Don’t Shoot the Messenger

May 6, 2011

We’ve just had occasion to change the way part of Palomar’s Blackboard Learn system functions, so I wanted to explain why the system is behaving the way it now is.

If you’ve posted an Announcement in the new Blackboard system, you’ve likely seen that check box for “Override User Notification Settings” where previous versions had a “Send Email” box.  (I don’t propose to go into the reasons for that change; if you’re curious then feel free to get in touch with me via email.)  If you check that box, when you post your announcement in the course a notice gets sent to all your students telling them that there is an announcement in your course they should look at.  If you do not check that box, students would not receive such a notice.

Woah, “would not”? Is that what changed?

Yes.  The new behavior in our Blackboard system is for students to receive a nightly notice (called a Digest Notification, sent around 11 PM) about ALL announcements made in their courses.

Functionally what this means is if you post five announcements during the day, but only one of them you check the “Override User Notification Settings” box, your students would receive two notices.  One would be about just the announcement where you checked the box which would go out immediately, the other would be about the rest sent near the end of the day.

I could go into a long-winded explanation about exactly why we had to change the system behavior, (short answer: to work around a bug) but I’ll spare everyone that confusion.  Bottom line, more notices are now going out to students about announcements than ever before.


Bb9.1 SP3 – Coming Before Spring 2011

December 3, 2010

So, hopefully by now my Palomar faculty have noted that we have moved to a new (and very different) version of Blackboard starting with the Spring 2011 courses.  (If that comes as a shock, try visiting the Academic Technology web site once in a while, for both our sakes!)  For those who have already gone through training on that new version…  there is an update to Blackboard with some improvements that weren’t around for the previous training sessions.

Looking through the “New Features and Enhancements” list for Blackboard 9.1 Service Pack 3, here’s what I consider the good stuff:

  • Announcements – New Announcements now appear directly below a repositionable bar.  Priority Announcements can be moved above the bar so they always appear first in the list. Students do not see the bar.
  • Assessments – Instructors now have the ability to view question numbers while building and editing assessments. Questions can be referenced by number throughout the assessment and can be used to sequence questions in an assessment.
  • Needs Grading Page – Instructors can access assignment and test attempts that need grading from a new Needs Grading page accessed in the Grade Center section of the Control Panel. On the Needs Grading page, instructors can view how many attempts are ready for grading and sort and filter the items. Attempts are placed in a queue for easy navigation among items when grading or reviewing. Once an attempt is graded, it no longer appears on the Needs Grading page.

There are other entries on the list, but they mostly either do not matter to us or are what I’d consider to be “fixes” rather than enhancements.  But given that I’ve had requests from faculty in the last two months for all three of the things I listed above, these seemed worthy of note.  (See, Blackboard does listen to user requests. Amazing, isn’t it?)

The system with Spring 2011 courses on it is not updated to this new version as of post date (although a new post will certainly go up on this blog when the update has occurred), but I thought it important to let faculty know what should be changed by the time courses go live in January.


Cry ‘Havoc’

May 27, 2010

Cry ‘Havoc” and let slip the courses of Summer!

A new semester is upon us, at least those of us who are working over the Summer term.  At this moment there are 830 courses in Palomar’s Summer 2010 term, and many of those will have Blackboard components.  Here are some things to think about, when getting a Blackboard course ready for this new term:

The shells for Summer 2010 courses have been around for about two months now, in accordance with our typical course lifecycle rule of creating the course shell 90 days prior to the start of the semester.  Some faculty have already transferred their materials into those new course shells, but many have not yet.

If you have material in a previous course that you want to also have in the new course, you have two options:  the Copy Course tool, or to do a Course Export and then a Course Import.  There are pros and cons to each technique.

The Copy Course tool has to be initiated from the course with the content, typically this is the older course.  You would tell the Copy Course tool which of your courses is the destination, and check the boxes for what you want to copy over.  However, if you try to copy the Settings for your course (which includes the style of course menu and banner in the Announcements area) you may receive an error.

If you opt for an Export and Import, you would first go into the older course and use the Course Export tool to create an export file, then save the file onto your computer.  You would next go into the new, empty course, and use the Import Package tool to pull the contents of your export file into the new course.  However, if your course contains more than 250 Mb of data, you will be unable to import the file contents.

Regardless of which method, or neither, that you use for porting over materials, there are a couple other things to be sure to do in your new course site.  Particularly, post an Announcement to start off the semester right.  (And, please, make it a new announcement rather than doing a Modify of an old one.  Announcements have the original date posted on them, and it really looks bad to see a June 2010 class start with a January 2006 post.)  Also, of course, none of your students will be able to get into the course site until you have manually made it available to them.

In the Control Panel, under Settings, is the Course Availability control.  It’s a simple Yes/No radio button control, but until and unless an instructor switches things from the default “No” position, students are unable to see any of the contents of the course site.  Some faculty make their course sites available to students well in advance of the start of semester, and use Blackboard as a tool to prepare students to show up at the first class session actually ready to work; others will wait until right at, or even after, the start of the semester before making the course available.  Whichever way you choose, just remember to make the course available before telling your students to go there – our tech support phone rings quite a lot when that step is forgotten.

So, there you have it.  Summer is here, and if you’re not enjoying a nice vacation it is time to be sure your Blackboard course is ready!



Walking the Campus

May 26, 2010

Today I took a walk around the San Marcos campus; this is fairly unusual for me, as I don’t get out of the office much.  Few people were around, as it’s just after the end of an academic year.  I suspect the staff on campus outnumbered the students, although I was asked for directions from one student during my wandering.

I walked past many classrooms, the Student Union, and – of course – the construction going on nearly smack in the middle of campus.  The shells of two buildings were crawling with construction workers, all busily accomplishing things that no one will notice later unless they don’t do their jobs right.

The whole campus put me in mind of how Blackboard has been implemented at Palomar:  Much of the campus is the same now as it was when I first came to Palomar years ago, and the old familiar brickwork that I’m used to is even being added to the new construction to keep a similar look and feel.  However, unlike when I first started here, there are now numerous building with elevator shafts; there was a time when only the LL building had elevators.  On an invisible level, there is wireless Internet access across a good bit of campus now, as well as wired network access in pretty much every room.  When I came on-board here the computer lab in the Library had four computers with modems for dial-up Internet service.  As much as things have stayed the same on campus, they’ve really changed, too.

Blackboard was first introduced on campus over a decade ago, and comparing what it looked like back then with what it is now, there are a lot of similarities still.  The Control Panel is nearly unchanged in appearance, even if the functions have shifted a bit; some courses use the buttons styles and Content Area names that were standard (required, actually) back a dozen years ago; there are even a few syllabi that list the old address for our Blackboard system that hasn’t worked since mid-2005.  But like the changes to campus buildings, some new construction on the Blackboard front will change the way courses can be conducted online.  With the advent of the new version of Blackboard which will be in effect starting Spring 2011, things like the Control Panel screen and the button-based course menu are going away.  The Digital Dropbox tool (which I’ve railed against for several years now) will be gone.  And it’s entirely possible that students and faculty will be using the Blackboard system without real computers.

Although Palomar isn’t going to change the version of Blackboard we use until the Spring 2011 term, we are enabling the Blackboard Mobile Learn tool in mid-June, so that users may begin reading and posting to Blackboard courses using iPads, iPhones, BlackBerrys, and Android devices.  (This makes me a bit sad, as I’m a Windows Mobile user and am left out in the cold with this app, at least for the moment.)

I guess, if there’s any moral to this rambling post, it’s this:  Change is coming to Palomar’s Blackboard system; if I do my job properly in constructing the new system, things will go smoothly; but even with all these changes, many things will stay the same, work the same, and the service you should expect out of us should only get better.


Blackboard: A Class Act

February 11, 2010

This contribution is actually a repost of material from last June, where it was originally a contribution to the ATRC podcast for my segment called “Blackboard Feature of the Week”.  The fact that eight months later I can still remember some of the details from this segment lead me to believe that it might be worth a revisit…  plus, it’s a long weekend so I ran out of week to record something.


Rather than dwell on specific tools in Blackboard, this time I’d like to draw comparisons between several of the options in Blackboard and actual in-classroom functions. If you’re struggling to figure out what Blackboard can do for you, perhaps this will help.

In class it’s useful to get a feel for which students are attending regularly. Most of the time this is done anecdotally by recognizing the students; in Blackboard you can stop by the Performance Dashboard and easily see the last time a student has accessed the course site.

In the classroom, if something out of the ordinary is about to happen, or if something that’s been on the schedule for a while is about to be due, you might write a note on the chalkboard. With the truly important things, you may even want to “DNE” it, so other classes do not erase it. Clearly this is the Announcement tool in Blackboard, even down to the Make Permanent function to “DNE” your information.

The most obvious comparison between Blackboard and classroom functions is with handouts. If you would have material photocopied and passed out in class, you could have it posted as an item in Blackboard. A slightly overlooked option is how Blackboard items also replicate demonstration objects that you might bring into the classroom. If you want your students to see an Asiatic mask, or a monkey skull, or a topographic map of North America, these things could also be displayed in Blackboard. Possibly shooting a digital picture of the item would work, but there are more freely available resources of complexity available online than you might think; perhaps someone has a 3-D model of that monkey skull, probably some governmental department has the maps you need available. If you’re not sure how to get started finding such resources, that’s a pretty legitimate reason to call on Academic Technology for help.

If you do objective tests in class, you likely have your students use a Scantron. If you just can’t limit yourself to “pick A-E for each question” testing, you may have to manually grade objective tests by hand, which is never a fun exercise. Blackboard’s testing module excels at automatically and immediately scoring objective test questions, and may have more question choices than you’d ever believe. Up to twenty possible answers per multiple choice question, matching, ordering, multiple answer, fill in the blank, and even “Where’s Waldo” style Hotspot questions where the student answers by clicking a specific spot on an image are all easily set up in a Blackboard test.

If you ever use blue books, you may want to try instead having students type up their work and submit it via a Blackboard assignment. Imagine never needing to decipher student penmanship again… And if your concern is over limiting the time in which the students are working, just have the papers typed up in a monitored environment, either by bringing the whole class into a computer lab for that class session, or by having laptops rolled out to your classroom for students to use during the class session. Of course a fully online class would just want to assume all writing assignments are open book anyway, but an on-campus class would not need to.

If your students are ever invited to talk about class material during class sessions, then using the Blackboard Discussion Board could be a good idea. Just set up a forum, possibly seed it with some questions, then tell the students to “talk amongst yourselves.” Just because students post to the forum doesn’t make it uncontrolled; there are options to have moderated discussions, and you could even allow some trusted students to moderate in your place. If you just want to facilitate student discussion without making it a normal part of class, just set up a forum and let students know they can post there for any extra things they wish to discuss.

Do you show PowerPoint Presentations in the classroom? Do you lecture? Likely you do, and Blackboard has a variety of ways to make this material available to students. Use the Elluminate tool to have a live presentation online with your students, and record that so the student who missed can at least see what went on. Or, record a solo session, where you run through your presentation similar to what you might do in a lecture hall, then let the students watch that recording and post questions to a discussion board. Even if you already have all your material available in a written format, you could still make little audio snippets using the Wimba Voice Tools to accompany the written material, verbally drawing student attention to the most vital material or correcting the common misperceptions that your experience in the classroom tells you at least someone will have.

With the tools in Blackboard it is possible to replicate many of the features of a classroom environment over the Internet. However, it is even more possible to closely tie Blackboard features into an on-campus class, and offer a richness to the flow of a semester that could help your students to succeed. If there’s something you are doing in the classroom, and you’re interested in seeing if you can develop an online aid or equivalent, give us in Academic Technology a call (onlineclasses@palomar.edu or X2862) and we’ll see if we can work something out together.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.