New Blackboard Calendar

Corporate logo for Blackboard

Have you noticed that the calendar in Blackboard is… bad. Well, no longer.

Blackboard has just released an update (their first significant update to the calendar tool, perhaps ever) to the Calendar tool now that Service Pack 10 is out, which makes calendaring finally useful. Drag-and-drop functionality to move calendar events, the ability to create events for multiple courses from one interface (although not all at once, sadly), automatic calendar entries for anything you set a due date on, even iCal feed functionality! This new calendar may not “have it all” but it is a serious step forward and encourages me to finally say what I thought I never would:

Blackboard’s Calendar is a useful tool.

This new calendar is available on the Palomar Blackboard Sandbox system now, and will go live on the production system along with our upgrade to Service Pack 10 during the planned outage beginning on January 7th, 2013. So have a happy new year, and a happy new calendar to mark the time with!

Tales from the Knowledge Base: Blackboard Information for Faculty

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As mentioned on this blog recently, we upgraded Our Helpdesk System as of the beginning of August 2012. As part of that process the techs had the chance to update all of the articles in our Knowledge Base, so to the best of our abilities all that information is correct and accurate. However, we’re often asked the exact questions from our knowledge base, leading me to believe that folks are unaware that these things are documented. So, let’s take a look and see what interesting tidbits are hiding out there…

For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the Blackboard articles in the “Information for Faculty” area:

Now, you may be thinking something along the lines of “I would never ask any of those questions. Why don’t they have an article covering MY questions?” If you have questions, please submit those to us using the helpdesk system. If your question really is a common one, we’ll turn it into a Knowledge Base article soon enough. Even if it isn’t a common question, at least we will be able to answer the question for you… but you do need to ask.

Blackboard: New Version Changes

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Palomar’s Blackboard production environment is up again, after being offline for maintenance since 6 AM on Monday. The production system is now running Blackboard Learn version 9.1 Service Pack 8. Given that the original time estimate was for the upgrade to get done “before 5 PM on Thursday” I think it’s great that the system is back online by Tuesday evening. This version of the Blackboard system has been available since February (as detailed in “Take 8 Everybody“) on the BbSandbox environment where we showcase upcoming version of the Blackboard system.

Recently we’ve put the spotlight on several new functions now available in Blackboard:

There are, of course, other adjustments and changes to the system, but these are the most obvious, and the most likely to jump up in your face when using the system for the first time. (Quite literally, in the case of the Quick Setup Guide.)

In addition to these functional changes to the system, there are also some visual differences that you may notice, particularly the omission of the green Control Panel from within courses. (Mind, if you still want to make your screen offensive to the eye, feel free to adopt the Fuchsia course theme.) Even the system login page is a simpler, cleaner look now. We do still maintain the little badge at the left of the screen on the login page which, if lit up green, will allow students and faculty to start a live chat session with the ATRC technicians.

Copy IconBoth Summer and Fall 2012 terms loom on the horizon right now, so keep in mind that the Course Copy function remains the same now as ever; the key is to queue up the copy from within the OLD course, into the new and empty course site. And, as always, should you run into any problems or have any questions while using the Blackboard system, you can reach us by opening a support ticket at the ATRC Helpdesk.

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!

Fall 2012 Blackboard Course Prep: Go!

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With Spring behind us, it’s time to relax, kick back, and enjoy the best season of the year: Fall prep time.

In accordance with our customary policy of creating Blackboard courses 90 days in advance of the start of a term, the Fall 2012 Blackboard courses were created yesterday. Yes, that means Fall is only three months off! Assuming that all the paperwork on your classes is already input to the eServices system, when you log into the Palomar Blackboard system with your instructor account you should see all those new course sites set up and waiting.

Remember that these courses are, by default, empty and unavailable to students. So, even though students enrolling in your class will end up on your Blackboard course roster within an hour of the enrollment going into eServices, those students will not be able to access your new course site until and unless you manually make that course available.

If you are looking to transfer material from a previous semester on our Blackboard system, go into that old course and use the Course Copy tool.

If you have a course export file from some other location (either a file from some other Blackboard system or from your publisher), just use the Import Package tool.

If you are adopting a course cartridge for the new term, make sure you get your Course Cartridge Download Key from the publisher, then use the Import Course Cartridge tool.

All of these tools are on your Control Panel, under the Packages and Utilities submenu. If you run into any problems using these tools, or have questions about how best to get your new courses ready for Fall (or Summer, if you aren’t ready yet), go ahead and open a ticket with the Academic Technology Helpdesk.

Of course, you should keep in mind that you’ll only have until June 3rd to work before the Palomar Blackboard system will be brought down for maintenance and upgrades. The system will be offline starting Monday, June 4th at 6 AM possibly until Thursday, June 7th at 5 PM, although we will do our best to get the system back online as soon as possible. So either get your work done before then, or resign yourself to waiting until after that week.

Then, when you’ve dotted all your i’s and crossed all your t’s, do not forget to make your course available.

Blackboard Changes: The Quick Setup Guide

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As all Palomar faculty should be aware, we take the Palomar Blackboard system offline shortly after each term to run system maintenance and install upgrades to the software. The next maintenance window is planned for June 4th through the 7th, starting at 6 AM on that Monday and keeping the Blackboard system offline until all the upgrades and system changes are complete.

There are a few significant changes coming in the next updated version, which (for those version watchers out there) will be Blackboard Learn 9.1 Service Pack 8. For details on all those changes you may want to refer to a previous blog post from back in February. However, there are a few less technical and more visual changes coming that merit special attention. The first is a dialog box that will appear when instructors first access each of their course sites, called the Quick Setup Guide.

The guide puts some help resources, and access to the new Course Themes and Course Structures (which I’ll go into more detail on in future posts), and can easily be suppressed by checking a box in the lower left corner of the window. You can regain access to the Quick Setup Guide by choosing its menu entry on the Control Panel, under Customization, should you wish to.

As you can see, it’s easy enough to shut down, and it does serve as a reminder of what you can do with your courses that previously were not available. Personally I find it useful as a reminder of which courses I’m done working in… if the guide appears, I haven’t gotten the work done in there yet. Feel free to log into the BbSandbox environment and give the new version of Blackboard a workout whenever you like. As always, if you have problems or questions for us in Academic Technology you can reach us using our helpdesk system.

Tech Toolbox: Educreations

Educreations icon

Occasionally when the techs here are speaking with faculty, particularly in the free-form discussions that come up at our Wednesday morning “Blackboard with Cream & Sugar” sessions, the techs will mention tools we use that faculty are unaware of. Sometimes those tools can be adapted to use in the classroom, so I’m highlighting some such tools on the blog under the “Tech Toolbox” name.

Today’s addition to the Tech Toolbox is an educational content creation and distribution tool: Educreations.

From the website:

“Teach what you know. Learn what you don’t. Create and share great video lessons with your iPad or browser.”

Image of the Educreations app on an iPadEducreations may be created using the free iPad app, or by using the Educreations.com website. Of course, creating via the website may be tricky if you do not have some good drawing surface. Of course you could run out and purchase a multi-thousand dollar Wacom display tablet, but it might just make more sense to borrow one of the Inspiron Duo touch-sensitive portable computers from Academic Technology.

But what, at its core, is Educreations? In a nutshell, an Educreation is a recording that will play back an audio recording of what is said, along with a video feed of the drawing you do either on a blank canvas or over the top of still images. It is NOT an actual screen recording, so you won’t be recording the activity of any interactive websites. However, it is certainly possible to do quick screenshots from a website, then pull them into Educreations and annotate the result.

As an example of that, I used one of the ATRC Duo computers to create this brief video on how to get help on Blackboard using our support helpdesk.

Now that recording was just using the built-in mic on the Duo; I’d have a much more robust sound quality if I’d bothered to hook up a good external microphone, such as the USB wireless mic available for checkout from the ATRC. I also used a stylus instead of my fingertip, which accounts for much of the shaky line fidelity. (Sometimes a stylus works really well; this was not one of those times.)

I’m not utterly pleased with the screen interface on the PCs at my disposal (although any touch screen makes recording simple compared to using a mouse – I have no idea how the Kahn Academy videos come out so well using a mouse as the drawing device), but I am quite happy with the interface on the iPad. This video was recorded using just the iPad’s built-in mic, while working through some 2nd-grade math homework with my son:

The iPad gives a much smoother interface, and on all the systems I have tried out Educreations on, it wins best of show. However, as touch interfaces become common on home computers (my own personal computer I purchased this spring has one) then the ability to just record marking up and drawing content will become that much more useful.

Regardless of which device you actually do a recording on, once the recording is complete you save it to the Educreations website, which actually has provisions for organizing your recordings into courses, and even contains some basic question and answer function. In theory you could run class discussions wholly from the Educreations website, although this is not something I would recommend. (After all, the true value of Palomar’s Blackboard system is that individual faculty do not need to bother about managing student account information and the minutia of other such administrative drivel. Trying to maintain your own course system elsewhere would dump all those tasks right back in your lap.) Once your recording is posted to the site, if you have made the video available to the public you can then grab the embed code off the page and drop that into a blog post (such as this one) or even into a Blackboard Item in a content area. (Since the embed code is HTML you will, of course, need to toggle over to HTML Mode before pasting the code in, then toggle back and Submit the Item.)

If you found my own recorded videos to be lackluster (I know I find them that way) then I’d encourage you to take a look at the numerous recordings made available on the Educreations website. Their gallery of offerings are far more complex and well done than my own, such as the following video on the nature of light:

Still have questions about Educreations? Chances are the company already has your question answered on the Educreations FAQ page.

Help, I need somebody

Help, not just anybody,
Help, you know I need someone,
Help!

There really are two types of folks that use our services. The first group is those faculty trying to plan for doing something new, such as beginning to use Blackboard for the first time or introducing something like a polling technology into their classroom environment. The second group is those faculty who are doing something, new or old, and need some “Help!”

How should those seekers after assistance contact us, to get their problems resolved as quickly as possible?  There really are a number of ways, depending on exactly what the situation is.

If you are physically in the classroom, trying to do something with the technology in the room for your students, and something isn’t working correctly (i.e. data projector won’t work, Internet is down) then you likely don’t want to talk to Academic Technology at all.  Your first stop in getting help in that situation is to call up the Information Services Helpdesk (at 760-744-1150 X2140) and speak to someone there.  Although it is also possible to email the I.S. Helpdesk (at helpdesk@palomar.edu), you really want to do a phone call to get the quickest response during class time.

If what you are having trouble with is not a time intensive situation (that is, you don’t have students sitting idle waiting for your problem to be solved), that’s most likely when Academic Technology will be of use to you.  The absolute fastest way to get support from us would be through our newly launched Live Support system; you can see if there are available support techs on that system by looking for the button either on the upper right corner of our ATRC website, or on the lower left corner of our own helpdesk site.  If the button says that Live Support is online, then you should be able to click the button and start a chat session with someone at our end immediately.  If the button indicates that we are away, or some other status than online, you can leave us a message (which will show up in our support ticket system), and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.

If you end up leaving us a message, or you decide to open a support ticket instead of trying the Live Support, do make sure you give us as much information as possible.  In particular, leaving screen shots of (or a copy and paste of the text from) error messages you may see will help us immensely.  Otherwise the first thing we end up doing is to write you back and ask for more detail, which isn’t overly helpful for anyone.

If you absolutely must, you may phone for support from Academic Technology at 760-744-1150 X2862.  However, if the support techs are dealing with Live Support sessions, or responding to tickets (or otherwise unavailable), you will end up having to leave a voice message.  The same advice as above about leaving a message applies, so give us as much detail as you can about the problem you are experiencing. Also, do everyone involved a favor and slow down when you say your name and phone number; you may know your name and number very well, but chances are we do not.

Finally, at least for the next several weeks, be aware that Palomar College has changed their hours of operation.  Until just prior to the start of the Fall term, there will be no technical support available from Academic Technology on Fridays, Saturdays, or Sundays. I know it’s not possible to plan your technical problems to occur only Monday through Thursday, but anything that comes into the support system after we leave on Thursday evening will have to wait until next week.

Blackboard Satisfaction Survey Results – Dislikes

Taking a look at the second of the three open-ended questions posed in our Blackboard Faculty Satisfaction Survey, I expected some grim reading and certainly got it.  The question: “What do you like least about Blackboard?”

246 faculty responded to this question (out of 301 total survey respondents), although a half-dozen responses were some variant on “N/A”.  In an attempt to process what themes might be present in a mass of text, I like to create a Wordle and view the word frequency use graphically.  (To see any of the smaller text entries, you will want to click the thumbnail image below and see the larger version.)

What do you like least about Blackboard? wordle

Although the focus on students is still obvious, it’s clear even from the Wordle that some other recurring themes arise.  Since we made the (very visually and functionally significant) upgrade from Blackboard version 8 to 9.1 just prior to this term, I’m not surprised to see that “version” cropped up a great deal.  I’m expecting that major change is also responsible for the importance of “new” and “use”, but only the details of the comments themselves will tell for sure.

There were 34 comments (almost 14%) saying that faculty disliked the grading functions.  Given that grade functionality was also among the most liked functions, I’m going to draw this conclusion: Faculty like being able to distribute grades via Blackboard, while disliking the actual procedures to do so.  Not exactly an earth-shaking conclusion, but it is nice to base that on actual data rather than pulling an Obi-Wan and just trusting my feelings.  (And, should any readers NOT get the whole Star Wars “trust your feelings,Luke” reference,perhaps they need to stop reading my blog posts.  Alternately, go see some movies.)

Survey results also yielded 13 comments to the effect that our Blackboard system is slow.  Now some of those are in reference to specific subsystems (such as “entering grades”), and others put qualifiers (such as “when using my dial-up connection” or “but that’s through my satellite Internet”), but that’s quite at odds with my own use experiences.  Of course, I personally use the system only from on-campus…  My take-away:  Start doing some off-campus system performance testing.  Very significant changes were made to the platform our Blackboard system is running on (such as using virtual front-end servers, but a whole host of other changes as well) when we made the switch to Bb9.1 in January, so perhaps there are some technical speed issues that I am simply unaware of that is impacting faculty.

I have to send out kudos to one of our support techs, because in these comments of all places a faculty member felt that Chris Norcross has given him exemplary support.  Good job, Chris!  Actually, in the “what faculty like most” comments there was also a suggestion that our support techs be cloned so that we can have a 24/7 supply of them available.  As soon as the clone pods become available, Chris gets to go first.

A good many comments involved frustration at how Blackboard is not fully functional with some versions of some browsers.  I really feel for the faculty on this one; in today’s software environment there are changes being made to web browser software on a very frequent basis, so it is nearly impossible to not end up upgrading away from a browser version that works… should you be so fortunate as to find one that works fully in the first place.  Not to make this out to be more than it really is, because most functions of Blackboard work well in most versions of most browsers, but some of the subsystems that faculty have to regularly make use of are more complex than what the average Blackboard user (read: student) has to do.  Test construction, the Grade Center, all the controls for adding content, this stuff is complex and puts a large burden on the browser program to process it properly; the one lesson I’ve learned over the years supporting online work is that standards aren’t, and nothing works consistently across all browsers.

All that being said, this makes it all the more important that we keep updating the version of Blackboard used at Palomar.  Several comments complained that Internet Explorer 9 or Firefox 4 were not officially supported browsers, but the way browsers get added to the support matrix is through testing on new versions.  So, faculty, there’s the dilemma: do we try to lag behind to stay with known to work versions (nothings perfect, but the sometimes the known bugs are easier to live with than at other times), or do we endeavor to keep as updated as possible to try to have maximum compatability?  One thing we in Academic Technology have tried to do is never do a non-critical upgrade during a semester, so even during the Spring 2011 term there would have been no way to get versions of Blackboard that would have supported browsers released over the Spring.  I’m not sure what the correct answer to that question is, but hopefully our “upgrade between terms” model will strike the best happy medium possible.  Suggestions on this topic are certainly welcome, of course.

There are a few comments along the lines of “I don’t like that Blackboard cannot do ____.”  In many cases, it actually can, so I’ll be gathering up those comments (and I expect to get more such from the final open-ended question on “what would you change about Blackboard”) and respond to them in a future post.  I remember speaking with a Microsoft employee after a presentation at the Office 2007 launch event I attended, where he described some experiences he’d had in surveying users.  The most memorable story (for me, at least) was his discussion with a panel of Math professors who were bitterly complaining that there was no function in Word for putting in equations.  He admitted that he did finally tell them about how the equation editor had been a component of Word for years; to him it was an obvious function, but whole swathes of users were unaware of it.  Apparently something of the same nature is going on with Blackboard users here.

That wraps up my current thoughts on what faculty “like least about Blackboard” at the moment.  As I mentioned above, I’ll be revisiting some of these issues once I’ve had a chance to process the final open-ended question on what faculty would change.

Blackboard Satisfaction Survey Results – Likes

Taking a look at the first of the three open-ended questions posed in our Blackboard Faculty Satisfaction Survey hasn’t been a huge surprise, which is a good thing.  (I’d hate to think my feel for faculty opinions is too far off of reality.)  The question: “What do you like best about Blackboard?”

259 faculty responded to this question (out of 301 total survey respondents), which makes for quite a lot of commentary reading.  In an attempt to process what themes might be present in a mass of text, I like to create a Wordle and view the word frequency use graphically.  (To see any of the smaller text entries, you will want to click the thumbnail image below and see the larger version.)

Wordle of what faculty like about Blackboard

It was gratifying to see what the largest word (and therefore the presumed primary focus of the comments) worked out to be.

Looking over the actual comments, I noticed a high frequency of comments (nearly 10%, 24 to be specific) mentioning the “ease of use” of Blackboard.  I’m not too surprised to see quite a few comments liking “grades” or other grade-related functions such as “Gradebook”.  Keep in mind that this is what faculty like about Blackboard, not necessarily that it’s what is easy to do in Blackboard.

Not all the comments are sunny and bright, of course.  One professor writes “Not sure there is anything that stands out that can’t be done elsewhere better.”  This is a valid point; the best analogy I’ve ever heard used to  describe Blackboard came from a support tech at some past conference: “Blackboard is Tupperware.”  All it is ever going to do is hold the material faculty put into it, and by trying to support all the different things that faculty want at the same time it can be difficult to do any one specific thing the best.  Certainly there are better discussion board systems, better content management systems, etc.  I’m not sure that there are systems that do significantly better that do as much (in potential,at least) as Blackboard while allowing institutional SIS integration.  The recurring theme I hear when faculty come back to using Blackboard is that although it doesn’t do any one thing the best,it does bundle tools together in a way that is “good enough.”

One particularly glowing comment mentions that the professor “Couldn’t live without it.”  I’ll admit to amazement, when our system is down for upgrades or maintenance, at how many faculty seem to want to interact with our Blackboard system even in what is typically thought of as “down time” between semesters.  I’ve had a professor want to know if I really must have the system offline on New Year’s Eve… sheesh, go party and I’ll try to have the system back online before morning!

One aspect that comes through looking at the comments directly that isn’t apparent from the Wordle is how often faculty referred to the discussion board.  (Seems folks don’t know how to refer to it: DB, disc. brd, forums, there were too many ways to describe that function to become prominent in the image.)  We generally get poor attendance at training workshops covering the discussion board though, so perhaps faculty feel like they truly have a good grasp on how to use that tool; apparently they like the function well enough.

That pretty much wraps up my thoughts on what faculty “like best about Blackboard” at the moment.  I’m sure I’ll be revisiting some of these issues once I’ve had a chance to ponder the other two open-ended questions on what faculty like least and what they would change.