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!

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

Blackboard logo

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, 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

Blackboard logo

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.


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

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:

Blackboard Adventure Time

Blackboard logo

Hi, this is David the human, and today I’ll be telling you a bit about my adventure last week in Las Vegas, at the BbWorld 2013 convention. (Okay, technically I attended both Blackboard’s Developer’s Conference, DevCon, and the main BbWorld conference, but the content from DevCon is uniformly tech in nature so likely nobody here cares.) Some of the BbWorld sessions were about esoteric topics, such as how to optimize the integration of data from the Palomar eServices system into Blackboard, or how to crawl around in the databases looking for diagnostic information to help make the system perform better. (If you’re interested in what all was available, you can revel in the official BbWorld 2013 documentation here.) But some sessions, as well as the conference keynotes, may be of interest to the faculty here, so I figured I should report in.

During the BbWorld conference many of the attendees tweeted, using the hashtag #BbWorld13. I also tweeted. I tweeted a lot. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in seeing those, feel free to find me on Twitter as @DavidTheGray.) So I’ll use some of those to describe what I found as the high points of the conference:

The opening keynote featured Clay Shirkey, who had some interesting stories about technology. One specific example given was the “Red Balloon Challenge” done by DARPA back in 2009. Perhaps I took the incorrect moral away from that story.

Red Balloon Challenge Tweet

Needless to say, Mr. Shirkey was able to get his story through to even MY brain.

"I can't do this on my own" Tweet

So the conference was off to a fairly powerful start. My first session, rather than being one of a technical nature, was actually more focused on pedagogy, and how to structure course content using “Predictable Design” to best support student success.

Tall order Tweet

don't read the syllabus Tweet

Predictable Design Tweet

GPS Tweet

With these admonitions still ringing in my ears, I’ll put out this challenge to y’all: If you’d like to sit down with me and discuss the workflow and layout of your Blackboard course materials, I’d love to work with you on that. Just let me know!

The following day, I sat through the Blackboard corporate keynote, and on the final day the Blackboard product roadmap. Here’s the best of show from those sessions:

Work together Tweet

Right out of the new CEO’s mouth, the company will be putting much focus on how the various Blackboard tools work together. The most immediate benefit from that for us will be having the Blackboard Collaborate tool finally integrate well with course sites.

UX Design Tweet

The company is recognizing that user experience (shortened to UX) is key; it really doesn’t matter how great the tools may be, if they can’t be used then… they are useless.

New Improvements Tweet

My personal choice for the best improvement over the last twelve months… difficult choice, as Blackboard has released many improvements. Calendar, Discussion Board, Video Everywhere, and the Inline Assignment Grading are all new. But after some thought my choice for “best” goes to the Test Deployment Exceptions. Incidentally, ALL of those are currently available on our production system; hopefully that doesn’t come as a shock.

SafeAssign Tweet

The “coming soon” modification that made me happiest is that Blackboard plans to consolidate the SafeAssign tool with their regular Assignment tool. So sometime soon it should be… you know, the way it always ought to have been… create an Assignment, then simply check a box to have an originality report generated. (Okay, there’s more tech work than just that, but from the user’s point of view it should be just that simple.)

Test Activity Logs Tweet

Not really a “coming soon” but instead a new function already released that we will have on our production system come Fall 2013: There will be faculty-readable logs of how a student progresses during their test attempts. (So you can tell if “Joe Student” spent the whole time without ever answering a question, or if they ran through the first fifty in ten minutes and then spend thirty minutes on the next question. Stuff like that.) Naturally there will be a whole post dedicated to this new function… I just haven’t written it yet!

The closing keynote speaker was Sugata Mitra, who shared some amazing stories of his Hole in the Wall work, and the implications he sees.

Pedagogy Tweet

Naturally I can’t do the man justice in my paltry blog post; I would advise you to examine what he offers in the way of TED talks.

Finally, lest I come off as insightful or some such, let me leave you with a tweet from one of the technical presentations I attended:

Feel dumb Tweet

It made for a fantastic conference, but a bit overwhelming. So if you’re worried about your students getting overwhelmed in your course, take my plea: Give them some pictures, instead of more text or talking.

Blackboard Thing of the Week: Tour a Sample Course Structure

Blackboard logo

Way back in May of 2012, I posted on a new addition to Blackboard, Course Structures. However, I haven’t seen any faculty really putting these to use, so I wanted to showcase at least one structure.

In the video below I use the organization by Chapter (which, for any class based around the textbook, works fairly well), and show off a bit of the sample content and my thoughts on the mindset behind the structure.

In particular, points I like in the structure are:

  1. The default entry point is a module page optimized for student use.
  2. The syllabus information is not a single linked document, but instead multiple shorter items.
  3. The content area for the syllabus materials is not right at the top of the course menu.
  4. The “Chapters” area, where the bulk of the instructional content dwells, is at the top of the course menu.

I wouldn’t suggest using every single idea from that structure, but as a source of inspiration to cherry-pick through I think it is very solid. Maybe seeing these sorts of demo pieces can inspire you to reorganize your own course site and make it more effective. That’s the theory, anyway. But see for yourself, in the video below:

New Blackboard Test Deployment Options

Blackboard logo

With our latest Blackboard upgrade (to version 9.1 SP12, to be specific) the system has some new test deployment options. Now, I know what you’re thinking, the options that already existed were good enough, why does Blackboard have to keep getting more complex, grumble grumble. But I’m here to tell you that these changes are actually for the better, and will address needs that have been unmet but often requested by quite a few faculty over the years.

First off, no test deployment options have been removed. Existing tests will continue to function the way they were originally set up, no worries on that score. You still have the ability to allow unlimited attempts, or to specify a number of attempts allowed, and the default is still to allow only one attempt. You can still set time limits, although the default is to not have a time limit, and you can change the behavior to have Auto Submit end student’s test attempts when the time limit is reached. That’s all just the same as before, and the controls for it all look pretty much the same, too.

So, let’s say you like to use timed tests. Perhaps you allow your students to have 30 minutes to complete a given test. But two of your students are actually allowed to take time-and-a-half to finish, for whatever reasons. What do you do? Now, all you have to do is set an Exception to the deployment options, and allow individual students to have different time limits. Perhaps you give these two students a time limit of 45 minutes instead – no problem – and you can use Auto Submit on everyone’s tests still, too.

Let’s say you want to allow specific students to have an extra attempt at this test, but most folks are restricted to a single attempt. Set up an exception that allows specific people to have a different number of attempts, even an unlimited number. Or force most students to use Auto Submit at the time limit, but don’t require it for one student… no idea when you’d want to do that, but now you CAN do it if you need to.

Now, it is still possible to set a Due Date on a test, but… doesn’t the Due Date function seem fairly weak to you? Sure it causes the To Do module to show when a test is coming up, but that’s the sort of thing Announcements are for. Well now the Due Date on tests has some teeth. When you set a Due Date, you now have the option to prevent students from starting the test after the Due Date has passed. What does this mean, practically? Leave the test link visible to students, but only allow students to start taking the test before the Due Date. Really, you could start leaving test links always visible if you want, without any risk of students sneaking in to take the test after the test review in class.

And speaking of “after the testing period is done,” there’s an advance in the way the Score and Feedback can be displayed. Always before you had to set what students see once they’ve submitted: Score, Given Answer, Correct Answer, Feedback. You can still control that, but there is an additional layer of control now, so that your test could show students only the Score immediately after submitting their test attempts, but once the Due Date passes they can automatically see the correct answers, what they submitted, and the feedback. Basically you can set up your test to do this for you, so you don’t have to remember to modify your test options manually later on.

Sound good? Well you can see all this in action in the video below, or try it out (even on the production system) right now. And, as always, if you run into any problems or have questions, just submit a ticket to our helpdesk system.

Blackboard Grade Center Icons

Blackboard logo

As I write this post, the latest Blackboard upgrade here at Palomar is still in progress. So the next time you hop into the Blackboard system, you’ll just head into a Grade Center and see all the familiar icons like the green exclamation point that means Needs Grading, right?


Several icons in the new version of the Grade Center appear very different now. (The Grade Center itself isn’t significantly changed, but the look is different with these new icons.) So be warned, you’ll likely have a few jarring “what is THAT?” moments for a while during visits to the grade grid.

SP12 Grade Center Icon Legend

Naturally you can always bring up the Icon Legend by hitting the button at the lower right corner of the Grade Center screen, but here’s the ones likely to matter:

  • Needs Grading is now a yellow circle with the old familiar white exclamation point.
  • Attempt in Progress, which used to be simply “In Progress” with the paper being written, is now a blue circle/pie chart thing. I assume it’s meant to represent a countdown clock.
  • Grade Exempted for this User used to be blue hash marks across the whole grade cell, but is now a grey hash mark icon.

The remainder of the icons are either the same as always, or are used infrequently enough that I don’t think they matter. (Has anybody ever actually SEEN the Error icon show up in the Grade Center? If so, let me know.) And, as always, if you run into any problems using the system, let us know via our helpdesk system.