Blackboard: Coming Attractions

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We will be taking the Blackboard system offline from June 3-6 in order to update it to the latest service pack and do other end-of-semester maintenance.  When it comes back up, there will be several new or improved functional differences that David has blogged about in the past.  Since Dave is on a well-earned vacation now, I would like to review what I think are the highlights of the “new” Blackboard.  New and/or improved are the calendar tool, the discussion board (!), an inline grading tool, and a retention center to making it easy for professors to track and contact struggling students.

A Rebuilt Calendar

The Calendar in Blackboard Learn has been significantly enhanced:

  • When accessed from My Blackboard or the Tools menu on the My Institution tab, the calendar displays a consolidated view of all of your institution, course, organization, and personal calendar events. Calendar events are color coded by course.
  • When accessed from a course, instructors and students see the course calendar from the course menu on the Tools page. Instructors can use the calendar course tool as a primary way of managing and communicating the schedule of events and assignments in the course. Calendar supports due dates, if set, for gradable items. Clicking on calendar items allows an instructor to view or edit the item, or grade attempts on the associated item.
  • Students can use filtering options to selectively view only course level items. They can then click on an item to view item details, and if supported, create an attempt against the item.
  • Users can create recurring events by selecting the Repeat checkbox.

My favorite feature of the new calendar is its ability to export ics files (an accumulation of all the events on the calendar) allowing me to import them into my Outlook calendar. 1

Click here for a full description of the new calendar tool.

A Redesigned Discussion Board

The Thread Detail page is thoroughly redesigned yet maintains all of its existing functions. Highlights include:

  • All posts on one page – all of the posts in a thread are now visible at the same time on one page.
  • Role highlighting – posts made by forum managers and moderators now contain the user’s course role and forum role.
  • Inline replies – when replying to a post, the content editor used to write a response appears on the same page, in the context of the discussion.
  • Post First Setting – instructors can use a new forum setting to require students to post to a forum before they can see other students’ posts.
  • Accessiblity – The new experience of reading a thread is simple to consume with screen reader technology. We also removed clutter on the page, so screen reader and keyboard-only users have less to sift through as they navigate the interface. 2

Click here for a full description of the redesigned discussion board.

This enhancement is very long overdue.  The current Blackboard discussion board hasn’t changed in many years, and is far inferior to most other discussion board tools you see on the Internet.  At long last we will have a modern DB tool.

Inline Grading of Assignments

This is the best innovation of the batch, and one teachers have been asking for.

Instructors can view student-submitted files “inline,” meaning in the web browser, without requiring any plug-ins, applets, or client-side applications. Additionally, annotations tools areavailable as part of the inline viewer, enabling Instructors to provide feedback – comments, highlights, and even drawing/annotation – directly on the inline view of the document.

  • There are no changes to the workflow for submitting assignments, with the exception for one minor UI change to the field where a user would enter an assignment response using the content editor, as opposed to uploading a file. All of the changes are focused on the Grade Assignment page.
  • When a student views their submitted attempt they see the converted document in an inline viewer as well as any annotations the instructor may have added. The student cannot edit instructor annotations or add their own annotations.
  • Inline Assignment Grading can convert, display, and annotate Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and PDF file formats. This accounts for well over 95% of submissions to Blackboard Learn Assignments (based on sampling of Managed Hosting clients). File formats that cannot be converted are presented for download, as in the past.
  • The conversion retains most formatting for supported file types. There may be some very complex page layouts that don’t render perfectly, but those are uncommon exceptions.
  • The viewer has a toolbar with with following features:
  • Zoom In and Out. This feature is also available to students when they view their submission.
  • Comment – Shows a menu of all annotation tools.
  • Download – Downloads a copy of the document. If annotations have been made, there is an option to download the copy in the orginal format or in a PDF version that includes the annotations. This feature is also available to students when they view their submission.
  • Page Forward and Back buttons. This feature is also available to students when they view their submission.
  • Show all annotations button
  • The viewer is supported on current versions of Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Internet Explorer. No plug-in or other application is necessary.
  • If the student has uploaded a file that isn’t in a format supported by the inline viewer, then instead of seeing the viewer, the Instructor is prompted to download the file in question. 3

Click here for a full discussion of the new inline grading of assignments feature.

This is really an exciting development, giving Word-like review capabilities to professors grading papers in Blackboard.

The Retention Center

Blackboard has consolidated the underutilized performance dashboard and combined it with the also underutilized early warning system into a new Retention Center, a dashboard tool professors can use to easily track the progress of their students and take actions to retain at-risk students.

The Retention Center is an instructor-only tool that enables you to give focused attention to students who need it. It replaces the Early Warning System feature with easy workflows, while retaining all existing Early Warning System data and rules.

From the Retention Center, you can communicate with struggling students and help them take immediate action for improvement. 4

Click here for a full discussion of the Retention Center.


These four features are the major changes in the new version of Blackboard.  In addition there will be bug fixes to long standing issues, like the YouTube and Slideshare mashup tools, and the availability status of discussion boards.  We will also be introducing a new SIS integration model to fix problems we have been having with student enrollment timing.  Some of the new features are already installed in the Blackboard sandbox environment, and the remainder will be installed there before they go live on the production Blackboard system in advance of summer classes.


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