To get their writing on 'Blackboard,' professors turn to an incoming freshman

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Jon Kowalski had no idea that checking his e-mail while on winter break this past February would change the direction of his life.

Kowalski, of Commerce Township, Mich., was enjoying some hard-earned time off near the end of his senior year in high school and looking forward to college at the University of Michigan in the fall, when Kettering's Donna Wicks' e-mail about the computer program Blackboard reached him.

"I wasn't thinking of hiring him as a co-op student when I e-mailed him," said Wicks, Course Delivery Technologies specialist, "I just wanted to talk to him about his work with Blackboard. At the last minute I included a pitch for him to attend Kettering." Kowalski had been the Blackboard coordinator for the Huron Valley Schools during his junior and senior years at Lakeland High School in southeast Michigan.

What: Michigan Blackboard Users Group (miBUG) Conference
When: Tuesday, Sept. 3
Where: Kettering University in Flint, Mich.
Why: Promote collaborative opportunities for Blackboard users, instructors, administrators and developers
Sponsored by: Clinecta, Impatica Inc., MicroWise, Tucows, Wimba, AXS Technologies, The Center to Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) at Kettering University and Kettering University.
For more info about the conference:
All events require registration to attend

Blackboard is a software program used by educational institutions for on-line course management. Kettering recently upgraded its Blackboard system from Level 1 to Level 3, said Wicks. The upgrade means the university's electronic records system is fully integrated with Blackboard, including course enrollment, user accounts and course creation. It also added a portal onto Blackboard for the university. "We basically went from driving a Yugo to driving a Mercedes," said Wicks of the upgrade.

The integrated system enables students to access their own academic records, financial status and class standing, and supports classroom instruction by providing instructors and students with electronic access to classroom syllabi, worksheets and handouts. "Anything that is already electronic can be put into Blackboard," said Kowalski.

The portal allows the formations of "communities," Wicks said. For example, student groups can use the system to keep members in contact during work terms, post events and store documents and records, and academic departments can share documents and calendars. "We can also tailor the information available on Blackboard to the individual user," said Kowalski. Every member of the Kettering community will open Blackboard and see a page designed to fit their position at the University, whether they are a student, faculty member or administrative staff, he said.

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Until fate intervened, Wicks was in charge of all Blackboard activity at Kettering. In addition to maintaining existing services, she was charged with increasing the number of new courses on Blackboard. Then her Fairy Godfather made an appearance in the form of Kettering's Director of Library Services Charles Hanson.

"Charles handed me a newspaper article about Jon presenting at a conference related to Blackboard. After talking to Jon," said Wicks, "I was able to sell the department on hiring a co-op student to help with Blackboard management. He's been here since July 15."

Already enrolled at the University of Michigan, Kowalski gave up his place in the honors college there, opting to start the co-op work assignment as the first Blackboard Training and Support coordinator in Kettering's Information Technology department instead.

His first tasks were to organize a conference Sept. 3 for Blackboard users in Michigan and launch miBUG, the Michigan Blackboard Users Group, a brainchild of Wicks. "There is a need for those of us who have to maintain Blackboard systems to share ideas and problem solving techniques without having to wait until the next national conference," said Wicks. MiBUG, an on-line users group, offers ongoing contact and support for Blackboard users. It can be found at

So far the conference has 80 participants signed-up, and 11 vendors, including one from France. In addition to the conference and the web site, Kowalski has presented to Kettering faculty showing them how to bring resources available through Blackboard into their course resources, developed three different trainings for faculty and staff, and has worked with Wicks to develop an orientation course for incoming students on how to access Blackboard for course materials and personal records.

"It's been great that Jon was already trained in Blackboard and I didn't have to tell him how to do things," said Wicks. "Since I started work at Kettering a year ago," Wicks said, "campus use of Blackboard has increased from 26 instructors and 38 courses to 70 instructors and approximately 80 courses plus 30 communities, and student usage has risen from 20 percent to 60 percent since the system went live July 12, 2002."

For Kowalski, making his mark on Kettering before ever starting classes is pretty heady stuff. He won't officially be a freshman until the start of B-Section in October. Parodying the university's split class/work schedule, he said "I refer to myself as a freshman zero." He may not have any class standing yet, but he does have the distinction of training his professors in classroom support before they can teach him a thing or two.

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Profile of Jon Kowalski
Hometown: Commerce Township
Age: 18
High School: Valedictorian - Lakeland High School in White Lake

Named one of only 20 students the "Detroit News" called its "best and brightest" among this year's high school graduates. Kowalski maintained a 4.0 grade point average while serving as the Blackboard coordinator for Huron Valley Schools where he published K-12 online education study materials with Blackboard, Inc., and was a presenter at the Blackboard Users Conference. Along with a long list of academic honors, he was the marching band drum major and an Eagle Scout. He will major in Business, Management and Computer Science and hopes to be an online education specialist.

Written by Dawn Hibbard
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