Throughout generations, we moved from a society based on agriculture, through one based on industry, to the highly technically oriented society we live in today. This era demands the greatest asset to any field of work or pursuit in life–knowledge, or human talent. Consequently, in order to keep up with this dynamic society, a sound educational system, including training, is a fundamental source of achieving the competitive advantage for any individual or organization. However, we are not only talking about a four-year degree, but the idea of a forty-year degree, where students learn throughout their lives. It doesn’t matter whether they’re full or part time students or have already begun working in their field.
Because of this expanding knowledge demand, today’s education landscape is characterized by rising enrollments, changing demographics, and greater demand for anytime/anywhere learning. An intriguing example of this need is seen in the idea of e-learning, which is considered the fastest growing sector in educational approach. Therefore, it is very important to assess the quality of education offered through e-learning. We decided to do so through an examination of the quality and the possibilities for of Blackboard.com, one of the leading providers of e-education.
As the Internet grows, Blackboard’s roots in e-Education strengthen. What began as a collaborative effort among a team of students and faculty at Cornell University, has grown into a user base of two thousand clients (over five million individuals) in more than seventy countries worldwide, including colleges and universities, corporations and associations, as well as leading commercial education providers. In order to closely examine the quality of this site, we decided to look at its major advantages and disadvantages by following evaluation principles from the text, as well as an inside view from the student-learner’s perspective, since two of our group members took an educational course through Blackboard.
Blackboard facilitates educational process in many institutions around the country. The website has many advantages which we divided into five following categories:
- Long-Term Cost Effectiveness
There are two kinds of convenience that Blackboard offers:
- Time flexibility: Education is available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
- Place flexibility: Education is available any place that has a computer and Internet access, i.e. learning is not a constraint to a particular geographic location.
This idea of anytime/anywhere education is of crucial importance to working individuals, students with physical/mobility disabilities, and mothers on maternity leave. They do not have to leave their house or take off from work, or spend time and money commuting in order to receive an education.
Blackboard offers consistent quality of education from group to group over time, unlike courses relying on several different instructors for different groups, even within the same class. This has been an issue throughout the existence of organized education, because different schools, depending either on economic or social status were receiving different education. With e-learning, the idea of inequality or discrimination is brought to a minimum. In addition, material is consistent over the length of the course, and not susceptible to disruptions due to unexpected trainer turnover or illness.
Blackboard offers customization and interoperability that focus on individualized needs of students. This is achieved through following approaches:
- Customized Features: Blackboard offers a number of user-centric features that provide the sense of a learner-focused approach. This is achieved through the following tools:
– Personal calendar, address book, user directory and to-do list.
– Customized academic Web resources to fit individual needs and preferences.
– Selected announcements of future events collected according to individual needs and preferences.
- Self-Paced: Most of the courses offered by Blackboard are self-paced, catering to different learning speeds. This way, students who absorb material faster will not be bored and de-motivated by listening to the concepts they already know and understand. On the other hand, students who need more time to internalize these same concepts will have an opportunity to take that time, without feeling rushed or pressured.
- Immediate feedback: Any assignments, exercises, quizzes, or tests offered through Blackboard provide immediate feedback to the student. Over time, this feedback is customized through various techniques, pointing out the mistake pattern that a particular student tends to make. In addition, it provides the list of suggestions on how to overcome this weakness, whether it is regarding material content, or test taking abilities. From this perspective, Blackboard offers pedagogical flexibility that is not achieved in a traditional learning environment.
- Retention: Because of all these customized features that cater to unique learning needs, retention of material offered through Blackboard is at least as good as with other methods, and is often superior.
The anonymity of Blackboard and e-education in general, offers an element of privacy that was previously unknown. There are individuals who actually prefer to interact with teachers and fellow students online. In the traditional classroom setting, a few students may dominate the discussion, while shy individuals may find it very difficult to participate because of their quiet nature. By contrast, both extrovert and introvert students can easily speak up online. The element of instructor/peer pressure is diminished, allowing students to express their opinions more comfortably. In addition, e-students tend to reflect more before participating, and therefore their comments and viewpoints often contain more logic and coherence than those expressed in classrooms. Also, a variety of forums within one discussion might be created, each with a distinct set of properties and approaches that allow for various pedagogical insights and routes to managing interaction. A number of colleges and universities, such as the University of Wisconsin, Madison, recognize and often prefer this method of discussion, characterizing it as “more effective and fact oriented, with low tolerance for discrimination”.
Long-Term Cost Effectiveness
The long-term asset that Blackboard’s educational program delivers is highly advantageous to schools who would like to offer e-learning opportunities to their students or companies who would like to do the same for their employees. Although the system’s disadvantage of start-up costs exists and will be considered in the next section, the infinitely lasting value given the institution is extremely advantageous. Schools do not need to worry about lack of room to accommodate enough students leading to costly expansions or building projects. Students are also benefited long-term by avoiding transportation, or lodging costs over a lifetime of education.
Although Blackboard facilitates the educational process in many institutions around the country, it has certain disadvantages akin to the Computer-Based Training companies. We divided them into five following categories:
- Technical Problems
- Lack of Interpersonal Skills
- Short-Term Costs
Although computer-based learning is the fastest growing educational approach, at the same time it’s the youngest. Because it is so new, Blackboard and other similar sites encounter problems associated with e-learning on a daily basis, most of them being technical in nature. Although it is certain these difficulties encountered from time to time will be worked out in the future leading to an incomparable learning experience, they now pose certain problems. Both students and teachers have difficulties logging in, posting messages, uploading assignments, and giving and taking tests. Some of the specific examples are described bellow:
- Blackboard.com operates very poorly on Netscape for Macintosh. This becomes quite a problem with Colleges and Universities, since over fifty five percent of them operate on Netscape for Macintosh because of slightly lower installation costs compared to other providers. Unless Blackboard comes up with a solution fast, this market segment is unreachable, and therefore lost.
- Resizing the quiz window using AOL connection often causes all entered information to be lost. This obviously causes the user dissatisfaction, especially during the test or training crunch time.
- Although theoretically Blackboard.com should work with almost any type of connection or PC, the practicality of situation is quite different. In order for a clip, test, or exercise to run smoothly, it needs a high-speed modem, as well as PC with a fast processing power. Therefore, many students end up using the University server, however in this case, the student obviously needs to be at the school which defeats the sole purpose of Blackboard.
Lack of Interpersonal Skills
Even though we now live in a knowledge-driven society, it is still one made up of people and knowing how to interact and operate in such society is still an irreplaceable part of any education. The following disadvantages may be offset by the traditional learning environment of a classroom but pose a threat to CBT programs:
- less effective or even inadequate in teaching interpersonal or soft skills
- less opportunities to get involved in student academic life
- peer learning not predominant nor teachers learning from their students
Because the market and technology for e-learning is relatively new and is presently in high demand, the short-term costs prove to be a disadvantage for using Blackboard and similar sites.
- Start-up costs for equipment are very high.
- Equipment and information systems take a longer amount of time to develop than a traditional course.
- Instructors need to be trained for the initial use.
- System implemented cannot be modified easily and is therefore, more costly to change.
The issue of controlling the learning environment to uphold honest academic conduct is seemingly difficult if not impossible in an e-learning setting. The following disadvantages are related to control:
- Attendance is not verifiable, thus it is easier for irresponsible student to skip the class.
- Identity of test-taker is not verifiably the same as the student who is enrolled.
- No control over when resources such as textbooks are used, if they’re being used when they are not supposed to be used, or whether resources are appropriate and honest for the students use.
Even though e-learning is an excellent tool for training and understanding of certain skills, some subjects or abilities simply cannot be taught effectively through use of CBT. The following are those inadequacies (excluding interpersonal skills which were already discussed):
- For teaching physical or psychomotor skills.
- For times when an instructor is essential, i.e. for the benefit of role-play exercises and networking.
- For actively learning a foreign language through oral instruction.
As we have already mentioned, education is necessary in order to get ahead, and more importantly to stay ahead through a life-long, educational endeavor. Education can thus be viewed as a strategic set of maneuvers, whose learning approaches are not always black and white as we can clearly see from the above analysis. Each individual is unique, and therefore, they have different learning needs and goals. Blackboard.com and e-education in general caters to this need for both customized and individualized learning. However, that is not to say that the need for a more traditional approach, such as the classroom approach is diminishing. Certainly this is because for some students and for some contexts, the traditional classroom approach is irreplaceable. Perhaps the most accurate answer is that the most effective education will take place through an intelligent blend of learning approaches that are matched to the individualized needs and learning styles of the student.
INTERNET TRAINING SOURCES AND HUMAN RESOURCES:
The training and lifelong development of human talent, besides being an individual goal for many students and employees, is also a major aspect of Human Resources that is being newly redesigned with the advent of e-learning. E-learning is one of the future human resources competencies that will be critical to HR professionals because of current and future trends predicted for this field. Oddly enough, these trends coincide with several of the advantages of e-learning previously discussed. The positive qualities of internet training sources and the future of HR in four different categories are compared below:
- Workplace Flexibility: The fact that “employees will have more and more choices about work arrangements, allowing them to meet their individual needs” is no surprise in our society where convenience is of the utmost importance. E-learning via programs such as Blackboard parallel this flexibility in both place and time flexibility discussed under the advantage of convenience.
- Global Business: The prediction of “technology, especially the Internet [enabling] more businesses to enter the global marketplace” is no doubt already in full swing today. Technology thus brings all businesses to an even playing field so to speak, breaking down barriers and enforcing total objectivity in the marketplace. This is similar to Blackboard’s commitment to consistency where statuses are invalid and inconsequential to a global learning environment that emphasizes equality.
- Work and Society: A renaissance to the importance of family will supposedly be achieved because “families will return to the center of society.” This also compliments Blackboard’s flexibilities in time and place, again included in convenience advantages because mothers who chose to have a family life, can still pursue their learning goals without leaving their house or taking off work to do so.
- Workforce Development: The opinion that “training will be delivered “just in time,” wherever people need it, using a variety of technology” cuts to the very core of e-learning and what Blackboard is founded upon. The self-paced nature and personal customization of Blackboard indicates the training is just in time for each particular student, learning as they need to know the subject either for themselves or their employers.
So regardless of what the life-long learning objectives, societal trends can change how one pursues them, be it through the traditional classroom setting, e-learning such that Blackboard offers, or a combination of the two. It should be expected then, that the work environment through the Human Resources function of the organization and all others would also be effected and adopt some of these trends for a more efficiently and effectively run operation.
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