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 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.


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

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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

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With our latest Blackboard Learn 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.

Blackboard Thing of the Week – Smart Views in the Grade Center

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Have you ever been just sick to death of scrolling around within the Grade Center? Sometimes I have a need to see only particular students in the Grade Center, and even only particular grade entries for those students, and it can be frustrating to scroll back and forth to check on those specifics and ignore the rest.

Wouldn’t it be nice to just tell the Blackboard course to show you only what you need to see, and not bother with the rest? Yes, yes it is nice.

The tool in question is called a Smart View, in which you can set up a filter so that the Grade Center will only show content based around some criteria. In this example shown in the video below, I ratchet things down to three specific students and only three columns from the larger grade grid. Also, to facilitate maximum laziness on my part, I link that Smart View so that I can get to it directly from the Control Panel, thus don’t need to visit the full grade grid as often.

And, should you not be quite sure how to get a particular effect in your Smart View… maybe we can help. Feel free to open a ticket in our helpdesk and describe what you’re trying to accomplish (or just ask to set up an appointment and we can meet with you in person).

Blackboard Thing of the Week: Discussion Board Course Copy Controls

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No, the Blackboard Thing of the Week was not abandoned, I just went on vacation for a long time! I’m back now, and finding out some interesting aspects in the new version of Blackboard (9.1 Service Pack 12, for any version number fans out there). One such has to do with the Course Copy tool… but in a good way.

Our history of the Course Copy tool here at Palomar is a rocky one; semesters have gone by where we needed to have the whole tool disabled because it did not work properly, but still this is the primary way in which content is copied forward into new semester course sites. A question that keeps coming up for faculty about to copy a course is “what do I get if I copy the Discussion Boards?”

The confusion about this aspect of Course Copy is because nobody really knows what to expect. Will the new forums contain all their posts from the old course? If so, will they have student names attached, or be listed as Anonymous? If not, will the forums be blank, or will instructor-created posts be copied across to the new forums?

This confusion should be a thing of the past, with the advent of actual controls built into the Course Copy tool which spell out the available choices.


As you can see from the image above, instructors now get to choose between copying forums with no posts at all, or with first-level posts (not replies) which are set to be anonymous. No confusion, just pick which behavior you want and submit your course copy. When it’s done, just hop into the destination course enjoy!

Blackboard Thing of the Week: Questions – Multiple Fill in the Blanks

This week let’s take a look at one of the numerous question types available for use in a Blackboard test: Multiple Fill in the Blanks. As you’d expect from the name, this question type allows for a sentence with one or more “blanks” for the student to fill in. The tricks to using this question type are first to have the right type of question, and second to format the question properly.

So what sort of question is “the right type” to use with multiple fill in the blanks? Naturally that’s a matter of opinion, but what I look for is a question that isn’t going to have a great many possible words that might fill those blanks. For example, a bad question might be “The first president of the Unites States was [blank].” You see, in that case, as the instructor you would need to determine which (if any) answers might be correct. Among possibly correct answers might be “Washington”, “George Washington”, “President Washington”, “Mr. Washington”, et cetera, ad nauseum. And that doesn’t even consider the issue of if you’ll accept common mis-spellings or require correct capitalization  (Personally I always require correct use of capitals, but that’s just me.) In the explanatory video below I use the (obviously silly) sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Change out the adjectives for blanks, and that makes a fair sample, but if there are ever any exact quotes, or term definitions which students are supposed to have committed to memory, any of those would be suitable for this question type.

As to exactly how to format the question, it’s truly just a case of putting placeholders everywhere you’d want a blank to go. A strategy that has worked well for me is to start by typing out the whole sentence, then replacing words with the placeholders, as you’ll see in the video. Each placeholder is a variable between square brackets, so [x] would be an example. Thus the sample sentence about the fox above might become “The [q] [b] fox jumps over the [l] dog.” When you proceed to the next page of question creation, you’ll have the chance to fill in which words are correct for each placeholder. And, since Blackboard will know what the correct answers are, the system will grade the question for you.

So, be it one blank or many, consider how you might get your students filling out blanks in your tests!