New Faculty Technology-related Cheat Sheet

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One frustration for new faculty here at Palomar is simply remembering which systems are supported by which departments, and where the various resources are. (Honestly, that’s pretty frustrating for ME still, as I approach two decades at Palomar.) So here’s a short cheat sheet to answer the question “who you gonna’ call?” Hint: the answer, sadly, is not “Ghostbusters.”

Palomar E-mail will take you to a webmail interface for Palomar’s Exchange email system. Also, knowing we use Exchange may help you in configuring a mobile device to check your Palomar email.

Faculty eServices will take you to the faculty login screen for the eServices enrollment system. Given that the actual address of that page is quite lengthy, you may just want to go to the main Palomar web site, click eServices, then click the Faculty tab.

Both email and eServices are supported by the Information Services department. They also do the support on the office desktop computers and classroom workstations and projectors. You can reach the Information Services helpdesk by email at helpdesk@palomar.edu, or by phoning X2140 on campus.

Blackboard will take you to Palomar’s course management system. Alternately, if you’re putting the address in print, you may want to put http://www.palomar.edu/blackboard/.

WordPress will allow you to log into the Palomar WordPress system, to make changes to your own website on our servers. If you’ve never logged in before, simply logging in will create a site for you.

Both Blackboard and WordPress are supported by the Academic Technology department. We also have two classroom computer labs which can be reserved for classes to use, as well as a variety of other services. You can reach Academic Technology using the ATRC helpdesk, by emailing atrc@palomar.edu, or by phoning X2862 on campus.

Disability Resource Center will take you to information, mostly geared towards students, on what accommodations may be made for students with disabilities. So should you have students who need it, you can contact our experts in the DRC by phoning X2375 on campus.

Hey, worst case scenario, if you don’t know who to ask for help with a particular problem… ask anyone. If nothing else, we should all be able to point you in the right direction to get whatever help you need.

A Blackboard Year in Review

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In July of 2013 I had the opportunity to attend the Blackboard World conference, and it was intense. Next week I’ll be able to attend the 2014 Blackboard World conference, and before that happens I wanted to reflect on the past year’s experiences with Blackboard here at Palomar.

Last July I challenged faculty to work with me to review their course workflow and layout; sadly only a couple faculty took me up on that. But the offer remains open, to have a one-on-one meeting (or more, if desired) to have someone completely ignorant of your content (that’s ME, of course) offer an outsider’s perspective of your course design. And, naturally, help in executing any changes you may decide to make after the review.

During the last eleven months I’ve posted in depth on several topics that were exposed at the conference in 2013:

I also posted about the way that SafeAssign will be integrated with the regular Blackboard Assignment tool. However, we still don’t have that change in place… but we will when our Blackboard environment comes back from the August 11 upgrade and maintenance window.

The number one student problem over the last year has really boiled down to web browser security issues. And of course we have all just completed a shift over to using Blackboard’s Managed Hosting service instead of hosting a system here on campus, making “help me move my course content to the new system” our number two faculty problem over the last year.

For anybody with the misfortune to teach using Palomar’s Blackboard system in Fall of 2013, you’ll be well aware of what our number one faculty problem was. Now that we are running via Managed Hosting though, we should have no fear of a return of the horrid system performance we saw last year.

And, because I keep hearing this rumor about our fate with Managed Hosting, let me clarify things: Palomar’s Blackboard system is physically located in Chantilly, Virginia, but the support staff you deal with are still exactly the same. In the last twelve months Chris Norcross, Shay Phillips, and I have fielded 2318 support tickets relating to Blackboard using our helpdesk system, and we will continue to be here to help moving into the future.

Tech Toolbox: MyScript MathPad

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Over two years ago I blogged about an iPad app useful for recording called Educreations. That app, and the accompanying website, are still going strong. However I was never happy about using Educreations for recording my finger-writing of mathematical equations. So if you’re the type who has need of equations in your course documents, listen up!

There are a pair of “mathy” apps from the company MyScript which can assist in neatening up the finger-paint input of equations. The first, which I won’t dwell on, is called the MyScript Calculator. This calculator app allows written input of simpler math problems, which it will then compute. (This was my first exposure to MyScript’s tools, and I was impressed. Particularly given the price tag of Free.) The other app, which I see use for by both faculty and students, is the MyScript MathPad. In this MathPad app, written input is converted into easily readable form, and the resulting work may be output as an image.

And I can already hear it: “Ugh. An image? Why can’t it be something more usable like LaTeX or MathML?” It can, but there’s a slight catch. The output as Image function is part of the free MathPad, while output in the other formats will entail a one-time fee (currently of $4.99). Since I’m cheap, I’ll restrict myself to the image output, but for someone who has a need to post such things frequently it may be worth the five bucks.

The Calculator app has both iOS and Android options, while the MathPad app is restricted to iOS, as listed on the MyScript Apps & Demos page. The MathPad app will run on both the iPhone and iPad, although I found writing out equations cramped on the iPhone screen, as the video below makes clear.

And the exported images? Here’s some examples:

2014-05-21 18.50.132014-05-21 18.50.462014-05-21 18.52.002014-05-21 18.51.20

So if you’ve an iPad and need to craft formula for your course documents, give MathPad a try!

Faculty Blackboard Managed Hosting Questions

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This is an an effort to anticipate some questions faculty may have about the upcoming changes to Palomar’s Blackboard environment; should you have additional questions, feel free to pose them in the comments here, or contact us separately in Palomar Blackboard support.

However, one question I am unable to answer at this time is “when are the Summer 2014 courses going to be available to faculty?” As soon as there is an answer I can share, rest assured I will post about the details.

 

What is this Managed Hosting for Blackboard thing I keep hearing about?

Palomar’s Blackboard system will be undergoing a significant behind-the-scenes change in the very near future. In the past our Blackboard system has lived on the main campus in San Marcos; starting with Summer 2014 we will be using the Blackboard Managed Hosting service to house our system.

Benefits of this change include:

  • Reducing expected upgrade windows from 4 days to 24 hours or less. (Blackboard techs claim 12 hours is typical.)
  • Eliminating the need to run the “pre-Fall” Blackboard upgrades during 8-week classes; any upgrades required in August can be scheduled in the few days between end of Summer and start of Fall.
  • Increasing system monitoring from “Palomar ATRC business hours” to 24/7/365, which should minimize any potential down-time due to technical problems.
  • System up-time of 99.8%, guaranteed on pain of monetary penalties.
  • Improved integration between Palomar’s Blackboard environment and various publisher’s content systems. (i.e. WileyPLUS, McGraw-Hill Connect, Pearson’s MyLab)

How much of my time is this going to waste?

Little to no extra time. The process for transferring materials into your new courses on the Managed Hosting system should not take appreciably longer than the traditional Course Copy tool did.

Will I be able to simply Course Copy from old semesters to this Managed Hosting system?

No. Because the course copy tool only works between courses on the same Blackboard system it will not be possible to copy directly from your older courses into the new course sites on the Managed Hosting system.

Instead you will need to use the Export/Import process, in which you use the Export Course function in the old course, save the export file created onto your computer, then use the Import Package function in the new course. This process will be fully explained as a step-by-step document in a future posting.

Can’t you just do this for me?

As always, ATRC staff are completely willing to work with faculty one-on-one, either in your offices on campus or in the Faculty Technology Center in room LL-111. However there is enough ambiguity about what content each instructor wants transferred that we would not be able to simply move your content without directly involving you in the process.

If you would like to set up an appointment to meet with one of our techs, please file a ticket in our helpdesk at https://www2.palomar.edu/atrc/helpdesk/ and indicate when you would be available to meet. We will try to match our schedules to yours, to make this as painless a process as possible. We will also be offering several “Blackboard migration assistance” sessions in the Faculty Technology Center in room LL-111 on the San Marcos campus. Details on the session dates and times may be found online at http://www2.palomar.edu/pages/atrc/workshops/ .

Develop Your Own Blackboard Course

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Faculty, you can prepare for new classes, even before Palomar provides your course shells! The “early worm” professors are already starting to ask about when the Summer 2014 course shells will be ready; the short answer is “not yet.” However there is no reason to wait – strike while you feel inspired!

There’s this thing called Coursesites.com, you see. A fully featured Blackboard Learn environment which anyone can take advantage of; in fact it’s got all the bells and whistles turned on, some of which Palomar doesn’t even have. But don’t worry, the functions you depend on here will be present and fully functional over on Coursesites.

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Not only is the system fairly easy to begin using, there are a number of good instructional videos and documentation on the site, so figuring out what to do won’t be a problem. To start, you’d want to sign up for an account:

After that, you can hit the obvious green button in the middle of the screen to Create A Course. A wizard walks you through the process of setting up your own course shell, and then you can begin populating the course with your own content.

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Obviously there is a lot you might want to do in your new course, so perhaps the CourseSites Quick Start Guide for Instructors might be of use. Be warned though, it’s a 155 page PDF, so “quick” is a relative term.

Probably the biggest “how do I do this?” issue on Coursesites will come should you decide to have colleagues or students actually utilize your course shell. Yes, this system is fully functional, and has even been used to run a good number of MOOCs, so having a few other faculty collaborate with you won’t present any technical problems. But the process of sending invitations is a bit unusual; fortunately there’s a video describing the whole process:

That video shows inviting students, but if you read the small print there is a similar link to invite Instructors, too.

So if you’re itching to get developing, and don’t want to wait until your course shells are ready on Palomar’s system, give Coursesites a try. Don’t worry about wasting development work either; anything you build there can be exported and then imported into your course on our system later. Happy course developing!

Blackboard Tests and ADA time extensions

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Do you use timed tests in your Blackboard course? Do you ever need to give students extended time on tests to meet legal requirements? Do you like to set things up once, rather than wasting time doing the same thing multiple times?

If you answered yes to all of those, this post is for you!

Before diving into the minutia of how to manage extended test times best, let’s define how students at Palomar end up entitled to additional time. As I’m quite ignorant on this topic, I consulted with an expert. Sherry Goldsmith of the Disability Resource Center (DRC) had this to say:

“Here is how it works. Not all students with disabilities are eligible for extended time. DRC Counselors approve extended time based on the students educational limitations. The student then provides an accommodations form to instructor. In face-to-face courses the instructor signs the form; however, in most online courses the instructor receives the form via email and a signature is not always available. Of the students that receive approval, the majority receive 1.5 times. Most blind students receive 2 times the normal time.”

So potentially students may require time extensions in two flavors: time-and-a-half, and double time. Since recent changes to the Blackboard testing system, there are provisions to make test availability exceptions, so you could certainly make exceptions to each of your tests for the specific students who need them, each and every time the issue crops up. Or you can follow these instructions, set your tests up once, and not need to touch each individual test deployment each time a student needs a time extension allowed.

Step one, create two groups in your course. I’d suggest naming them something memorable, such as TestTime1.5 and TestTime2. (Create Manual groups, set to not be visible, with no tools checked.)

Group creation options screen

Step two, for each deployed test, make it part of your normal routine to create availability exceptions for both these groups. Obviously set the TestTime1.5 group to be allowed half again the normal time limit, and TestTime2 allowed double the normal time limit. (In the Test Availability Exceptions screen, click the Add User or Group button, select both groups from the list, then set the Timer options. For a typical 30 minute test, set to 45 and 60 minutes.)

Test availaiblity exceptions

Step three, make it part of your normal routine when copying or export/importing content into new courses, to always include the “Group Settings” section, along with the more traditional “Content Areas”, “Grade Center Columns and Settings”, and “Tests, Surveys and Pools”.

Step four, whenever you have a student allotted extended time limits on tests, simply enroll them in the appropriate Group. Since you’ve been good about always setting those exceptions, and copying them forward to new semesters, putting them into a group is all you need to do!

Group enrollment screen

This video should illustrate the whole process, if things are still unclear:

Starting the Semester with Blackboard

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Starting out another semester, and it’s time for a reminder about a few Blackboard tasks that might have slipped your busy minds:

  • Faculty log into Blackboard using their “email name” as the username; typically this is your first initial and last name. Using the nine-digit number will only allow student access to your courses.
  • Students will not be able to access your course sites until you make them available. The easiest way to make multiple courses available is using the Instructor Quick Tools.
  • If you want to copy materials from an older course into your Spring 2014 course site, start off by going into the OLD course, and use the Course Copy tool under Packages and Utilities to copy into the new course.
  • There is a delay between when a student enrolls (or drops) your course, and when they appear on (or vanish from) the roster in Blackboard. The maximum expected time delay is three hours, so the time lag is noticeable.
  • Student email addresses come from eServices into Blackboard, so you may want to have your students check eServices to be sure their correct email addresses are listed as the Preferred address. Otherwise they may never see your emails!
  • Faculty and students can get Blackboard help by using our ATRC Helpdesk system. Just open a ticket; that’ll get you help soonest.

And, of course, keep checking our blog and website at https://www.palomar.edu/atrc/ for news and updates throughout the semester. Have a great Spring term!

Why I should care about mixed security modes in my Blackboard course

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Normally I try to keep the tech-speak down to a minimum in my posts, but this topic, sadly, requires a good bit. Here’s the situation: You’ve provided a web link within your Blackboard course, perhaps to a page on your own Palomar-hosted WordPress site, perhaps to one of the many videos in Palomar’s streaming video catalog. When some (but likely not all) of your students click the link… nothing. They still have the top red area of Blackboard, and the breadcrumb trail, but everything below that is blank.

What is going on?

Likely you are a victim of security. Not “something has gone wrong, dial up the police” kind of security, nor even the “hackers control my bank account” kind… because technically nothing has gone wrong. And that’s why you have a problem.

At this point, if you aren’t confused I suggest you go back and read the last paragraph again. Then once you’re confused we can continue on. There are two main types of communication protocols over the Internet, and the most common is HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol, for those who are acronym curious). The other protocol you’re likely to encounter is HTTPS, where the “S” stands for “Secure“. Should you ever do any online banking, or purchase from Amazon.com, you’ll be using HTTPS. Palomar’s Blackboard system is also accessed using HTTPS, as we do try to keep things as secure as we reasonably can. However, if you are already on a site using HTTPS (like Blackboard) and you link to a page using HTTP in the same browser window (like you might have done in your course), modern web browsers are likely to stop that from happening.

Now if you recall what I’ve had to say about web browsers in the past you already know that the browsers all behave differently, and that everybody ends up using different ones during their online experience. So I’m not going to bother giving specific examples of how the browsers stop this activity… instead I’ll just tell you the easy workaround your students can do immediately, and how you can fix your links to avoid the problem in the future.

When students click a link in your course, and get the blank instead, what they ought to try is to go back and right-click (or control-click for the mono-button OS X users out there) on the link, then choose an option to open the link in a new tab or window. The new tab or window will open, and chances are it will load up the content normally. Why? Because it’s no longer a case of loading unsecured content within a secured tab; now it’s a secured tab and an unsecured tab, which does not represent any security risk.

Now how can you make your web links within Blackboard avoid this problem? If you edit an existing web link, or go to create a new web link (from the Build Content menu), section 4 of the page has an option for “Open in New Window”. For new link additions this should default to Yes; leave it at yes and you’re good to go. For old links if may be set to No; change it, then hit Submit, and you’re good to go.

Easy, no? But knowing that simple workaround can get your students back to learning far more quickly than having to contact support, and knowing to make your links open in a new window will make your course run that much more smoothly.

Making Blackboard Available

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As you (hopefully) already know, when your Blackboard courses are created here at Palomar (up to 90 days prior to the start of the semester), those courses are all unavailable to students. That’s why students cannot immediately start horsing around in your course site as soon as they enroll.

However, until and unless you make your course available to students, they can’t get in. Even if you post a bunch of handouts, build assessments, and set up discussion board forums, and tell your students to go use them… if the course is unavailable still, the students can’t.

“How can I tell if my course is unavailable,” I can hear asked. It’s not too subtle, really. For starters, when you first log into Blackboard and look at your course in that My Courses module, the class will say “(not currently available)” right next to the course name. Also, when you are inside your course, up in the upper left corner, in the breadcrumb trail, you should see a similar notation.

Breadcrumb Trail

For those of you already familiar with reading the breadcrumb trail, you’ll note that at the time I took that screen capture I was in the Properties controls of the Customization area. You can get there via your Control Panel.

Control Panel

In there, you should see a control for your course availability; set it to Yes, and then hit the Submit button at the top or bottom of the screen.

Set Availability

Okay, that’s not too bad. Plus, it’s the only way to allow your students to begin using the contents of your Blackboard course. Mind, it can get a bit tedious having to go into each of your courses – should you be teaching multiple courses – and have to set each Availability control separately. “Dave,” I can hear you ask, “isn’t there some way I can control the availability of multiple courses from a single control panel?”

Glad you asked; yes there is.

If you navigate back to the “My Palomar” screen, which you see when you first log on to the system, take a look over at the left of the screen. In a box labeled Tools, near the bottom, you should see a link labeled Instructor Quick Tools. Click that, then click Course Availability.

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You should see all your courses, and toggling the availability On or Off is as simple as a click on each switch. Switches, notice please, that are even color coded for your convenience.

If you haven’t yet, make certain you have made your Blackboard course available… preferably before you tell your students to go in and do something.

Blackboard Thing of the Week: Test Activity Log

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Ever wish you could tell what is actually going on during a student test attempt in Blackboard? Would you like to know if your students actually backtrack through your test, to correct problems, or just bull straight through and hit Submit? Well… now you can know.

New with service pack 13 of Blackboard (which goes live on Palomar’s production Blackboard environment during the maintenance window of August 1st through 4th) you gain the ability to view Access Logs for test attempts. To see these, all you do is click the Access Log button in the Test Information area of a student test submission.

Test Access Log

Mind, interpreting the logs may be a bit tricky, at least at first. I’m not claiming that we in tech support are log analysis experts, but if you examine these logs and feel unclear on them, please get in touch. We may be of assistance in understanding what the logs are truly telling you.

To see this in action, take a look at the following video: