This week I am finishing the prep work on my fall classes. I am teaching two f2f classes, an online course, and co-teaching a hybrid class this semester. I will be in two different departments, and teaching three different courses (two sections of one). To keep things organized and to make sure my students have access to as much information as possible I use Blackboard (Bb) in all my courses. I don’t have any particular affinity for Bb it just happens to be the preferred learning management system (LMS) at the institution where I teach. The ideas below can be applied to just about any other LMS system or a combination of systems. These are some basic ideas inspired by a presentation I did last week for history graduate students up here at UMaine. The attendees were teaching assistants in a range of history survey courses, advanced PhD students teaching their own courses and recent grads who are now on the adjunct circuit. Regardless of where attendees were in their respective teaching careers all were new to Bb and LMS systems in general.
I think there are quite a few instructors and TAs out there who just don’t have any experience with Bb and thus are unaware of the possibilities, hence my post today. Even if you are not interested in using Bb for instruction you can make use of some of the basic functionality to manage workflow and stay organized. This is not a technical “how to” post, I’m not going to give tips on uploading documents or anything like that, rather this is a big picture list: 5 things you could do with some basic Bb training.
If your institution is like mine you likely have a faculty development center or an IT department that provides training on the actual use of Bb…you might even be able to squeeze in a tutorial before your semester starts. I have included a few links to tutorials and resources at the bottom of this post to get you started. I wouldn’t recommend jumping into Bb for the fall semester if you are new to LMS systems. Instead, have your IT department set up a “sandbox” course for you. A sandbox is a basic shell that is not live. You can practice with the sandbox and, if you like, copy it into a live course for spring.
1. If I get a 50 on the next quiz will I still pass this class?
Even if you never plan to use Bb as an instructional tool you should consider using the gradebook function. You can get fancy on Bb (dropping lowest grade, applying various weights etc.) or you can stay very basic. I generally stay very basic. At my institution (and hopefully at yours) there is a mechanism in place that automatically enrolls registered students into the Bb course. This means you don’t have to worry about manually enrolling students. Bb allows you to use points or percentages in grade calculation. Your IT department can walk you through the set up. Once students are enrolled and the grading schema is set you can enter grades. Students have access to their grades once you enter values.
The benefits of using Bb for grading really revolve around access. You and your students have 24/7 access to grades. You don’t need to waste time looking through your paper gradebook (if you have one) nor do you have to waste time accessing your Excel gradesheet on your “other” computer. Bb also displays a running total if you choose. This means Student X can see all her entered grades and see her current grade in the class. I often have to fill out progress reports for student athletes and other students involved in activities. One question on the form usually asks for the student’s current overall grade. This information is right there in Bb.
If you are a TA you likely live in fear of losing grades. That fear can be aleviated with a Bb grade book. If you are one of multiple TAs in the same class Bb allows you and your fellow grade masters access to all students’ grades. You can also download the Bb gradebook into an Excel sheet should you need to do that. An online, secure gradebook is really a time saver.
2. Ammm I kinda lost my syllabus 14 weeks ago…do you have another?
Ever see those faculty members who trudge across campus with giant L.L. Bean bookbags on their backs, an NPR canvas bag in one hand and some manner of reusable shopping bag that reads save the whales/owls/tree frogs/adjuncts in the other while some sort of igloo lunch bag dangles from his or her neck? Maybe you are one of those bag-juncts with no office who has to keep track of five classes at three institutions. Bb can help. You can use Bb as a virtual book bag to post your syllabus, assignments, class documents, essay assignments etc. Just like the grade book function this use allows your students 24/7 access to basic course material. No more emailing assignments, course syllabus etc. simply post your documents. If your documents remain the same from term to term you can copy from class to class…no need to upload again.
3. Oh, you announced that? I guess I missed that class, my hamster was sick
Bb can be utilized as your official class announcement board. Post reminders, links, deadlines, campus events, whatever strikes your fancy. In my f2f, online and hybrid classes the Bb announcement board is the official class announcement mechanism. I note this on my syllabus and hold students accountable. Do I still announce things in class? Sure. Does the “I wasn’t here” excuse work in my classes? Nope. In addition, I set the announcements board to be the course entry page so students don’t have to navigate to it. By designating the announcements board as my official class announcement mechanism I can often save myself confusion. Ever teach the same class back to back and make an announcement in one and forget to do it in the other? I have. Using Bb announcement board helps eliminate my oversights.
4. Getting the kid in the back to be part of the conversation
When I was an undergraduate I never spoke in class…ever…unless called on directly and even then I said very little. I wasn’t intimidated or shy or unprepared I simply never spoke. In high school I never needed to say anything to get by and, sadly, I got in the habit of remaining silent. In every class there are students who never speak. I want to know what those student think and I want them to feel included. In all my classes (f2f, online and hybrid) I require an online discussion/idea posting of some kind IN ADDITION to our in class lectures and discussions. In my giant surveys the discussion requires that students post a response to a prompt and I grade it. It is not feasible in these classes to require that students respond to X number of other students (I simply couldn’t keep up with that grading) yet many students do respond to fellow posters. In addition, these posts serve as a nice starting point for weekly f2f discussions and an arena to talk about papers and research. In smaller courses I require responses in threaded discussions in addition to f2f discussion. In hybrid courses this discussion extends and expands our in class conversation and in online courses these discussions are the core of our interaction.
5. Off topic posts can be right on topic, it’s all in how you arrange things
Every week I have an “off topic” discussion board in my f2f online and hybrid classes. I ask questions that range from: “Our topic this week is tourism…anyone work in the tourism industry? What has your experience been?” to “how are classes going?” to “anyone see any good movies lately?” These questions serve a number of functions. First, it is a good arena to corral those anecdotes that, while important, tend to take up lots of class time or large portions of discussion posts. I want to allow students to share their stories and I want to comment back but, especially in online classes, I want discussion to stay on target. A second function is that the “off topic” question can be a good place to get a sense for what other kinds of classes and activities your students are involved in. If everyone is talking about a particular topic maybe you could incorporate something similar in a later lesson. Finally, these boards serve a social function. I get to know my students in the “off topic” boards and they get to know me. In my online classes this is particularly important as I spend lots of time working on ways to keep students engaged. I think having these “off topic” conversations running parallel to the formal discussion board is one of the reasons that I don’t lose that many students during the semester.
Again, Bb or another LMS system is a useful tool for organizational purposes. Once you get comfortable with the basic features you can try all sorts of interesting learning strategies…have your students write blogs or wikis, work in groups, meet online for discussion etc. You can use Bb to augment and extend many of the things you do in person. I am a big fan of moving away from the 50-minutes-three-times-a-week model and moving towards the week long lesson or theme model in which students engage with material, classmates and you over the course of a week. I am also really conscious about staying organized and clear. If you are like me you teach in multiple disciplines, in multiple colleges and via multiple formats. Having a constant is really useful.
A few links to Bb tutorials and help pages (there are tons out there…just search):