Where are the students?

Creative Commons License photo credit: ShuttrKing|KT

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.

10 thoughts on “Where are the students?”

  1. I can’t speak for CUNY, but I know that at George Mason University students complain loudly and frequently about both Blackboard and tuition hikes. In fact, I’ve never met a student from any university who actually liked Blackboard.

    When I was a student I always complained about Blackboard, but that’s not true for everyone. My impression is that students don’t feel comfortable complaining about Blackboard to professors because they worry that doing so may result in penalization, it would be like complaining about the homework.

    I’d have to disagree with you about student objections to tuition hikes. I know they are frequent, vocal, and often in print at GMU and a quick look shows the same is true for CUNY.

    Just look at the lede from this article in Baruch’s The Ticker:
    “Anger, outcries, and protests plagued CUNY students after the battle for a tuition hike finally reached a conclusion. Left at the battlefield feeling disappointed and outraged, CUNY students must lick their wounds and submit to the new tuition increase.”
    via http://www.theticker.org/about/2.8215/board-of-trustees-approves-tuition-hike-for-cuny-schools-1.2616682

    There’s the debate over activity fees covered in CCNY’s The Campus – http://ccnycampus.org/2011/05/25/activity-fee-goes-down-in-flames/

    Then there is Queens College’s The Knight News, which covered protests by students outside of CUNY’s headquarters and what they call the “farcical formality” of a public hearing on the tuition hike. http://www.theknightnews.com/2011/09/06/the-rise-of-tuition-and-the-fall-of-opportunity/

    As part of my job at Student Media at GMU I monitor, amplify and reply to students across a variety of social media sites. I can tell you that reactions to tuition hikes and Blackboard are frequent and extremely negative.

    Students are upset about tuition hikes at universities all across the country, I suspect the same could be said about Blackboard. But they don’t feel empowered to do something about them. As tuition goes up, so does the pressure to get a degree, and they don’t feel that there is anything they can do.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Aram. Yes, students here complain. And yes, there are protests at meetings, and these are meaningful… but they’re also small, uncoordinated, unsustained, and unfortunately of little impact. I mean, look.

    But you’re right– students certainly aren’t happy about this stuff, and there’s tremendous pressure on them that really cuts against their ability to do more than complain (though there seems to be some disagreement about students at GMU). That’s a real concern that helps explain not only the dearth of student radicalism on our campuses, but also the dearth radicalism in society at large. It definitely ain’t easy.

  3. Great post, Luke. Regarding your comment about the “rumor” that students stopped traffic on the LIE, well, it ain’t a rumor: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6Qg3K_XvMA

    But your point remains that there has not been any movement parallel to what’s going on in Europe and in some parts of Latin America, namely, Chile and Puerto Rico. La lucha continua….

  4. Hey Luke,

    I spent a lot of time at UBC asking students what they thought about their educational technology. The vast majority hated the Blackboard tools used (yay for UBC just resigning their Blackboard contract). The issue was though, that when asked “what would your perfect software be”, the students I interviewed found it hard to even start thinking of an answer, simply because they had never thought about it before.

    I think the reason is the same as the reason for why students (in general) don’t ask questions about the other crazy things that universities do (grade curving, unreasonable prerequisites, lectures as the norm etc). It’s because by the time they get to university they have 13 years of not having a choice over how their learning happens, or what tools are used, so it never occurs to them to start actively looking for those choices.

    1. Hey Andre: thanks for the comment. Sorry I didn’t catch it in the spam filter until now.

      I think you’re right on about this. At the same time, there’s a long history of radicalism on college campuses, and you’d hope the college experience opens students’ eyes open to the systems and structures into which they’re entering. This of course goes far beyond ed tech solutions, which students may really not care much about. We’re concerned about them, and understand those choices as symptomatic of broader ideological processes. It’s less important to me that the students recognize the symptoms than that they engage with the notion of the system.

      1. Haha, yeah, Akismet has it out for me.

        My question is, how much of that radicalism is due to things that weren’t a part of earlier schooling? Tuition fees (that the students pay themselves), animal testing etc, these are things unique to the university setting, issues that they have not been trained to ignore for the past 13 years. Systems like Blackboard however fall under the 13 years of “just do whatever gets you the highest test score, no matter how shitty it is” training.

        The parts of the systems and structures that resemble the rest of the student’s schooling are they ones that they are inherently blind to. I think one would need a very powerful motivator to overcome that blindness at this stage of the game.

  5. I hope Mark is right. He’s been beating this drum for a while. The discontent is clear and as our economic situation continues to decline it’s going to get deeper. Hopefully that clarifies the stakes for our students and a movement solidifies and expands. My brother just worked on this book, which looks at youth organizing around school reform. That’s where Mark sees the most hope for future collective action, and I do too.

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