Think Before You Snark

We had a bit of an incident last week with a course that’s using Blogs@Baruch. In this course, every student was to keep a blog, which was then republished in an aggregator blog so that every participant in the class could easily access and comment upon everything published by the other participants.

Last week the class abandoned its use of Blogs@Baruch to instead use a group on Facebook called “Baruch Blogs Down!”


Creative Commons License photo credit: Squid P. Quo

The name of the group is a reference to server problems we had at the beginning of the term, which were resolved almost two months ago; we’ve been up without interruption for almost 60 days. In fact, members of the class were posting to their blogs without problem for a good six weeks before they switched to Facebook.

The faculty member apologized when it was pointed out to him that the name of the Facebook group was insulting and mocked the work that had gone into building our system and supporting his course, last semester and this. He noted that the switch wasn’t planned, that his students suggested the move and the group name, and that they were more comfortable using Facebook to exchange thoughts about course material. So he went with it.

I have problems with this on a few levels, even beyond the insulting group name. First, the only argument to go to Facebook — which I accept is completely the faculty member’s prerogative — seems to be that the students “felt more comfortable” with the application than they did Blogs@Baruch. Comfort with a medium has pedagogical value, for sure; but you’d like to think that more than students’ comfort would determine the choosing of a technological solution.  I’m not sure that it did.

Second, there’s the implications of using Facebook in an instructional setting given the recent conflicts over their Terms of Service and assertions of ownership over user content. I don’t think the class discussed what was to be gained and lost from switching platforms; the students just lobbied the professor to use something “easier,” not better.  These points are both problematic in no small part because this is an Internet Marketing class!

Finally, there’s the inaccurate implication embedded in the group’s name, which appeared in a public forum. I’ve thought a bit about this, since I, too, have been guilty of snarking a piece of software. Blogs@Baruch was down periodically early in the semester, and that had a negative impact on some courses’ use of the system. We DO deserve to get called out for failing to deliver what we promised to deliver.

Yet, there’s a difference between mocking us and mocking a behemoth corporation with a closed source product.   The difference embodies one of the core issues in instructional technology, which is often seen as a subset of information technology rather than as its own unique area of university life that requires the establishment of relationships and understanding across the disciplines.

If Blackboard goes down, users of the system are helpless, and can only wait for word that the system is back up.  They can call someone, but that person can only tell them that a ticket has been submitted.  Users of Blogs@Baruch have a name, and a number, and someone who can explain to them what the problem is and how it is being addressed. If something on the system isn’t working the way they want it to work, they can speak with someone about hacking it, adapting it, fixing it, strengthening it. Blackboard is a closed box without a face, whereas Blogs@Baruch is an open sandbox that gives back in proportion to what you put in. Blackboard is primarily an administrative system that allows the delivery of information. Blogs@Baruch is primarily a tool for the creative use of technology in instruction.

The faculty member (who has graciously apologized and changed the Facebook’s group’s name) should have realized this; he had benefited from our close support in the past and had been told to contact us if and as problems arose. He never did.  Instead, he treated Blogs@Baruch as information technology, as a data delivery service, and wasn’t really interested in bringing the system and its flexibility to his pedagogy. He and his students saw no difference between Blogs@Baruch and Blackboard or the escalators in the Vertical Campus.

So, I’ve learned a couple things from this episode. First: snark is fine, but if you’re gonna snark, do it in an informed way or in a hidden place, or you going to be called out.  Second: we need to do a better job of explaining to members of our community what Blogs@Baruch is and what it isn’t. If you can’t see any difference between what this system potentially provides and what Blackboard or Facebook provide, then those systems will probably work just fine for you.