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 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!

Take 8 Everybody

There’s a new version of Blackboard out, which is now live on the BbSandbox environment, and which should go live for Summer 2012 on the Palomar production Blackboard environment. The single biggest change you’ll see in the system is the visual appearance of the system; given the number of complaints I’ve heard over the last year-and-a-half about how things look (I kinda like the green buttons, myself), there should be at least a few cheers at that news. Blackboard has been working on a new look for their system for quite some time now, and have rolled out this new look with Blackboard 9.1 Service Pack 8 (SP8). The short description of the new Blackboard look is “WordPressy.” (As in “looks like WordPress.” So what if that’s not really a word.)

Of course, in addition to the new visual styling of the system, there are a number of changes to the functioning of the system as well.

As always, a new service pack from Blackboard means a whole set of bug fixes and improvements to browser compatibility. Finally Blackboard browser compatibility for Firefox and Chrome users can be summarized as “whatever is the newest full release,” which is a great change from some of the “on operating system A, using browser B at version C” issues of the recent past. There are also some specific fixes in regards to entering dates for availability and creating external links from within courses. By and large the bug fixes are fairly minor.

Since this is an even-numbered service pack, there are also some changes to the user interface. (Yes, Blackboard actually has a system; odd-numbered packs are bug fixes only, while user interface changes are on the even numbers.) Among the additions to the interface:

  • Course-to-Course Navigation: 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.
  • Automated Regrading: Instructors can now fix problematic questions by simply editing the invalid question directly and having all necessary updates flow automatically to the Grade Center. For any assessment question, Instructors can drop, give full credit, change point value, or change which answer is marked correct. After the question has been updated, Blackboard Learn recalculates the score of all submitted assessments that included the updated question, reflects the updates in the Grade Center, and provides notification to both the Instructor and optionally to the Student for all impacted submissions.
  • Negative Marking: Negative Marking allows Instructors to apply negative point values for incorrect answers on assessment questions.
  • Course Structures: Course Structures are pre-built structures that focus on specific aspects of a course including Activity, Communication, Content, Systems, and Time.  Other Structures mimic the ANGEL and WebCT legacy platforms. These structures re-align the left navigation to match the pedagogical needs of the particular course type.
  • Course Themes: Course Themes are pre-built designs that Instructors can select to match their design preferences and teaching methods. Course Themes add a background image to the course display and change the color of the user interface. Course Themes do not affect content and can be changed at any time. Note: To use the Course Theme, the new default theme should be enabled, or an existing custom theme should be built upon the new default theme. Refer to the New Default Theme topic below for details.
  • Quick Setup Guide: When Instructors first enter a course they are presented with a Quick Setup screen that provides links to documents that outline working with content and getting started in the course environment. There are also direct links to the On Demand Learning Center and This feature will help acquaint new users to Blackboard Learn courses, features, and capabilities to help them quickly get started.
  • Improvements to handling Mini-Websites and File Packages: When an instructor links to an HTML file attachment from a course item, access to that HTML file will be granted to all users enrolled in that course. Instructors can also grant access to other files in the same folder or selected files in the Content Collection to handle mini-websites and packaged content. Student access is constrained by Adaptive Release rules, and these rules, along with access to the files, will be propagated along with the files when the course is copied.

Believe it or not, that’s only the short list of changes. Here’s my take on these changes:

  • Course-to-Course Navigation – When you can remember it’s there, this is great! As an example, if you are grading students in one course, and ready to move on to the next, just pick the course name from the navigation drop-down; you’ll go into the new course, at the same point you were at in the old course. This will dramatically cut down on the number of navigation clicks when moving between courses.
  • Automated Regrading – About time. I’ve been supporting Blackboard here at Palomar for a dozen years, and across that whole time faculty have wanted an easy way to fix a minor problem with a test question without having to make numerous grade edits. Now it’s here; fix the question in a deployed test, and the fix is percolated out into all the already completed test attempts.
  • Negative Marking – My biggest complaint about Multiple Choice questions is that it can encourage students to guess; enable negative grading and you’ll keep THAT from happening.
  • Course Structures – Just starting out with a new course? Pick one of the large number of templates now available and modify to suit your taste. Just be careful not to add a course structure to your existing course unless you are sure you want to deal with a bunch of additional structure.
  • Course Themes – As a way to set your courses apart from others, or as a mnemonic to help you to differentiate your own courses from each other, I think these themes are very good. I also think that if any instructor uses the Fuchsia theme, I will pity their students greatly. (It’s pink. Very pink.)
  • Quick Setup Guide – The first time you enter a course you’ll get prompted to pick a structure, theme, and shown some help resources. If you don’t like that, just check the box in the lower left corner and you won’t see it again… for that course.
  • Improvements to handling Mini-Websites and File Packages – The problems with “mini-websites” in Blackboard in the past have been many, so I am pleased to see that this subsystem is improved. If this is a feature you use, please try it out and let me know if “improve” is truly the right word.

Overall, I think the feature changes in SP8 are improvements that finally address requests I’ve been hearing from faculty on and off for years. Again, SP8 is live on the BbSandbox environment now for Palomar faculty to work with, so give it a try.

Blackboard for Faculty Imported

Bb LogoSo OK.  I’ve now imported all the posts from Dave’s old “Blackboard for Faculty” blog which had been maintained at to the new one (this one).  Recall that we are consolidating all our departmental blogs into one.  We will still maintain less formal, personal blogs, but that’s another story.

The same goes for Dave’s blog as with Haydn’s, the one I imported yesterday.  The articles are now merged into the back catalog of this blog.  Since they may be a bit hard to find, I would like to draw attention to the more significant ones here.  They are certainly worth revisiting.  Dave’s blog tended to be more topical than Haydn’s since it is tied to our Blackboard implementation and that is, and always will be, a work in progress.  Today’s hot issues are tomorrow’s forgotten trivia.  It’s just the nature of the beast.  I have not drawn attention to Dave’s articles in the list of links below that were tied to system outages, new features which are no longer new, or any date-bound topical discussions.  Nevertheless, Dave has produced a number of  timeless articles, and here they are:

Stand by for more from Dave, and the rest of the crew in Academic Technology, in this blog.

Next Semester: A Really Good Discussion Board Plan!

computer classroomHere it is about three weeks away from our new semester starting and I’m planning a new, revised, and totally better online discussion board for my online classes. Never mind that I really don’t know our new Blackboard 9 system that well yet or that I’ll be teaching an online class that I haven’t taught in a couple of years – I mean I’ve got three weeks!

I’ve been a big supporter of online discussion boards for a long time so I was intrigued by an article in a recent Faculty Focus Special Report. The article by Rob Kelly was titled “A Plan for Effective Discussion Boards.” I began to read, assuming I would find my discussion board strategies validated. About half-way through I came across a paragraph that began “Too often, however, instructors simply ask students to state their independent thinking on a subject and perhaps comment on two classmates’ postings.” Whoops – that’s a big part of what I typically do; perhaps I’m not on the cutting edge of best practices after all! Not that my approach is a bad or ineffective one, but the article pointed out a number of ways to make a more effective discussion board.

One of the tips in the article was that the instructor should have an active presence on the discussion board. This may strike some as obvious but I’ve heard arguments from colleagues that the instructor should be as unobtrusive as possible: since we probably won’t post a response to every student, every time, this reasoning goes, it’s better not to post at all because responding to just some students’ posts may make the others feel as though their posts aren’t worthy of the instructor’s response. Some instructor’s handle this dilemma by posting a summary at the end of the week’s discussion board period. While I do like the summary idea, I think a good way to acknowledge to students that you will not be replying to every student post is to say you plan to choose a few representative posts to respond to each week (or module).

What I most liked about the article were the recommendations by Richard Paul that are likely to engage students at a deeper level of thinking. Paul’s six recommendations as contained in Kelly’s article are the following.

Conceptual clarification questions – questions that get students to think about concepts behind their arguments, for example,Why are you saying that? What exactly does this mean? How does this relate to what we have been talking about? Can you give me an example?

Probing assumptions – questions that get students to think about the beliefs that they base their arguments on,for example, What else could we assume? How did you choose those assumptions? How can you verify or disprove that assumption? What would happen if . . . ?

Probing rationale, reasons, and evidence – questions that get students to think about the support for their arguments, for example, Why is that happening? How do you know this? Can you give me an example? What do you think causes . . .? On what authority are you basing your argument?

Questioning viewpoints and perspectives – questions that get students to consider other viewpoints, for example, What are some alternate ways of looking at this? Who benefits from this? How are x and y similar?

Probe implications and consequences – questions that get students to think about the [sic] what follows from their arguments, for example, Then what would happen? What are the consequences of that assumption?

Questions about the question – questions that turn the question in on itself, for example, What was the point of asking that question? Why do you think I asked this question?

While it may not be practical for us to post responses to every student post, posting the sort of Socratic questions listed above to a representative group of student discussion board posts will encourage everyone to think more critically.

And speaking of grading rubrics . . . ok, I’ll save that for another day!


Kelly, R. (nd). A plan for effective discussion boards, in a Faculty Focus Special Report

Online Cheating

With final exams coming up soon I want to return to a topic that virtually all online instructors struggle with: how to provide fair, convenient, comprehensive tests to online students.

Academic cheating has always existed of course and some reports suggest that the extent and scope of the problem has increased over the last few decades. Kitahura and Westfall (2007) provide these data:

  • a 1999 survey – over 75% of college students “admitted to some form of cheating;”
  • a 2002 survey – 74% of high school students admitted to cheating;
  • a 2003 national survey – 41% of students said plagiarism occurred “often” or “very often.”

Online instructors are particularly sensitive to the issue of academic cheating as, by its very nature, distance education implies less control and physical contact with students. Take, for example, the fact that it is not uncommon for friends or family members to register for the same online course. Does this increase the likelihood of cheating? Not necessarily but it does make it more convenient if the students were so inclined.

So, given that cheating is a long-standing reality, and that it is more difficult to detect in an online course, what can an online instructor do to increase academic honesty? Well, actually, quite a lot.

Here are some practical measures online instructors have taken to reduce cheating.

  • Write a personal letter to your students about the topic (see link to example letter below)
  • Explain to your students exactly what plagiarism and academic dishonesty are
  • Include a statement in your syllabus of your institution’s academic honesty policy and your expectations of your students
  • Require all tests to be taken on campus in a proctored environment
  • Require all tests to be proctored by an authorized supervisor (e.g. Company Commander for soldiers in Iraq)
  • Require some tests to be taken in a proctored environment while some can be taken online
  • Provide many small assessments of learning that are given many times throughout the course
  • If you use the Blackboard testing system there are a number of things you can do such as: specify a certain time limit for tests; create tests using the Test Manager’s “random block” tool in which students are given equivalent but different test questions; select the “one at a time” option so that students answer one question before seeing the next one; use the “no print” code that prevents students from printing tests

secureexamSome institutions are exploring innovative uses of technology to ensure honesty. Troy University,for instance,has implemented the Securexam Remote Proctor to reduce cheating on online exams. The device consists of a video camera with a 360 degree field of view and an omnidirectional microphone. It has a fingerprint sensor in the base of the unit and connects to a USB port on the student’s computer. It is, in essence, like having a proctor in the room with the student no matter where he or she is. The results are still out on the success of this approach but it may well strike some as overkill. My preference is more toward educating the student about academic honesty and plagiarism and then providing numerous assessment options at weekly intervals throughout the term. I would be very interested in hearing your views on this issue.

Promoting Academic Integrity in Online Distance Learning Courses
Letter To My Students