Blackboard Impressions: iLearn Q & A

For the monthly iLearn Newsletter Kate asked me for answers to a list of standard questions. My answers are given here.

Q1. What were your thoughts about using a tool like iLearn at the start of the semester?

I had been using the Microsoft SharePoint web-based content management system for three years prior to iLearn. SharePoint provides a basic learning management system with teaching materials repositories, forums, announcements, tasks, calendar and survey/quizzes. I wrote up my experiences (available as an epublication) with my co-researcher Charles Herring.

Therefore I was expecting iLearn to provide all that SharePoint offers with the promise of convenient class list control and, most importantly, a powerful online assessment system with grade management.

Q2. How did you think it would assist your teaching?

With the iLearn project team and other trained iLearn staff I was expecting the students to have all the information and support they needed. This would leave me time to concentrate on populating my iLearn subject sites and maximise the use of the new communications and assessment features. Although SharePoint has some basic usage stats I was also looking forward to using the more detailed information on access by individuals that iLearn provides.

Q3. What tools or features did you find the most helpful?

The class list management linked to the selective email sending proved extremely useful, although I found I tended to use the discussion forum for class communication more often. Online quizzes and tests exceeded the benefits I was expecting, particularly the online mid-semester test which proved very popular with the students. So much so that they were hoping the final exam could be conducted this way. Sadly I felt I had to continue with the advertised final written exam. I was also relying on the discussion forum support to be up to scratch, which, apart from some early glitches quickly fixed by our iLearn team, proved to be the case.

Q4. And what presented the biggest challenge for you?

The assessment features, question pools, tests, test deployment and gradebook marking and management were the most difficult to come to grips with. I was able to import some useful question pools from the online instructor resources available with texts from Course Technology. The quality of these questions varied a lot but contained some good assessment ideas. Building tests was relatively straightforward (when Blackboard fixed the bug with Short Answer questions) but deploying them and then trying to change the deployment settings took a while to learn. Then getting to grips with the gradebook where different test settings can be changed was a confusing time. Marking from the gradebook and releasing the marks was relatively straightforward and saved a lot of time getting marks back to the students. Only one student failed to save any answers during the mid-semester test and lost all answers as the test closed! It was a simple matter to clear his attempt and make the test available at the next suitable time.

Otherwise the teaching materials content areas and folders were easy to use. I was able to distribute a selection of videos that were screencasts of software demonstrations and some of my lectures. Playing the videos directly from iLearn with Windows Media Player proved very effective.

Q5. Your students seemed to really embrace the discussion boards as a mode of communication.  What do you think contributed to this?

Knowing of the iLearn could support them I decided for the first time to allocate a small number of marks to the students’ use of the discussion forums (5%). They had to submit or reply to 20 forum entries during the semester. This appeared to trigger a very lively use of the forum, mostly (about 80%) for positive purposes relevant to the subject. Since all my classes were conducted in labs there were several occasions when discussion threads came into being during the class itself!

By semester’s end 66% of all accesses to my iLearn sites were to the discussion forums which was a most unexpected result. I have put up more detailed comments on this experience in a blog entry.

Q6. What challenges did this level of activity present and will you change your approach this semester?

It did take much longer than I expected to populate my iLearn sites. Mastering the import of a complete folder hierarchy of file collections proved essential (make a Zip file and upload many files at once – hint, make sure the file name are meaningful before you do this). The most frustrating aspect was replacing a file on iLearn with a new version because of having to download, delete then upload again. (SharePoint allows edit in place.) Of course experimenting with the different facilities took up extra time.

However becoming confident with iLearn came quickly and knowing where to access all the main features was quickly learned. I adopted the same approach (I deliberately put up most materials just a few days before each class) at the beginning of this semester and the process was achieved much more quickly.

My major negative experience concerned the lack of email notifications in iLearn. SharePoint allows each user, staff and students, to voluntarily subscribe to changes in each content area of a teaching site. When changes occur a daily or weekly digest is emailed with links to all the changed items. On iLearn I found it difficult, at least in the first few weeks of semester, to remember to check the sites at least every other day (as I tell the students to do). SharePoint email alerts are much more convenient.

Other negatives include the subject calendar (too primitive to be useful – no repeating entries) and the lack of a search facility across the subject site. Of course there are numerous irritating user interface problems, acknowledged by all hardened Blackboard users. For those interested I have discussed these in a blog entry.

Q7. You used iLearn to conduct a survey of your student’s impressions of the subject and the iLearn site itself.  What did your students think?

I did conduct an end of semester survey and a more detailed discussion appears in my blog. On the whole the students really liked iLearn and it proved very reliable for them. The only blip was a 24-hour outage a few days before the final exam. They provided an odd critical comment but the large majority are positive comments, and the students were obviously looking forward to using iLearn for all their subjects in 063.

Q8. What advice would you give to other staff who are just starting out with educational technology?

If you have not used a learning management system before then you will find iLearn brings many benefits and is straightforward to learn. I would advise starting in a small way using iLearn as a storage location for all your electronic teaching materials which can be made available in a staged process. Then move on to the communications facilities like email and discussion forums, and maybe even the real-time chat tool (I have not used this myself). Finally investigate the online quizzes and tests and the integrated gradebook for marks management. Don’t forget the dropbox facilities that allow electronic submission of assignment work in a secure and controlled fashion. Finally iLearn can be used to support paperless teaching – the only paper I hand out is the attendance sheet.

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

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