Since Armani Marsh was a freshman, Blackboard Learn has been a staple of the academic curriculum at Washington State and something that’s as much of everyday life in Pullman as the sloping, concrete hills that turn routine walks to class into grueling, sweaty hikes.
But just like those hills, Marsh has grown more comfortable with the popular virtual educational tool and recently has found a more unconventional way of using it.
Last semester, Marsh used Blackboard Learn in some form or fashion for each of his four classes – Accounting 230, English 402, Sports Marketing and Business Marketing 360 – and for the last few months, it’s infiltrated the world WSU’s redshirt junior defensive back enters when he sets down his textbooks and cracks open his playbook.
“I don’t mind it,” Marsh, a Spokane native, said in a phone interview this week. “I think it is super easy to use and follow and I feel like the fact it is so easy, that makes it better. So I don’t mind using it every day whether it’s for school or football. Obviously, for football, I’d rather it be normal and in person and all that. But it has been a really good way to use the best of the situation we’re in right now.”
So, about that “situation” and how the Cougars have navigated it …
When the coronavirus pandemic eliminated spring football at WSU, weeks before the Cougars could squeeze in a practice under Nick Rolovich, members of the coaching staff, with a clutch assist from WSU’s Global Campus, found an alternate, virtual way to feed players the material that’s normally delivered on a long patch of artificial grass.
Three programs in the Pac-12 Conference – Washington and Colorado being the others – will be introducing new coaches this fall, but none has an obstacle quite as unique as the one confronting WSU. Similar to the Cougars, the Huskies and the Buffaloes never had a chance to put on shoulder pads this spring, but while UW and CU maintain their identity on defense while overhauling the offense, WSU’s learning curve is indisputably steeper because the Cougars are the only team in the conference making wholesale changes on both sides of the ball.
“I started thinking, we’ve got a brand new football staff, we’ve got zero spring ball practices in and we’re trying to teach a new system on offense and defense to guys who hadn’t been exposed to it in person yet, for a large part,” said Bryan Blair, the Chief Operating Officer for WSU Athletics. “Generally speaking, we hadn’t had a whole lot of time with the team itself.”
Blair turned to Dave Cillay, the Chancellor of the Global Campus and the man who helped coordinate the popular “Insurgent Warfare & Football Strategy” course taught by former WSU coach Mike Leach and ex-State Sen. Michael Baumgartner in spring 2019. Even with the mountain of tasks dumped on his desk as a result of WSU’s transition to an online climate during COVID-19, Cillay was willing to help the football program orchestrate a web-based learning platform that players could use to sharpen their knowledge of the schemes they’d be running once they left the virtual gridiron and returned to the turf at Rogers Field and Martin Stadium this fall.
The trick was to offer something that would give the Cougars more flexibility and options than a normal Zoom call, but something that wouldn’t be too complex or convoluted – and also something players could access at their convenience.
In other words, something like the web-based Blackboard software they use almost every day.
“I think every school in America’s doing Zoom, and if they’re coaching in their house and they’ve got a whiteboard in their house, they’re trying to walk the kids through via Zoom and then trying to do video on top of that,” Blair said. “That ends up being really clunky, because almost none of us have that kind of technology in our house to be able to pull that off seamlessly.”
For approximately three months, the Cougars have repurposed Blackboard to teach a course every player on the roster is wholly invested in: football. As far as they know, they’ve been the only FBS program in America to use Blackboard, or any other learning management system like it, to inform players and communicate during the pandemic.
“They’re used to logging into Blackboard and doing different things,” Blair said. “So, you’re hitting them where they already are. It’s just us getting up to speed on it and then you’re speaking their language anyways.”
Once the Blackboard platform was created, it was up to Mac Alexander, a first-year graduate assistant who works with special teams, to master all of its functions. He spent the better part of two weeks on that before passing along the knowledge to three other WSU GAs, who were then responsible for educating their respective position coaches.
“Now all the coaches know how to use it,” Alexander said. “… But in the beginning it was hard, but I think it was hard because we were all stressing out about what was going on, still trying to reach our players. There was a lot of stuff going on.”
The Blackboard course, called “Spring Football,” is voluntary for players – although most have taken advantage – and structured in a way that enables players to use it as their schedule allows. Coaches use the course by posting PowerPoint shows pertinent to their position group and embed film clips layered with their voice to explain what’s happening on the screen, more or less simulating a normal film session without the in-person element.
“Rather than me sending you a video, than me try to walk you through via Zoom, that video and my voiceover and if I want to mark up the screen, circle stuff, almost like the old John Madden highlights, I’m able to do that all in package where I don’t have to fool with a lot of clunky equipment,” Blair said.
Marsh, a Gonzaga Prep product who flipped between the cornerback and nickel positions last season, said he’s logged on to Blackboard almost every day for football and cited an example of how his group – safeties and nickels – and position coach, Mark Banker, have used the course to establish a general understanding of the coverage packages the Cougars will be using this fall.
“So, there will just be a drawing of where all the safety positions are at on the field and just talking about the coverage,” Marsh said. “Then it’ll have (Banker) explaining to us everything we’ve got to do. Just explaining all the stuff. It’s very detailed. Coach (Jake) Dickert’s super detailed, coach Banker’s really detailed. So it has helped honestly tremendously, being able to go over that.
“At the end of however many slides he wants, he’ll put tougher a quiz that quizzes us over the questions, or a lot of the information we just went over. So, there could be one quiz at the end and there could be two quizzes throughout the whole Power Point. It really just depends on the material.”
A screenshot of the Blackboard portal provided by Alexander shows folders for the nine position groups on offense and defense, in addition to seven more for special teams. Assignments are labeled with names such as “DT Install #3 Quiz,” “WR Test 1,” “QB Test 1” and “Super Back Quiz #2.”
“We’re able to record those Zoom meetings and then put them on to Blackboard as well,” Alexander said. “So if they missed something in the meeting, they can go back and rewatch that meeting and pick up, or if they want to go over it again, they can do that as well.”
Coaches are able to see quiz scores, which helps them gain a better understanding of the progress their players are making, and potentially allows them to evaluate how effectively they’re presenting the information. Coaches can also track screen time, and similar to how they’ll be able to tell which players were routinely working out during quarantine, Alexander figures they’ll also have a good sense of which ones were more diligent with the Blackboard program and which ones neglected it.
“I don’t think this is the say all, be all, because there’s nothing like a coach being able to be in front of his guys and answer questions right there on the spot,” Alexander said, “but I think it’s a great tool if guys want to learn it more in depth. They can really challenge themselves and spend more time and really learn the run and shoot offense within their position group and the defense within their position group. So I think it’s going to be very beneficial.
“I think we’ll be able to tell, when we get back and get rolling again, who really took advantage of this time by using Blackboard and using this system and who just did the very bare minimum.”
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