AdjuncTechnology, or why I can’t figure out Blackboard

It’s ironic, really. Enrolled in the Emerging Technologies in Learning certificate program, participating (or trying to) in MOOCs, teaching myself skills in WordPress and other tools…I certainly appear to be on top of all things ed-techie.

So when I started teaching again this fall as an adjunct instructor in English, hired about one week before classes began, I thought of the opportunities to work with students that technology gives us that I did not have 15 years ago, the last time I taught freshman composition courses. Would I have them each keep a blog? A class wiki? How could we do email and online conferences? Handed the books I was required to use and the essay rubrics I had to teach to, I was informed that the school also used Blackboard to communicate with students.

Wow, my first experience with a traditional learning management system! After all the LMS-bashing I’ve heard from my compatriots in MOOCs and read online, I looked forward to contributing a bash or two.

But between putting in the enormous amount of time dealing with the required texts and rubrics, the sheer volume of written work, and managing a full-time business on top of it…figuring out Blackboard hasn’t taken priority. As an adjunct, I am paid only for the hours I’m actually in the classroom—three per class—which works out to about $7 an hour when I account for the class preparation and grading and student meetings outside of class and supplementing the standard texts with materials that will actually help students write their required research papers. I simply can’t afford more time, which would be deducting from the time I spend writing and editing—what actually keeps me financially afloat. Forcing myself to limit the hours I spend on this teaching hobby sets up a choice between learning Blackboard or spending time with a student struggling with an essay. Of course the real-live person in need is going to win.

Considering that there are about eight full-time faculty and about 80 adjunct instructors in English, is it any wonder that the syllabus and texts I was given to work with look suspiciously like the ones I had 15 years ago? My students say they have not been using Blackboard because none of their instructors do, and I suspect that other departments have the same skewed faculty lineup. For an open enrollment community college, which has an equal mix of students planning to transfer for a four-year degree and students planning to earn their HVAC or culinary certificate, that skew is not surprising. This college is the only affordable option, and to keep it affordable means relying on part-time instructors who don’t get paid very much.

As I think more about it, the debates about doing away with traditional textbooks (my students claim that their rhetoric/grammar cost $78! $78?) could have an unintended consequence for adjunct faculty. If I had to find my own resources, gather them in the LMS, etc., how much more of my time would part-time teaching take up? And then how much more time to be innovative by crafting blog-based assignments and class wikis? I’m frustrated with forced choice I had to make, so frustrated that I’m not going back. (Yes, I know; in theory, the planning/supplementing time would decrease next semester because I’ve already got materials in place and my syllabus planned out…but I’m just not that type of teacher. I’ve always got to remake things so they have a chance to work better.)

We just had a big union fight here in Ohio (and our side won!) so that (full-time) public employees have the right to bargain collectively for their working conditions and benefits. I’m lucky I can walk away from part-time teaching because I have a good income in other ways; some of the adjuncts who are just out of grad school aren’t so blessed (I remember those days). I keep thinking about the loss to students, though, of teachers who have time not only to figure out Blackboard or any LMS but also go beyond that to engage students with new ways of communicating that are authentic and have the potential of a readership wider than just their freshman comp classroom and instructor. I’m jealous and sad I don’t get to be one of those teachers.

Career channeling change

The other day I tweeted a cry for help:

Smart writer enamored w #edtech. Bkgd publishing, higher ed. Should I learn programming? Advice sought!

and tagged it for MOOC participants in the last couple of courses I’ve taken.

Oddly, no one had The Answer. No voice from on high said, “Go learn Java!” or “Try creating an app!” Where is a dictator or a paranormal being when I need one? I don’t believe in either, but frankly at this point I’m looking for any clue.

I have been in and out of educational publishing for the last decade, and I think that the industry as we know it is going to look very different in 10 years. Already the larger publishers reach out into software and even into directly granting degrees. Businesses are getting (too) interested in the economic potential of education and are seeing the arena as an untapped fount of (mostly public) money; the publishing or “content delivery” side of things is one potential area of investment and acquisition.

But in the small company I currently work for, I hear comments like “We’re not a software company” and executives wishing aloud that technology would just “go away.” Hence, I’m not learning anything. Don’t get me wrong: informal learning works, especially for me. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I have a big brain. But I have to translate that into a resume entry, a “marketable skill,” or ideally some sort of portfolio of interesting work.

So what I’ve done is. . .quit my day job. (Music swells here.) As of next week, I will be cobbling together several great freelance gigs and part-time teaching at a local community college (read: minimum wage) to support my quest for figuring out what makes most sense for me to do with the rest of my time on earth. I am hoping that I can free up some time to participate fully in Change MOOC (#change11) as well as the Instructional Design course I am taking through the University of Manitoba’s Emerging Technologies in Learning certificate program. I am hoping to offer my skills to further this odd movement of creating artifacts, writings, and videos just for and about learning, but I don’t know where that road takes me. Unlike my usual nature to plan everything, I’m planning only to leave myself open to all sorts of possibilities that hover around (“learning” ≈ “education” ≈ “technology” ) and try to leave some helpful breadcrumbs for others even in my mistakes.