Blackboard Impressions Summary

I was one of the pilot staff members using Blackboard (iLearn@Bond) for the first time during semester 062 for two subjects: INFT215 .NET Programming Environment and INFT338/310 Programming Web Applications. This posting is a summary and more detailed postings follow with some stats to support them.

Learning from past experience I allocated 5% of the marks for each subject to student use of the subject discussion forums to encourage them to communicate about their studies. In addition, I asked them all to keep a public blog worth another 5%.

When starting to compose this series of impressions on use of our new Blackboard system, I was confident of opening with the fact that the system made it through the whole semester without any major downtime. As it happened the first and only significant glitch came on Saturday of week 13, and, of course, at completely the worst time. My students suffered only a 24-hour access blackout while preparing for their final exam a couple of days later. Debra Henly’s online final exam had to be cancelled and rescheduled for ‘O’ week, what bad luck!

As was commented upon for several staff at the mid-term review I followed an incremental approach by adding materials to my sites as the semester progressed, especially as these were two new subjects with no pre-existing materials. This also allows new and valuable information to be added just prior to use. Uploading single files is simple and straightforward whereas multiple files and folders requires creating a Zip file that can be tedious. However the latter method automatically names files and folders thus saving some time.

At the start of the semester I steeled myself to live without email alerts, probably the most useful feature of the SharePoint teaching web sites I had used in the past. I felt I would have the discipline to check the Blackboard sites at least every couple of days for student entries in the forum and completion of quizzes. Sadly I was wrong; there were times when 5 days went by and I was slow responding to student forum queries. Thus top of my wish list is a Blackboard building block to send a summary email of links to all changes to the site on a daily/weekly basis–this is such a productivity aid.

One Blackboard major feature omission I was not expecting is the lack of a search box for subject site content. I guess I was so used to seeing a Search box at the top right of every page on SharePoint I just took it for granted that every educational content site would have this free text search mechanism across all content types (Office documents, web pages, PDFs and the like). A number of my students asked for this feature. Mind you they seemed incapable of finding the most obvious information, like whether the final exam was open-book, by following the site’s very simple navigation structure.

A very early site design change saw me change the not-so-useful site ‘home’ page (Announcement by default) to a topic area I called the Dashboard. This still showed Announcements in the last month (entries for the last week turned out not be useful at the start and occasional points throughout the semester) and the last discussion forum entries with quick links to both of these communication features. This worked well and several students gave me positive feedback.

In this semester’s teaching I made considerable use of videos available from Microsoft’s site and videos I made myself using Camtasia (more details in later postings). I housed these videos easily on Blackboard and played several of them during lectures (despite the poor quality of the speakers in teaching lab 10).

I found Blackboard to be very straightforward to use although conquering the tentacles of the gradebook and its related question banks, quizzes, marking and releasing marks took much more time than expected. The online mid-semester test was very successful and well-liked by students (despite prompting one student failed to save a single answer and lost all his work!). I also used this functionality for initial and final surveys of the students. More on this in later postings.

The Blackboard email tool is one of its better features. For the first time in my experience at Bond it is easy to email your whole class. You can easily select any subset of the students or just a single student. I hardly used this at all but relied primarily on the discussion forum. Nevertheless selective class email lists are very useful.

In contrast the Subject Calendar is just too simplistic to be worth spending time on as it lack the ability to enter a repeating calendar event such as a class time. In my experience I have yet to see such a poor excuse for a calendar in any content management or learning management system I have used. Surely there is a better calendar building block available for Blackboard?

Unexpectedly the built-in stats tracking in Blackboard turned out to be a great benefit in a number of ways. It allowed me to track students’ activities within the class over time and gave me early warning of students with problems. The stats give instant feedback on what educational material is popular and useful. The students often asked to see the latest stats in class and it raised the status of those with the highest access counts. [There is a slight problem doing this; the names and student ID numbers appear together in the stats reports so should not really be shown to students.] Later postings look at more stats reports in detail.

I had many, many small frustrations with the Blackboard user interface which with relatively small effort could have been corrected long ago. After all we are using version 7 developed over years. [This seems to be a reasonably frequent cross-platform Java failing.] More details on this follow in a later posting.

So I had a positive experience overall in my first Blackboard semester. About 80% of the SharePoint features were available and around 70% of the ease of use. The Blackboard gradebook adds about 25% additional functionality but gradebook pieces are scattered across content areas and control panel components in an ad hoc fashion. I am looking forward to 063 and two more Blackboard subjects.

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About Michael Rees
Academic in IT interested in Web 2.0 and social media

One Response to Blackboard Impressions Summary

  1. Pingback: Impressions Scholarcast » Blackboard Impressions: the clunky user interface

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