Grading? Back up!

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As the Fall term draws to a close, quite a bit of grading is going on. If you’ve just spent the last two hours at your computer punching in student grades, this might be a good time to back up that work.

If you’re already in your course site now, just follow these 6 simple steps to create a grade backup:

  1. Go to the “Full Grade Center” view, so you can see the whole grade grid for your course.
  2. Over on the upper right of the grid, open up the “Work Offline” menu, then choose “Download”.
  3. If you are hiding student grades in the grade grid, be sure to “Include Hidden Information” in section 2 of the Download grades options. If not, then the default setting are all you should need.
  4. Click the “Submit” button.
  5. Click the “DOWNLOAD” button in the upper left corner of the Download Grades screen.
  6. Save the file onto your computer, somewhere you will find it should you ever have need.

Hopefully you’ll never need a backup of your grades, but hope and a backup will get you more than just hope.

Blackboard Course Copy

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As faculty may have noticed, the Spring 2013 courses now exist within Blackboard (in accordance with our policy of creating courses 90 days prior to the new semester). Of course, all these new courses are empty shells, so now is when you might want to use the Course Copy tool to transfer material forward from an older course site.

To begin the course copy process, start in the Source course. That is, go into the older course which already contains your course materials, and use the copy tool there to transfer material to the new course site. (If you go into the empty new course site and try to use the Course Copy tool, it will let you, but all you will be able to copy is… nothing, since that new course is empty.)

Open up the subsection of the Control Panel named “Packages and Utilities” and click the option for “Course Copy.” The next screen will begin with a drop-down list which only gives you one choice, to copy into an Existing Course. However, at the top of section 2, you will want to click the “Browse…” button, which will open a new window.

In the new window, click the radio button next to the course you wish to copy into. If you teach more than one type of course, this is the point where you should check to be sure that you are copying from the correct older course into the correct newer course. A bit of double-checking at this stage can save you a world of headaches in clearing out incorrect material if you choose the wrong course to copy into; you want to pick a Spring 2013 course site, so watch for that term designation.

Once you choose the course to copy into, scroll down and click the red Submit button in the lower right corner of the window. That window will close, and you will be returned to the previous Course Copy screen. The next step is to select what parts of your course site you want copied into the new semester course. Of course your milage may vary, depending on how you put Blackboard to work, but there are a few issues to keep in mind when choosing which of these boxes to check:

  • If you use tests, you will need to choose the content areas where your tests are deployed, as well as the check boxes lower down the screen for “Tests, Surveys, and Pools” and “Grade Center Columns and Settings.”
  • If you use Discussion Board forums, please realize that after the copy is complete you may have to clean up these forums before they are ready to use. Sometimes old student posts copy along with the forums.
  • In the “Settings” area, do NOT check the boxes for “Duration” or “Enrollment Options.” Checking those boxes will cause your copy to fail.
  • If you check the “Settings” box for “Availability” from an Available course to a new course site, the new course site will immediately become available to students. Likely you will not want to do this, and instead want to review the results of your course copy (and possibly update some of the content) prior to making the new course site available to students.

Once you’ve checked all the boxes you need, just click the red Submit button in the top or bottom right corner of the screen. You should immediately receive a Success message, indicating that your copy is going to run.

Please note that the way the Course Copy tool works in Blackboard can take some time. But don’t worry, as you’ll see below there are plenty of messages within the system to keep you updates on the status of your copy, and once the copy is complete you will receive an email letting you know. Once you’ve started this copy process, if you navigate back to the My Palomar tab quickly enough, you may catch site of a note in the My Courses module indicating that your copy is waiting to run:

If the copy is running, you will see a slightly different message on the My Courses module:

And, if you access the course that you are copying in to while that process is in progress, you’ll see a note about it at the top of the screen:

If you wait until after the course copy is complete, the My Courses module will go back to normal. However, the next time you enter your course you should see another message up at the top of the course, indicating that the course copy is Complete:

To get rid of that message, just click the “X” button over at the right side of the bar. Congratulations, your course materials have been copied. Of course the best plan is for you to begin looking through all of the newly copied materials, and make any changes necessary before the students begin using your course.

One final thought: The Course Copy process typically does not take very long to complete (although larger courses will obviously take longer to copy), but the copy process may take longer if you try to copy during a high-load time. What I mean is, try not to wait until right before the start of the Spring term before starting your copy process. Oh, and if your copy has been waiting or running for more than two hours, you should probably contact tech support.

The Blackboard Course Life Cycle

We are occasionally asked something like ‘can you restore a class to the active system that I taught 3 years ago?’  The answer is ‘no.’  We have explained this many times, but the information always seems to come as a surprise to someone, so let me go over it again.

We keep the current semester, the previous 3 semesters, and the future semester (as soon as future courses are created in Peoplesoft, which is approximately 90 days before the start of a semester) in our Blackboard database.  Old courses are pruned from the system on a rolling year schedule.  For example, at the conclusion of the fall 2012 semester, the fall 2011 courses are pruned from the system.  Immediately on the conclusion of the spring 2013 semester the spring 2012 courses will be pruned, and so on.

Let me repeat that last idea.  It is always misunderstood.  When a semester ends, the semester’s worth of courses taught A YEAR AGO, are deleted from the Blackboard system.

For this reason, we strongly recommend that professors make an archive of their courses once they are complete so that if they only teach a course every 2 years, say, or if they have some reason to review student performance long after a course has ended, they will be able to restore the content from the archive file.  Course archives contain all course content AND all student work.  Here is a screen video that explains how to make an archive, and here are written instructions [PDF].

Note:  Archives larger than 2.5GB cannot be restored to the Blackboard system, and are therefore essentially useless.  If your archive exceeds this size limit please contact us so that we can work with you to develop an alternative backup strategy.

Put another way, Professor access to the courses they teach using Blackboard persists for a year after the course ends.  Student access to courses is different.  Students can only access the course from the time the instructor first makes the course available until two weeks after the semester in which the course was taught, or until the professor makes the course unavailable, whichever comes first.  Student work and grades are available to the instructor at all times during the course’s life cycle, but not to the student.  If a student later needs access to the course to complete an incomplete, contact us for assistance.

To sum up the Blackboard course life cycle, then, take a look at this sequence:

Date Event
≈ May 20, 2012 Blackboard courses for the fall 2012 semester are created in PeopleSoft and Blackboard.  Instructors have access to them, but they are created as unavailable to students until such time as the instructor makes the course available.
June 20, 2012 Summer 6 and 8 week courses begin.
August 15, 2012 Summer semester courses end.  (Actually, the 6-week courses end August 1, the 8-week end August 15, but for Blackboard purposes we treat the end of the summer semester as August 15.
August 15, 2012 Summer courses that were taught in the summer of 2011 are deleted from the Blackboard system.
August  20, 2012 Fall 2012 classes begin.
≈ October 22, 2012 Blackboard courses for the spring 2013 semester are created in PeopleSoft and Blackboard.  Instructors have access to them, but they are created as unavailable to students until such time as the instructor makes the course available.
December 15, 2012 Fall 2012 semester ends.
December 15, 2012 Blackboard courses taught during the fall 2011 semester are deleted from the Blackboard system.
January 22, 2013 Spring 2013 classes begin.
≈ March 20, 2013 Blackboard courses for the summer 2013 semester are created in PeopleSoft and Blackboard.  Instructors have access to them, but they are created as unavailable to students until such time as the instructor makes the course available.
≈ May 17, 2013 Blackboard courses for the fall 2013 semester are created in PeopleSoft and Blackboard.  Instructors have access to them, but they are created as unavailable to students until such time as the instructor makes the course available.
May 24, 2013 Spring classes end.
May 24, 2013 Classes taught in the spring 2012 semester are deleted from the Blackboard system.
June 17, 2013 Summer 6 and 8 week classes begin.
And so on…

Therefore courses exist on the Blackboard system a) for 90 days prior to the semester in which they are conducted; b) during the semester they are conducted; and c) for one year after they are conducted.

Blackboard Changes: Course Hopper

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A wonderful new aide to navigating around within Blackboard is part of the SP8 upgrade. (Okay, so this won’t be on Palomar’s production environment until after the upgrade to Blackboard’s 9.1 SP8 version next Monday, June 4th, but it is available on the BbSandbox environment already.) Technically named “Course-to-course navigation” this tool allows movement between courses to the same part of a course.

From the Blackboard documentation:

Course-to-Course Navigation allows students and instructors to jump from course to course while retaining the context of the page or task from the original page of any recently accessed course.

This video illustrates moving between courses with this course hopper function:

This navigation tool has the potential to streamline an instructor’s workflow tremendously. For example, if you are in the mood to grade papers your students have submitted, go into your first course and into the Needs Grading screen. Grade the papers in this first course, then choose your next course from the drop-down menu. Boom, you’re now in the Needs Grading screen of the next course. Rinse and repeat.

If you use the same names for content areas in your different courses, you will also be able to jump directly between those areas, which will make processes such as “upload all my syllabi” much easier. Certainly this isn’t truly new functionality, after all you’ve moved between multiple courses before now, but hopping directly between courses is easier and simpler than ever before. Happy course hopping!

Blackboard Changes: Course Structures

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For years faculty just starting out using Blackboard, or faculty deciding to overhaul their course content, have asked for some sort of template to use for course organization. Unfortunately that isn’t a “one size fits all” sort of thing, so there really hasn’t been any good template that we can recommend for faculty to use. Clearly we aren’t the only institution with that situation, and in response Blackboard has produced the new Course Structures component.

Course Structures allow an instructor to choose from a list of different organizational methods, and then add course menu, content area, and even samples of content that would be appropriate to use with the selected organizational method. Course Structures may be selected as part of the Quick Setup interface, or applied separately from the Control Panel. You can either browse through the screens in a course site, or you can take a look at a listing of all the different Course Structures that are available.

There are too many different structures available to look at them all in depth, but the one that most closely matches a commonly used organizational method here at Palomar is the Weekly Course structure. In the detailed PDF created on that structure are specifics about why the course menu is built in such a fashion, as well as information on what sorts of content would go in each content area; if you decided to include the sample content when adopting this structure you would get pieces of content added with demonstration names and suggested content types.

If you do use the sample content you may note that the background on the imported content looks slightly different than what you are used to; sample content appears differently to an instructor (and does not appear at all to a student) until it is edited by the instructor. That way students in your course will not see a bunch of demo items, even if you applied a course structure to a live course while students were using it. (Clearly it would be better to apply course structures to a course that is not yet in live use by students, or using one of the courses on Palomar’s BbSandbox environment which students will never see.)

If you have questions about Course Structures, you may want to read over the Frequently Asked Questions document Blackboard has prepared. If you’ve read over that, and still have questions, let us know by opening a ticket on our ATRC Helpdesk system.

Course Structures are new to Blackboard with Service Pack 8, which means you can being using them on the BbSandbox system now, and they will be available on our production Blackboard environment after June 4th. (Because, as you likely know already, Palomar’s production Blackboard environment will be offline for an upgrade to version 9.1 SP8 starting on June 4th, and will be back online by the end of June 7th at the new version.) Take a look; after all, summer is a great time to change up course organization!

Blackboard: Pulling Grades into Excel

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So you’ve been entering your student grades into the Blackboard Grade Center all semester long, and now it’s time to post their final grades for the semester. However, you’d prefer to pull the grades out of Blackboard and into a spreadsheet program like Excel. (Perhaps you are more comfortable in Excel, or perhaps you want to use more complex grade weighting then the Grade Center can provide.)

It’s actually very simple to get your student grades out of the Grade Center. First, of course, go into your course and navigate to the Full Grade Center. Then, in the upper right corner of the screen, open the Work Offline menu and click the Download entry, as shown below.

Work Offline | Download

On the next screen you’ll be asked for details on exactly what you want do download from your Grade Center. The default behavior is to save everything that is visible in the main grade grid view, so if that’s what you want then go ahead and hit the Submit button. If, on the other hand, you want just a Selected Column, or if you want to Include Hidden Information (useful if you hide your Grade Center columns), then you would choose the appropriate radio buttons. There is a question as to the Delimiter Type, with a choice of Comma or Tab separated values. Virtually every spreadsheet program will be able to read either of those types, so it probably doesn’t matter which you choose.

Once you’ve submitted your choices, the system should think to itself for a moment and then present you with a page containing a DOWNLOAD button. Click that, and save the file onto your own computer. Then go into your spreadsheet program and open that file; Excel usually complains about the file format not matching the file extension, but just tell it to go ahead and open the file and it shouldn’t give you any further trouble.

Oh, by the way, if you need to refer to the student ID numbers once you’ve pulled them into Excel, be aware that the ever-helpful program does truncate any leading zeros from numbers, so the list of student ID numbers is technically incomplete as student IDs (at least for now) all start with at least one zero. It probably doesn’t matter to anyone, but… now you know.

Bear in mind that there is no requirement to open up that file in a spreadsheet program if you don’t want to. The downloaded file is also useful as a backup of all the grades from your course. Between that and making a Course Archive, you’ll have a good backup of your course.