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)

TED Talks

TED LogoWe are busily preparing for our annual summer tech camp which begins next week.  The detailed agenda is published and now we are going through our materials to be sure we are prepared.  Our tech camps are inspired by TED talks.  If you are not familiar (I suppose this is possible) TED talks are a forum for the world’s brightest people to present their best ideas in 18 minutes or so, more or less.  A speaker stands in front of a largish audience and usually uses PowerPoint, Prezi or some speaker’s aid to present cogent, brief, brilliant ideas.  The whole thing is filmed and the videos are placed on the web for all to see.  What a great idea.

The resemblance to education is obvious, because it IS education, only much more compelling education than we are used to.

We always begin tech camp by watching a TED video, and then professors work over four days to create their own, using the tech tools we present at camp if they wish.  A secondary goal of tech camp is to expose professors to technologies they might not normally consider using in a fun and interesting way.  Just to get them thinking…

One of the most difficult tasks in preparing for tech camp is to select the TED video that we will show on day one.  This year the choice was particularly difficult.  Time is very limited and there are lots of tasks to perform on day one.  I am not going to report on the video(s) chosen, but rather on the ones considered and, unfortunately, rejected because of time constraints.  I encourage all our readers to view them and comment with their own favorites.

Here’s the list of ones we wanted to show but just couldn’t fit in:

Tim Harford: Trial, error and the God complex — those familiar with Harford’s The Undercover Economist will want to see this one.  Ah, humanity… as Bartleby said.

Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity, also Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution.   Here is a brief (1:23) YouTube video taken from one of his TED talks to give you the flavor of Sir Ken’s views:

Kevin Slavin: How algorithms shape our world — unbelievably, mountains are being moved with real dynamite and jack hammers to gain a microsecond edge on the competition.

Jonathan Drori: The beautiful tricks of flowers — one of the most beautiful TED talks available.  It’s all about sex.

Michael Shermer on strange beliefs — Shermer is the founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, and skeptic in chief for the US if not the world.  This talk is a bit older, but still hilarious, especially the Mother Teresa bun.

Sean Carroll: Distant time and the hint of a multiverse — the essential problems of cosmology, and a paean to Ludwig Boltzmann and Richard Feynman, all in a cogent and visually impressive package.

VS Ramachandran: The neurons that shaped civilization — the psycho-physical foundations of empathy.

Gregory Petsko: On the coming neurological epidemic — brief but telling, the down side of longevity.

Elliot Krane: The mystery of chronic pain — my vote for best use of multimedia (well, nearly) in a TED talk.

Mikko Hypponen: Fighting viruses, defending the net — the truly alarming rise of cybercrime, and what we can do about it.

Matt Cutts: Try something new for 30 days — brief, fun, inspirational, practical.  Give it a try.

Dan Meyer: Math class needs a makeover — the travails and solutions of a remedial math instructor.

I suppose I could go on and on, but this is a sample of the ones we reviewed for tech camp.  I wish we had time to watch them all as a group, but then, we can on the web.  Let me know what you think or if you have other candidates for outstanding TED talks.

Blackboard Learn 9.1 SP5 Notes

So at the end of last week the Palomar Blackboard system went though an upgrade process to the most currently released version of the Blackboard Learn software.  (For version number hounds, we were at 9.1 Service Pack 3, and are now at 9.1 Service Pack 5.)  Most folks would respond to that with a rousing cry of “so what?!”  Here is what Palomar faculty should be aware of regarding this new version of Blackboard:

Network Folder iconFile size limits: For years I’ve been warning faculty about a limit in Blackboard, where course archives and imports over 250 Mb in size would simply not import into a new course.  This was a real problem for some instructors, as their disciplines required the use of large file types (Graphic Communications, I’m looking at you), and of course there have always been the occasional need for larger files that are kept in a secured location where offloading onto some web space was not a practical solution.  Finally those days are over!  Although there is still a maximum file size limitation, that limit has been raised to 2.5 Gb.  So, should you be an instructor whose course export file is over that size… see me after class, and we can work on getting your file sizes shrunk down.

Changes in supported web browsers:  A constant problem, web browser versions keep marching on, while the Blackboard system versions advance at a much slower pace.  With Service Pack 5, the Blackboard support techs now list Safari 5, Internet Explorer 9, and Firefox 4 as being supported in some capacity.  Although IE 9 and FF 4 are not listed as certified or compatible, at least we will be able to take browser-specific issues we encounter to the support folks and not be ignored totally.  In partial answer to some of the questions posed through this spring’s Blackboard Faculty Satisfaction Survey on why we do upgrades – upgrading the system is the only real way we have to gain support from the company for users who upgrade to new browsers.  For those that wonder is the version and type of browser really makes that much of a difference – yes, yes it does.  Or, at least, if anything goes wrong at all, the browser version matters.

There are some miscellaneous and sundry improvements in the system performance, security, and administrative functionality, but nothing that ought to matter a great deal for faculty.  However, with our upgrade to Service Pack 5, we are also introducing two new expanded functions to our Blackboard system.  Say hello to the McGraw-Hill Connect service, and a pilot program of the NBC Learn service!

McGraw-Hill & Blackboard logosMcGraw-Hill Connect allows for integration of course material maintained by that publisher which may be used seamlessly with our Blackboard environment.  For details on that service, contact a McGraw-Hill publisher rep, or examine their online explanation of the service.

NBC Learn puts a whole spectrum of content from the archives at NBC at your fingertips for use within your Blackboard courses.  The methods of applying this material are fairly straightforward, and Blackboard provides a “how-to” video demonstration on using the NBC Learn content in a course site.  At the moment we are evaluating the usefulness of the NBC Learn content, so please take a few moments to examine their offerings and let us know if you find it worth-while.  We have until Halloween to decide if we want to license this content, so help us decide it it is a trick or a treat!

We will, of course, have more news coming about both the McGraw-Hill Connect and NBC Learn pilot programs.  But as those tools, and the new changes to Blackboard, are all currently in effect, it seemed wise to get something out to inform faculty as soon as possible.

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