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Tech in the Classroom: Blackboard

classroom management, grading, http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post, Technology Review

This is part of a series of reviews of websites, platforms, and social media sites. Some are useful for teachers in a SMART classroom (with a teacher-station computer, internet connection, and projector). Others lend themselves more to a lab where each student has her own computer. Hopefully these can help us communicate with our students, present information effectively, and encourage collaboration, feedback, and active participation. See our previous review of WordPressFacebook, PB Works, and Google Drive.

I know that not everyone shares my unbridled enthusiasm on this topic, but let me just get it out there: I love Blackboard!

It’s true that the layout can be a little clunky, and the visual aesthetics sometimes aren’t where I’d like them to be, but Blackboard is my go-to tech in the classroom tool. There are a lot of moving pieces to Blackboard, so it’s really easy to create the level of functionality and usage that you want out of it. It could be simply a place to store documents for students to access, or it could essentially be the place where your students go for much of the course content, giving it the potential to be a tool for a flipped classroom model.


My current use of Blackboard is somewhere in the middle, and I’ve had quite a bit of experience using it as both a teacher and a student.

Here are some of the ways that I think it can be most helpful in terms of class content management:

Readings

One of the main things that I use Blackboard for is storing course reading material. I use a lot of content that I’ve generated myself and web links to supplement the class textbook (some days I think about doing away with a textbook all together, but that’s a blog post for another day). Blackboard is the easiest place to store all of those reading assignments in a single place.
Here’s a screenshot of my English 030 Reading Assignment folder:
Notice that this is a combination of video content, web content, and text files. I also like that I can put instructions in the description of the content such as “Read this assignment for class on Monday and complete Reading Response 5 before class starts.” It gives me a way to reiterate and layer delivery of instruction and demonstrate the connection between class activities, readings, and homework assignments.

Assignments

Speaking of homework assignments, a great thing about Blackboard is the Assignment feature.
Anything that you create under the “Assessments” tab on Blackboard will be stored in Blackboard’s automatic grade book. Students can type their responses directly into Blackboard (which I have them do for short, informal assignments like Reading Responses) or they can attach a file that they have saved (like a Word document or PowerPoint presentation), which is usually more appropriate for longer, more formal assignments.
Another great feature that is helpful for longer assignments is that you can attach your own files to the assignment itself. I use this feature when I give students paper draft assignments on Blackboard.
Each of the “Attached Files” on these assignments are detailed assignment sheets with the specific instructions and a rubric for grading.
Alternately, for less formal assignments, I put the instructions for completion directly into Blackboard.
Having these different methods of delivery for assignment instruction helps me to reinforce the difference between formal assignments and informal assignments as well.
Blackboard also has several built-in assignment features, so you can design quizzes that will be automatically graded and surveys that your students can take. You also have the option of choosing how each of these assignments counts for grades, including the option to leave them out entirely. In those cases, you can give students optional quizzes they can take to check their own comprehension, and you can determine how many times a student has access to each assignment.

Grading

Hands down, my favorite part about Blackboard is the grading feature. Every assignment that students submit through Blackboard will go into the “Needs Grading” tab from my instructor view. From there, I can go in and view each assignment and assign it a grade. When I do that, the grade will automatically be entered into the student’s Blackboard gradebook column.
I can then manually add gradebook columns for assignments that were not completed on Blackboard. For instance, I add columns for participation points, in-class writings, and bonus point opportunities. Once all of these grades are entered, Blackboard will automatically calculate the total percentage as a running total, giving both you and the students a constantly updated grade for the moment (though it can be hidden from students if you prefer) and making calculating final grades a snap.
There are even options to exempt grades (I use this often because I drop the three lowest Reading Response scores at the end of the semester), which takes them out of consideration for scoring.
Grades can also be given for group assignments, and then all of the students assigned to the group will have that grade entered into their Blackboard grade column.
By assigning a grade column a potential point value of “0,” I can create bonus point categories. If a student scores a 5 on an assignment that has been marked with a value of “0,” those points are added to the numerator, but not the denominator, making sure that they are properly calculated as bonus.
Finally, grades can be calculated in either points or percentages (and includes pass/fail assignments that are graded solely on completion), so you can adapt the gradebook to whatever grading style works best for you.

Grading Drawbacks

The only thing I really can’t do in Blackboard that I wish I could is give substantial line-by-line comments to a paper draft. For the assignments that are submitted directly on Blackboard (as opposed to a file that the students attach), the only real grading options are to leave comments in the comment box or use Blackboard’s built in rubric feature. For me, when I am grading papers electronically, I need more options than that, so I export all of the longer, more formal assignments into Word, make comments on them, and then re-attach them so that students can open them with comments.

Student Conferencing

Another feature that I have used many times in Blackboard is the ability to run a report on an individual student. This has come in handy with individual conferencing. I’m enrolled as a student in my own class, so I can show you what it would look like to pull up my grades for the class.
That allows me to see every assignment that has been entered into the gradebook and my scores for each one. It also gives me the “Weighted Total” at the top, so I know my current course grade. The dashes indicate missing work, which isn’t counted in the weighted total (if I manually entered a “0” in the grade book, they would be added).
When a student comes in to discuss grades, I pull up this screen. We can look at it together and discuss any missing assignments as well as get a clear sense of how many points have been available and how many points are still left. This has been a particularly useful tool when a student is considering dropping the class and we need to talk through their potential for passing.

Late Work

Another feature of Blackboard that I really like is that it timestamps every student submission, and if it comes in past the due date set on the assignment, it is marked as “Late.” In the past, keeping track of which assignments had been turned in on time and which ones were late was a challenge for me. Blackboard eliminates that hassle.
Another hassle that it eliminates is making sure that I see late work to get it graded. When I got student work past the due date before, it often ended up in a folder that I forgot to look at because–in my mind–I had already dealt with that assignment when I graded the ones that came in on time. Having a “Needs Grading” tab on Blackboard gives me a visual reminder of which assignments are still outstanding, keeping me on track when it comes to getting work graded and returned quickly.

Modules

I haven’t used these yet, but I’m toying with the idea of designing some content modules for some of our class lesson plans. I am particularly interested in using these for the classes I’m teaching this summer because of the fast-paced nature of summer courses. Being able to have a more integrated delivery method for course content will probably benefit students when it feels like readings and assignments are blending together because of how quickly we must move from one class to the next.
A module is basically its own content page where you can add any of the Blackboard elements (assignments, web links, Word documents, PowerPoint presentations, etc.) into one place and then organize it in the order that will be most accessible to students. You can even control whether or not students can skip around in the material or need to read it linearly. Basically, it’s like designing a textbook.
Here’s a good link that includes instructions on how to set up the modules and a view of what students see when they use them. If anyone uses these, I’d love for you to comment and let us know how they work for you!

Takeaway

Using Blackboard has really helped me organize my class layout from beginning to end. It helps me to think about how assignments connect and when I need to deliver content to students to make sure that they are on the same page when it comes to course material.
I am able to put together several assignments early in the semester and then time the release so that students will see them gradually and as they are relevant. This has been a really great tool for me because I often have good ideas for assignments and how things fit together at the beginning of the semester but get a little lost in the woods by the time I’m in the thick of things. Being able to design the basic shell of my class from the beginning and fill it in as the class progresses allows me both the structure I need to stay organized and the flexibility I need to meet the needs of each individual class.
I also like that it gives students a clear set of due dates and assignments that they can access online at any time. This has greatly reduced the number of questions I get from students about what is due when.
I absolutely love that it keeps track of grades for me. Before I used assignments and grading in Blackboard, keeping track of grades was one of the most time consuming aspects of teaching prep.

A Note About Student Anxiety

I was a little nervous to use Blackboard, especially in a Fall English 020 class. Almost all of those students were in college for the very first time, and most of them had no experience with Blackboard. In fact, many of them had little to no experience with computers in general. The anxiety about having assignments that were going to be turned in online is often incredibly high, almost palpable.
I’ve taken the head-on approach to dealing with. I tell students that I know some of them are nervous, but that it’s better to get comfortable with it now than to have to learn something entirely new in upper-level classes where the teachers are likely to assume they already know how to do it. I ask them about their goals and explain to them that jobs they’re hoping to go into are going to require comfort with technology, so willingness to learn a new platform is a skill they’re going to need. Finally, I assure them that I will work with them and that they can ask questions. We’ll figure it out together.
And we do. In their final writing reflections, I have had so many students specifically mention how happy they are that they learned to use Blackboard. Most of them tell me that they were very nervous about it, but now they are comfortable going into it for their next classes.
There are some issues with student access to computers, and I know that this can be a problem for students who do not have a home computer or home internet access. I make sure to explain to students that our class might require them to schedule in some time in the lab, and I am lenient with students who can bring their work in on a flashdrive and upload it to Blackboard at the beginning of class, even if that means it’s a little late.
Overall, I’ve been very happy with student participation and the improvements I see in their technology comfort level.
How do you use Blackboard in your classroom? What do you like about it? What do you dislike? Is there something you’d like to try with it that you haven’t yet?
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