Learning with BlackBoard Learn 9.1

This semester, I am teaching my face-to-face LITR 286 course with the help of BlackBoard Learn 9.1 (henceforth “BB”), as part of a pilot testing group. Our current Learning Management System will eventually be phased out by BlackBoard, and this system is one possibility for replacing it.

The best compliment I can give BB is that it has become transparent in my classes. In other words, it has become just another of our class tools that my students and I use to communicate and learn. The learning curve for the students seemed the same for using FerrisConnect. I have used BB for the same purposes I used FerrisConnect last semester, with the same results.

These sections of LITR 286 are face-to-face, so I am using BB in a web-assisted teaching mode. I use the site for a number of purposes:

1. A repository for course materials
2. A collection point for team assignments
3. A grade book
4. A conduit for email

Probably the most advanced use I am making of BB so far is for group assignments. I have students arranged into groups of four to five students, and we meet once a week in lab where they complete a team assignment, such as an analysis of a poem. BB has a groups tool, similar to FerrisConnect, so I can create an assignment for a group. One person from the group submits the assignment, and the grade flows back to all the group members when I grade the work. The only problem we’ve had is if a student submits a filename with a number sign in it, I can’t download it; however, BlackBoard is working on the issue.

In the second half of the semester, the teams will work together to produce a longer assignment over several weeks, and I look forward to using the Wiki tool. The Wiki will allow them to collaborate online on a single document and it will allow me to track who contributed what to the document.

I have found the gradebook quite easy to use. It is much faster than FerrisConnect in that you can edit directly inside a cell, much like a spreadsheet, rather than waiting for another window to open and close. There are lots of options for filtering your gradebook view as well to quickly look at all assignments on one screen, for example. Another option is to show just one student’s record across the screen. I’ve found this helpful during conferences when I want to go over grades with a student.

I’ve also used the email tool for communicating to students. The default setting for email is to send email out from BB to the students’ Ferris email addresses (although it still has internal messaging as an option). When they reply to the message it goes to my Lotus email, rather than back to BB. I’ve found this tool a quick way to communicate with students; many students have mentioned that they saw an important announcement on their email accounts when they missed class.

Another positive result was an improptu online peer review session during our snow day earlier in the semester. When I found out the bad weather was coming, I told them on that Monday that we would do peer review online instead of in the lab and they could use lab time if they wanted help with this. I emailed them the instructions later that day. When Ferris closed on our lab day, it turned out we had to do it online, and it worked with few problems (other my putting one student in the wrong group).

There are a number of key differences in the BB system. For example, the course menus are entirely customizable. You can choose to put tools in the course menus, much like on FerrisConnect, but you can put folders there or links to content or whatever you like. It does require careful planning, though. Otherwise, an instructor might end up with a huge list that would be hard to navigate going down the left side of the page.

Another nice feature is to be able to add bits of text or HTML to a page along with links to course items. It makes the individual pages much more customizable. Probably the biggest improvement over FerrisConnect is the fact that the HTML Creator actually works. You can quickly create text online using a word-processor-like interface.

Overall the site runs much faster than FerrisConnect. However, we are using a site hosted by the company, rather than a Ferris-hosted site, with a limited group of students and instructors. As I understand it, Ferris is exploring whether company hosting or Ferris hosting is the best option.

All is not perfect, however, and some people in the pilot have had some hiccups. Some of those issues have to do with learning all the options; because it is robust, there are a lot of settings to deal with sometimes. The biggest drawback right now for me is there is no Grading Forms tool in BB. The company is developing it, however, and plans to have it integrated later this year. Bea Griffith-Cooper from FCTL has been collecting any issues we’ve encountered into a wiki to be part of our pilot group’s overall evaluation.

So far, BB has met my needs as an instructor for a web-assisted course and I see it working well for my online sections as well.