Blackboard, This Song is Not About You: More on CUNY WordCampEd

It has been two weeks since the first ever CUNY WordCampEd, an event co-sponsored by us at the Schwartz Institute, New York City College of Technology, and the Macaulay Honors College. I have been meaning to reflect on this remarkable conference in this space but, seeing as how way leads on to way, I haven’t been able to get around to it. Plus, the need for yet another reflection seemed to diminish as the days passed since several smart and insightful people have already blogged the event. NYCCT’s Matt Gold, York College’s Michael Cripps, and Dave Lester of George Mason University have posted excellent recaps of the conference. Jim Groom, our inimitable keynote speaker, wrote a powerful, very personal reflection on the day’s conversations and why they matter to CUNY, and our own Luke Waltzer recently posted to this blog a terrifically engaging and forward looking exploration of some of the ideas that animated the events of that day and, most importantly, what they mean to the future of instructional technology at CUNY.

This week, though, the Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece by Jeff Young on CUNY WordCampEd. Since the picture the Chronicle paints of CUNY WordCampEd doesn’t fully jibe with my experience of the event, I figured this was reason enough to enter the fray.

What’s especially striking about the Chronicle piece is that it presents CUNY WordCampEd as motivated by the flight of a cadre of CUNY professors from Blackboard to blogging software as an ad-hoc alternative. “The meeting’s focus,” writes Jeff Young, “was an idea that is catching on at a handful of colleges and universities around the country: Instead of using a course-management system to distribute materials and run class discussions, why not use free blogging software — the same kind that popular gadflies use for entertainment sites?”

I take issue with this description on a number of levels, not the least of which is that it trivializes the tremendous pedagogical power and content management capabilities of a fully-realized, highly extensible, open source web publishing platform like WordPress and characterizes the event as animated by a simple opposition: blogs vs. Blackboard. In fact, CUNY WordCampEd was driven by something much much bigger and far less simple: a collective recognition that 1) the open, social web offers rich possibilities for transforming teaching, learning and the sharing of knowledge and creative work that we are only beginning to tap in a meaningful way here at CUNY and 2) that proprietary, closed learning management systems (LMS), in addition to their various other deficiencies, cannot keep up with the ways in which the social web is continually changing.

A good deal of the conversation at CUNY WordCampEd revolved around three very different yet exemplary projects, all of which are either built on or incorporate WordPress Multi User (WPMu), the “blogging software” to which the Chronicle refers. These are the CUNY Academic Commons, a multi-faceted online community space for CUNY faculty and students that seamlessly integrates WPMu as well as several other open source tools; our own Blogs@Baruch, a publishing platform for Baruch College intended initially to enable faculty to facilitate additional occasions for student writing and founded on the principle that that any opportunity to write is potentially an opportunity to grow as a writer; and Eportfolios@Macaulay, an adaptation of WPMu that allows Honors College students to collect their work, reflect upon it, share it with others if they choose to, and keep it for posterity — it likewise allows faculty to holistically assess student work. None of these important projects were mentioned in the Chronicle piece. Neither was ScholarPress, a set of impressive course management tools for WordPress developed by Dave Lester and his team at George Mason University (the same folks that gave us Zotero and Omeka), which Dave demonstrated at the opening of the event. (If there was a true, similarly capable alternative to Blackboard as LMS discussed at the conference, this was it, gradebook and all.) By excluding any discussion (or even a mention) of these projects, the article reduces and simplifies the thrust of day’s discussion of open source tools so that it ultimately comes off as merely speculative and not rooted in actual, substantive work already underway here at CUNY (excepting, of course, of the recognition of the wonderful work Zoë Sheehan Saldaña is doing here at Baruch).

Though the themes of Blackboard as 1) replicating an outdated pedagogical model and 2) and barely working recurred throughout the day, the conference was much more about experimenting with open source web tools based on their own merit than as any kind of real alternative to Blackboard that could or should be adopted centrally. As we have seen in the Clarion article which Luke cites, CUNY’s flirtations with alternatives to Blackboard in the wake of repeated outages seem to be more about showing Blackboard Inc. that CUNY means business and is not to be taken for granted than they are about finding a real, viable, working alternative that enhances both teaching and learning. Jim’s cry to “Open up CUNY!” did not mean “let’s all dump Blackboard and start blogging.” Rather, it was a call to breathe into our use of technology for teaching, learning, and sharing the spirit of free access and openness on which CUNY was built. CUNY WordCampEd was not an occasion to think through ways blogs could displace Blackboard in the classroom, but, in his words,

to imagine the possibilities of an open source CUNY, a CUNY that is not only re-investing in people rather than corporations to steer the future of education for this space, but a vision of imagining the technology as a way to make visible and accessible the work happening at the most diverse collection of urban campuses in the nation: a vision of open education that trumps courseware or videos or blog posts, a vision that brings 22 disparate campuses into some real communication with one another fueled by a community that believes in the irrefutable value of open, affordable, and relevant education in the 21st Century.

CUNY WordCampEd was not about blogs. It was not about Blackboard. It was about CUNY. This may not be of interest to those readers of the Chronicle who do not yet care about what is happening at The City University of New York, but it matters to me and to all of us who learned so much from the presentations and the conversations at CUNY WordCampEd.


  1. Alan Levine says:

    Well summarized Mikhail. And people wonder why “journalism” is joining scribes as a quaint profession. Look how surficial the “news” is as written by a “professional” who I bet was not even there; compared to your “amateur” account as a blogger.

    You have done well to fully describe the experience as opposed to the Chronicle’s pandering to sensationalize and trivialize.

  2. Jim says:

    CUNY WordCampEd was not about blogs. It was not about Blackboard. It was about CUNY. This may not be of interest to the vast majority of the Chronicle’s readership, but it matters to me and to all of us who learned so much from the presentations and the conversations at CUNY WordCampEd.

    To quote Harry Dean in Escape from NY, “Exactly, precisely.” This was a much needed re-framing of Young’s article, CUNY WordCampEd was all about the CUNY!

  3. Ben Miller says:

    Thanks for this, Mikhail –

    I hadn’t read the CHE article until I saw your post (via twitter, as it turns out). Having done so now, I do agree that there’s a strangely Blackboard-oriented focus to Young’s reporting, including what strikes me as fairly selective quoting (he doesn’t note, for example, the jokey tone of nearly all of those “blackboard-killer” lines – iirc, Joe Ugaretz literally followed the one Young quotes with “just kidding”), and the strange final word given to Blackboard in the article:

    “I think the model for the CMS is outdated given the new Web, and I think that’s one of the problems,” [Jim Groom] said. “It can serve certain functions well, but it’s hard for proprietary CMS’s, whatever they are, to keep up with the how the Web is changing.”

    Blackboard is trying to keep up.

    Michael L. Chasen, the company’s chief executive, has told The Chronicle that the latest version of the software integrates some Web 2.0 tools and still offers plenty of features that blogging packages can’t match, like online gradebooks.

    Even if we leave aside the time lag between releases that a closed-source platform like Bb takes (a lag measured in years, which hardly addresses Jim’s complaint); even if we leave aside the strangeness (audacity?) of suggesting that the blogging and wiki tools within Bb are “web 2.0″ when they don’t generate or draw on rss feeds, pingbacks, or tags (no crowd or cloud knowledge-generating), and when only the admin gets to keep a copy after the course ends (self-authorship is limited and must be authorized); even leaving these things aside, Young and Chasen miss the real point that you, Mikhail, hit on the head: we’re not trying to change the way education is “delivered”; we’re trying to change education.

    If you really want to get some steam flowing out of your ears, check out the discussion forum in response to the article. The prevailing view in there is that what’s most important in a CMS that it facilitate timed, multiple-choice testing and distribution of all-rights-reserved reading materials. Talk about missing the point!

  4. Luke says:

    Thanks, Ben… I didn’t even know there was a discussion forum tied to that article. I also thought it was Jane Wells, not Joe, who used that “BlackBoard killer” line, though I could be mistaken about that.

    I do know that Jeff didn’t follow up with anyone between the event and the time the article was published, which seems like many missed opportunities for a reporter to clarify and expand on some of the ideas circulated that day. But it was clear that Jeff wanted to write a BlackBoard v. Blogs/David v. Goliath article from the time I spoke with him three days before the event. Still, he was there all day and spoke with lots of folks who tried to contextualize our work differently, as I had, so I held out hope that the article might pay more attention to the arguments about teaching and learning that we made. It didn’t. Nor did it even name the freaking event, which you’d think might be of some interest to readers of the Chronicle.

    At least the interview with the Right Rev was unmediated.

  5. Matt says:

    Tremendous post, Mikhail. Thanks so much for recapping (and, as Jim says, reframing) the essence of the day. “[CUNYWordCampEd] was about CUNY” is a beautiful summation of everything that was right about that day and everything that was missing from the CHE.

    Between this post, Luke’s post, and Jim’s post, we’ve once again seen blogs definitively outperform the mainstream media outlets. BRAVO!!


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