Friday, November 11, 2005

Policing Blackboard

WSN article on NYU's decision to grant Blackboard access to department administrators for courses with TAs.

FAS deans' response:
Dear Chairs and Directors:

Yesterday several departments and a few faculty members contacted us to object that their departments' DUGS and two of the College's Associate Deans were added to Blackboard shells. We want to take this opportunity to address these concerns.

There is a range of opinion on graduate student unionization among us, but we have sensed an overwhelming commitment from departments and programs to ensuring undergraduates’ academic progress. For some time, therefore, the College had been consulting with a number of departments -- about a dozen in all -- to determine whether it would be useful if a point person in the department had access to Blackboard. The departments consulted indicated that adding the DUGS or Language Coordinator for classes in which GAs are the instructors of record would be a useful tool for ensuring continuity of instruction in the event of a strike. Thus, yesterday morning all DUGS or Language Coordinators were given this access (if they didn't already have it).

On reflection, while this was done openly -- the names appear clearly on each Blackboard “shell” as additional instructors -- and with extensive consultation, it would have been better if there had been complete consultation and advance notification. If any department advises us that it does not need Blackboard access to manage their students’ academic progress, we will have ITS remove the DUGS or Language Coordinator from these sites.

At the same time yesterday, the College's Associate Deans, Otto Sonntag and Richard Kalb, were also added to the Blackboard shells of TA-taught courses, again to facilitate communication with students in particular classes or groups of classes. When several departments objected, the University removed them from all Blackboard shells. We want to assure you, however, that Otto and Richard continue to be available to assist departments in using Email Direct to communicate with large numbers or segmented groupings of their students, if they don't wish to use Blackboard accounts for this purpose.

Finally -- and most regrettably -- the two College deans and the DUGS were added to the Blackboard shells of several courses taught by faculty. This was an inadvertent technological error, which occurred because in these courses a TA or grader was listed along with the faculty instructor for Blackboard purposes. ITS has now corrected this mistake.

Please feel free to share this information with your colleagues. Also, if you have further questions, or if we can assist you or your colleagues in any way, please don't hesitate to contact either of us, or any of the Arts and Science deans.

Sincerely yours,

Dick (Foley) and Matthew (Santirocco)

The sociology department Chair and DUGS have, indeed, requested to have themselves removed from soc Blackboard shells.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Chronicle of Higher Education

NYU Professors Blast Inclusion of Administrators on Course-Management Sites


Faculty members at New York University are accusing administrators of surreptitiously listing deans and directors of undergraduate studies as instructors on course-management sites, allowing those administrators to monitor course discussions and other activity.

Although the administrators' names were quickly removed after they were discovered, the incident has exacerbated an already fractious environment at the university, where a strike by graduate students has divided professors and administrators. Many faculty members who support the graduate students have refused to cross picket lines and are holding classes off the campus. Some of them accuse administrators of infiltrating the course-management sites specifically to monitor strike-related discussions.

But Richard Foley, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and Matthew S. Santirocco, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, explained to professors in a letter that administrators were added to management sites for courses in which graduate students were teaching to ensure "continuity of instruction" during the strike. The letter said that some departments had been consulted on the move, but acknowledged that "it would have been better if there had been complete consultation and advance notification."

The deans did not respond to calls from The Chronicle on Thursday.

John Beckman, a spokesman for the university, said that deans and directors of undergraduate studies should have been added only to classes in which graduate students were listed as primary instructors. Glitches and errors led to listings on the sites of professors, he said. He said that the university's action was "forthright" because some departments were consulted and because the names of administrators were plainly listed among course attendees.

But faculty members, who say they don't regularly look at the lists of course attendees, are outraged, calling the university's action Orwellian. A group of faculty members called Faculty Democracy, which supports the graduate-student union, sent a letter to John E. Sexton, president of the university, accusing the administration of "invasive intimidation."

"We consider this seizing of access to the communication between professors and their registered students to be an intensely unethical act, one that is in the deepest violation of academic freedom," the letter said.

"Nothing has convinced me that the graduate students need a union to protect them from NYU more than this demonstration of Big Brotherism," said Jeffrey T. Sammons, a professor of history, who likened the move to a declaration of war against the faculty. "It's just unreal."

Christine B. Harrington, a professor of politics and law and society, was the first to discover additional names on her class list, including those of Otto Sonntag and Richard Kalb, two associate deans of arts and sciences.

Ms. Harrington, a member of Faculty Democracy, said she was "stunned" and assumed right away that the oversight by the deans was somehow connected to the strike. "I thought, My God, it's gotten nasty," she said.

"I e-mailed other faculty and asked if that had happened to them, and swarms of e-mail just started coming in," she said. "It was fairly widespread in the College of Arts and Sciences and in the Tisch School," NYU's school of the performing arts.

Even faculty members who are directors of undergraduate studies had no idea that they would be listed on course-management sites of their colleagues and graduate students. Rebecca E. Karl, an associate professor of East Asian studies and history, said that she has been in a "perpetual state of outrage" since learning that her name was listed along with administrators on her colleagues' course-management sites.

"Fortunately, my colleagues are absolutely clear on where I stand on [the strike], and none of them suspect me of having infiltrated their sites," she said. She said that directors of undergraduate studies in foreign-language departments, which rely heavily on graduate-student teaching, were similarly shocked.

She dismissed the letter of explanation from Mr. Foley and Mr. Santirocco. "They consulted with departments that were going to echo back to them their own views, with one or two token exceptions" she said.

"They wish to box this into a problem of procedure," she said, "and it's not a problem of procedure but a problem of morality and ethics."

11/12/2005 7:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Are the information technology systems at the University so limited that the only access to students is via these particular course Blackboards?

I don't question the adminstration's right to communicate with students. But surely there are electronic class rosters that could be used to facilitate that communication. Or adminstrators could have created their own Blackboards for classes, if they wanted to communicate with students in those classes via Blackboard.

When someone is entered on a Blackboard as "Instructor", as was reported to have been done in this case, that person has access to everything on the Blackboard. An Instructor can delete or modify announcements, purge files, get access to hidden files....

Orwellian indeed.

11/13/2005 9:43 AM  

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