Blackboard: Tracking Student Access


Corporate logo for BlackboardThis semester we’ve received several calls asking “how can I find out if student [X] actually interacted with my Blackboard course between date [Y] and date [Z]?” My guess is that there is some sort of administrative concern, perhaps relating to dropping classes, which comes into play with those requests, since the dates all seemed to be just at the start of the term. Well, the answer is that, yes, there is a way.


I’ve recorded two processes in the video below, a simple “last accessed” look-up using the Performance Dashboard, and a more detailed look-up using the little known Course Reports function in Blackboard. For those faculty needing to answer that question about student [X]… this is your solution.



Please note that the report I used in that video was the Overall Summary of User Activity report; although other reports look like they may yield similar information, I can guarantee that the Overall Summary report works. Test I ran with other reports seemed to not give the details I expected, so I’d suggest you stick with what is known to work.


As always, if you have questions about your Palomar Blackboard courses, contact Academic Technology through our helpdesk system, and have a blast tracking student access of your courses!

Blackboard Course Archives and Grade Backups

While doing the faculty Blackboard training, I’m frequently asked “how often should I back up my course?” (Okay, really I’m almost never asked that, but I ought to be asked that a whole lot!) As such I presented a brief webinar on the twin components that need backing up – archiving the whole Blackboard course, and backing up the grades from the Grade Center.

You can view the recording of the course archive webinar, or take a look at the archives of other webinars we’ve presented on this semester. But, just to hit the high points:

  1. Corporate logo for BlackboardA course archive file will always include all the contents of the course, but has as the option for including the Grade Center History.
  2. Course archive files over 2.5 Gb in size are not going to be much use, as the system will not be able to restore from them. As such, watch the size of your archive file, when you create it.
  3. An archive file, once generated in your course, must be saved off the server to your own computer.
  4. Course archive files will only be useful when pulled into a Blackboard system; the file itself is not of direct use on your local computer.
  5. To back up the grades, use the “Work Offline” menu’s “Download” entry, in the Full Grade Center view.

All that being said, my answer to “how often should I back up my course?” is another question: “How much material in your course is acceptable to lose, in the event of a disaster?” Yeah, back up your courses exactly that often.

Force Completion of a Blackboard Test

If you are a faculty member here at Palomar who uses Blackboard tests and selects the Force Completion option during test deployment, I have some advise: Stop.

Force Completion is one of those functions that sounds like it will be useful, but really is just a way of going swimming in cement boots. Among faculty who previously used the Force Completion test option, then stopped, I hear reports across the board that it has diminished the number of times students call asking for test attempt resets. Since the Force Completion option exacerbates network connection problems (as well as other potential bugs in Blackboard) for students without truly adding anything to the security of testing, I have to recommend that faculty stop using it.

Of course, if you have some strong reasons for using Force Completion (or if you have a story one way or the other about switching use of that option), I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

How to Create Links to Journal Databases

This post will be pretty Palomar College specific, but may help instructors from other schools with general concepts.

As instructors develop course materials for students, they almost always find that there are supplemental documents that they want their students to read.  These are usually articles published in various journals.  A traditional approach has been to Xerox these articles and hand them out in class.  This has a couple of problems: 1,,) except for cases of spontaneous need, this is a copyright violation; and 2) it is expensive to Xerox so many documents.  Unfortunately this practice has been ported over to the electronic world of Blackboard, where professors may scan in the documents and place PDF versions of them in their Blackboard courses for student consumption.  This is even more a clear copyright violation and, in most cases, unnecessary.

There is an easier way.

Palomar College maintains subscriptions to various electronic journal databases that contain thousands of articles from all sorts of journals.  Our librarians, in concert with professors, have chosen the databases that contain the most useful journals for student research in a community college.  It is possible, and indeed a best practice, rather than creating handouts for students or illegally scanning documents for upload to Blackboard to create links from within Blackboard to the articles you wish your students to read.  If the student wishes to print the article, so that she can have a hard copy, she can.  It is all legal because the college has paid the license fee that allows permission to print.  There are three main journal database vendors with whom the college has contracted: EBSCO, JSTOR and PROQUEST.  We also have various Gale Group databases, but links to Gale resources will not work for off-campus students.

Here is how to create links to those journals from within Blackboard that will work for both on-campus and off-campus students.

The Databases

Access the college’s journal databases through the Library’s database web page:

Note that the databases are usually identified by vendor, either by being followed by an indicator like (EBSCO) or  (ProQuest), or simply by name, like JSTOR.  These are the major research journal databases we will discuss here.  There are several others that the techniques discussed here will work with, and we will mention them below.

When one accesses these databases from on-campus, it is simply a matter of clicking a link and accessing the database home page.  From off-campus, however, the user must supply his/her Palomar College credentials (username and password) before gaining access to the database.  This is because the databases monitor incoming web traffic, and traffic that comes from the range of valid Palomar College IP addresses is permitted through unchallenged.  From off-campus the database access must be routed through what is called a proxy server in order to let the database web servers know that this is a valid Palomar College inquiry, and not just some random attempt by an anonymous web user to access freely access for-pay information.  The proxy server tells the database server that this is a valid Palomar inquiry, provided that the user can provide valid Palomar credentials, i.e., the user’s Palomar College username and password.  For students this is their eServices/Blackboard username and password.  For faculty members this is their Palomar College email username and password.

Each of the journal databases mentioned above, EBSCO, JSTOR and ProQuest, have a slightly different terminology for the link that identifies the permanent location of an article, known as a permalink in blogging parlance.  EBSCO calls theirs a “Persistent Link,” JSTOR calls theirs a “Stable Link,” and ProQuest omits the adjective and just calls it a link.  If you are interested in the particulars of how to find these links from each of these vendors, see my lengthier article here.

The point is, once you have obtained the permalink, or PURL, as they used to be called (persistent-URL), for it to work for off-campus students at Palomar College it must be prefixed with the address of the Proxy server, along with an argument that identifies the specific article.  Like this:

This seems complicated, but really isn’t.  The key is in remembering to use the proxy prefix each time you create a link.  Watch this brief (2:55) screen video for a How-To on easily doing this:

[vodpod id=Groupvideo.4541682&w=425&h=350&]

If you have followed the tips in this little video, it will be easy for you to create links to the supplemental articles you wish your students to read.  To learn how to make external links in Blackboard, see the same article referenced above.   Using this technique will enable your students–they are free to email the articles to themselves, print them, copy and paste from them, etc.; it will also save your departments duplication budgets; and protect the District and yourselves from potential copyright violations.

This article is my contribution to our monthly podcast roll-up, so here is my audio contribution on this topic as well.