Take 8 Everybody

There’s a new version of Blackboard out, which is now live on the BbSandbox environment, and which should go live for Summer 2012 on the Palomar production Blackboard environment. The single biggest change you’ll see in the system is the visual appearance of the system; given the number of complaints I’ve heard over the last year-and-a-half about how things look (I kinda like the green buttons, myself), there should be at least a few cheers at that news. Blackboard has been working on a new look for their system for quite some time now, and have rolled out this new look with Blackboard 9.1 Service Pack 8 (SP8). The short description of the new Blackboard look is “WordPressy.” (As in “looks like WordPress.” So what if that’s not really a word.)

Of course, in addition to the new visual styling of the system, there are a number of changes to the functioning of the system as well.

As always, a new service pack from Blackboard means a whole set of bug fixes and improvements to browser compatibility. Finally Blackboard browser compatibility for Firefox and Chrome users can be summarized as “whatever is the newest full release,” which is a great change from some of the “on operating system A, using browser B at version C” issues of the recent past. There are also some specific fixes in regards to entering dates for availability and creating external links from within courses. By and large the bug fixes are fairly minor.

Since this is an even-numbered service pack, there are also some changes to the user interface. (Yes, Blackboard actually has a system; odd-numbered packs are bug fixes only, while user interface changes are on the even numbers.) Among the additions to the interface:

  • Course-to-Course Navigation: Course-to-Course Navigation allows students and instructors to jump from course to course while retaining the context of the page or task from the original page of any recently accessed course.
  • Automated Regrading: Instructors can now fix problematic questions by simply editing the invalid question directly and having all necessary updates flow automatically to the Grade Center. For any assessment question, Instructors can drop, give full credit, change point value, or change which answer is marked correct. After the question has been updated, Blackboard Learn recalculates the score of all submitted assessments that included the updated question, reflects the updates in the Grade Center, and provides notification to both the Instructor and optionally to the Student for all impacted submissions.
  • Negative Marking: Negative Marking allows Instructors to apply negative point values for incorrect answers on assessment questions.
  • Course Structures: Course Structures are pre-built structures that focus on specific aspects of a course including Activity, Communication, Content, Systems, and Time.  Other Structures mimic the ANGEL and WebCT legacy platforms. These structures re-align the left navigation to match the pedagogical needs of the particular course type.
  • Course Themes: Course Themes are pre-built designs that Instructors can select to match their design preferences and teaching methods. Course Themes add a background image to the course display and change the color of the user interface. Course Themes do not affect content and can be changed at any time. Note: To use the Course Theme, the new default theme should be enabled, or an existing custom theme should be built upon the new default theme. Refer to the New Default Theme topic below for details.
  • Quick Setup Guide: When Instructors first enter a course they are presented with a Quick Setup screen that provides links to documents that outline working with content and getting started in the course environment. There are also direct links to the On Demand Learning Center and help.blackboard.com. This feature will help acquaint new users to Blackboard Learn courses, features, and capabilities to help them quickly get started.
  • Improvements to handling Mini-Websites and File Packages: When an instructor links to an HTML file attachment from a course item, access to that HTML file will be granted to all users enrolled in that course. Instructors can also grant access to other files in the same folder or selected files in the Content Collection to handle mini-websites and packaged content. Student access is constrained by Adaptive Release rules, and these rules, along with access to the files, will be propagated along with the files when the course is copied.

Believe it or not, that’s only the short list of changes. Here’s my take on these changes:

  • Course-to-Course Navigation – When you can remember it’s there, this is great! As an example, if you are grading students in one course, and ready to move on to the next, just pick the course name from the navigation drop-down; you’ll go into the new course, at the same point you were at in the old course. This will dramatically cut down on the number of navigation clicks when moving between courses.
  • Automated Regrading – About time. I’ve been supporting Blackboard here at Palomar for a dozen years, and across that whole time faculty have wanted an easy way to fix a minor problem with a test question without having to make numerous grade edits. Now it’s here; fix the question in a deployed test, and the fix is percolated out into all the already completed test attempts.
  • Negative Marking – My biggest complaint about Multiple Choice questions is that it can encourage students to guess; enable negative grading and you’ll keep THAT from happening.
  • Course Structures – Just starting out with a new course? Pick one of the large number of templates now available and modify to suit your taste. Just be careful not to add a course structure to your existing course unless you are sure you want to deal with a bunch of additional structure.
  • Course Themes – As a way to set your courses apart from others, or as a mnemonic to help you to differentiate your own courses from each other, I think these themes are very good. I also think that if any instructor uses the Fuchsia theme, I will pity their students greatly. (It’s pink. Very pink.)
  • Quick Setup Guide – The first time you enter a course you’ll get prompted to pick a structure, theme, and shown some help resources. If you don’t like that, just check the box in the lower left corner and you won’t see it again… for that course.
  • Improvements to handling Mini-Websites and File Packages – The problems with “mini-websites” in Blackboard in the past have been many, so I am pleased to see that this subsystem is improved. If this is a feature you use, please try it out and let me know if “improve” is truly the right word.

Overall, I think the feature changes in SP8 are improvements that finally address requests I’ve been hearing from faculty on and off for years. Again, SP8 is live on the BbSandbox environment now for Palomar faculty to work with, so give it a try.