Palomar College Learning For Success

Academic Technology Resources Centers

Enhancing teaching and learning for students and faculty of Palomar College


Blackboard Adventure Time

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.

Blackboard Thing of the Week: Tour a Sample Course Structure

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 Test Deployment Options

With our latest Blackboard Learn upgrade (to version 9.1 SP12, to be specific) the system has some new test deployment options. Now, I know what you’re thinking, the options that already existed were good enough, why does Blackboard have to keep getting more complex, grumble grumble. But I’m here to tell you that these changes are actually for the better, and will address needs that have been unmet but often requested by quite a few faculty over the years.

First off, no test deployment options have been removed. Existing tests will continue to function the way they were originally set up, no worries on that score. You still have the ability to allow unlimited attempts, or to specify a number of attempts allowed, and the default is still to allow only one attempt. You can still set time limits, although the default is to not have a time limit, and you can change the behavior to have Auto Submit end student’s test attempts when the time limit is reached. That’s all just the same as before, and the controls for it all look pretty much the same, too.

So, let’s say you like to use timed tests. Perhaps you allow your students to have 30 minutes to complete a given test. But two of your students are actually allowed to take time-and-a-half to finish, for whatever reasons. What do you do? Now, all you have to do is set an Exception to the deployment options, and allow individual students to have different time limits. Perhaps you give these two students a time limit of 45 minutes instead – no problem – and you can use Auto Submit on everyone’s tests still, too.

Let’s say you want to allow specific students to have an extra attempt at this test, but most folks are restricted to a single attempt. Set up an exception that allows specific people to have a different number of attempts, even an unlimited number. Or force most students to use Auto Submit at the time limit, but don’t require it for one student… no idea when you’d want to do that, but now you CAN do it if you need to.

Now, it is still possible to set a Due Date on a test, but… doesn’t the Due Date function seem fairly weak to you? Sure it causes the To Do module to show when a test is coming up, but that’s the sort of thing Announcements are for. Well now the Due Date on tests has some teeth. When you set a Due Date, you now have the option to prevent students from starting the test after the Due Date has passed. What does this mean, practically? Leave the test link visible to students, but only allow students to start taking the test before the Due Date. Really, you could start leaving test links always visible if you want, without any risk of students sneaking in to take the test after the test review in class.

And speaking of “after the testing period is done,” there’s an advance in the way the Score and Feedback can be displayed. Always before you had to set what students see once they’ve submitted: Score, Given Answer, Correct Answer, Feedback. You can still control that, but there is an additional layer of control now, so that your test could show students only the Score immediately after submitting their test attempts, but once the Due Date passes they can automatically see the correct answers, what they submitted, and the feedback. Basically you can set up your test to do this for you, so you don’t have to remember to modify your test options manually later on.

Sound good? Well you can see all this in action in the video below, or try it out (even on the production system) right now. And, as always, if you run into any problems or have questions, just submit a ticket to our helpdesk system.

Blackboard Grade Center Icons

As I write this post, the latest Blackboard upgrade here at Palomar is still in progress. So the next time you hop into the Blackboard system, you’ll just head into a Grade Center and see all the familiar icons like the green exclamation point that means Needs Grading, right?


Several icons in the new version of the Grade Center appear very different now. (The Grade Center itself isn’t significantly changed, but the look is different with these new icons.) So be warned, you’ll likely have a few jarring “what is THAT?” moments for a while during visits to the grade grid.

SP12 Grade Center Icon Legend

Naturally you can always bring up the Icon Legend by hitting the button at the lower right corner of the Grade Center screen, but here’s the ones likely to matter:

  • Needs Grading is now a yellow circle with the old familiar white exclamation point.
  • Attempt in Progress, which used to be simply “In Progress” with the paper being written, is now a blue circle/pie chart thing. I assume it’s meant to represent a countdown clock.
  • Grade Exempted for this User used to be blue hash marks across the whole grade cell, but is now a grey hash mark icon.

The remainder of the icons are either the same as always, or are used infrequently enough that I don’t think they matter. (Has anybody ever actually SEEN the Error icon show up in the Grade Center? If so, let me know.) And, as always, if you run into any problems using the system, let us know via our helpdesk system.

Blackboard Thing of the Week – Smart Views in the Grade Center

Have you ever been just sick to death of scrolling around within the Grade Center? Sometimes I have a need to see only particular students in the Grade Center, and even only particular grade entries for those students, and it can be frustrating to scroll back and forth to check on those specifics and ignore the rest.

Wouldn’t it be nice to just tell the Blackboard course to show you only what you need to see, and not bother with the rest? Yes, yes it is nice.

The tool in question is called a Smart View, in which you can set up a filter so that the Grade Center will only show content based around some criteria. In this example shown in the video below, I ratchet things down to three specific students and only three columns from the larger grade grid. Also, to facilitate maximum laziness on my part, I link that Smart View so that I can get to it directly from the Control Panel, thus don’t need to visit the full grade grid as often.

And, should you not be quite sure how to get a particular effect in your Smart View… maybe we can help. Feel free to open a ticket in our helpdesk and describe what you’re trying to accomplish (or just ask to set up an appointment and we can meet with you in person).

PollEverywhere and PowerPoint 2013

If you’ve sat through one of my past Faculty Plenary sessions in the last several years, doubtless you’ve seen my use of PollEverywhere. I use their free higher-ed account, and since I never need more than 40 respondents to any poll, it meets all my needs.

If you’re not familiar with the PollEverywhere service, here’s what their FAQ page says in response to the question “What is PollEverywhere?”

On the surface, Poll Everywhere is a simple application that works well for live audiences using mobile devices like phones. People participate by visiting a fast mobile-friendly web page for your event, sending text messages, or using Twitter. Instructions are displayed on-screen. The poll that is embedded within the presentation or web page will update in real time. Advanced uses include texting comments to a presentation, texting questions to a presenter, web voting, and SMS interactivity in print, radio, and TV.

What first attracted me to this service was that the polls allow for audience input via multiple points, such as text messages, tweets, and even a customized web interface. And, best of all, the result graphs would dynamically display from within PowerPoint slides, right in front of the audience during the polling period. (There’s just something… cool, watching your own votes show up on the screen moments after you submit them. It truly does make the audience feel more a part of the presentation, as I can attest from being in an audience using the polls.) My only reservation about the graphing function is that, in recent months, the Adobe Flash tool (which is how the graphs were rendered) was not playing nice with PowerPoint.

Apparently the good folks at PollEverywhere had similar reservations, because they have taken steps to abandon use of Flash, and coincidentally made integrating polls into PowerPoint slide decks easier than ever!

As the below video demonstrates, there is an add-in for PowerPoint (both Windows and Mac versions) which makes adding a poll results screen just as easy as adding any other slide to your presentation. And as the tech which powers the graphs now is purely HTML5, there should not be any security warnings or troubles such as Flash may have inflicted.

So, if you’re already using PollEverywhere with your students, rejoice in the new and improved PowerPoint integration. If you aren’t, maybe this is a good time to consider adding some interactive polling to your in-class presentations.

Blackboard Thing of the Week: Discussion Board Course Copy Controls

No, the Blackboard Thing of the Week was not abandoned, I just went on vacation for a long time! I’m back now, and finding out some interesting aspects in the new version of Blackboard (9.1 Service Pack 12, for any version number fans out there). One such has to do with the Course Copy tool… but in a good way.

Our history of the Course Copy tool here at Palomar is a rocky one; semesters have gone by where we needed to have the whole tool disabled because it did not work properly, but still this is the primary way in which content is copied forward into new semester course sites. A question that keeps coming up for faculty about to copy a course is “what do I get if I copy the Discussion Boards?”

The confusion about this aspect of Course Copy is because nobody really knows what to expect. Will the new forums contain all their posts from the old course? If so, will they have student names attached, or be listed as Anonymous? If not, will the forums be blank, or will instructor-created posts be copied across to the new forums?

This confusion should be a thing of the past, with the advent of actual controls built into the Course Copy tool which spell out the available choices.


As you can see from the image above, instructors now get to choose between copying forums with no posts at all, or with first-level posts (not replies) which are set to be anonymous. No confusion, just pick which behavior you want and submit your course copy. When it’s done, just hop into the destination course enjoy!

Have iPad, Will Travel

I’ve just got back into the office today, after taking a nearly five week vacation. (Yes, I really can accumulate a LOT of vacation time.) I lumped in a good deal of time staying around home, taking care of yardwork and such, and spending quality family time too. However, I also took a thirteen day road trip out to Saint Louis alone, and that made for an interesting experience that I wished to share.

Preparing for my trip, I made what is for me a momentous decision: I would not bring a laptop with me on my travels.

I’ve lugged laptops with me on flights before, so deciding against bringing a portable computer with me on a car trip where space was not at a premium was very out of the ordinary. I wanted to see if I could live entirely out of my smart phone and iPad. Short answer? Yes, I could, and I felt good about the experience.

Naturally I didn’t have much call for computing resources on the three days drive out to Missouri, nor on the two days drive home from there. But each night in my hotels during the trip, wireless network was no problem, and my iPad was fully able to keep me in touch with my personal email, Facebook news, Twitter feed, and even work emails. (When I got back to the office this morning, I actually had zero unread messages. How sad is that? I hope you don’t let work eat up your off time attention as much as I do.)

My smart phone did a bang-up job of keeping me in touch with my family on my travels as well. I’m currently using Sprint, and with the exception of right around the border of Arizona and New Mexico on the I-40, I always had good cell coverage. And, as I said, wireless network in the actual hotels, as well as the convention center I visited during my stay in Saint Louis, was plentiful and free.

The only thing that didn’t work perfectly for me was typing on the iPad. This is no surprise, as I did not bring a bluetooth keyboard or keyboard case – I was just using the iPad itself. Even then, the virtual keyboard was sufficient for the amount of typing I did need. However, if I’d been in the position of doing this over again, I think I may have gone ahead and used a keyboard case.

Now, why do I think this is worth sharing with the faculty here? Well, I’ve now vaulted from the ranks of “it should work okay” to “it works just fine” when talking about travel without a laptop. And, with the inline Assignment grading available soon in Blackboard, I could even have been marking up student papers if I’d needed to. (Sadly, the Blackboard Grade Center still does not play nice with tablet browsers, on either the iPad or other devices. That problem point really has to do with the way the independently scrollable grade grid is nested within a scrollable web page, and that problem does still remain.) Recent improvements in the way the iPad allows browser access to files in Dropbox even allow for uploading content if needed… although if I truly needed to compose a new document on my travels, I’d have stopped by a hotel business center to use a real computer for that part of the work. (However, I did use the Scanner Pro app on the iPad to scan to PDF my receipts, which worked very well. Direct upload the PDFs to Dropbox automatically, and I didn’t need to keep the paper receipts around cluttering up my car.)

So if you’re contemplating a trip this summer, and trying to decide if you need to bring your laptop or if you can just get away with an iPad… leave the laptop. I did, and it was marvelous.

Blackboard Thing of the Week: Questions – Multiple Fill in the Blanks

This week let’s take a look at one of the numerous question types available for use in a Blackboard test: Multiple Fill in the Blanks. As you’d expect from the name, this question type allows for a sentence with one or more “blanks” for the student to fill in. The tricks to using this question type are first to have the right type of question, and second to format the question properly.

So what sort of question is “the right type” to use with multiple fill in the blanks? Naturally that’s a matter of opinion, but what I look for is a question that isn’t going to have a great many possible words that might fill those blanks. For example, a bad question might be “The first president of the Unites States was [blank].” You see, in that case, as the instructor you would need to determine which (if any) answers might be correct. Among possibly correct answers might be “Washington”, “George Washington”, “President Washington”, “Mr. Washington”, et cetera, ad nauseum. And that doesn’t even consider the issue of if you’ll accept common mis-spellings or require correct capitalization  (Personally I always require correct use of capitals, but that’s just me.) In the explanatory video below I use the (obviously silly) sentence “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Change out the adjectives for blanks, and that makes a fair sample, but if there are ever any exact quotes, or term definitions which students are supposed to have committed to memory, any of those would be suitable for this question type.

As to exactly how to format the question, it’s truly just a case of putting placeholders everywhere you’d want a blank to go. A strategy that has worked well for me is to start by typing out the whole sentence, then replacing words with the placeholders, as you’ll see in the video. Each placeholder is a variable between square brackets, so [x] would be an example. Thus the sample sentence about the fox above might become “The [q] [b] fox jumps over the [l] dog.” When you proceed to the next page of question creation, you’ll have the chance to fill in which words are correct for each placeholder. And, since Blackboard will know what the correct answers are, the system will grade the question for you.

So, be it one blank or many, consider how you might get your students filling out blanks in your tests!

Blackboard Thing of the Week: Zen and the Art of Course Copy

This week I’d like to draw some attention to the Course Copy tool within Blackboard. True, y’all are pretty familiar with using that tool to duplicate materials into a new semester course, but there are some nuances to the course copy settings that you may be unaware of.

CP_CourseCopyFirst off, recall that you do want to start a course copy from the course with the material. In terms of “getting next semester ready” that means go into the OLD course. Under Packages & Utilities on the Control Panel you can go to the Course Copy tool. Here at Palomar we only allow one type of course copy “to an Existing Course”, since we make empty course shells for each class students can enroll in.


Bear in mind that Course Copy is not the appropriate tool for duplicating individual items or folders of content. At the very least a Course Copy will get whole content areas of material; if you’re looking for a finer granularity of copy function, consider the Copy option available on the context menu of nearly every item or folder in your course. (There are a few things, such as Test links, that do not have the Copy option, but by and large it’s present.)

There’s also a bit of a trick to getting Test links and Assignments to copy. It’s not enough to just check the box for the content area that contains the link. To get a test to copy, obviously you need to check for Tests, Surveys & Pools. And to have both test links and Assignments copy you need to check the box for Grade Center Columns and Settings, too. (Don’t ask why. Just accept it, okay?)