Posted by: Jon Hurford, Senior Advisor, College of Design and Social Context, RMIT University.
This week, instead of a post, let’s save time with a quick four question quiz on the Basics of Blackboard (or any LMS) that you can take in your head. Ready?
Too late! The F-shape of my text means you’ve already scanned the word ‘quiz’ and who can resist a quiz?
Blackboard Basics Quiz
1) Do you use Blackboard to store and distribute course content?
If you feel comfortable creating an item in Blackboard that holds course content (PowerPoint presentations, eReserve material, links to web resources, YouTube videos and e-books) you don’t have to read this week’s post as long as you answer the next three questions in the affirmative. This is like using Blackboard as a file cabinet.
2) Do you use Blackboard to communicate with students and enable them to communicate with each other?
If you know how to use Blackboard to make announcements to all of the students enrolled in your course (or to groups within your course) and how to set up a discussion board where students can participate with you and with their peers about what they’re learning, you don’t have to read this week’s post as long as you answer the next two questions in the affirmative. This is like using Blackboard as a noticeboard.
3) Do you use Blackboard for any part of your assessment?
If you use Blackboard for quizzes or the Turnitin function for e-submission of assignments you don’t have to read this week’s post as long as you answer the next question in the affirmative. This is like using Blackboard as a drop-box.
4) Do you manage the ‘look and feel’ of your shell and review your shell each time you run your course?
If you can alter the look of your shell and export items and content over to other shells and you answered in the affirmative to the three questions above you don’t have to read any further. You might like to visit RMIT’s Teaching with Technology page that I recommend at the end of the post though. This is like using Blackboard as your own online space or portal.
For those of you who routinely do the four things above, you’ll probably be at the stage where you’re wrestling with some of Blackboard’s more advanced functions and you’re probably moving towards the model of a flipped classroom or wholly online delivery. Or you at least know how you could go down those paths.
The skills in the list above are what I think we could call a minimum set for RMIT teachers and trainers. If you’re still reading this and don’t have these skills I want to assure you that you could gain them from scratch in just a few hours. RMIT staff could start with the DevelopMe training (Blackboard Essentials) and in the College of Design and Social Context your Senior Advisor, Learning and Teaching would be able to assist you with the basics and help you with implementing the right tool for what you want to achieve. The great thing about the DevelopMe training sessions is that you can bring along your own content and build your shell with the materials you will use in your course.
If you’d prefer to figure this sort of thing out by yourself Lynda.com has an in-depth tutorial, Blackboard 9.x Essential Training for Instructors, which is divided into subheadings and fully captioned and RMIT has Interactive Tutorials on Blackboard. These are screencasts that show you exactly what, for instance, embedding a YouTube video looks like in the myRMIT environment. You are asked to point and click along with the video so that you’re doing exactly what you would be doing in your own shell.
It’s always a risk in talking about educational technology that we overlook the rationale behind the use of these tools. So for the remainder of the post I want to concentrate on each of those four metaphorical functions (file cabinet, noticeboard, drop-box, portal). I want to explain the benefits that they offer to students and staff in boosting student engagement with your course or in simply saving you time.
Uploading your course materials online does involve time and preparation but it’s a clear winner in terms of what it provides both you and your students. A course logically arranged can put an end to handouts and printed materials for starters. You can have texts that students can access at any time, often in a format of their choice. Students can go through materials (or support/extension materials) at their own pace (or multiple times) and can get an idea of the scope of your course. You can see how the metaphor of the file cabinet begins to strain as a Blackboard shell might have a huge amount of resources (documents, images, links to resources). So as well as orientation materials and Frequently Asked Questions about a course that a late enrolled student can access, you might also have a documentary (that in the past would have been put on closed reserve or shown in class) which is viewed by students outside of class or e-books that students can read on their tablets.
In Blackboard you can email announcements to the entire enrolled set of students that are then posted to the homepage of the course. Simple, but effective. You can put links in your announcements that take students straight to the content you want them to interact with. For instance, you might remind them of the upcoming assignment and link to a recording where you have gone through what the task requirements are or a video where you discuss a model answer. Blackboard’s discussion boards also make peer-to-peer communication possible. It’s likely that you’ll have to lead the way for a while in these discussions, and Blackboard gives you a lot of options regarding the moderation of posts, but many lecturers have reported genuine ‘social learning’ taking place in their courses using discussion boards and some assess that participation.
The advantages of using the Turnitin function in Blackboard (which comes with a full coversheet and generates a student preview and receipt) is something I’ve seen a quite few lecturers really embrace. As well as taking the load off professional staff and closing some of the ‘leaks’ of paper submission, the electronic submission in Blackboard is as simple as addressing an email for the students and provides a lot of benefits to the tutors and lecturers who grade and give feedback on these submissions.
This last one really ties most of the points above together. It’s interesting that the word portal goes back to the French and Latin words for gate and that we also think of portals connecting us to other lands or dimensions. In a sense, the ‘open web’ is that other land— it looms in all of our lives in the form of social networks, MOOCS, or whatever the web generates that seems more compelling than the window we have open at the moment.
For our students (as for all of us) this is only ever a click away. The challenge is to make a space on the web for your course that has that kind of life. It will be difficult to foster that life if you’re not an active participant in your own discussion boards or if you haven’t welcomed your students to your course or if you haven’t put contact details on your page.
There are many tools that are easier and slicker than Blackboard. Take a look at www.rmit.edu.au/interact for examples of how the start of the year at RMIT looks through the lens of a tool like Twitter, Tumblr or Instagram. You should get some ideas about how you could use these tools with your class.
But none of these are as powerful as Blackboard. A Blackboard shell can really be your curated space on the web. Yes, it is constrained to a set of enrolled users and therefore quite unlike the ‘open web’ or social media platforms, but there are advantages in those constraints — a point I’ll take up in a future post on the use of Facebook and other applications.
I can assure you that the skills you learn in dealing with Blackboard are valuable in themselves and are transferable to other platforms. Your skill at managing this particular ‘gated space’ can also make you think more deeply about the structure of your course; about what you offer your students in terms of resources. It should make you think about how you communicate with your students and how you can encourage them to communicate with each other. In short, these are some of the new core of skills for the 21st century educator. Ideally they can extend our reach and enhance our proficiency to facilitate learning.
I’ve only touched on a small part of Blackboard’s functionality. I’ve avoided entirely the metaphor of ‘the blackboard’ itself: the tools in Blackboard which allow you to present material — that too will have to wait for another post. My title is also misleading. I needed a blackboard reference. But I will hint that just like physical blackboards, there are fiddly little administrative tasks that simply can’t be avoided and that trial runs are a must for most of Blackboard’s advanced features. ‘Blackboard’s chalk dust’ could be a whole other post.
In closing I will mention the great resources on RMIT’s Teaching with Technology page which provides good practice guides to the many supported tools in place here at RMIT.
Share your thoughts on Blackboard! We’d love to hear them in the comments section below!