A reader wrote me an email a few days ago, referring to my recent Ohio State Open Access Initiative post:

What data did you find dubious in the Torrey article?

I am not going to reproduce my entire (entirely too long, more like) reply here, but it went more or less like this:

First was this quote from the ITS report:

The report clearly describes student behavior: “The average user logs on and off in fewer than 10 minutes, but visits 36 pages in that time. This implies that the average user is not studying materials online.” The key finding is highlighted in boldface: “Blackboard is used as a repository for downloads.”

I think that inference is very dubious; you can’t make that kind of inference about user behavior and motivation from web server logs. Plus I have an alternative inference: the fact that users click so many pages in such a short period of time implies that there is no easy way in Blackboard for a student to know whether there is new content, so they have to click all over to look for it.

That said, I do not deny that Blackboard is used as a repository for downloads; certainly it is. But this data does not support that conclusion.

My second issue is with the figures on printing: that student printing has increased more than 20% annually for 5 years. Again, I’m sure that part of this is students printing copyrighted content from Blackboard. But I’m also sure that part of it (I would bet a larger part) is students printing copyrighted content from the many databases they have access to. Not to mention that there is more & more content on the web in general every year for students to print. So to lay the increase in printing at the feet of Blackboard seems a stretch.

What I do not find at all dubious in Torrey’s article are the figures for the decline of course packs and e-reserves. She may be right or wrong about the exact percentages, I don’t know, but at least those figures feel intuitively correct.

As an aside, I am unable to find this report online, or I would point to it here. Anyone who can help out with this? I’d very much like to read the original.

I am almost certainly going to get into trouble for this post; it’s happened before that I’ve shot my mouth off (so to speak) on this blog and annoyed people. Still, I made an offhand remark about the dubious use of data and didn’t clarify, so now I’m clarifying.

In the interest of CYA, let me just say that I think the UNC Press and ITS do great work. I own many UNC Press publications myself, and I doubt that UNC could exist as we know it without ITS. (Nor, I suspect, could colleges & universities generally as we know them exist without similar groups at each institution.) And heaven knows that Blackboard has its problems; it’s the worst tool for what it does, except for all the other ones. But to blame a single tool, and the misuse of it, for the problems being faced by an industry, seems to me rather a stretch.