The syllabus tool on Blackboard was built to allow students to access syllabi for all courses. Students could in fact do this for many years, according to Dennis Hood, manager of courseware in the Office of Information Technology’s Academic Services department.
However, following an upgrade of Blackboard in June 2011 to a version with a built-in content system, a product flaw revealed that files posted in the syllabus area could only be opened by enrolled students.
Members of the USG took notice of the access problem and of students’ general complaints about Blackboard and the difficulty of shopping period. This realization came after sifting through nearly 900 responses to a suggestions survey the USG sent last January.
U-Councilor Lily Alberts ’13 teamed up with U-Councilors Haebin Kim ’13 and Stephen Lindsay ’12 to brainstorm ways of improving shopping period for students.
“There seems to be a disconnect between the Registrar’s view toward what we call ‘shopping period’ and our student perspective of what we call ‘shopping period,’” Alberts said, explaining the Registrar views it primarily as an add-drop period. “They don’t structure their system, the availability of content or what is asked of the faculty or professors for those two weeks to be directed in the mindset that, ‘Oh, students are shopping; students aren’t committed yet,’ whereas we think of it as a two-week period where we don’t have to be committed.”
Alberts is also a columnist for The Daily Princetonian.
At their first brainstorming meeting, Alberts, Kim and Lindsay defined what they thought might be an ideal shopping system, which included redesigning SCORE and allowing students to register for as many classes as they want, even if those classes overlap, Alberts said. After taking their suggestions to OIT, however, they found their proposed project was not feasible because SCORE could not be modified.
“So then we went sort of back to the drawing board and said, ‘OK, what is second-tier ideal? Knowing that we can’t get there, how can we get as close to that as possible?’” Alberts explained.
The USG members also found that OIT was already aware of the syllabus issue.
It was not the first time a product bug within Blackboard had prevented students from accessing syllabi. In 2010, OIT discovered students could only access syllabi for classes they were not enrolled in if they were logged on as a guest instead of with their netID.
OIT’s Academic Services department had been contacted by the Office of the Provost and had received a number of requests from students to fix this most recent bug. In addition to reopening student access to syllabi, OIT also planned to launch a Blackboard mobile app, integrate Blackboard and the software Piazza and create interactive rubrics and timed assessments as part of a general 2012 Blackboard upgrade.
Alberts met with Hood and other University officials in May and then corresponded with them through a series of emails to provide a student perspective on the upcoming web changes. On June 12, OIT transitioned to the upgraded system and opened it to the public.
Some students seem satisfied that they can once again access course syllabi and make informed choices during shopping period.
Melody Falter ’15 said being able to compare the number of pages of reading and the different types of writing assignments for history courses was “really helpful” in making her final course decision.
“Course descriptions [from the Registrar] can only do so much,” Falter said. “They can say, ‘Oh, this is the theme of the course,’ but once you go into the syllabus and actually see what you are going to be doing, then you can really know what the course is about, what books you are reading, etc.”
USG president Bruce Easop ’13 said providing students with greater access to syllabi is part of a broader agenda to improve University technology platforms.
“This is a positive step toward making more information accessible during shopping period, and I really hope this is a start of a conversation about increasing accessibility to course materials in general and also making Blackboard more user-friendly,” Easop said. “That’s definitely something we’ll continue talking about as we move forward.”
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/18/31138/