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eLearning Frenzy

eLearning is like a sewer, what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.

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bestpracticemonday

Blackboard Tip – Find Courses Quickly by Customizing the “My Courses” Module

waldo_coursesIf you’ve been teaching with the Blackboard LMS for any length of time, you will know how annoying it can be to find your courses quickly when you take a look at your “My Courses” module upon logging in.  Finding your current semester course can be like a game of Where’s Waldo if you aren’t careful.

It doesn’t have to be that way! Did you know that you can streamline the “My Courses” module by sorting how the courses are arranged and limiting the amount of courses that are displayed?

Getting to the Personalize: My Courses page:

  • Place your mouse over the top right hand corner of the My Courses module header and click the gear bb_gear that appears.
    bb_mycourses_header

Customization Options:

You will be able to change the following options to streamline how your My Courses module appears:

  • Group By Term: Selecting this will allow you to organize your courses by term.
    • Show Term: Selecting this checkbox will show the term.
    • Expand Term: Selecting this checkbox will expand the term when displayed (Note: in the image below Summer 1 2016 S1 Online is checked and No Term Assigned is not.
  • Reorder: Click the reorder_arrowsicon to reorder your courses.  Drag the move_arrows icon to bring your courses to their new spot.
  • Course Name: Deselecting this checkbox will hide the course.
  • Course ID: This checkbox (when selected) allows for the display of the Course ID before the course name.
  • Instructors: This checkbox (when selected) will display all of the instructors for the course.
  • Announcements: This checkbox (when selected) will show course-specific announcements below the course name.
  • Tasks: When this checkbox is selected, course-specific tasks will appear below the course name.

My Courses (Customized) Preview
bb_mycoures_full

*Note: You can also link to courses you teach in other Learning Management Systems by placing the Course Name and URL in the Course # Name and URL boxes that display at the bottom of the Personalize: My Courses page.

Online Course Weight Loss Plan

Online Course Weight Loss Plan Banner

There are many good reasons to keep your course from growing too big for its own britches. A large course could impact your student’s learning experience because:

  • The size of course intimidates your students.
  • The same document in multiple places takes up space and clutters the course.
  • Large images take forever to load and..
  • Take up valuable visual real estate on handheld devices.
  • The more items in your course and LMS, the slower it operates.

Keeping these things in mind there are steps you can take to manage your online courses so they don’t become overwhelming, unnavigable, burdensome and out of control.

Step 1: Keep your course organized.

One of the easiest ways to think about your online course’s health and well being is to keep it organized. Traditionally when we think about our courses being held in an LMS, we think of our course as having large containers that hold different types of content like assignments, tests and course materials.

Course Bucket Organization

This can be an easy way to think about organizing at the beginning, but the end result is that over time, these buckets become catchalls or laundry lists of everything you’ve ever added to your course. This causes your students to suffer from over scrolling and to constantly search for important information and activities. Another side effect of this particular organizational method is that it causes the instructor to have trouble determining whether or not they put “that file” in the course.

Instead of large “buckets of information”, why not think of chunking them across topics, or by time. That way, all of the information and activities that a student will need to interact with during a specific week or around a particular topic is located in the same space.

Course Organization Example - By WeekBy organizing your content, you make it easier for you and your students to find what you are looking for and reduce the ‘laundry list’ effect.

Step 2: Use Course Links to cut down on content cloning.

linkThe next step in our online course weight loss plan covers the use of one particular document in different places throughout your course. Whether it is a special rubric, a project guideline or just something you want available easily for your students, it is natural to just want to add the document where you need it. Over time, you create multiple versions of the same document that just adds extra weight to your course and makes your list of course files hard to deal with from a file management perspective.

Most learning management systems provide a way for you the instructor to “link” to the document in question wherever they are in the course. Here at Sam Houston State University, we use Blackboard and it provides this ability via the Course Links content item. Course Links allows instructors to link to files, content items and course activities anywhere in their course.

This way, an instructor only has to add 1 instance of whatever it is they want to use throughout the course and link to it from other course areas.

Step 3: Reduce the size of images BEFORE placing them in your course.

By now, we are all familiar with the fact that adding contextually relevant images to your course is a best practice. Course images engage your students, stimulate different parts of the brain and break up what would otherwise be an ocean of Times New Roman or Arial text.

Picture of a Graphic Icon on Treadmill

The issue for instructors is that the learning management system does not provide a way to reduce the size and weight of the image prior to placing it in a course. It does not allow you to change the “visual appearance” of an image by resizing how the image looks, but this DOES NOT reduce how much space the image takes up in your course or how long it takes a student on their computer or mobile device to see the image.

The good news is that almost every computer comes with a software that will help you change the size and weight of images before you place them in the course. In most cases, once you are in the software reducing the size of the images automatically reduces how much drive space they takes up. Below we will provide a few links to helpful how-tos on the Internet, but you can always google the topic and find what works for you.

Step 4: Use streaming services and Internet links for videos rather than uploading them directly to your course.

streamingOne of the most effective ways to engage your students online is to employ videos along with learning activities throughout your course. Videos add another dimension to your course that connects with your students and can be viewed on whatever device they may be utilizing.

The best practice for how to leverage videos in your online course is to host them with a streaming service or link to videos already hosted elsewhere. Burdening your LMS with Gigs of video files will have a direct impact on your students, because the way they are hosted/loaded is not ideal for streaming on mobile devices or even computers. Also the more large files you add to your learning management system the more you can affect its performance.

Fortunately, there is a great way for you to utilize video in your online courses while following the best practice. Just use other video hosts and provide links and embeds in your online course. Here at SHSU, Blackboard has the ability to directly embed YouTube videos in your course while leaving them hosted in YouTube. It does this via the YouTube mash-up and the Video Everywhere tool. We also utilize Kaltura for video/lecture capture and screen recording. Blackboard employs a Kaltura mash-up and content building tool to place these videos/screen recordings directly in your course content.

Teaching an online course can be intimidating in its own right. Make it easy on yourself. Keep your course in “eLearning shape” by ensuring your course is properly organized, providing links to course documents you want to use in multiple places, reducing the size of graphics and pictures before you insert them in course content, and using streaming services and internet links rather than uploading heavy video files directly to your course.  These aren’t the only steps you can take, but they are a great place to start.

Course Banners are NOT just for Course Landing Pages

Since the early days of Blackboard and other Learning Management Systems in the field, Course Banners have been a great way to personalize the online or web-enhanced learning environment. Instructors could differentiate any course by starting it out with a graphic or photo of their own choice/making. Course Banners have been used far and wide since then to add flare and personalize the online and blended environment.

Course with Banner ScreenshotFor years, instructors who used Blackboard have been operating under the assumption that a Course Banner could only be used on the landing page of a Blackboard course.  Well guess what?  Course Banners can be placed almost anywhere in an online/web-enhanced course. Check out this before and after photo of a Blackboard content area, in this case Lesson 1:

Before and After - Adding BannersWith just the addition of a few graphics, a theme change and a Banner image, we can add continuity to the course as well as make it more engaging.

How do you do it?

Show Text OnlyFirst, you will want to give yourself more real estate in the Content Area where you will be placing the Course Banner.  You do this by changing your page options to show text only.

  • Ensure your Edit Mode is on.
  • Click the contextual menu next to your page title and select Page Options.
  • Click Show Text Only.

This gives you more space for your graphic to live in the content area where you place it, by removing the icon that shows up next to your content title.

Note: It is also a good idea to make your Course Banners in the subsequent course content areas a little bit smaller. This cuts down on load time as well as screen resolution issues.

Add ImageNext, add/edit a Content Item on your page and add an image to the top.

  • Add/Edit a Content Item.
  • Click the Add Image button.
  • Browse and Attach your Banner.
  • Click Submit.

You will now have a content item with a banner graphic that is placed at the beginning of the content area, folder or module of your choice:

Adjusted Content Item ExampleThis practice will add a layer of continuity and engagement to your course. If your students feel like they are in a familiar place and are engaged while browsing, their satisfaction levels will increase. Consider adding more Course Banners to your online/web-enhanced courses today!

Being Ready for Finals in an Online Course

ReadinessWith finals fast approaching, your students should be dutifully studying up on course materials, completing academic research and course activities that will help them be able to handle the questions and concepts they come across during end-of-semester assessments.   Your course materials have covered topics large and small that will help them make appropriate inferences, connect the dots and generally understand the subject matter they have been interacting with over the course of a semester.

Even when hitting all of your targets academically speaking, your students may have problems when it comes time for finals in an online environment.  We all know that technology failures operate under the “when, not if” principle, but there are strategies and practices that your students can put into place that will help them surmount any obstacle thrown their way.  The following practices will benefit your students when it comes to the end of year exams:

BEFORE STARTING THE EXAM

Power Up!
Plug your laptop into the power outlet unless you are absolutely certain that your laptop has enough battery power to last for the duration of the test.

Tether Up!
If you have the option, turn off your wireless connection and plug your laptop into the nearest available network port or use your desktop computer if available.  Wireless issue can cause your exam to disconnect and your instructor may not be fond of resetting your exam attempt for the umpteenth time.

Go Solo!
Close down any other programs that my distract you from the test or interfere with your network connection.  Having only one active program ensures your computer will be running at its best.

Idle Computers are the Devil’s Playground
Check your laptop idle time to make sure that it will not go into sleep mode prematurely and sabotage your assessment attempt midway through.

Be Up for Pop-Ups!
Disable all pop-up blockers. These blockers come installed in the latest versions of Internet Explorer and Firefox, in third-party toolbars such as Google and Yahoo, and they can come with utility software such the Norton products from Symantec.

Get Patched Up!
Ensure that your laptop has the latest Operating System (e.g., Windows) patches. Automatic updates can disrupt your current browser session or make your laptop very slow.

Are You Compatible?
Use a web browser that is compatible with or certified to work with the current version of your Learning Management System.

Using Special Software?  Practice, Practice, Practice!
If you are using a lockdown browser or special proctoring software, be sure to download and install it BEFORE you take the exam. Your instructor may provide a practice assessment that will let you make sure you are familiar with the special software involved.

DURING THE EXAM

Don’t Get Click Happy!
When beginning the quiz/test, click the quiz link ONLY ONCE and wait at least a minute for the quiz/test to load.. Do not keep clicking on the quiz/test/test link. Clicking on the quiz/test link two or more times may trigger a message saying you already took the quiz/test. If, after clicking once and waiting the full minute nothing happens, contact your instructor or test proctor immediately.

Leave-off of Leaving
Once you have started the quiz, do not leave the quiz/test page for any reason. Using the browser’s back and forward buttons to move to and from the quiz/test will end the quiz prematurely and prevent you from further access until your instructor clears the attempt. If you are permitted to view other online resources during the quiz/test, open a new browser to view them.

Problem?  Reach out and Touch Someone
In case of computer problems during the test notify your instructor as soon as possible. He or she will reset your quiz/exam attempt or authorize a designee to do so. Your instructor may have policies on if they allow you to reattempt the quiz at all.

Sizing it up BEFORE You Begin!
Do not resize or refresh your screen after loading the quiz/test. Make sure the screen is the size you want before going into the quiz/test. Most browsers refresh the page when you resize the screen so the browser will try to reload the quiz/test if you resize/refresh.

Connect With Online Students – Make Feedback Personal

banner-people-connectedOne of the challenges for any online instructor is making students feel a sense of community or connectedness in their online course.  There are multiple strategies that can be put into place to meet this challenge head-on.  Today’s blog post will focus on the feedback the instructor gives in an online course and how it can connect the student more personally with the instructor.

The type of feedback an instructor provides can have a tremendous affect upon the student/instructor dynamic in an online course.  Students who feel like they know their instructor report higher satisfaction levels and tend to be more engaged with the courses they are taking. Conversely, students that don’t sense instructor presence in the course tend to feel less satisfaction and engagement, and that can be reflected in course evaluations.

The following are steps an instructor can take to connect with online students via course feedback:

1. Leave specific feedback.

Be purposeful about leaving feedback that deals specifically with aspects of a student’s submitted work. A side-effect of a good best practice to save time for online instructors is that sometimes generic feedback can be used to a fault. The online instructor can counteract this by leaving specific feedback about the students’ attempt every few assignments.

2.  Use student names when leaving feedback.

Starting assignment feedback with a student’s name immediately personalizes the interaction.  Placing emphasis on the personal before leaving the feedback of the assignment, points to interest on the part of the instructor in the student’s individual attempt. The idea that an instructor cares about student success is vitally important in any course, online or otherwise.

3. Use multimedia to personalize the interaction.

To a student sitting at their workstation/laptop/tablet, a grade or text-based feedback in an online course can seem almost sterile and devoid of the human touch that comes from the professor handing back grades in a face-to-face course.  Luckily, most LMS’s these days come with tools that can make the feedback interaction more personal.  Just the sound of the instructor’s voice will add a personal dimension to the feedback experience.  The addition of video to assignment feedback kicks it up a notch!

Audio Feedback with Blackboard Collaborate Voice AuthoringAt SHSU, Blackboard is the Learning Management System for online, hybrid and web-enhanced course offerings, and it comes equipped with tools that can enhance the feedback experience.  It also interacts well with third party tools and other types of files that can fulfill the same type of need for students.  For example faculty can use the Blackboard Collaborate Voice Authoring Mashup to leave audio feedback directly in the feedback of the assignment.

As a bonus a student is not just limited to hearing the disembodied voice of the online instructor for feedback.  Faculty members can also use the Video Everywhere tool to drop a recorded video into the feedback shown to the student.  The Video Everywhere tool utilizes YouTube to either link to a video uploaded to the instructors YouTube account or record a video at the point of feedback and place it directly.

Using Video Everywhere for FeedbackIf the instructor does not have ready access to a webcam or microphone on their computer, he or she can record a video with their smartphone and upload it to YouTube as an unlisted video, then link to the video with the Video Everywhere tool.  Instructors can also use voice recording apps to attach audio files to feedback for online students.

Personalizing feedback for an online course is an important best practice for any instructor. However, personalizing every feedback entry for every student would take too much time away from grading and other important interactions.  As with all things, moderation is key.  Try provide a few personal interactions for each student, each semester, letting them know that the instructor is committed to their success and is willing to connect with students on a more personal level.

New Semester? Check Your Course Before You Wreck Your Course!

Check your CourseAnother new semester has arrived at my workplace and Alma mater. We are just days(2) away from the start of a the fall 2014 semester. Many of us have moved last fall’s content over or re-purposed course materials from last spring. Copying course content from previous semesters saves us time and effort that we would otherwise spend re-inventing the wheel.

As you prepare to unleash your online course resources to your students via a course in your Learning Management System, you will need to take some things into consideration to ensure a smooth start to the semester.

Here are a few steps you can take to help guaranty a good start for you and your students:

  1. Get your course’s dating life straight. – Content Availability & Due Dates
  2. Take….these Broken Links! – Check Your External Content
  3. Get a second opinion! – Is Your Course Navigable?

Get Your Course’s Dating Life Straight
(Content Availability & Due Dates)

Date AdjustmentNothing can be more frustrating for your students than having an assignment that is due in the syllabus but unavailable in your Blackboard course.  Obviously this is not done on purpose to confuse the students.  Some content from a previous semester could have been date specific and so a new semester needs new availability dates.  Checking your due dates is also an important part of getting your course’s dating life straight.  Not only to ensure that you have days and dates mentioned correctly throughout your course, but you want to ensure you don’t have things due on holidays etc..

This date checking session also provides you with a good opportunity to make changes for the better.  Think back to your previous semester when you taught the course.  Maybe there wasn’t enough time to complete an assignment, or maybe there was too much.  Make changes to this semester’s calendar based upon issues or opportunities from the previous semester.

Blackboard provides a great tool for date management inside your course.  The Date Management tool can be found here: Control panel>Course Tools>Date Management. The tool allows you to change dates based upon:

  • Using the Course Start Date
  • Adjust by number of Days
  • List all Dates for Review

Being aware of your course’s dating life will greatly benefit you and your students.

Take….these Broken Links!
(Check Your External Content)

One of the primary benefits of posting files and content in Blackboard or any Learning Management System is that you can feel very secure in the knowledge that within reason, your content/files will always be accessible.  This is NOT true with links to external content.  Whether you are linking to an Internet article, a YouTube video, a SlideShare presentation or some other external content, you never know when that content might disappear.

This is why it is uber-important for you to check links to external content prior to releasing it to your students.  This means checking prior to the start of the semester as well as just before your students have to use the content.  Ensuring that links to external content work before your students need them will help reduce pain and frustration within your Blackboard course.

Here is a helpful (and funny) eLearning Best Practice music video to help you remember to Take….these Broken Links!

Get a Second Opinion!
(Make Sure Your Students can find Their Away Around)

So, you have dotted your i’s and crossed your t’s.  Your course dates are adjusted and your links have been checked.  You’ve even read through your course and feel pretty good about it. There is another best practice you can use to help ensure success for your students when it comes to your Blackboard course.

Why not have a colleague, a friend even a family member read through course instructions to make sure they make sense?  Unfortunately ‘they’ haven’t invented a pill that conveys all knowledge of how to operate inside a Blackboard course yet so the importance of contextualized mechanical & academic instructions is key for any LMS-based course.  Layering instructions throughout your course will help your students feel like they have way-points to guide them as they move along through their learning journey. 

Your course might make sense to you the twelfth time you’ve read through it, but there might be some obstacles that people who have never seen it before could come across.  So getting a fresh perspective on your course is always a best practice.  Ask a colleague, your instructional designer, a family member, heck even your son or daughter could help in this endeavor. 

These three steps can go a long way toward reducing consternation and frustration for both you and your students as they and you move through your Blackboard course.

The Best Browser for Blackboard Learn

Jacob and his MinionSo last week I went on a trip to visit a very good friend of mine.  He can’t see very well and he is addicted to wearing overalls, but he is a great dancer and is the life of the party wherever we go (especially with the younger set).  Any-who, we were walking down Fremont street together and he asks me a fairly straight forward question.

“Jacob, what is the best browser for Blackboard Learn?”

I smiled back at my friend the minion and told him that was a question we get often at our Technology Support Desk for SHSU Online. We strolled along together while I tried my best to answer his question. Well, my friend the minion liked the answer so much he asked me to share it with you.  So, with this blog post, I shall attempt to do so.

Traditionally our support desk has leaned heavily toward one particular browser, Mozilla Firefox when answering this question.  While I still think that Firefox is probably the best answer from a stability and fails-the-least-with-all-of-Blackboard’s-bells-and-whistles standpoint, the real answer is more nuanced than that.

While visiting with the minion last week in Las Vegas, I had the occasion to make a small side-trip to the Blackboard World 2014 (#BbWorld14 – for those that tweet) conference.  One of the sessions I attended on supporting Blackboard’s user community was put on by the University of Knoxville, Tennessee.  During the session they stated something that we here at SHSU Online always knew, but never put into words:

“The best browser for Blackboard is every browser.”

This zen-like statement on viewing Blackboard via the lens that we call our Internet browser is almost mind-blowing. It seems like something that “the Dude” would have uttered.  If you think about it though, it is true.

Internet browsers are on an accelerated development schedule.   They receive updates sometimes weekly in order to be sure that they are safe & secure to use for netizens across the globe. Blackboard, on the other hand, receives updates officially twice a year for the most part (not counting any cumulative patches your institution decides to apply).  The update disparity here is clear. You can already see where the pain points might happen when a browser is updated as often as they seem to be.  If one browser’s update messes with how you interact with Blackboard Learn, then try another.

Sometimes you may be on a deadline and “It’s my Blackboard and I want it now!”  In this case, just being able to launch another browser rather than making sure you clear your cache, delete your cookies and cleanse any temporary Internet files, makes life easier.

This is why it is important to have a stable of tools you can turn to when the need arises.  For PCs, your browser list for Blackboard should be: Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox & Google Chrome.  For Macs: Safari, Mozilla Firefox & Google Chrome.

Blackboard even provides a supported browser list that will work with your particular version of Blackboard Learn.

Well, the minion and I had a great visit.   I also visited a few more of my friends and they too had some questions that might interest you, but I’ll save those for another blog post.

Want to take your Blackboard Course to Next Level? Be Graphic!

bestpracSo, you’ve been at this Blackboard thing for a couple of semesters and you are starting to feel comfortable with the learning management system.  You’ve mastered the art of uploading and attaching files to content.  The discussion board is your boon companion and you are collecting assignments digitally from your students via the assignment tool.  Navigating the grade center is like riding a bike and you feel good about it!

What now?  Learn a new tool or technology? Live inside your course for the next 6 months?  Well, you could do those things, but let me suggest a slightly different approach.  Have you considered adding an important layer to your Blackboard course by inserting images?

Importance of Images

  • Convey course information in an alternate method.
  • Students pay more attention to articles/readings with graphic content.
  • Breaks up monotony of “text-only” Blackboard pages.
  • Increases student engagement by making them use a different part of their brain.
  • It just looks better!

Below are examples of a Blackboard content area without graphics and a content area with graphics.  Which one looks better?  Which one would you rather read?

Blackboard Course Content Area Examples
In this example the graphics are more of the decorating variety, but they do add color and continuity to your course.  Imagine having your course banner at the top of every major content area in your course.  In this case there are examples of images in a content item, learning module and content folder descriptions. Almost anywhere you use the content editor in Blackboard, you can place an image.

Inserting an Image

  1. Click the Insert/Edit Image button on your content editor.
  2. Browse to where your image is saved and attach it.
  3. Type an Image Description (for screen readers).
  4. Click the Insert button.Insert Image dialogue

Editing an Image (Alignment, Spacing and Size)

  1. Click on the image you have placed in the Content Editor.
  2. Click the Insert/Edit Image button.
  3. Click the Appearance tab.
  4. Adjust your Alignment, Spacing and Size.
    Insert - Edit Image - Appearance Tab

With a few clicks of your mouse, your Blackboard course can go from black and white text to a colorful tapestry of text and images that convey meaning to students in a number of different ways!

Resources – Free Images For Your Courses

Help your Students be Reflective with Journals

Merriam Webster defines a journal as:

a book in which you write down your personal experiences and thoughts

Backboard JournalPutting down those thoughts and experiences that impact us can be an important tool in personal growth and development. Journals don’t have to be limited to the “Dear diary” entries you make at your beside table.  They can be used in courses you teach as well. In online courses journals can be used as a mechanism for communication between a faculty member and a student, or as a reflective tool for students as they work to absorb what they are learning.

Benefits of using a journal include but are not limited to:

  • Teaches students to communicate their thoughts on the subject matter
  • Forces students to be on the lookout for journal material (actually paying attention in the course)
  • Helps students to remember what they have learned
  • Keeps a record of ideas, concepts or structures that are important
  • Lets students create without fear of judgement from peers
  • Allows students to take first level thoughts to the next level – idea expansion

Creative writing teachers can benefit from using a journal.  Students can post their entries and instructors can make comments as needed.  Journals can also be used to drive home what the student has studied over the week.  Think about the reinforcement that happens when a student submits an assignment, discusses with his or her peers, takes a quiz and then puts it all together in a journal entry for the week.  Finally, journals are ideally suited for formative assessment.  Get the student’s temperature by asking them to write about their highs and lows as it relates to the course during the week.  If something comes across that is legitimate, feel free to make course corrections for the benefit of all of your students.

Here at SHSU we utilize the Blackboard LearnTM learning management system, which has a journal tool as part of it’s feature set.  Journal assignments can be placed anywhere in the course and are accessible with click of the mouse. Learn more about implementing journals in your Blackboard course.

While you are thinking of ways to ensure your students are getting what they need on their learning journey, consider reflecting on the added value of implementing journal activities to your courses.

 

 

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