Personalizing Blackboard Content

Blackboard logo

I’m certain you’ve received bulk messages, either on paper through the mail or (often as spam) though email. Often those messages use a function known as “mail merge” to modify the content of the message to show personalized information. Although that sort of function can be awkward if used poorly, Blackboard has limited options to get a “mail merge” effect out of your Blackboard content.

This function was originally intended for developers to be able to list personal details, but these “tokens” will work for students and instructors within Blackboard courses as well. Most of the tokens available are fairly useless (for details see the complete list), but there are three that you may get some use out of: Full Name, Username, and Course Name.

Whenever you are posting content using the Content Editor within Blackboard, including where students post to discussion boards, you can simply put these place-holders, and when viewed the correct information will display.

Data Token Sample
Full Name @X@user.full_name@X@ David Gray
Username 012345678
Course Name @X@course.course_name@X@ 2014 Fall DEMO 100 Demonstration Course 79999

Using these tokens, I could post a piece of content like:

@X@user.full_name@X@ (, welcome to @X@course.course_name@X@.

Which, after submission, would display like this:

David Gray (012345678), welcome to 2014 Fall DEMO 100 Demonstration Course 79999.

Sadly there is not a token for “only first name” so the full user’s name is the best you could hope to use for personalizing. These tokens should also work when using Blackboard to send email or post announcements, but I do recommend testing to be certain you have the code correct before blasting out a message to everybody in the course.

Generating Boilerplate Content within Word

Word 2013

Perhaps you’ve been in this situation: Need to work on the formatting of a document, but the author hasn’t provided the text yet. What you really need is some sample text in your Word document, but you don’t want to go out and find some text online, possibly for fear of getting interested in some new topic. (Or is that just me?)

Microsoft Word actually has a function just for this purpose. Actually, I lie, it has two functions just for this purpose.

To see this in action, fire up Word, open up a new document and type (without the quote marks, of course) “=lorem(5,8)” and then hit Enter. You should be looking at five paragraphs of eight sentences each, filled with that psuedo-Latin “Lorem ipsum” text. Naturally you can change the numbers in that, with the first controlling number of paragraphs and the second controlling number of sentences, so “=lorem(71,3)” would result in many short paragraphs.

But what if you want some boilerplate text, but want something that will be readable English? In that case, type in “=rand(5,3)” (or whatever numbers of paragraphs and sentences you want), and hit Enter. Text will appear, drawn from Microsoft help files. (At one time it used to iterate “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” But this changed to somewhat meaningful text around Word 2007.)

So there you have it, two functions to generate some throw-away text. Now you can get to testing font styles, preparing the locations of images, anything else to beautify the document, all without waiting for the author to get the text to you.

Getting Loopy with PowerPoint 2013

If your classes go anything like my workshops do, then you seldom start right on time. I always hate “wasting time” out of my scheduled class time, and wish I could do something to make that time more useful.

I’d really like to have something like the pre-previews content that movie theaters run; you know, the stuff with trivia games, ads, and the like that play before the house lights dim. There’s always an array of things to tell my learners about, and having that showing on the classroom projector while I do other things until class starts seems ideal.

PowerPoint to the rescue!

If you prepare a series of informational slides (when the next exam is, when the drop deadline is, what sort of cookies you prefer, etc.) it is possible to configure your slides to automatically advance, and when the end of the presentation hits, to loop around and play them all again. The two key elements are “Transitions” and “Loop Continuously.”

  1. First, make sure you don’t have any animations that are set to run “On Click.” If you do, those animations will not trigger.
  2. Next, for each slide, decide how long you want it to display on the screen.
  3. Move to the first slide, and click the Transitions tab.
    Transitions AdvanceSlide
  4. At the right side of the ribbon, in the “Advance Slide” area, uncheck “On Mouse Click”, check “After:” and set the time. That is minutes, seconds, and fractions of a second, so if you want the slide there for 15 seconds it must be set to 00:15.00.
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 on each slide of your presentation. Each may have a completely different time set.
  6. Next, go to the Slideshow tab, and click the “Set Up Slide Show” button near the left of the ribbon.
  7. On the “Set Up Show” dialog, check the box for “Loop continuously until ‘Esc'”, and be sure the “Advance slides” control is set to “Using timings, if present.” That way, all those times you set will actually be used.
    Set Up Show Dialog
  8. Now you can save your show, as you normally would, in the PPTX format.

Technically you’re all done now (although you’ll want to test things BEFORE going into the classroom). But to trigger your presentation, all you need to do is right-click the PPTX file, and choose “Show” on the context menu. That should cause your presentation to open immediately into the slideshow mode, so all you would need to do then is sit back, and watch your presentation run itself.

PPTX Menu ShowNow, if you’re the type who wants to use animations, even in these slides, that can be done. The trick is to make sure all your animations are set to “With previous” or “After previous,” and that none use “On Click.” Of course, the more complex your animations, the more you’ll want to test and be sure everything works as expected.

So there you have it: Self presenting slides. My plan is to start such a presentation Showing a few minutes prior to my next in-person session, and see if anyone pays attention. When you give it a try, let me know how your experience goes!


New Faculty Technology-related Cheat Sheet

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, 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

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, 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

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

MathPad logo

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

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 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 .

Develop Your Own Blackboard Course

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, 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.


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.


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

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

Blackboard logo

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 for news and updates throughout the semester. Have a great Spring term!