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: 9.1 SP9

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In keeping with our efforts to help faculty prepare for changes in technology before they have to deal with it live in front of their students, we have upgraded the BbSandbox environment here at Palomar to the latest build out from the company, Blackboard Learn 9.1 SP9.

Being an odd-numbered service pack, the bulk of the changes in SP9 are of the “bug fix” and “security update” variety, which I won’t bother going into here. There are also some administrator-side improvements to the system, but as all three of Palomar’s Blackboard sysadmins are already aware of these… again that’s not for here. What is important to faculty are the couple changes made in the courses themselves:

  • Common Cartridge 1.2: Support for Common Cartridge 1.2 includes enhancements to allow inclusion of alignments to Curriculum Standards, as well as supporting assignments in both export and import.
  • Rubric Update: Rubrics now include percentage range along with points range.
  • Collapse Course Menu Behavior: In response to user confusion around the collapsing course menu behavior, the course menu has been modified to only retain its collapsed state for the duration of the user session and on a per-course basis.

The take-away point from this list is the change in behavior of the Course Menu collapse; this caused a good number of support tickets for us, and confused many a student, by causing them to not see the course menu at all. Now, even if someone manually hides the course menu in one course, it won’t hide the menu in all courses, and the menu will be expanded out again if they simply log out of the system and log back on.

In addition to these changes, there are updates to the client browser/OS matrix (the thing that tells us what browsers people can be using and still get support from the company):

  • Google Chrome® Stable Channel is certified on Mac® OSX 10.7. The tested version of Chrome is 19.
  • Apple Safari® 5.1 is certified on Mac® OSX 10.6 and Mac® OSX 10.7.
  • Firefox Final Release Channel is certified on Mac® OSX 10.7.  The tested version of Firefox is 12.

Although browser/OS information is dull, it’s also fairly important should your students run into trouble. The “big four” browsers are Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, and Safari; the various browsers (and different versions even under the same browser name) can behave very differently. I can now make a whole-hearted browser recommendation though, when it comes to using Blackboard: Chrome or Firefox, either one, regardless of operating system. That way, you can continue to allow your browser versions to update automatically, but still be using a supported browser should you need to file a support ticket with us.

Now all of this is, frankly, dull. There is one additional change that is in place on BbSandbox now that it is at service pack 9, but it’s not something we can discuss in a public forum like this blog. (As in, we are under a non-disclosure agreement, so public chatter is not allowed.) So, Palomar faculty, look for an email from Academic Technology in the near future. THAT is going to be the biggest change coming to our production Blackboard environment prior to the start of Fall 2012, and we want to get your feedback on it.

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.