Saturday, July 25, 2009

Blackboard Benefits

All users have to register and need a username and password to access the software. Once the user logs into Blackboard, a personal My Institution page is displayed. This main page has several main areas including a series of Navigation buttons, Navigation tabs a Module area (which contains announcements, course links etc.), a Tools area (containing utilities such as My Grades, Send an E-mail, Calendar etc.) and a Search Box. Within the Module area, students can see the courses they are registered for on Blackboard. The courses can also be accessed by clicking on the My Courses tab within the My Institution page.

The Blackboard course environment consists of two views. The Student View is the only view available to students enrolled on a course. In this view, a number of navigation buttons can be accessed. The exact navigation buttons themselves can be customized by the instructor, but typically include buttons such as Announcements, Course Information, Course Documents, Faculty Information, Assignments, Websites for the Course, Tools, Communication and Assignments. In contrast, the Control Panel is only available to Instructors, and this is the place where the Instructor manages the entire course and essentially constructs and tailors the course in their own way. As a user of Blackboard for several semesters now, I would highly recommend Blackboard as a course management tool for Instructors. Most Instructors need only general familiarity with the standard Windows environment to quickly come to grips with the system. The ease of use of Blackboard is exceptional. As a former user of WebCT, I must admit I found the Blackboard interface and navigation easier to learn at the beginning especially in relation to the posting of course information, announcements etc. Course Documents also has similar features to Course Information, and PowerPoint slides, Word documents etc. can be posted here, which may correspond to different chapters of a textbook etc. Furthermore, as the course is only accessible to the students and the Instructor teaching the course, not everybody can see the material. PowerPoint slides can also be posted in such a way that the students can only see the slides, without being able to edit them if an Instructor wishes. An e-mail can also be sent to all students and Instructors having access to the course, which is an excellent facility of the system. This makes efficient and prompt direct contact with the students.

One other new feature which was introduced in the 6th release of the Blackboard Learning System has been that of the Assignment Manager. This new tool actually combines the file exchange capabilities of the Digital Drop Box, with the functionality of the Gradebook in Blackboard. The Digital Drop Box is still present in the system, and can be used to transfer files to users. This is an excellent feature, as instead of forwarding e-mail attachments, one can send a file to a student very quickly through Digital Drop Box. This can be tedious if you receive say twenty-five files from students as homework assignments. There is no select all, delete facility. In contrast, the new tool, Assignment Manager is an area where course assignments can be posted, related files can be uploaded and grades published. It is the latter point that really distinguishes this feature from the Digital Drop Box. The Digital Drop Box should be used if you wish to exchange files between students etc, but where you do not wish to give grades.

The former in comparison should be employed where a final grade will be assigned to a student’s work. One of the most useful facilities of Blackboard has to be its Assessment facilities. In Pool Manager, a bank of questions with no point values can be created by an Instructor. Pool Manager can then be used to generate questions for on-line quizzes, exercises and tests. This facility should be used before importing the question banks into the Test Manager. One key advantage of Pool Manager is that the pool of questions can easily be readily exported. This gives great flexibility in courses where multiple Instructors are involved, as each can create banks of questions and transfer them to each other. With this utility, vast libraries of question banks can be built up in a Department on an ongoing basis each semester. Blackboard itself has the provision for seven different types of questions: multiple-choice, true/false, fill in the blank, order, multiple answer, match two lists and essay. Although the latter can be used, in the opinion of this reviewer, this type of question is probably not best suited to Blackboard, as there is a limit on the twenty answer patterns that can be used, and spelling mistakes, additional spaces and punctuation can invalidate an answer. In addition, an essay type question needs the Instructor to grade it. Having created a pool of questions in Pool Manager, the questions can then be imported into Test Manager for use in a test.

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