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Customizing Blackboard as an Infrastructure for Online Teaching and Learning

In this section, we will examine steps you might consider taking to customize your Blackboard shell in ways that facilitate teaching and learning.  When you create your Blackboard course shell, Blackboard gives you a foundation from which to build, but we suggest that build you must!  Your generic Blackboard shell looks like this:

Of course, you can leave it just like this and try to figure out where to put your material (Is this file a "course information" or a "course document"???).  We would like to suggest that you not passively accept the set-up given to you by Blackboard (which in and of itself suggests a pedagogy), but rather that you customize Blackboard to take advantage of the design considerations we covered in the earlier section.

Of course, you must first create your course.  In order to create a course in Blackboard, you first should have "faculty rights."  (The best clue as to whether you do or not is whether you see a box called "My Faculty Tools" when you first log in to Blackboard.)  Technology Services provided the following steps to creating a course:

  1. Login to Blackboard
  2. Under My Faculty Tools, click Create a Course

    Note: If you do not see My Faculty tools, it could be one of two reasons. Either you do not have faculty right (in this case, contact the help desk, 828-2227, and request faculty rights) or you need to customize your page to include the My Faculty Tools module (click Modify Content in the top right-hand corner and check the box).
  3. Select the correct Semester and Year

  4. If you are listed in banner as teaching a course, it can be found in either the Select Course From My Courses dropdown menu or the Select Course From All Courses dropdown menu.

    Note: Keep in mind that if you are not officially the instructor of a course through banner (ie. you are the Teaching Assistant, Course Builder, etc. or you are simply helping another instructor create his course) the course will not show up in the Select Courses From My Courses dropdown menu.

    Tip: When selecting a course from the Select Courses From All Courses dropdown menu, notice the instructor’s name is beside each course he or she is teaching. This is to help prevent instructors from creating the wrong courses.
  5. Click Submit

    Note: When a course is selected, the Rubric, Number, Section and Title will fill in automatically.  You should not change anything in these boxes (except maybe the title) because these changes could prevent the course from populating with your students from Banner.

So, now you have created your blank slate in which to begin customizing.  To highlight the differences, here is a Blackboard class shell that has been customized.  The menu has been customized to specifically address items that will be used in the class (including links to external sites like wikis and blogs).  A picture has been added as a banner to graphically note what was being covered that particular week. 

The menu provides clear terms such as “syllabus”, “lessons”, a link so students can check their grades (always of interest to them!), and special links for networking and collaboration inside the class through homepages and group pages.  In this customized class, the assignments are folded in to the lessons along with the course material and the discussion topics, so there is no need for a menu item called “Assignments”. 

This customization continues inside the class.  Folders are used to organize both material and flow in the class.  Each weekly lesson has a consistent look and feel, in this case – overview, readings, discussions, and assignments, with key due dates clearly indicated.

The menu link to the Syllabus in this example includes more than just the standard document.  In the Syllabus area are course calendars, policies, as well as tutorials on web tools that will be used by the students.

Screencasts are available inside “Institutional Content” in the Content System tab of Blackboard that cover how to customize your class, as well as customizing the settings inside Blackboard.

Why is this important?  Let’s return to the University of California – Chico criteria describing what a high quality online course looks like:

  1. Course is well-organized and easy to navigate. Students can clearly understand all components and structure of the course.
    Customizing the menu and setting up a consistent folder organization helps with this.
  2. Course syllabus identifies and clearly delineates the role the online environment will play in the total course.
    Using a syllabus with hyperlinks and adding supplemental information on schedules, tutorials, etc. takes advantage of the affordances an online environment brings to a class.  Additionally, the syllabus is an excellent place to spell out your expectations on “attendance” and classroom performance.
  3. Aesthetic design presents and communicates course information clearly throughout the course.
    The banner and pictures inside announcements and course items can be used to add interest and color to your class, and clearly communicates the topic of the week to your students.
  4. All web pages are visually and functionally consistent throughout the course.
    Using a consistent set-up inside each of the weekly folders cuts down on student anxiety regarding their knowing what is expected of them.
  5. Accessibility issues are addressed throughout the course.
    The web allows you to provide course material in a variety of manners, from text-based to podcasts for auditory learners to videos and graphics for visual learners.  Providing materials in multiple ways can address accommodations for students with special needs.
Virginia Commonwealth University  |  Center for Teaching Excellence
Last updated: 09/22/2009
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