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.

Blogging and Journaling in Blackboard


One of the most common objections I hear from instructors about teaching online is the lack of interactivity between students. The most popular tool in Blackboard for student to student (and instructor to student) interaction is the discussion board. I recommend considering the blog and journal tools as well as they are also great ways for students and instructors to interact with each other.

The blog tool is best for student to student interaction. It allows students to submit entries (posts) consisting of text, links, and images which can be commented on by other students. The blog can be setup as a graded assignment or as just an optional component of the course. One of the strengths of using a blog is that it encourage critical thinking without requiring the formality of turning in a formatted paper. Students can quickly type up and submit their views on a particular topic and then other students can comment with their own opinions. The blog tool also allows instructors to chime in with comments. Blogs in Blackboard can be a good alternative to using the often cluttered discussion board. Threaded discussions can be great, but the mix of threads and replies (and replies to replies) can make it difficult to evaluate a students writing in some cases. The simple appearance of a blog entry and comments is easy to read:

The journal tool is very similar to the blog tool but with the important difference that entries by students can only be viewed by the instructor (by default). Here is what a basic journal entry and comment from the instructor looks like:

Journal comments are limited to just the student who wrote the entry and the instructor. After the journal assignments have been graded, there is a setting that can be turned on which will allow students to read each others entries.

Blackboard has provided a few resources that will be helpful when setting up and using blogs and journals. Here are a few useful links:

Getting Started with Journal Prompts to Improve Student Writing (pdf)

Creating a Blog (video)

Creating and Editing Blog Entries (video)

Commenting on a Blog Entry (video)

Creating a Journal (video)

Creating and Editing Journal Entries (video)

Commenting on a Journal Entry (video)

Good Teaching – What Do Students Say?

Palomar College is certainly not alone in devoting time and resources to document the variables involved in effective teaching and learning. Instructors are being asked to include student learning outcomes (SLOs) on all class syllabi. We have a Learning Outcomes Council (LOC) as well as a Palomar Outcomes Database (POD).  This issue of learning outcomes and how best to promote them was the topic of a number of studies presented and discussed at the 2010 Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning.

While some have argued that students are not effective judges of what teacher variables promote student learning, most assessment programs do consider student evaluations to be important. Most student evaluations ask students to rate, on a Likert scale questionnaire, how well teachers measure up to some list of predefined characteristics. By contrast, a study conducted by Memorial University used a student survey instrument composed of open-ended questions designed to assess students’ perceptions of effective teaching. According to the report, “The primary purpose of this research was to identify the characteristics of effective on-campus and distance teaching as they are perceived by students at Memorial University, to determine if these characteristics are consistent across the two modes of delivery, and to isolate instructor behaviours that students believe are components of effective teaching in both on-campus and distance courses.” An interesting design strategy of the study was to “leave open-ended the qualities of effective teaching.” Students were not asked to rate their teaching-learning experience based on some preconceived ideas of educators but were free to discuss their perception of the experience in a narrative format. “In the analysis phase of the project, 69 adjectives that described instructor behaviours were isolated. Further analysis of these 69 characteristics, and the behaviours associated with them, distilled to nine predominant themes, indicating nine prominent characteristics and sets of behaviours . . . that are indicators of effective teaching.”

Survey Says . . .

On-campus students identified the following 9 most important teacher characteristics that best promoted their learning (1= most frequented cited,9=9th most frequently cited).

  1. Respectful
  2. Knowledgeable
  3. Approachable
  4. Engaging
  5. Communicative
  6. Organized
  7. Responsive
  8. Professional
  9. Humorous

One of the research questions of the study was to determine whether or not characteristics considered important for good teaching in an on-campus environment would be similar to the characteristics important for good teaching in an online environment. The results indicated that,apparently, good teaching is good teaching irrespective of delivery modality; with some minor differences in emphases, the same nine characteristics turned up on both lists. Here is the list of teacher characteristics important to online students.

  1. Respectful
  2. Responsive
  3. Knowledgeable
  4. Approachable
  5. Communicative
  6. Organized
  7. Engaging
  8. Professional
  9. Humorous

Those who have denigrated the concept of student ratings as being little more than a popularity contest, or a poll of which teachers tell the best jokes, might reconsider that view if other studies support this study’s results: it may be that  students are capable of identifying variables important to their learning after all.


Delaney, J., Johnson, A., Johnson, T., Treslan, D. (2010). “Students’ Perceptions Of Effective Teaching In Higher Education.” 2010 Annual Conference on Distance Teaching & Learning. Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.

Group Exams: A Teaching Strategy?

This blog post isn’t about teaching online. It also isn’t about using technology. However, I came across a report about an intriguing strategy designed to engage students and promote learning in a way I hadn’t considered and I wondered what other educators thought of the idea.

Many instructors want to stimulate students to collaborate with each other and suggest that students form study groups, share notes, study together for tests. While students sometimes see the merit in doing those things, unless the instructor explicitly rewards this behavior, it rarely occurs.

A recent Faculty Focus report described one innovative approach to encourage collaboration – group exams or quizzes. The basic idea is that students can sometimes present course material in a way that resonates with other students in a different way than instructor-delivered lectures.

As Weimer (2011) puts it, “Because a lot of education emphasizes competition, students are slow to adjust in environments that value cooperation. They won’t offer help unless there are benefits from doing so or risks if they don’t.” At least three different ways to implement this incentive were presented.

(1) Groups of students are randomly formed. The groups are given some class time to review together for a test/quiz and encouraged to meet outside of class to continue their group review.
a. students take the test/quiz individually and the score they earn is recorded;
b. if everyone in their group receives an individual score of C or higher, each student receives x bonus points (e.g., 2 bonus points);
c. if everyone in their group receives an individual score of B or higher, each student receives x+x bonus points (e.g., 2 + 2 points).

(2) Groups of students are randomly formed. The groups are given some class time to review together for a test/quiz and encouraged to meet outside of class to continue their group review.
a. when it comes time to take the test/quiz,one group member is randomly selected;
b. that student takes the test/quiz individually;
c. the score earned by that student is recorded for all group members.

(3) Groups of students are randomly formed. The groups are given some class time to review together for a test/quiz and encouraged to meet outside of class to continue their group review.
a. each group member takes the test/quiz individually. Then they have x minutes to meet with their group to discuss the test/quiz,focusing particularly on questions with which they had difficulty.
b. finally, each group member can revisit his/her quiz and change any answer previously given.

In the scenarios cited above an incentive is provided to students to work collaboratively. In these scenarios students understand the benefit of teaching each other, see the value in working together, and have an interest in all group members doing well on the test/quiz.

Most educators would like to believe that their course facilitates the acquisition of course-specific information, critical thinking, and, perhaps, collaborative learning. It certainly is true that effective collaboration with others is a skill needed in vocational or professional jobs. In the academic arena this skill manifest in many ways.

Many organizations rely on committees to achieve company objectives. For example, currently Palomar College has been authorized to hire a number of full-time, tenure-track  instructors.  In the disciplines affected, hiring committees have been formed to select from the qualified applicant pool. Ultimately, the selection committee must, through a collaborative process reach consensus on which applicants to forward as finalists. This basic approach occurs throughout the hiring process in other professions as well.

So would a group exam or quiz work in my class? My thinking right now is that while I wouldn’t use it for an exam, I would consider using it for a quiz. Educational research as well as my own classroom experience convinces me that more substantial student learning is accomplished when students are actively engaged in a class. To the extent that collaborative activities promote involvement that would otherwise be missing, I think they are worthwhile.

A group quiz? Sure, why not?

Resource:  Faculty Focus

Teaching With Technology

A few months ago I took an online class called Social Media that focused on using Web 2.0 tools for education. One of the most potentially useful and impressive tools we used in the class was something called Voice Thread. In a future blog post I’ll describe how I’m using it in my online class but here I want to just explain what it is and then show a more interesting example of the tool than my own.

VT image
Voice Thread

Imagine sitting with a group of students while you project a Power Point slide or perhaps a short video clip. Further imagine that, while you are all watching (or looking at) the media, anyone can make a comment to call attention to some aspect of the slide or video or simply pause it while a discussion ensues. This is what is possible online with Voice Thread! The instructor or students can create the media to provide as the stimulus for discussion and everyone can join the discussion. Some will choose to write comments, some will make vocal comments, and still others may choose to use a web cam to make their comments. Voice Thread accommodates all of this.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of using Voice Thread is the social engagement it facilitates. Everyone is involved. And students can drive the discussion by presenting their own artwork, poetry, writing, or by uploading Power Point slides or a video. Voice Thread can help to overcome a major obstacle online students complain about: social isolation. Hearing their classmates or seeing them also when a web cam is used, can go a long way to bridging the social community gap that often exists when on-campus classes and online classes are compared. With an on-campus class Voice Thread could be used to provide peer review or feedback instead of taking class time to do it. Voice Thread has been used in many creative ways as you’ll see if you visit the links below.

When you first sign up for a Voice Thread account you are given three free voice threads. If you try it I bet this is one social media tool that both you and students will find both educational and fun to use!

Entertaining Example that illustrates the potential of Voice Thread

Students discuss art

Video, Video, Video

video image

Videos, particularly short videos can be excellent devices to engage students but where are some good sources for appropriate video material? And how do we use them in our Blackboard classes? This second question has become very important as of this writing because the You Tube Mash-up tool in Blackboard that generated a lot of excitement is now not working correctly. In fact, using it can cause some major problems (see Terry Gray’s tutorial below).

Listed here are a few of the many video sources available to us. Most can be easily placed into Blackboard as a web link and some can be embedded. Most of the links on this page go to video sources that are keyed to education. The last three illustrate how videos can be used to (a) introduce the instructor, (b) provide guidance to students, or (c) wrap an assignment around a short video.

Terry Gray’s Description And Solution To You Tube In Bb Problem

YouTube Videos Chosen For Educational Merit (You be the judge)

TeacherTube – Videos Picked By Educators

iTunesU – Apple’s Site For Higher Ed Content

UC Berkeley – Web Casts That May Appeal To Some

The Slap – An Example Of Incorporating A Video Into An Assignment

graphic of roomClick Here To See Renee Barrett’s Video to Students – She used the XTRANORMAL Site (You write the text, the site makes the video)

Rob Mustard’s Welcome Video to Students

Social Media and Education (it’s not an oxymoron)

social media toolsMaybe I’ve been too influenced by a social media class I took recently but I’ve become determined to implement some of the Web 2.0/Social Media ideas to which I’ve been exposed. BTW, for those who think the title of this blog post does constitute an oxymoron, you might appreciate some better ones as contained in The Internet’s Best List of Oxymorons . But seriously folks . . .

Blackboard 9 has recognized the utility of including Web 2.0 ideas by providing easy ways of including tools such as Slideshare, You Tube, and others right in their newest version of the course management system. Take a few minutes to review the excellent tutorials about how to use some of these new Blackboard features by checking out the Academic Technology web page (thanks, Terry).

Another really useful resource for using these ideas is contained on the Online web site, in the blog titled 100 Inspiring Ways to use Social Media in the Classroom. This is a compilation of some terrific ideas about how to incorporate social media – all the way from K-12 to Universities.

I imagine that more instructors than before will begin to use various Web 2.0 tools in their classes and I would love to hear from any of you who do it now or who anticipate doing it in the near future.

Web 2.0 Tools

As social networking and Web 2.0 continues to grow in popularity, some are asking: What is Web 2.0 anyway? From the Teaching Without Walls website:

Web 2.0 is a common term used to describe “version two” or the “second generation” of the internet. Web 2.0 is distinguished from web 1.0 in one very simply [sic] way: content may be easily created by users who are no longer required to be technical experts. Thus, web 2.0 is exceptionally promising and liberating for educators who too frequently feel trapped or overwhelmed by the speed of technology. Further, web 2.0 tools cultivate participatory, active learning activities and/or environments for students, facilitating exciting new ways to assess learning and engage students.

In this blog post I want to describe one Web 2.0 tool that, at first, I dismissed as frivolous. I may still come around to that opinion but, for now, I’m being more open-minded about it as several colleagues see a lot of value in the tool. The tool is Wordle which is described as a tool that automatically generates a word cloud from a word list you provide. Wordle has the attraction of being the simplest tool to use you could imagine. Just enter words and Wordle generates the word cloud and shows you which words were used most frequently. The more a particular word or term is used, the larger it appears in the word cloud. The interpretation is up to you. This has some potentially interesting and educational uses. Maybe. One way I used Wordle was to capture all the student posts in a Blackboard Discussion Board Forum as you can see in the graphic below. If there is interest, I can detail how I did this in another post.

Discussion Board Posts

The word cloud of student posts on the subject of discipline brought up some intriguing discussion connections that I could use to get students engaged with the topic. For example,while the word “parents” was the largest word in the Wordle,implying it was the word most often used in the student posts, the word “mother” was much larger than “dad.” This could lead to a consideration of the relative influence of mother and father in the students’ discipline histories. Other word comparisons could also lead into deeper discussions such as the word “children” being much larger than “adolescents” – is it true for most that more discipline is required when we’re younger? But aren’t we more confrontational with parents as teens? And what do we make of the fact that spanking, spanked, and punishment were fairly large and hence more frequently mentioned? And I couldn’t help feeling somewhat reassured that words like hurt, slapped, belt and so on were not evident.

So, while Wordle is not for everyone, it may strike some as an engaging way to get students interested in examining an issue or topic

Twitter Revisited

A blog post back in January was about the use of Twitter in academia. Just recently I came across a Faculty Focus survey, Twitter in Higher Education 2010: Usage Habits and Trends of Today’s College Faculty, which reported on the current use of Twitter in higher education.

This report is informative and worth reading as it provides a background and context for each of the survey questions and, particularly helpful, provides the reasons the respondents gave for their responses. The survey found that more higher education professionals are using Twitter compared with last year.

From the report: “Of those who currently use Twitter, the most common activities include to share information with peers and as a real-time learning source.” While some do use Twitter in the classroom or to communicate with students, these are less popular activities – although this use has seen an increase from 2009 to 2010. Another finding was that 57% of those who use Twitter now plan to increase their use in the coming academic year. The report also sheds light on why many educators do not use Twitter; currently some 35% of those who responded to the survey use Twitter in some capacity and 65% do not.

Any educator contemplating using Twitter will find this report on Twitter use in education valuable reading.

The Course Syllabus

hammockMost full-time faculty, at Palomar College anyway, no longer teach summer school classes. Now I’m not suggesting that they are spending the summer resting comfortably in a hammock – with a tropical drink close by – but it’s probably safe to say that most are not thinking of their fall semester syllabus right now!

With fall semester about two months away, though, now may be a good time to reflect on changing our syllabus for next semester. This post doesn’t really feature technology or relate to online education, instead, this time I want to comment on two very different approaches to structuring a course syllabus. While each approach was highly successful, according the the respective authors, the approaches differ in tone and emphasis. I’ll attempt a brief description of each and list the links to the resource for anyone interested in following up.

In A Behavior Contract That Made A Difference, Lori Norin and Tom Walton describe their list of behavioral expectations that they ask students to read carefully and then sign. Norin and Walton reported that ” . . . the contract positively impacted retention and behavior in the classroom as observed by us and noted by our dean.” Students, too, reacted positively,because the contract spelled out the rules of the class as well as consequences for not following the rules. The authors state that colleagues of theirs began using similar contracts and have also reported better retention and classroom behavior as a result. What is this “contract?”

The contract Norin and Walton distribute to their students consists of some 21 rules or expectations that the professors have regarding student behavior. The contract reported in their report was a departmental one and individual instructors have the right to revise the departmental one (item 20: “I understand that each professor may add additional rules in writing to this departmental document.”). Rule 17 specifies that cell phones must be turned off or turned to vibrate and the professor may enforce a consequence for ringing or texting during class. Rule 18 prohibits iPods or MP3 players in class. Other rules cover attendance,assignments, electronic communications, and plagiarism. While expectations for student behavior were explicitly identified, I did not see any comparable statement regarding the instructor’s behavior. Maybe in another document? If not, I think students could justifiably request a similar statement of expectations regarding the professor’s behavior for the class.

The second approach as detailed in Making A Syllabus More Than A Contract by Roxanne Cullen was very different. Cullen’s motivation for revising her syllabus was “to create a more learner-centered academic experience.” In this approach the syllabus became a document with three main categories and several subcategories. The first main category, Community, “includes subcategories that relate to the accessibility of the teacher, the presence of learning rationale, and evidence of collaboration.” The second category is labeled Power and Control and “the subcategories focus on teacher and student roles; use of outside resources, and the general focus of the syllabus . . .” The intent of this part of the syllabus is to focus on student learning outcomes. Here some accommodation to students is evident: for example, opportunities may exist to negotiate “policies, procedures, assignment choice, etc.” The third category Evaluation and Assessment, “subcategories examine the use of grades, the feedback mechanisms employed, types of evaluation, learning outcomes, and opportunities for revising or redoing assignments.”

The tone and emphasis of these two different approaches to communicating expectations to students couldn’t be more different. The first is a tough love approach – we know what works best, here are the rules, follow them and you’ll be successful – that provides clear, precise guidelines for behavior and asks students to sign a behavior contract. The second is far more democratic and collaborative. At one point Cullen states that she wanted her guidelines to “look less like arbitrary laws set down by the teacher and more as though they served enhanced learning.” Significantly, Cullen states that “The most significant change I made was in the area of power and control. Instead of establishing an attendance policy, class participation rules, or penalties for late work, I indicated that all of these would be negotiated by the class.” Would this approach encourage more student ownership and buy-in and, therefore, more engagement and commitment? Or would it encourage an attempt by students to make the class as easy as possible?

Well there we have it – two very different attempts to create a classroom conducive to student learning and higher retention. Both are reported to work well. Which approach seems more sensible to you? Or can we combine the best of both approaches?