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

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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 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

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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!