Boone’s post about Blackboard as an impetus behind his turn to open source software development got a lot of attention on Monday, and for good reason. He struck a fine balance between deep knowledge, a moral center, and a progressive stridency that many of us who are doing work at the intersection of technology and higher ed aspire to but rarely achieve. It’s ideological, for sure, but its ideology is a simple one: Blackboard is ripping off students by locking the institutions responsible for nurturing their development as thinkers and makers into an expensive relationship with a software whose design is hostile to thinking and making. That’s troubling enough. But, as Boone notes, it’s doubly troubling at a place like CUNY, where the vast majority of students have few choices when it comes to higher education.
Boone’s piece resonated with educators and developers who like to think deeply about this stuff, and kicked off a series of exchanges on Twitter about how we might translate broad anger against Blackboard into some kind of transformative action. And yet, a significant piece is absent from the puzzle: there seems to be little student outrage over the fact that Blackboard is the default option for teaching and learning with technology at CUNY and so many other places.
Is it important that undergraduates know the details on this stuff? Or is this situation more akin to a faculty member choosing texts for a class, an act of tuition and fees paid along with faith that the “experts” will act in the best interests of the students?
Honestly, I’m not sure. I find it more concerning that I’m not sure students care to know. CUNY undergraduates have barely made a whimper since their tuition was raised 15% in 2009, and 7% this academic year, with promises of additional hikes each of the next four years. There were some scattered student protests: an internationalist group and marxist social workers at Hunter organized a rally.
I heard a rumor, unconfirmed, that A group of anarchists at Queens College stopped traffic on the L.I.E. to protest the hikes. But there’s been nothing across campuses, nothing sustained, and the loudest protestors, as always, are CUNY Grad Center students, who are often steeped in the history of protest (especially at CUNY) but who only make up a sliver of the student population. Compared with students in Europe, American students show few signs of organizing and making demands.
If CUNY’s undergrads aren’t motivated to oppose such steep tuition hikes, it’s hard to imagine that they’d deeply engage with the types of ed tech decisions made by the University. Would CUNY actually jettison a relationship with a corporation to which it has outsourced so much of its thinking about teaching and learning with technology without students demanding it? CUNY is a huge bureaucracy, and getting it to change direction is a monumental task.
I’m fortunate enough to have carved out a niche with other like-minded educational technologists and digital humanists at the University where we can think deeply about and create alternative structures for the exploration of the way that technology is changing teaching, learning, and scholarship. My project is funded directly by the student technology fee, a fact that I’m proud of. Our campus puts its plan for the tech fee online for all to review, and it’s a symbol of enlightened leadership that we’ve been given the space to experiment. Still, there’s little evidence to assume that most CUNY students know or care about the substantial fees paid by CUNY to Blackboard, or the much more exorbitant costs of the CUNY First ERP transition, or (despite our recognition) how much bang for the buck projects like Blogs@Baruch, The CUNY Academic Commons, and ePortfolios@Macaulay deliver.
Our innovations remain on the edges of the University. In some ways, to be honest, that’s preferable — we don’t have as much pressure to scale and as a result we have both less scrutiny and greater ability to respond nimbly to changes on the ground. If we had more resources and a bigger mandate, our work would change significantly. But at the end of the day, CUNY students are still sending a significant chunk of money to Blackboard without any say, and the overwhelming majority of faculty members aren’t thinking through the pedagogical implications of a continued client-service model of educational technology.
So we can be proud of the critique we’ve waged and the alternatives we’ve constructed. But Boone’s post reminds us in the starkest terms that we’ve not accomplished nearly enough. We have more to do. But so do our students. They can start by asking some questions, and hopefully, down the road, making some demands.
Update, November 30, 2011:
I originally published this post just after Occupy Wall Street began…. since then, CUNY students have made pretty clear their feelings about the tuition hike in a series of protests (with more to come)… I don’t think I missed the anger when I wrote this post, because it simply wasn’t visible.