From the Director: Promoting Student Success

April 5, 2016 / By: Dr. Ann Johnson, Director of the Center for Faculty Development, Professor of Psychology

This Spring semester, 192 faculty members at St. Thomas are not using Blackboard at all. Why is this a problem? When students have ready online access to course materials and grades, it helps them stay on top of course assignments, timelines, and performance feedback. Increasingly, students are arriving on campus with the expectation that they will have access to course details because they’ve had that experience in high school. As a result, our students often voice frustration about professors who don’t use Blackboard.

Perhaps even more important, first generation students – and other under-represented groups, like students with disabilities – are particularly disadvantaged when instructors don’t use Blackboard. Blackboard provides a consistent framework from one course to the next that helps minimize the “hidden curriculum” problem faced by first generation students. There are fewer implicit rules and expectations to decipher when class materials and grades are readily available to all, and availability means students don’t have to navigate ambiguities around requesting that information from instructors. Faculty are sometimes surprised to learn that 20 – 25% of our undergraduates are first-generation college students.

For students with disabilities Blackboard offers an accessible platform[1], and that’s crucial. We have some faculty who are using alternatives to Blackboard – websites – and requiring that students use them. Many of these are not accessible for users with disabilities, and that creates serious barriers to success (as well as potential legal consequences). In general, it creates hardship to ask any student to master a new online system to go along with your course. Consistency in framework from one course to the next generates a sense of confidence -- a key factor in ensuring academic success.

Some faculty argue: “I’ve been a successful teacher for years without using Blackboard. If it’s not broken, etc.” That argument focuses on the instructor’s perspective but ignores the student perspective. We all want our students to be successful but often forget to factor in the role of technology; we live in a world of mobile devices and students are increasingly reliant on the Blackboard app for tracking course announcements, deadlines, and materials. Using Blackboard is one way of meeting students where they are to promote their academic success.

Some of you may, like me (I have existentialist roots), wonder about the possibility that added layers of technology will produce more distance between teacher and student and discourage the kind of authentic communication we hope to nurture in our teaching. But the two goals of connection and student success via Blackboard are not incompatible. Organizing your course on Blackboard can free up class time to engage in more discussion, to go deeper into application exercises, or to unravel complicated texts.

Starting this Fall we’ll be exploring more ways that innovative technology can improve student success as we work together with Brett Coup, AVP of Academic Technology, and colleagues from ITS and the Libraries to launch our new elearning venture – the St. Thomas E-Learning And Research Center (STELAR) - in the O'Shaughnessy-Frey library. It will serve as St. Thomas' academic technology hub, to offer new and innovative solutions for online learning, classroom technology, and research computing. We’re excited about the possibilities for new and effective teaching and learning strategies.

If you need help now getting started with Blackboard, we have the resources. Simply get in touch with Peter Weinhold, Director of Academic Technology in ITS, at or by phone at 651-962-6808.

Perhaps surprisingly, using Blackboard proves to be one relatively easy way we can all work together to advance the common good, promoting academic success for all our students.

[1] Documents and other materials that are uploaded to Blackboard have to be made accessible by their creators, however.