Davis, Evan, and Sarah Hardy. “Teaching Writing in the Space of Blackboard.” Computers & Composition Online (Spring 2003). 15 Feb. 2004
“As we ask our students more and more frequently to inhabit a virtual space, we would do well to investigate just what kind of space it is” (“Introduction”). Evan Davis and Sarah Hardy articulate a question I have struggled to articulate: What are these virtual communities?
As a user of online communities in my classroom, I have sought insight into the nature of these spaces. Davis and Hardy’s essay is not a research study; instead, as professors who use Blackboard, they explore how to define the metaphors created in these shared spaces. Their essay is grounded in practical experiences and deepened by extensive theory from Michel Foucault, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Michel de Certeau. For the writing teacher who wants practical advice on using online communities and Blackboard specifically, the section “Tips on Teaching with Blackboard” is invaluable. However, this essay does much more – it achieves the "theory-practice orientation to the classroom" Len Unsworth calls for (6).
Davis and Hardy’s conclusions illuminate my Ning experiences (while Ning and Blackboard are different, they are comparable as online private classroom communities). First is the tension between the goal of open, visible learning and the unavoidable containment of the system. “In a process-based composition course, such visibility holds out the tantalizing possibility of self-reflection … [Students] can become aware of their own mental processes and of the social context in which they write, seeing themselves … as members of a larger group” (“Panopticon”). This is the goal I have for my students; in fact, on my ning’s front page, I wrote, “We are about to join [Othello’s] long literary history with our own ideas about Shakespeare's masterpiece … You will have blog topics that ask you to think about the play … [and] you will explore and react to classmates' blogs. In the end, you will have created together a web of thinking … Here we will be able to … learn from everyone's thoughts and insights.” However, the systems’ nature creates a false sense of venturing into the full conversation. “By setting off a discrete territory …, Blackboard lets us use the web without being overwhelmed by it, hugging the coast while priding ourselves for venturing into the ocean” (“Panopticon”).
In the end, Davis and Hardy conclude that Blackboard is a successful system for student learning. It “makes it easy to take the goals of a student-centered class one step further, … introducing peer response and … critique into every level of the composition process” (“Panopticon”). What a teacher-researcher must be aware of is how far, or not, the system allows students to go. Davis and Hardy assert that students must know how to engage in public collaboration. It is up to us as teachers to thoughtfully expand the limits of these online spaces, guiding our students into full participation with their collaborative world.
Unsworth, Len. Teaching Multiliteracies across the Curriculum: Changing Contexts of Text and Image in Classroom Practice. Philadelphia, PA: Open University Press, 2001. Print.