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.

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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.