Brain Power

Oh, if only it were that easy! I had to laugh when I saw a sign at Whole Foods this weekend promising “Brain Power” by the bottle, as if smarts were so easy to supplement. Maybe only the mentally deficient would be gullible enough to believe that brains can be bought?

Artistic License

Right now I think I could use an industrial-sized container of Mega-Brain as I continue to face the online teaching learning curve I described last week. On Saturday afternoon, it took me about 45 minutes to figure out how to post to Blackboard version 8 a quiz that would have taken me about 5 minutes to post on Blackboard version 6. Why in the name of industrial-sized bottles of Brain Power would the developers who “upgraded” Blackboard think the proper default availability for tests should be “unavailable,” especially in a repeat course in which quizzes had already been created and deployed? Today I’ve experienced deja vu all over again as I tried to accomplish the simple task of downloading student papers from my two sections of College Composition. In Blackboard 6, that would have involved going into my online grade-book, clicking on each student’s ungraded assignment, saving the accompanying file attachment, and being done. Downloading an entire class worth of assignments would take 5-10 minutes, tops.

Standpipe with apple

This afternoon, it took me another 45 minutes or so simply to find the portion of the Blackboard manual devoted to “Assignment download,” which is, astonishingly, not mentioned in the manual’s Table of Contents. Judging from the Table of Contents, instructors “Create” assignments and then “Input grades,” but they never actually download the papers that students submit. One bit of Manual copy helpfully noted that assignments submitted by students via assignment links are accessible to instructors via the “Grade Center”…but there was no indication of how instructors might “access” these file attachments within the mystifying Grade Center, nor any link to the portion of the Manual that actually explains that part of the process. I guess if I had enough Brain Power, I’d be able to grade student papers without reading them, or I’d be able to know telepathically where in the mighty Manual an answer to a perfectly reasonable question might be found.

Nice people here

Only after searching for the term “Assignment” did I find a hidden page telling me how to download assignments from my Grade Center, which is easy enough to do once you know how to do it (although I would have never intuitively “guessed” the process). Happily, this version of Blackboard makes it easy for instructors to download multiple assignments all at once; unhappily, these assignments are saved with default names that do not make it easy to list files alphabetically in their target directory (unless, of course, you set up your grade-book to alphabetize students by first name…and who does that?)

So now that I’ve spent at least an hour and a half this weekend and today pounding my head against the mental wall called “teaching an old dog new tricks,” I think I might need a bottle or two of Brain Power. At least, though, I still have the intellectual acumen to realize the importance of proofreading (or at least spell-checking) a flyer advertising one’s handyman services, especially if red-letter highlighting will only draw attention to your slips in spelling.

Proofread much?

Moth on mint

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.

Rainy rose

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.

Flowers and pollen-dusted leaves

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.

Sunny spiderwort

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.