Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Blackboard Learning System

All users have to register and need a username and password to access the software. At UAE University, students and faculty have the same ACE domain username and password for both the Oasis and linked Banner system and Blackboard 6.1, which makes it convenient. 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 (where the user can navigate between different sections of the program), 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 (which can be used for information retrieval on the web from the Blackboard site itself). 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. In our Department and College, we have run introductory workshops in-house for new faculty on Blackboard, and it is our experience that this initial kick-start training period can even be limited to approximately ninety minutes. Once faculty are au fait with the basic features of Blackboard, the numerous additional features of the system can be explored at a later stage, when the Instructor begins to post material on the system, do on-line quizzes etc. Of course, it is essential that the University has a central Blackboard Support and Help Centre on a permanent basis to help faculty using the system and to run more comprehensive training programmes of some of the more advanced features. Additional features can then be explored and newsletters outlining tips on using Blackboard for Active Learning purposes, problems encountered, new features etc. are also a useful way of showing faculty the true benefit of this powerful software.

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. One of the nice new features of Version 6.1, is the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) and spell-check facilities of the text-box editor. This facility was not available in earlier editions, and having access to standard Word buttons such as Bold, Italics, Justification etc. is a welcome new feature. However, as a chemist, it still is not possible to create subscripts and superscripts smoothly using Blackboard i.e. the panel of buttons is limited and it was not possible to create the customary superscript and subscript buttons, as can be done neatly in Word, by dragging these down via Tools, Customize and Commands. Of course, one can easily work around this problem by creating your text in FrontPage, and pasting the HTML code in the textbox, or simply include the HTML tags. Another possibility is to use the embedded WebEQ Equation Editor. However, all these methods are somewhat cumbersome, especially for chemists.

Adding course information is also similar to posting an announcement, and the information can be added as an item, folder, external link etc. Faculty information can also be posted readily. A nice feature of this utility is that separate folders can be created for faculty; for example if you have joint faculty co-teaching on a course. Within each folder, separate profiles can be created, with useful information for the student such as an Instructors office hours, their e-mail address, the location of their office on campus, their homepage URL etc. In addition, the photograph of the Instructor can be posted. However, it is advised that for optimum results, a picture of 150 x 150 pixels in size should be used. 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. I have used this facility several times in my own classes teaching General Chemistry and Engineering Applications, where the students use their own personal Laptops in class, in a wireless Network environment.2 However, one problem with this facility that I found is that you can only remove one file at a time. 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. One slightly annoying feature in Version 6, is that when you import a bank of questions from Pool Manager, there is no select all facility, which surprisingly was present in an earlier version. Hence, one has to physically go through each question and tick its box to import the question. This can be very time-consuming especially if you create an MCQ test for students of approximately 100 questions. Another cautionary note which academic users should be aware of is in relation to undesired student’s behaviour during online assessments. In several classes I have had the problems that students get an error message during an on-line test stating that they have already chosen to go to the next question, and please wait etc. These messages according to my colleagues at the Blackboard Support Unit at the University, appear to be due to the undesired behaviour of double-clicking the submit or next button. As the Web is a single-click environment, where double-clicking is not necessary on standard web pages, this seems to be the root of this problem, which can throw some students out in on-line assessments. The problem became so widespread in some of my classes, that I now have to mention this to them on a continuous basis to get the message across in order to avoid such error messages. Hopefully the developers will try and see some way round this potential problem in a future release.

I tried also bringing chemical structures, which I created in ISIS Draw 2.53 into Blackboard in the Test Manager. This can easily be done, using the Creation Settings button. I saved a structure of an organic ligand, which I created initially in ISIS Draw, and converted it to a gif file using Microsoft PhotoEditor. I then was able to import this directly into Test Manager.

However, the best feature of the Assessment Tools is that of the Gradebook. This can easily be customized and rearranged to include mid-Semester and final examinations, quizzes, progress examinations etc. Once an on-line quiz or progress examination is taken on Blackboard, the grades are automatically imported into the Gradebook, which then can be weighted accordingly and can even be downloaded into an Excel spreadsheet in CSV file format. This feature is excellent, and with the collective utilities of the Test Manager and Gradebook, it has saved me personally hours of monotonous grading for many of my courses, where I employ MCQ type questions. I would definitely recommend Blackboard to any faculty thinking along the lines of a Laptop project type initiative.2

Blackboard has several other neat advanced features such as a Discussion Board, a Collaboration Session facility, Survey Manager and an excellent Course Statistics package, where you can track your student’s usage of the course materials.

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