Today marks the halfway point of my summer not-quite-break. This morning two online sections of College Composition officially began through SNHU Online, and tomorrow I’ll be driving back to New Hampshire to begin teaching a twice-weekly summer school lit class at Keene State. Three classes more or less constitute a full-time college teaching load even if those three classes are cobbled together from two separate institutions. It’s enough to keep the proverbial wolves from the door, and more than enough to keep me out of trouble.
This kind of patchwork approach to summer employment isn’t new; in New Hampshire at least, a lot of people (not just academics) work an odd mishmash of seasonal jobs to keep themselves and their families fed. So there are no learning curves involved in this present juggling act. What’s new this time around, though, is the actual technology I’m using while I’m juggling. After five years of teaching for SNHU Online and about three years teaching online for Granite State College, this year both SNHU Online and GSC are upgrading their Blackboard servers. As of last week, SNHU Online switched to Blackboard version 8, and starting in July, GSC will upgrade to version 7.
I’m already somewhat familiar with Blackboard 7: that’s the version Keene State has been using for the past year or so, so I’m used to switching mental gears from Blackboard 6 (the version SNHU Online had been using) to the newer incarnation I use to supplement my face-to-face classes at Keene State. But SNHU Online’s current switch to Blackboard 8 has thrown me entirely for a loop. The differences between Blackboard 6 and 7 are mostly cosmetic: here and there, a few things look slightly different, but most of the tools operate roughly the same way. Blackboard 8, on the other hand, seems to represent a more major upgrade. Not only do the same old Discussion Boards I’ve been using for the past five years look different, the online gradebook I’ve grown to depend upon–an interface where students can view grades, read my feedback, and follow their term-to-date point totals online–has now been completely overhauled. The first time I clicked into my Bb8 “Grade Center,” I didn’t even recognize what it was: “Dude, where’s my gradebook?” was all I could muster.
I have no doubt that Blackboard 8 and it’s gradebook (er, “Grade Center”) will work great once I figure them out…but the “figuring them out” is what has me flummoxed. Last week, after I’d submitted grades for the three classes I’d taught on ol’ familiar Bb6, I clicked into my new Bb8 course-sites to prepare them for this week and had to re-teach myself how to do tasks that had been brain-numbingly simple (simply because they were familiar). Today, I’ve been answering questions from students who have never taken online classes before, a familiar first-day ritual: “When do we have to post our Discussion Board responses? How do we upload our papers? How does this whole online Discussion Board thing work, anyway?” It’s a routine I reiterate the first week or so of every new term: no matter how familiar the online drill is to me or to veteran online students, there are always at least a few students who are entirely new to the online format and are, subsequently, confused and overwhelmed.
“Don’t worry about asking stupid questions,” I’ll reassure in email and “Q&A” postings. “Everyone was confused the first time they took an online class, and everything will seem familiar and perfectly natural once you’ve done everything a few times. Give it a week, and you’ll feel like a veteran: I promise!” It’s a mantra I repeat every new term, except this time, I’m saying it to myself as well as to my students. In a week or so, after I’ve clicked through everything a time or two, even Blackboard 8 will seem familiar and entirely natural. I have, after all, an entire eight-week term to figure out how to use my new gradebook (er, Grade Center) before the next batch of grades is due. By then, I’ll feel like a veteran…I hope.