
June 17th, 2015

The classes I teach are paperless. All of our work is done on Blackboard, from the weekly blog posts to the major essays.

I ask my students if this presents any problems. “Rate it on a scale of one to ten,” I ask them. “A ‘ten is ‘it’s such a pain that I should change back to doing everything on paper,’ and one is ‘it’s as easy as falling out of a tree.’ What is your experience of this Blackboard-based, paperless English class?”

Most students say “one.” They have no trouble at all, which makes it clear to me that there’s no need to go back to paper. Some students, however, answer “three” or “four.” “I easily get lost,” a student once said. “I’ll remember that I have to go somewhere to turn something in, but I’ll forget how to get there.”

I told this student (and our class) that I am right there with her. My classes are paperless, but that doesn’t mean I’m a Blackboard wiz. Actually, catch me on a bad day and I’d answer my own question with a “five.” In one of my online classes, for example, I recently tried to separate my students into groups so that they could have a small group discussion, and it was a disaster. I created the groups, but I couldn’t figure out how to link the groups to the discussion board they were supposed to use. I’m sure this isn’t hard to figure out, but I didn’t know how to do it. For that week’s assignment, we were all lost on where supposed to click or what we were supposed to do—myself most of all.

I want to put the blame on Blackboard. I prefer technology that assumes I’m an idiot, which Blackboard does not. I just learned how to use Prezi, for example, and I love it; it feels like I’m finger painting, and somehow when I’m done with my presentation, it looks great. It was so easy to learn that it felt like I didn’t actually learn anything. Blackboard is not like this. Blackboard is not colorful or fun. Blackboard is hard.

So is college, I should remember.

We teachers and administrators prize the “values of a liberal arts education.” One such liberal arts “value” is that one should be free to pursue what one chooses—figure painting, for example. Another such value is that, in order to consider oneself educated, one should also strengthen one’s mind and skills in disciplines that don’t come naturally to us, disciplines that present some challenges. A “general education” program strengthens all sides of the thinking individual, the well-rounded scholar and citizen.

It occurs to me that we teachers should hold ourselves to the same standards to which we hold our students. In order to be a part of this education, I should participate. Educational technology, in other words, is my “gen-ed” course I love to hate.

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