May 22, 2007

It's about time to erase the Blackboard

When I am talking to family and friends about the things that make the U of C unique, I often mention that most of our undergraduate classrooms do not have whiteboards. Our focus, this implies, is on the things that matter: ideas and arguments. We don’t mistake fancy technology and “modern” classrooms for a good education.

But in recent years, a more insidious sort of blackboard has invaded our undergraduate courses. This is Blackboard, or Chalk, and the online “discussion board” that is the great equalizer between elite universities and online degree mills. The more Chalk-centric our courses become, the less the small class sizes and charged face-to-face discussions of which the U of C is so proud will matter.

Chalk is useful for many things—accessing syllabi, checking grades, downloading readings—but it is emphatically not useful as a forum for discussion. This quarter, Chalk “discussions” have played a prominent role in three of my four courses. Honesty requires that the word “discussions” be placed squarely between quotation marks in this context; what actually occurs on the Chalk boards is nothing of the sort. In face-to-face conversation, we are forced to listen to or at least register what others are saying. We are forced to evaluate our opinions and arguments more carefully, lest they make us look ridiculous. We are kept, to some degree, on our toes.

None of these apply to the “discussions” that take place on Chalk. Students rarely if ever read more of their classmates’ posts than absolutely necessary, and why should they? One does not write a Chalk post in the hopes of producing a wise, structured, researched, edited, well argued, and high-quality piece of writing. Rather, one posts on Chalk for one reason and one reason alone: to finish the nuisance of an assignment as quickly as possible, in order to get down to the actual business of learning.

When we post on Chalk, it is usually in order to get another percentage point or so added to our participation grade in a given course. We post on Chalk with the understanding that no one but the T.A.—and maybe not even the T.A.—will care in the slightest about what we have to say or how well we can say it. Hence, posts are generally dashed off, careless, pointless, and a waste of time and energy for their writers and readers alike.

And so no discussion takes place on Chalk; instead, each bored student flips to a page in his reading and rewrites what he finds there, adding a line or two of further “questions” he has about the topic and never failing to mention how “interesting” he finds it.

Chalk also serves to babysit us and micromanage our time, as most required Chalk postings come with an early-evening deadline (thoughtfully chosen to give us “time” to read what our peers have opined). Want to focus on an urgent project, work exclusively for one class, or set your own study schedule? Only if you’ve completed your Chalk posts first—that is, only if you have wasted 10 minutes spewing an inane and uninformed opinion into the electronic ether.

Chalk also allows for a form of babysitting far more suspicious than mere old-fashioned deadlines; the program permits T.A.s to monitor how much time you spend writing your posts and reading those of your peers. It records the exact amount of time you spend on a given class’s site and dutifully passes this information along to instructors.

The inventors of the Great Book discussions at the heart of the Core and Fundamentals classes must be turning in their graves. When they spoke of the intelligent exchange of ideas as the central feature of an undergraduate education, this is surely not what they had in mind.