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Back to School, Blackboard and All

Back to school means back to Blackboard.

My frustration with most learning management system (LMS) platforms is well known. The administration of a class, depending on your institution, is often left to the instructor. This includes layout and design choices that I have long believed should be standardized, at least minimally, at the institution level. Because instructors can do everything from the "massive single page" dump of materials to atomized folders by week or topic, students end up trying to relearn navigation of the system with each new course.

I'm now teaching at a top university with the best Blackboard install I've used. It still has problems, of course, but it is much better than any previous version and installation I've used. I theorize that part of this is streamlining the tool choices and layout options. Requiring few choices of the instructor lets me focus on the course, not the website.

There might be a model shell at the university, but I haven't found one. There is a good portal to the Blackboard manual, which I am going to encourage my TA to visit.

I have seen course shells that resemble the computer "desktop" of my nightmares: dozens, if not a hundred or more, icons for everything from handouts to quizzes. There are a few folders, but most items are just "dumped" onto the desktop. This is not my ideal approach to course design.

My shell is designed as follows:

On the lefthand side, I have the text menus for students. The menu includes three sections, marked with divider bars. The top links are: syllabus, calendar, announcements, and discussions. The middle links are labeled "Week 1, Week 2…" and so forth. I don't include dates because I copy the shell for each section of a course and reuse the basic design each semester. The bottom menu section links to the tools, such as the gradebook.

Each week is a content folder. At the top of the folder's contents is an outline of the week's activities, new assignments, and due assignments. Under the outline, I create items in the following order: lecture notes, handouts, new assignments (not yet due), and due assignments.

Students tell me that they love the week-by-week approach. They can look at the course calendar, which indicates week numbers and the class meeting dates, and quickly locate any materials they might have missed or misplaced.

I do create two "super folders" that link to course materials and assignments. A student had suggested this idea, something like the "Smart Folders" in OS X and Windows. If you want to find an assignment, you can visit the appropriate week's folder or you can jump to the all-inclusive "Assignments" folder.

As I said, the system isn't perfect, but I'm uploading documents quickly for the first time since 2004. The system isn't crashing, which is a pleasant surprise. The handful of minor annoyances are nothing worse than any other CMS or LMS. Overall, I have been able to get a nice shell up and working in under a week.

I never thought I'd write these words: Blackboard Learn+ works well at my new academic home. No crashes, no demands that I download Java's JRE, no fighting to fix my own sloppy mistakes. It I could force a permanent reordering of discussion threads (instead of defaulting to date), I'd be thrilled, but that's the smallest gripe I've ever had about the system.

From Apple's Keynote, I was able to quickly export a slideshow as HTML and upload it as a "package" into Blackboard. My students can now watch the slides for lectures anywhere, on any device. That never worked well for me in the past. I'm able to create other interactive content, too. From crossword puzzles to quizzes, everything is working… as it should.

What a nice way to start a new job. I can focus on teaching, not the tools.

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