The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, ‘Seek simplicity and distrust it’ —Alfred North Whitehead (Quoted in Norman, 1).
In my last case study, I spent a large amount of time experimenting to see whether or not we can study Blackboard Learn outside of the “victimhood” narratives inherent to most user experience study. Believing that Spinuzzian approaches could help students to understand and reintegrate the environment into their learning productively, I tried to “define the object of Blackboard Learn in any language which isn’t adversarial, or at least victim-based” (link). I failed, and concluded that “Genre Theory and genre-tracing make for interesting holistic views of the process of meaning making within the Blackboard network, but only within the highly-idealized context of the best-possible model of navigation” – that Blackboard is, in short, not studyable as a network not because it was not designed as a network, but because it was designed as not a network.
I had hoped that CHAT might resolve these issues for me by working in cultural contexts which are designed to interpret meaning through interpretations of mediation. Sadly, I simply didn’t find any evidence that CHAT’s methods are actually applicable to “real” networks (link). Like Spinuzzian methods, CHAT seems from my perspective – and certainly for my Object of Study – to be one of those “theories” which functions best when you don’t apply it to any subject not selected specifically to serve as exemplar for said theoretical practice. I referred to Spinuzzi as an “interminably complex” process of circular definitions which may or may not resolve even the core questions of what genres are, let alone how we might understand them (link) and I tend to stand by that for CHAT as well. The problem here is, simply, the technopositivism of trendy scholarship. It has its merits, but it also – like the poststructuralists before – serves as the high-water mark of not actually creating anything that adds meanings, knowledges, or operationalizations to Objects of Study.
All of this is to say that I have looked at a lot of literature at this point, and even though everybody is talking about Blackboard Learn, not a lot of people are looking at it as a network – and nobody is using theories of networks to do so.
Perhaps the person who comes closest – at least in execution – is Adam R. Pope in his “The Ethics of Adopting a Course Management System” (link). Pope views the starting point of any critique of a CMS/LMS as an organizational study – not unlike Spinuzzi’s – of “the System Behind the System,” of the interpretation of the economic, educational, epistemological, and environmental exigencies which drive development processes and the people “shaping the CMS to the perceived needs of their target users, a process which we know to shape those needs as it meets them.” As such, teachers are forced in progressive pedagogical contexts to do what Pope calls “teaching around the CMS” in an effort to counteract a platform which shapes “the idea of what [is] and is not appropriate material for a given course,” resulting in a transformation of the classroom which strips instructors of their pedagogical agency: “we become powerless to resist or critique and instead learn to merely cope.”
The challenge for Pope, as much as anything else, is in combating the very notion of merely-customized “universal” platforms for learning, the System Behind the System being one which preferences solutions which look good in shareholder reports and quarterly earnings – and which require as little consideration of student/instructor needs as possible, instead shaping those needs to the context of pre-existing platforms for assignment, collection, assessment, and grading. Pope’s problem, in short, is the same as mine – CMSs (and Blackboard specifically, as Pope notes) are anti-humanistic and violently anti-agentic. Pope does not turn to traditionally network-affiliated theories, but rather Nielsenian UX contexts, such as Donald Norman’s work on Complexity and complication (link). In the end, I think that end-user-integrated networks demand usability theory over the more deeply philosophical practices of CHAT, Spinuzzian, ANT, or “Hypertext” theories. There is an honesty in the work that Pope does: the system does not work. Speak to the ethics of systems which are designed not to work. Advocate for a better system. Done.
Terry Locke’s 2007 “E-Learning and the Reshaping of Rhetorical Space,” in The SAGE Handbook of E-Learning Research (link), on the other hand, proves that other deeply philosophical contexts external to network theory can provide useful contexts as well for understanding the laminae of agencies and meanings mediated within CMS spaces. Opening with Keats, Bakhtin, and Gee, Locke is essentially an anti-Pope, exploring the space of the CMS and asynchronous bulletin boards such as Blackboard Learn through heavily theoretical practices in the established rhetoric/composition canon. For Locke, the CMS is a space which might be considered as fully under contexts of encryption and surveillance ethics as under user experience protocols. The CMS/ABB is a rhetorical space which has the potential “radically reshape” not only the rhetorical situation of learning, but the authority – and authoritarian practices – of teachers in the digital space. As such, when Locke asks to what degree instructors should intercede in learning contexts and discussion contexts (198), he argues that those instructors are already “confronted with questions in respect of instructional design” in the contexts of asynchronous learning (Locke here references Sorensen and Baylen’s 2004 “Learning Online” in QRDE, and I think this is a valuable rhetorical addition as well as a strong pedagogical contribution).
Still, while Locke’s arguments are deeply canonical in their adherence to standby research of the Rhet/Comp OWI discipline, there are hints of CHAT practices in his rhetorical study, as well. And so, when he argues that “when courses attract culturally diverse participants, modes of cultural inclusivity, reflected in participant behavior and environmental design, need to be explored so that difference is viewed as a resource and not a deficit” (198), one cannot help but think that the “imagined communities” of scale which Locke is engaging with are a little less imaginary in their struggle with asynchronous meaning – seeing as he develops curriculum at a New Zealand public university with a significant Maori student population (17%) and located on Tainui lands (link). And thinking on this spatial and demographic challenge – in Prior’s language – one might think of the laminae which complicate the mediation of meaning in a segregated, asynchronous space such as the ABB.
Finally, connecting to that CHAT-esque cultural-historic challenge would be Rajendra Kumar Panthee’s 2014 PhD Dissertation at the University of Texas at El Paso, “Inviting Citizen Designers to design learning management system interfaces for student agency in a crosscultural digital contact zone” (link). Panthee’s work is particularly valuable in its contribution to the cultural inter-network premises it explores, and the study of cultural values’ influence on mediated “readings” of Blackboard Learn’s interface. Deeply empirical in its preliminary methods, Panthee’s literature review and originating research demonstrates that BBL is constitutionally incapable of addressing the writing needs of peripheral students in culture, including multi-lingual, ESL, disability, and class/income-limited individuals.
The theme of Panthee’s study is one of excessive and unnecessary constraints, and of streamlining of privileged linguistic trends into the de facto use cases of non-privileged users. (Sure, there’s a Foucault thing happening here, too). Panthee rejects (through Slack and Wise, Nietzsche, and Foucault) the progress narrative as regressive, ethnocentric, and colonialist (54-5) – and rejects the assumption that the techno-positivism of hypertextuality (here expressed through hypermediacy and the desire for use to be “invisible” to the user) as a “solution” is viable, a technology which “attains the real by filling each window with widgets and filling the screen with windows” (Bolter & Grusin 210, qtd. In Panthee 36).
As such, Panthee argues, “new media technologies in general and LMS in particular can not be treated in isolation from their designers’ cultural, social, and linguistic norms and values. Media technologies [like Blackboard] play a crucial role in creating and disseminating a techno-cultural hegemony in a cross-cultural contact zone of FYC” (37). Panthee then, through a semi-structured feminist narrative inquiry, works with “Citizen Designers” (read: “Panthee’s students”) to remix features of Wiki platforms, blogs, and other Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 platforms in order to recenter multi-lingual and multi-cultural practices and mediations in the LMS space of Blackboard Learn – an exercise which encourages said designers to remediate, but also to consider the original mediation in more explicit terms.
Is this generally helpful? Is this broadly viable? Does this matter in the institutional or organizational context?
How does CHAT function to interrogate Blackboard Learn?
One of the first challenges of CHAT is segmenting or compartmentalizing BBL into a viable Object of Study. While CHAT’s authors argue that “the broadest context” for remapping an object is through the segmentalization of Laminated Chronotopes (embodied, represented, and embedded – certainly reminiscent of rhetorical arguments by Locke and cultural claims by Panthee), I would argue instead for compartmentalizing “functional systems” which inform both the laminated chronotopes and the activities of practice themselves (“literate activities”). My reasoning here is that CHAT’s goal is to understand chronotopes as activity studied “in the wild,” such as it is – but BBL is not “the wild,” but rather the hyper-real of Bolter & Grusin’s “widgets” of reality. It strikes me that the Laminated Chronotope only works as a jumping-off point into CHAT analysis if the student (or instructor, or administrator, or developer, or product representative) is able to make choices within the network context. As we’ve already established a few times over this semester, BBL lacks agentic potentials that allow embodiment, representation, or embedding by choice. And so we must move up one order of artifaction, and use CHAT to consider instead Pope’s “System Behind the System.” People, artifacts, practices, institutions, communities, and ecologies are perhaps the only actual manifest evidences that Blackboard’s designs function as intended, perpetuating and mediating systemic practices through the platform itself – what Pope would call “shaping needs as it meets them.” And so, while many authors consider the cultural lens (as Panthee does) through the people within the system, and while other pedgogical texts interpret activities (such as production, reception, and representation) on Blackboard through the chronotopes of embodying, embedding, and representing… very little work is actually able to commit to connecting the systems themselves to the productive acts within the three chronotopes themselves. As such, we have difficulty viewing BBL as code, and due to this limitation, similarly fail to view it as a process tree capable of being refined (embedding). We similarly have trouble recognizing BBL as presenting (and augmenting) the practices and rhetorical spaces of the physical classroom, and so frequently fail to conceptualize the possibility that it is, while less-than-perfect, capable of being refined into a post-traditionalist pedagogical space (as Panthee’s students have endeavored to do) and thus lose perspective on the act of digital projection (representing). And finally, we frequently fail to view the materials generated in Blackboard spaces as “real,” considering them at best a shade of their more complete (process-oriented) “counterparts” in the “real” classroom. In this we lose sense of the possibility of truly incarnate digital presence and the viability of digital learning for OWI contexts (embodying).
If we can reclaim these contexts by re-ordination of the space itself, we might be able to move beyond Pope’s “merely coping” and into viable digital pedagogy – but first we must delimit the authority of Blackboard, and remove the limits of practice under the BBL model.
The “challenge” as Prior would say, here, is that such practices are political, ideological, and impracticable. But – at least for CHAT – that may be a problem, for once, for another day. CHAT gives a viable context for reconceptualizing the chronotopes, not as a base, but as a substructure beneath the structure of learning (which is, itself, aligned under a superstructure of literacies and ecologies).
Are these structures and vertically-realigned laminae “nodes” in the traditional sense of the “network?” I honestly don’t know. The challenge here is that I stand by my earlier statement that Blackboard itself is not a network, but rather a collection of edges between various pedagogical, social, cultural, and economic networks and systems. What are the “networks” we’re actually studying, then? Classrooms, certainly, and intra-instructor and inter-instructor multi-section or even multi-course networks. Departments, to be sure, and institutions. Corporate/college relationships. But there is not a cohesive network to study top-down, or even to path through, which is precisely, I would argue, what makes the rhetorical nature of BBL such a massive beast to slay.
What moves through a network that is not a network? Standards. Regulations and protocols and rules and walls which keep gardens safe – and walled. What would Prior et al. claim moves through the BBL ultra-network? Meaning in literate practices, most likely. The problem there is that such meaning falls apart at the top, which we’ve previously discussed under Spinuzzi as apathetic to change, and thus apathetic to mediation and meaning for the lower network “hubs.”
In other words, CHAT can only demonstrate meaning mediation as a network feature of BBL if BBL has changed over time to respond to these mediations. It, quite frankly, hasn’t. And so it cannot be responsive (See Figure 1). If meaning does not change the network as it moves through it, then by definition meaning is changed itself by this transit. What must be studied next is how we have allowed these changes to go unnoticed, or unchecked.
How can Hypertext de-wall the garden?
“Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer, tells in one of his books how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall–and then they had no choice but to follow them. This Nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it. Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome. Whatever the hazards, they must be guarded against” (John F. Kennedy, 1963).
Hypertext gives me a tool that I don’t think is standard (entirely) to the reading of Hypertext, but remains nonetheless very important: the rhetorical sense of community that is inherent to the act of hypertextual connections between messages and media.
Let us begin here: the locus of community is trust. Trust is ethotic.
What Hypertext does is build the visual ethos of texts by connecting them digitally/physically to related texts to build a community of meaning. Hypertextuality is the creation of alternative models of authority by the supposition of a separate community coalesced by shared (agreed) meaning.
In our current Object of Study – quite frequently – the shared meaning of the classroom-as-community is “Blackboard sucks, let’s use it as little as possible.” Is this bad? I’d argue it’s actually remarkably productive, an act of communal mediation which brings instructor and student(s) together under the contexts of synchronicity and relationality. It deconstructs authority, and designs course relations around the notion, not of Spinuzzian “victimhood,” but of intellectual and pedagogical “uprising.”
But it also functions within the literally hypertextual space of Blackboard Learn itself, where students function subversively by linking their classmates and instructor out into the “open” from the dark web of the proprietary rhetorical scope of Blackboard as a locus of control (read: “not trust”). And so, following hypertextual networks out of the deep web and into the shared, public space serves antiseptically, but also agonistically, to reject the rhetorical lens of Blackboard as encompassing the classroom, as walling the garden.
In this context, then, we might reiterate the relationality of hypertextual readings of Blackboard by saying that the nodes are both people and content, and the edges trust and authority which connect people to each other, people to content, and content to other content. Situated in contexts both external and internal to Blackboard (and, in ways, interstitially or liminally in transit between the two, negotiated spaces), agency becomes subversive, and the network becomes user-centric. A focus on communities of subversion and repurposing allows us to view the transit through (and out of and back into) the network as the negotiation of authority and the renegotiation of boundaries – the authority of the system being negotiated specifically by the role of that negotiation in defining the confines and constraints of the classroom.
What we have then through hypertextuality is a nested layering of scopes of inquiry (in the Spinuzzian sense), which moves through three layers:
authority of system → authority of users → authority of boundaries
Expanding upon questions of hypertextuality raised in Johnson-Eilola, we can use this case study to consider how community is expressed and built through connectivity – and how the directive connectivity of Blackboard Learn fosters – and hinders – that connectivity (and by extension, the sense of community.) Exploration of cultural/economic/institutional contexts would then be tied – de facto – to the user interface experience and the ways the UI communicates boundaries; in response to this, we must consider not only the ways students and instructors navigate such boundaries, but also ways in which institution- and program-centric “modules” drive this learning experience and express pedagogical and epistemological ethos (e.g. the presence of TurnItIn functionality within submission processes.) These technologies create new walls – walls which must in turn be negotiated yet again by students and instructors walled within the authoritative system of CMS practice and application.
Considering Johnson-Eilola’s community arguments, then, we can explore the rhetorical force of the UI as a commentary on mentor/student relationship, questions of absence, absenteeism, inaccessibility, dehumanization, isolation, and alienation – as well as professionalization and standardization. “Community” does much of the work of contextualizing what is and is not within Blackboard – in part because Blackboard serves as a black box for knowledge and authority generation (to the end user). As such, we might also even consider Joyce’s more “poetic” arguments about the ways in which hypertextuality allows students to express creativity; as we consider the ways in which BBL is designed to prevent this creativity in a hypertextual space, we also begin to see the ways that creativtity makes the authoritative intentionality of Blackboard Learn matter not at all.
What Hypertextuality teaches us, then, is this: whether we use Blackboard begrudgingly, abuse Blackboard intentionally, or ignore Blackboard together, we are already subverting its rhetorical purposes – if we do so as a determined, negotiated collective.
Kennedy, J. F. (1963). Remarks at the Dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center. San Antonio, Texas, 21.