Tag Archives: Blackboard

Navigating the online course

I am planning a trip to Pittsburgh this coming weekend. After several trips I have learned to turn off my GPS navigation system when driving through the downtown area with its tall buildings, numerous highway exits, over-passes and bridges. My GPS loses the signal and begins offering less than helpful suggestions at a time when the importance of a clear useable navigation system is most critical.

Pittsburgh Bridges by Don O'Brien CC-BY on Flickr

Pittsburgh Bridges by Don O’Brien CC-BY on Flickr

A colleague shared with me an incident with a student requesting a refund when, after week four of an eight week math course, they had yet to log into the publisher’s course site. According to the student they had logged into their Blackboard course and perused the course space but were unaware of the need to log into the supplemental publisher’s site, where the quizzes were to be completed. Of course, by week four, they were already halfway though the course and had missed several quizzes. When the instructor suggested they drop the course, the student stated they were not made aware of the second site and therefore should not have to pay for the course.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard these kinds of concerns and it seems to me that this is yet another example of how important it is to make clear the expectations early on in the semester or term. One way to help avoid these problems is to consider the course interface from the student’s perspective.

When preparing the course ask a colleague and / or student(s) who are unfamiliar with the course, to look over the homepage and provide helpful suggestions. Here are some questions they might answer…

  • Is it obvious where to begin?
  • Can you easily find the course syllabus?
  • Is it clear how to contact the instructor, when they are available and when students can expect a response?
  • Are the course goals and objectives clearly stated?
  • Is the schedule of assignments and course activities easy to find and understand?
  • Can students easily navigate to ancillary materials (e.g. publishers quizzes)?
  • Can you see at first glance how to find both technical and course-related assistance?

Keep in mind that people are different and will intuit where to find things by their own experience with similar interfaces. Although you may feel that putting all of the important information in one place (such as the syllabus) should suffice, your students may benefit by finding the same information in multiple locations – or rather – multiple paths to the same information.

These considerations may seem obvious but getting a second or even third perspective can help to ensure students can easily navigate the course and focus on the learning, as opposed to getting lost along the way.

Students ask for more video with their learning

A few years back we invested in the streaming video service – Films on Demand. The service integrates with our campus portal and the Lakeland Library to permit faculty the means of integrating educational video into their course materials. Compared with the former system of ordering individual media (VHS, DVD), this has proved to be a very good investment. Nevertheless, the level of adoption has been less than expected.

Fims on Demand - Collections

Films on Demand – Collections

In our recent survey of online learners, students reported that they would like to have more video content in their online courses. Streaming video is becoming an extremely popular way for students to view content as is evidenced by the rate of adoption of such services as iTunes U and Khan Academy.

According to a recent article in Inside Higher Ed reporting on thePearson Higher Ed Survey on Student Mobile usage

“Eight in ten (83%) college students regularly use a smartphone, up significantly from 72% in 2013.  Smartphones are now close to laptops (89%) as the mobile device students are most likely to use on a regular basis.”

Perhaps the increased use of smartphones by students helps to explain the demand for more video content. Although I enjoy reading journal articles and other text-based material on my iPad because of the size and orientation, I am not a big fan of reading text on my iPhone. That being said, the iPhone works great with streaming video – especially with WiFi available both at work and home.

iPhone CC-BY-NC-SA by Alex Bartok on Flickr

CC-BY-NC-SA by Alex Bartok on Flickr

Films on Demand is available to both faculty and students and although we have promoted its use primarily with the faculty – demonstrating how to search for relevant content from among the more than 15,000 titles and 200,000 plus segments – students also may access these materials and find value in searching through the collections themselves.

What can we do to help students be more successful in online courses?

We surveyed our online students this spring and received a strong response to the open-ended question, “What could [the college] do to help you be more successful in online course(s)?

CC-BY-NC-SA by Ed Yourdon on Flickr

CC-BY-NC-SA by Ed Yourdon on Flickr

I tried to categorize the students’ responses around themes – here are the top ten…

  1. Reliable Technology – specifically the learning management system (LMS). Students expect the technology to be reliable and to work as designed when they need it. They do not expect to be logged out, or timed out, or to find the system off-line due to a power outage, etc.
  2. Video – students want their courses to include short videos:  lectures, explanations, examples, demonstrations… “like Khan Academy”.
  3. More Online Courses – students are enrolling in online courses because it meets their schedules and they need more online offerings if they are to complete their programs
  4. Reminders – they want to get alerts, reminders, notifications about what is due and when it is due.
  5. Consistency – students would like for their online courses to have the same look and feel. The layout of the courses, tabs, menus should be the same from one course space to the next.
  6. Instructor Availability – students want to be able to contact their instructor when they have a question or need help and expect to get a response in a timely manner.
  7. Timely Feedback – students are looking for their instructors to keep them apprised of their progress. They would like to get their grades early and often.
  8. Faculty Involvement – students appreciate faculty taking an active role in teaching the course – not so much a third-party website or publisher’s course pack.
  9. Online Testing – they want to be able to take more tests online as opposed to coming to the testing center. They point out that they enrolled in the online class so that they would not need to travel to campus.
  10. Calendar – students would like to know what is coming up ahead of time and for all their courses. A composite calendar of events for all of their courses is their suggested solution.

It is interesting to me that through this survey, students had an opportunity to recommend new and innovative technological solutions, yet they focused much more so on issues of design and delivery – on improving existing processes.

The good news is, we can do a lot of this this stuff!

Finding a Balance: Teaching with Technology

CC-BY-NC-SA by Foxtongue on Flickr

CC-BY-NC-SA by Foxtongue

I firmly believe instructors should not have to become technologists in order to teach online. We have instructional designers and educational technologists for that very reason.

That being said, educators do need to possess a fair understanding of the technologies they choose for instruction before they can evaluate the effectiveness of the technologies and the return on their investment (transaction costs). These costs may include investments in time and resources on the part of both students and faculty.

Some thoughts on where we might find a balance between these transaction costs and a reasonable return on our investment…

1) Familiarize yourself with the help resources –

Knowing who to call and when to call them can save both you and your students valuable time and relieve potential frustration. Is it a design issue, or a delivery issue? Is it a systems issue or a lack of familiarity with the application? By posting these resources clearly in the course menu, you and your students can focus more on learning and less on technology.

2) Become comfortable with the tools –

If you are planning to use an assignments dropbox, what types of file formats does it accept? If you can only accept a specific format be sure to specify this requirement in your syllabus and again under the assignment instructions. Provide a number for the help desk in case students run into trouble; or better yet, link to a video tutorial on how to resolve the most frequent issues. If you link to a publisher’s website from within your Blackboard course, provide a direct link to their support services.

3) Orient your students to the technologies you have selected for your course –

If you use a wiki, or plan to use Twitter, Polleverywhere, or other web-based tools, provide a tutorial within your online course. If its a blended or enhanced course, schedule class time in the computer lab and help get everyone on-board. By giving them a low-stakes assignment or assessment before the real thing, your students are less likely to have to deal with the anxiety and frustration that may accompany unexpected results when its time  for the real deal.

4) Become well acquainted with your Instructional Designers / Technologists –

These people are the experts on the tools. It’s their job to know what works and what doesn’t and how to find the work-arounds. If they haven’t run into your challenges before, they are likely to know a guy who knows a guy. So give them a call, schedule an appointment or stop in during open lab hours. These are the people who can help you sort out the myriad choices when it comes to teaching and learning with technology – and just possibly help to bring a little more balance into your life and teaching with technology.

Getting Ahead of the Curve

Curves Ahead

CC-BY-NC-SA by Steve Lyon on Flickr

It can be a real challenge to keep up with the latest versions, updates, etc. when it comes to learning technologies.

For the past couple of years we have been using the same version and service pack for Blackboard Learn – V. 9.1 – SP 5. Although this has been a fairly stable and reliable version, the compatible browsers and Java versions are no longer supported and the latest updates offer numerous improvements and features.

So coming this summer we will be updating our Blackboard installation to Bb 9.1, SP 11 – as of this date the latest and greatest.

The following YouTube playlist from Blackboard will give faculty an idea of what to look forward to with the new version. Of course, we will be offering numerous training opportunities for people to become better acquainted with the changing landscape ahead.

Helping Distance Students Get Onboard

 Some rights reserved by John Biehler

CC-BY-NC-SA by John Biehler on Flickr

Onboarding is a term used for getting new employees acclimated to their new workplace. Also known as “organizational socialization” the process includes introducing new team members to the organization’s values, norms, expectations, policies, etc. It seems to me the business onboarding approach can also serve as a framework for helping distance students get onboard with online learning .

These aren’t necessarily new ideas – just another perspective on the online learning experience, student engagement and retention.  For your consideration, how might “onboarding” provide opportunities for enhancing the online student experience?

1) Transparency: be clear from the beginning about program offerings, what percentage of the degree is offered online, are there any synchronous requirements (e.g. face-to-face orientations, proctored exams, web-conferencing, internships, etc.). Students working long hours or multiple jobs, overseas, etc. may find it difficult or impossible to arrange their schedules to meet such requirements. Designing online programs or courses for maximum flexibility will mean more students can engage at their convenience and ultimately succeed in their academic goals.

2) Personalize: offer opportunities for new students to connect with the college community and to get to know classmates and the instructors personally. Such opportunities can easily be lost with distance education unless we make the effort to reach out and welcome new students. Online orientation should provide the same experience on-campus students receive. Schedule live webinars with icebreakers, polls, short introductions with several campus speakers. Record the sessions for those students unable to connect at the scheduled times.

3) Orientation: new students to your online programs need to learn to navigate the system the same as your on-campus students. One way to accomplish this is for each new student to have an assigned guide to show them where to find support services: enrollment, financial aid, advising, tutoring, library services. Create short (2 minutes-ish) video intros to services. Online orientation and campus tour.

4) Technology: develop student-oriented tutorials for your learning management system (e.g. Blackboard, publisher websites, etc), campus portal, email systems, help desk services, online tutoring – any other online services, as well as any maintenance schedules that can impact availability of services, planned outages, etc. Again, best to have this a personalized experience; a live web-conference session allows for guiding the student through the process.

5) Socialization:  students need to meet other students enrolled in their program and courses.  Social networks (LinkedIn Groups, Program Facebook Pages, Google Communities, etc.) enable students to connect with the campus community and to create program cohorts. Because our student email system is G-mail, every student has access to the campus network and the ability to connect with others using Google Plus.

Campus Connections: stream student activities and campus events: graduation ceremony, career services, visiting campus speakers, hyflex workshops. Permit students to connect to student course and capstone presentations, portfolios, final projects, course and program guest speakers via web-conferencing solutions.

Pay it forward:  As students find their place in the campus community and program they may in-turn, serve as mentors for new students – yet another way for students to engage and invest in their chosen program. As student graduate, alumni may also participate by becoming guest speakers via webinars, helping students and program faculty to better understand the evolving job market and allowing alumni to contribute ongoing to the program and college.

For an in-depth look at online learner engagement – Kristen BettsOnline Human Touch (OHT) Instruction and Programming: A Conceptual Framework to Increase Student Engagement and Retention in Online Education. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching. Vol 4 No 3, 2008

…a different approach

At age fifteen, my first job was as a welder’s helper for a modular building plant in Wilmington, Delaware.  The company I worked for hired local laborers: carpenters, electricians and plumbers who had a wealth of experience with building on-site, but this was something new – building homes in sections, on a platform, and then shipping them on rails across the country where they would then be assembled at their final destination.

There was a problem.

When the building sections were being framed on the assembly line the carpenters would get out their levels and their plumb lines, checking the quality of their work using the same process they had always used, but when the two halves of the building were brought together they discovered they did not line up. This happened time and again. The thing was, the units did not need to be level – they needed to be square. If the units were not square they would not fit together – not in the plant, and not on the site.

The environment had changed and so now must the process. Innovation often requires adopting a different approach.

In an earlier post I wrote about how tablets are changing the way humans interact with computers. I think in much the same way as the tablet has the capacity to change the way we interact with computers, apps may impact the way we interact with learning management systems (LMS, e.g. Blackboard Learn).

Apps are considered closed systems in contrast to the open web. Rather than connecting to everything online – they lead to a collection of media or curated content that is more topical by design. For this reason, the user need not be concerned which browser or java version they use or configuring the browser (allowing pop-ups, etc). The app takes care of the environment for us so that we may simply interact with the course and media.

Blackboard recently changed their Mobile Learn business model from an enterprise solution to one where the individual pays for the license – downloading the app  $1.99 for a year or $5.99 for the lifetime license. This seems like a more sustainable and affordable solution.

Research shows that community college students are big smartphone users as well customers of a rapidly growing tablet market. We would be well advised to take the time to learn what works well for the LMS mobile app environment and leverage this information in our design of courses with these tools and interactions in mind.

Our own survey data shows that students are interested in getting their grades via mobile technology, as well as course announcements and other online communications without having to log in periodically to check on what’s been posted to their course. Blackboard’s Mobile Learn app permits student to receive notifications when their grades are posted, along with announcements, and quizzes as they become available. They can also engage in group discussion, blogs and journals. Another new feature of the Mobile Learn app is the task tool allowing students to keep a to do list and check off course tasks as they are completed.

Bb Mobile Learn in iPad 2

Over the next few weeks I hope to share some specific examples of how to design for mobile delivery using Blackboard Mobile Learn as the platform. Please check back soon – or even better subscribe to our blog and receive the notifications when we post something new.