Digitizing education for the good ol’ days

All of my classes are paperless. It’s not because I’m a tech-wiz. In fact, I’m “all thumbs” when it comes to learning new technology—and not the quick-moving thumbs of text messaging, either. Just thumbs.

I tell my students that making them do all of our classwork on Blackboard increases their computer literacy and equips them for the 21st century workforce, and I really do believe this, but I have another reason: digitizing my classroom has let me be a more old-fashioned.

For example, we writing teachers pine for the good ol’ days when students actually had to learn spelling and grammar, rather than spill out thoughts onto the screen and let the computer clean up the mess. Spell-check, grammar-check, and especially “auto correct” functions are great for writers, but the scourge of us writing teachers.

There is “spell-check” on Blackboard, but the assignment submission text boxes do not have “auto-correct” proofreading. When a student writes “im” on a Blackboard blog post, Blackboard does not change it to “I’m.” It’s great. As a teacher I see all the little faults (and the not-so-little-faults), and I take off points for them. My students tell me that this has made them actually re-read what they’ve written before they click “submit.” They proofread the old-fashioned way.

In the larger picture, digitizing my classroom has returned me to the good ol’ days of student accountability when it comes to grading. We teachers take pains to articulate grading calculations and policies in our syllabi, and this is all but entirely ignored by students. Students rarely know how much their assignments are worth, and at midterm, many students who have done little work are shocked to learn that they are failing. In the good ol’ days, students were responsible for earning—and knowing—their grades.

With the Blackboard Grade Center, students can click on “My Grades” and watch their overall grade go up or down with each assignment. They see how their grade is not something I “give” when the semester ends, but something that they earn over time. I never again have to answer the question, “How am I doing in your class?” This knowledge—and with it, this accountability—is in the student’s domain.

Digitizing education is a clear benefit to me, but does it suit my students? I took an informal poll in my classes last semester, asking how easy or difficult it was to have the entire class on Blackboard. These are developmental English students, by the way, students who, it is commonly assumed, are not self-driven or self-reliant enough to succeed with digital technology. “On a scale of one to ten,” I asked, “with one being ‘as easy as falling out of a tree’ to ten being ‘so difficult I should change my class back to hard copies of everything, how hard is Blackboard to use?’” A few said “two” or “three”: Blackboard can be hard to navigate sometimes, they said. Everyone else said “one.”

I have to agree that Blackboard can be difficult to navigate. If I were to answer my own question, I’d say “three” too; on some days, when I’m learning something new, I’d be at least a “five.” But still I have become a Blackboard enthusiast, not as a tech-wiz but as a fuddy-duddy. Because of features like the Grade Center and the lack of “auto-correct,” what makes students equipped for a 21st century workforce returns us to time-honored pedagogical principles of the past.