Why the university should take a two-pronged approach to virtual instruction
For virtually enrolled Comets, a two-platform solution optimally balances functionality and convenience in online classes.
UTD has no standardized platform for virtual classes. As a result, there are several options professors can (and do) choose from to host their lectures – from Blackboard Collaborate and Zoom to Microsoft Teams and Webex. Among those, Teams and Collaborate are the two most utilized – and for good reason. While every platform has its downsides, these two fill an important niche in the virtual classroom arena: together, they represent an optimal streamlined solution to the imperfect reality of COVID-era instruction.
No student should be expected to manage four different virtual learning platforms every semester. To that end, many students are calling for the university to standardize their virtual instruction platforms. But to do that, UTD must first choose a standard platform.
Collaborate seems to be the immediate favorite. The convenience and simplicity of the Blackboard-licensed learning management system, which forms the backbone of all UTD classes and hosts syllabi, course readings, virtual discussion boards and even assignment submission portals, cannot be overstated. These features, as well as the seamless integration with eLearning, set Collaborate above external competitors like Zoom.
Collaborate is also a fairly robust teaching platform with a number of built-in instructional tools to enhance virtual classroom engagement, such as the ability to straw poll participants, hold miniature quizzes and create breakout rooms.
Considering that Teams – a “chat-based workspace in Office365” – lacks any integration with eLearning and doesn’t have many of the aforementioned instruction tools, it might seem easier to just adopt a one-platform approach. However, there’s a problem with that.
Following jurisprudence from two 2019 anti-discrimination lawsuits, universities must legally provide transcription services for all online courses. Given UTD’s stance on a universal asynchronous option, all UTD courses this semester must be captioned and transcribed. And effective, inexpensive automated transcription services are few and far between – with one exception. UTD already licenses Office 365 for email services, and one previously underutilized application – Microsoft Stream – automatically transcribes all uploaded videos.
That’s why all Collaborate recordings are being uploaded to Stream then linked externally from eLearning this semester. Yet, the ubiquity of Stream flips the total integration argument on its head, as the only platform that seamlessly integrates with Stream is Teams. Teams also has an advantage in its real-time direct messaging feature, making it substantially more convenient for one-on-one communication and small group meetings.
In comparison, Blackboard Collaborate is the strongest lecture platform. But with total integration to Blackboard being simply impossible, as well as more and more Office 365 applications creeping into Comets’ repertoire of courseware, Microsoft Teams also deserves a seat at the (virtual) table of university-sanctioned learning platforms. A dual-platform approach simplifies the number of courseware students must master and maintains instructors’ flexibility in adopting the tool best attuned to the situation at hand.
At the end of the day, students should focus their efforts on fully engaging in classes and working with their professors to optimize their classroom experience. If they would like to provide general feedback on their online learning experiences this semester, Comets can fill out the Remote Learning Feedback survey posted on eLearning.