By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Have you been using Blackboard in the same way for the past five years? Are your Learning Materials still a dumping ground for every handout and PowerPoint ever?
These 5 Blackboard Hacks will have you running a smoother course (for you, and your students) in no time. And if you use another LMS, I’m sure many of these principles can be applied to yours as well – the technical details might just be a little different.
Hack #1 – Organize Your Learning Materials By Week
Pictured below are two potential filing methods for Learning Materials. On the left, we have materials sorted by type. On the right, by week.
The left side appeals to the office organizer in us. Staples, tape, and paper clips go in one drawer. Pencils, pens, markers, and white out in another. And so on.
But courses aren’t office desks. Students don’t show up in your LMS and say, “Oh, I need a reading, where’s that? And now I need a quiz; let me go get one.” They log into your course at 10pm–after getting the kids to bed or coming home from their second job or what have you–and they say, “I’ve got an hour and a half to get my schoolwork done, what the heck do I need to do?!?!”
So, the less clicks the better.
Most courses progress in a relatively predictable chronological pattern, so if you organize your Learning Materials into weekly folders, each folder becomes a one-stop-shop for what students need to do at any given time.
But won’t my Learning Materials be really long? If I’m teaching a full semester, that’s sixteen different folders! My students will be scrolling for hours!
Calm down, calm down. There’s a hack for that too.
Hack #2 – Use Past & Future Folders To Keep It Clean
Instead of putting ALL of your folders into Learning Materials, you only present the current week’s folder, and hide the rest of the folders into two new folders called “Past Weeks” and “Future Weeks”. So, at week 2, your course might look something like this…
This method has the added benefit of providing students who fall behind with an obvious place to go to catch up, and it gives the go-getters a place to look at what’s coming up.
Slow down, Ish. My class is project-based. My students work on the same big project for weeks. Shouldn’t I use folders based on assignment rather than weeks?
IMHO… no. And that’s because you can always use…
Hack #3 – Focus Students with an Assignments Tab
There may be ways to make topic-based Learning Materials work, but I don’t think–in general–it will be as easy for students to navigate as chronological ordering.
Most classes progress at a pretty typical pace. You generally know what resources students will need to access and what milestones they’ll need to complete at any given point. If your course is more loosey-goosey, self-paced than usual, then I think it might work to organize folders by project.
Otherwise, I prefer chronological ordering of Learning Materials combined with an Assignments tab on the course menu. In the Assignments section, you can place all of the reference material and resources for each assignment or project.
That way, students who are sticking to the prescribed path can get everything that they need at any given moment in the Learning Materials for that week. And students who need to recheck the instructions, rubric, or graphic organizer for a project can just click on Assignments rather than digging through all of the past Learning Materials. Your assignments section might look something like this…
Hack #4 – Don’t Upload, Link
Okay, okay. I get it. I’ll organize my Learning Materials by week and I’ll create an Assignments section to organize materials by project also.
But what the heck is with that last screen shot? Where are all the document attachments?
– A slightly less skeptical, though perhaps more confused, You
Top secret information: I don’t attach files in Blackboard anymore. And it has improved my productivity by leaps and bounds.
Don’t you hate when you are teaching three sections of the same course, upload some assignment instructions to all three Blackboard courses, and then realize that you made a mistake.
Not only do you have to edit the original document. But you also have to remove all of the attachments and upload new ones (IN ALL THREE COURSES!!!). Imagine if you had that same file attached in more than one place on each course. Might as well just ignore the mistake and move on.
Enter Google Docs.
Google docs allows you to create documents (much like Microsoft Word) that can be shared via link. Wherever you paste the link, users can access the original doc.
Now, when I create my assignment sheet in Google Docs and paste the link into three different places on Blackboard, it’s much simpler to make edits. All I have to do is update the original doc and every course is immediately updated as well.
This post isn’t the place for a complete tutorial on Google Docs, but you can find some useful video tutorials over at Mr Ish’s Workshop, and Edudemic has a great post called 10 Things Every Teacher Should Know How To Do With Google Docs.
Hack #5 – For Extra Credit, Embed
I couldn’t think of another snarky comment to attribute to you.
Links are great. In fact, I spent exactly 223 words in that last section explaining how great they are. But sometimes, they aren’t enough.
Sometimes, you don’t want students to have to travel outside of Blackboard to access your content. Sometimes, as with a class agenda, you want it right smack in front of their faces.
That’s where embedding comes in.
Here is a screen shot of my Week 8 agenda embedded in Blackboard.
You might not be able to tell, but that isn’t a Blackboard content item, it’s a Google Doc, and all students need to do to view it is go to Learning Materials. No opening files or clicking on links. And I have the added benefit of being able to edit the agenda right from Google Docs, too.
This hack was tagged as extra credit because you might need to be a bit tech savvy to implement it, or at least be willing to jiggle the handle until everything works smoothly.
I’ll keep the tutorial brief. Two screen shots should be enough to help my more adventurous readers figure it out on their own. If you really, really, really, really want an in-depth tutorial, leave a great outcry in the comments. If there’s enough demand, I’ll post a follow-up.
Screenshot 1: What To Do in Google Docs
Screenshot 2: What To Do in Blackboard
Okay hackers. Get hacking!