Blackboard Satisfaction Survey Results – Dislikes

May 13, 2011

Taking a look at the second of the three open-ended questions posed in our Blackboard Faculty Satisfaction Survey, I expected some grim reading and certainly got it.  The question: “What do you like least about Blackboard?”

246 faculty responded to this question (out of 301 total survey respondents), although a half-dozen responses were some variant on “N/A”.  In an attempt to process what themes might be present in a mass of text, I like to create a Wordle and view the word frequency use graphically.  (To see any of the smaller text entries, you will want to click the thumbnail image below and see the larger version.)

What do you like least about Blackboard? wordle

Although the focus on students is still obvious, it’s clear even from the Wordle that some other recurring themes arise.  Since we made the (very visually and functionally significant) upgrade from Blackboard version 8 to 9.1 just prior to this term, I’m not surprised to see that “version” cropped up a great deal.  I’m expecting that major change is also responsible for the importance of “new” and “use”, but only the details of the comments themselves will tell for sure.

There were 34 comments (almost 14%) saying that faculty disliked the grading functions.  Given that grade functionality was also among the most liked functions, I’m going to draw this conclusion: Faculty like being able to distribute grades via Blackboard, while disliking the actual procedures to do so.  Not exactly an earth-shaking conclusion, but it is nice to base that on actual data rather than pulling an Obi-Wan and just trusting my feelings.  (And, should any readers NOT get the whole Star Wars “trust your feelings, Luke” reference, perhaps they need to stop reading my blog posts.  Alternately, go see some movies.)

Survey results also yielded 13 comments to the effect that our Blackboard system is slow.  Now some of those are in reference to specific subsystems (such as “entering grades”), and others put qualifiers (such as “when using my dial-up connection” or “but that’s through my satellite Internet”), but that’s quite at odds with my own use experiences.  Of course, I personally use the system only from on-campus…  My take-away:  Start doing some off-campus system performance testing.  Very significant changes were made to the platform our Blackboard system is running on (such as using virtual front-end servers, but a whole host of other changes as well) when we made the switch to Bb9.1 in January, so perhaps there are some technical speed issues that I am simply unaware of that is impacting faculty.

I have to send out kudos to one of our support techs, because in these comments of all places a faculty member felt that Chris Norcross has given him exemplary support.  Good job, Chris!  Actually, in the “what faculty like most” comments there was also a suggestion that our support techs be cloned so that we can have a 24/7 supply of them available.  As soon as the clone pods become available, Chris gets to go first.

A good many comments involved frustration at how Blackboard is not fully functional with some versions of some browsers.  I really feel for the faculty on this one; in today’s software environment there are changes being made to web browser software on a very frequent basis, so it is nearly impossible to not end up upgrading away from a browser version that works… should you be so fortunate as to find one that works fully in the first place.  Not to make this out to be more than it really is, because most functions of Blackboard work well in most versions of most browsers, but some of the subsystems that faculty have to regularly make use of are more complex than what the average Blackboard user (read: student) has to do.  Test construction, the Grade Center, all the controls for adding content, this stuff is complex and puts a large burden on the browser program to process it properly; the one lesson I’ve learned over the years supporting online work is that standards aren’t, and nothing works consistently across all browsers.

All that being said, this makes it all the more important that we keep updating the version of Blackboard used at Palomar.  Several comments complained that Internet Explorer 9 or Firefox 4 were not officially supported browsers, but the way browsers get added to the support matrix is through testing on new versions.  So, faculty, there’s the dilemma: do we try to lag behind to stay with known to work versions (nothings perfect, but the sometimes the known bugs are easier to live with than at other times), or do we endeavor to keep as updated as possible to try to have maximum compatability?  One thing we in Academic Technology have tried to do is never do a non-critical upgrade during a semester, so even during the Spring 2011 term there would have been no way to get versions of Blackboard that would have supported browsers released over the Spring.  I’m not sure what the correct answer to that question is, but hopefully our “upgrade between terms” model will strike the best happy medium possible.  Suggestions on this topic are certainly welcome, of course.

There are a few comments along the lines of “I don’t like that Blackboard cannot do ____.”  In many cases, it actually can, so I’ll be gathering up those comments (and I expect to get more such from the final open-ended question on “what would you change about Blackboard”) and respond to them in a future post.  I remember speaking with a Microsoft employee after a presentation at the Office 2007 launch event I attended, where he described some experiences he’d had in surveying users.  The most memorable story (for me, at least) was his discussion with a panel of Math professors who were bitterly complaining that there was no function in Word for putting in equations.  He admitted that he did finally tell them about how the equation editor had been a component of Word for years; to him it was an obvious function, but whole swathes of users were unaware of it.  Apparently something of the same nature is going on with Blackboard users here.

That wraps up my current thoughts on what faculty “like least about Blackboard” at the moment.  As I mentioned above, I’ll be revisiting some of these issues once I’ve had a chance to process the final open-ended question on what faculty would change.

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.

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 ( or X2862) and we’ll see if we can work something out together.