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.

Avoiding Audio Assumption

February 25, 2011

During a workshop later today on the topic of “Building Your Course” in Blackboard, I’m going to cover a segment I refer to as “Can You Hear Me Now?”  In this segment we are going to be using the Wimba Voice Authoring tool (which Palomar has been licensing from Wimba for several years, well before they were purchased by Blackboard and rolled into the Collaborate project).  The idea is to leave brief audio annotations in line with the rest of the textual content of a course, both to highlight key points and to aid in correct pronunciation of terms by students.

Now, for those purposes, the Wimba Voice Author tool really does work great.  The most difficult part in using that tool to create content, as I’ve said on many an occasion, is making sure the microphone is plugged in right.

As I was prepping for the workshop a thought struck me uncommonly strongly though.  Using this tool really is making an assumption; specifically the assumption that all the students will be able to hear the recording.

Now, technical barriers are fairly low here.  To play back the audio from a Wimba Voice Author component a computer needs to have Java installed (which is no real problem, as it’s freely available online), and have a sound card and speakers or headphones (which, realistically, isn’t a problem either with any recent make of computer).  The student also needs to be able to hear.

Just as it is important to provide textual (and therefore screen reader readable) descriptions in the alt text box for any images you use, it is important to ensure your material is not exclusively available to those who can listen to it.  Here at Palomar we try to have all video material (when processed by the Academic Technology and Educational Television departments) captioned before it is put online, but that just isn’t practical for an individual instructor’s one-off recorded remarks.

So, although I do heartily encourage use of audio annotation to enhance the materials in a Blackboard course, use it carefully.  Try to avoid an assumption of audio, so that should you find a deaf student enrolled in your class you don’t end up having to scramble to provide equivalents to the sound playback.

Passwords are secret, really!

February 12, 2011

I’m never sure, when selecting a topic to blog about, how basic is “too basic”.  I felt a bit silly mentioning this topic in a training workshop I offered last week, as it is truly one of the fundamental fundamentals.  Then I had a professor (not from the workshop) email me today, who confessed that they had just made this mistake…

When you log into Blackboard, you are prompted for a username and password.  Your username is not going to be something private; at Palomar the faculty just use their first initial and last name in almost every case.  Your password, however, is private.

Do not tell anyone what your password is.

College employees will never ask you for your password.  We don’t need it, have no right to be told it, and it is a violation of the Telecommunications Use policy at Palomar to tell it to someone else.  This moribund on sharing your password includes: in person, on the phone, through email, as part of a support ticket, writing it on a post-it and leaving it stuck to a tech’s keyboard, writing it on the whiteboard before your online class orientation, telling it to the students who want to add your class for them to use until they are officially enrolled, and yelling it across a crowded student-use computer lab for someone on the phone with tech support to relay to the tech.

I truly wish I was making up ANY of those scenarios, but I have seen them all happen.

The negative results I’ve seen from these behaviors range from “someone locked me out of my account”, through “someone wiped out all my email”, right up to “someone bulk deleted all the content, including grades, from all of my Blackboard courses.”  Mind you, that’s not the worst case scenarios, such as someone wrongfully submitting final grades or (if you’re the type to use the same password in multiple places) someone gaining access to financial information.  The ones I listed above are, again, just the ones I have seen happen.

So, I’m not going to bother telling you to change your password regularly, nor am I going to tell you to use an extra-esoteric password with special characters avoiding anything that is in the dictionary.  I will urge you, though, to not give out your password.

Passwords are secret, really!

Ding-dong the Digital Dropbox is Dead

January 28, 2011

On occasion folks have asked me what is “different” about version 9.1 of Blackboard compared to the version 8 that we’ve been using on the Palomar campus for a couple years now.  They aren’t impressed when I say “everything”… until they try to use it on their own.  Then they come by for training.

For the most part, the changes in Blackboard, at least when comparing 8 to 9.1, are akin to the changes between Microsoft Office 2003 and 2007; the core function is the same, the user interface look and feel is dramatically different, and some fringe tools have been added, while others have been taken away.

One tool that has been taken away in the Blackboard version shift, is the old Digital Dropbox.  I’ve had a personal vendetta against that tool, and have heard it described in derogatory terms by several of the employees of Blackboard over the years.  Truly it was a tool whose time had passed, and it was overdue for replacement.

So, what can an instructor do, now that the dropbox is no more?  Students still need to send files, and having students send a bunch of email attachments is still not good from either a technical or security standpoint.

Enter the “Assignment”.

This tool, which has been a part of Blackboard here at Palomar for several years, takes the function of “students send files to the instructor” and binds it all into a neat package with the ability to grade the submissions and get feedback to the students in a secure fashion.

To add an Assignment, you would go into one of your Content Areas in your course, open up the Create Assessment menu at the top of the screen, and select Assignment.

Assignment, on the Create Assessment menu

On the resulting screen, you only need to give an assignment a name and points possible, although it may be desirable to set options for availability, or type up a verbose description of what this assignment is all about.  Once you submit this, you will have an Assignment entry in your Content Area.

Assignment, from an instructor's point of viewWhen your students are ready to submit a file to you, they would go to this entry, click the name (which appears in bold print; this is just like the way they interact with a test deployment entry when going to take a test), and they will see a screen for attaching and submitting their file.

Once files have been submitted, they can be viewed, and graded, via the Grade Center, or using the Needs Grading tool linked on your Control Panel menu right above the entry for Full Grade Center.  Until you grade submissions, they will show up in the Grade Center with a green exclamation point icon, so they’re easy to pick out from the crowd of other grades you may have posted for students already.  And, of course, if you include feedback to your students along with the grade, students would see this on the student My Grades list.

So there you have it; the Digital Dropbox is gone, and for most faculty using the Assignment tool will fill that void neatly.

Bb9.1 SP3 @ Palomar

December 17, 2010

Just a brief post to say that, as previously mentioned, the Palomar Blackboard system for Spring 2011 and onwards is now running version 9.1 Service Pack 3.  The install went smoothly, which bodes well for all future upgrades whenever they arrive, too.

Happy Holidays!

New Year’s Party

December 16, 2010

Like many folks, I have plans for this New Year’s Eve.  Unlike many, my plans are to stay awake past midnight (staying sober, for obvious reasons) then remotely access the systems and make some changes to the way Palomar’s Blackboard systems run.  (For your sakes, I hope your plans are more festive.)

As of January 1st, here is the state of Palomar’s Blackboard systems:

The Blackboard link at the top of the college home page will take users to our Blackboard 9.1 system which hosts courses for the Spring 2011 term and onwards.

If users need to get back to the old Blackboard 8 system which hosts courses for the Fall 2010 term and prior, they may follow a link on the Bb9.1 gateway page to get back to the old system.  Of course, by January 1st, most students will have lost access to their old course sites already, so this link will mostly be of use to faculty who need to access past semester content.

If you still need to pull your content from an older course and import it into a new Spring 2011 course, you can find instructions on that process in the ATRC News blog post on the subject.

So, should you be a party-goer, have fun, stay safe, and rest assured that by the time you wake on January 1st, 2011, there will be no problems finding the new Blackboard system here at Palomar.

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.

Teaching with Blackboard Review, Examining Plans

November 5, 2010

Over the last month at Palomar I’ve offered the first series of four workshops (a total of 24 hours in-class) using the new version of Blackboard (version 9.1, for those who care about the numbers) which goes live with our Spring 2011 courses.  The first of those workshops was titled “Getting Ready for Day One” and consisted of a comparatively shallow look at many different components in a Blackboard course; a “survey of” type of workshop rather than a more in-depth study of limited numbers of Blackboard course tools as the later three workshops were.

“Getting Ready for Day One” ended with a component I titled “Plan of Attack”, in which I posed a series of questions to the attending faculty in the form of essay questions in a Blackboard test.  The idea behind this was to give faculty a chance to form and articulate some response to issues; to have a plan which could then be adjusted as needed during the development cycle.  (Personally I find it far more reliable to have a plan and modify it as necessary rather than constantly “wing it” without a plan at all.)

I’ll be sending the attendees back their own responses as a reminder soon, but I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the aggregate language of the responses.  One of the best ways I’ve found of doing this is to dump all the data into a Wordle and see what the resulting cloud of words looks like.  (Click the image to see a larger view.)

A Wordle created from the responses from a faculty training workshop.

For those interested, the actual text of the questions is listed below:

  1. Will you use Announcements?  If so, how often do you expect students to check for updated announcements in your course?
  2. Will you be using the Send Email tool within Blackboard?  If so, how long should your students expect it may take before getting a response from you to their messages?  How long do you expect it will take before students respond to your messages?
  3. Will you be using Tests in Blackboard, either for actual testing or for tutorial functions?  If so, do you plan to use any essay questions, or other question types that require manual grading?  If so, how long should students expect before seeing those questions graded?
  4. Do you plan to use the Wimba Voice Authoring tool to record messages for your students?  If so, what sort of messages do you plan to leave for your students to play back?
  5. Do you plan to have your students submit files to you using the Assignment tool?  If so, what sort of file types will you accept from your students?  (i.e. Word documents, PDF documents, Plain Text files, Rich Text Format files)
  6. Do you plan to distribute files to your students from within Blackboard?  If so, what sort of file formats do you plan to distribute?  (i.e. Word documents, PDF documents, Plain Text files, Rich Text Format files)
  7. Will you be using the Grade Center to post student grades?  If not, why?  If so, do you plan to only post grades from manually graded assignments, or do you plan to use some of the grade-enabled tools in Blackboard such as Tests, Discussion Boards and the Assignment tool?
  8. Will you be using the Discussion Board tool in your class?  If so, what purposes do you hope to achieve using this tool?  Do you expect to ever use the Anonymous post option, and if so, what sorts of topics do you think it appropriate for?  Do you expect to ever use the Grade function and assign points based on Discussion Board posts?
  9. Will you post information about the class up in a single syllabus, or broken into different pieces?  Why?
  10. When you post your contact information, which methods of contact will you include?  (i.e. Email address, college phone extension, cell phone number, office location and hours, Instant Messenger details, Twitter username)  Which forms of contact do you find most effective?  Which forms of contact do you prefer to use?
  11. Do you plan to post the Student Learning Outcomes designated for your class in your course site?  Why, or why not?
  12. What sort of organizational structure do you plan to use in your Blackboard course?  (i.e. By chapter, by week, by topic)  Why do you plan to use this structure, and how do you plan to explain this structure to your students?  Do you plan to reflect this structure primarily inside of a single content area, or by using multiple entries on the Course Menu?
  13. If a student doesn’t know what to do in your class, how would they go about getting their questions answered?  How are you informing students of this?  (i.e. written in syllabus, talked about in class)

First look at Palomar’s Learn

September 24, 2010

In case it hasn’t been made clear here and in other forums, Palomar College is launching a new version of Blackboard for the Spring 2011 semester.  There are a great many new abilities for us to customize the look of the system.  Here is a sneak peek at the page you’ll see when trying to log in to that new Blackboard system:

Keep watching here for more information about Palomar’s new Blackboard system.  (I’m finally at the stage of dotting i’s and crossing t’s, and thus will be able to give out information about the new system now.  If you wondered why I hadn’t been blogging… now you know!)

Wimbas and Elluminates and Blackboards, Oh My!

July 7, 2010

Today Blackboard announced a new division, Blackboard Collaborate, which is the destination of two new acquisitions with familiar names:  Wimba and Elluminate.

From the official Blackboard Collaborate website:  “Today, we’ve announced that Elluminate, Wimba, and Blackboard will join forces to bring together the leading technology products for synchronous learning and collaboration – and the minds that created them – in what we hope will be a major step forward to pursue new innovation.”  On that site are links to the email sent out to Blackboard clients, as well as oodles of additional information on the fact of the existence of Blackboard Collaborate.  The site mentions “Hear more at BbWorld”, which should be nice as I’ll be spending next week attending the BbWorld conference.  (Feel free to comment this post with any Blackboard Collaborate-related questions you’d like to have answered!)

Although things are still shaking out on Twitter, it looks like the hashtag to watch for on this topic is #BbCollab.

At any rate, there will be many questions to ask about this conglomeration.  One specific concern that seems ignored by all the current information is the role of the Wimba Voice Tools (which is not a synchronous communication tool, and doesn’t fit the “live chat” motif of the LiveClassroom and Elluminate Live! tools) in this bold new future.  I’ll be sure and post more about it here, as I discover the answers at BbWorld!


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