Blackboard Grade Center Basics – Part 4: Tweaks

This is the fourth installment in a series on using the Blackboard Grade Center. The first installment, Getting Ready discussed the general idea of Grade Center and provided instructions on what to do in preparation for Grade Center configuration.  The second installment, Initial Setup introduced the Grade Center itself, and provided instructions on how to configure categories and columns.  The third article, Do the Math! explains how to create and manage calculated columns.  This post provides helpful tips on tweaking the Grade Center using the Column Organization tool.

Introductory Notes

This tutorial demonstrates how to toggle the visibility of columns and how to use the Grade Center’s “Column Organization” tool to tweak the display of the Blackboard Grade Center.  This assumes that a fully functioning Grade Center has already been configured.  If you’re reading this and don’t have a functioning Grade Center set up yet, you may want to revisited one of the previous posts in this series (see above).

The Scenario….

I’m teaching the same course I taught last semester.  Before the semester started, I copied the content from the previous semester’s section into my new Blackboard section.  This semester, I only want to have 9 graded homework assignments, rather than the 10 I had last semester. How do I get the extra column out of the grade center?

This is not an uncommon question and the answer is quite simple.

There are two ways to go about it.

tweaks04Option 1: Deleting a Grade Center Column

Simply delete the column from the Grade Center. To do this,

  1. Go to the Grade Center (the main grid) in your Blackboard course.
  2. Locate the column you want to hide.
  3. Click on the action arrow at the top of the column.
  4. Select “Delete Column” from the dropdown menu.

However, if the Grade Center column is associated to a Blackboard Assignment, the assignment must be deleted first.  


I know, that’s pretty self-explanatory, but I just wanted to throw in that caveat.  The column will be gone, vanished, “poof”!!  So make sure you really want it gone!!

OR…. you could go with option #2….

Option 2: Hiding a Grade Center Column

Rather than deleting the column, this option will make it unavailable so that it can be reused later.

STEP 1 – Toggle Column Visibility for Students

tweaks00Adjusting the visibility of columns in the Grade Center can be a bit frustrating if not done properly.  Due to some purposes that I’ve yet to fully comprehend, Blackboard will allow you to make a column visible to students yet hide it from yourself (the instructor).  The logic behind that ability evades me.  But, I’ve never claimed to be the sharpest tool in the shed, so there could very well be a reason that I don’t get.

To hide columns from students in the grade center:

  1. Go to the Grade Center (the main grid) in your Blackboard course.
  2. Locate the column you want to hide.
  3. Click on the action arrow at the top of the column.
  4. Select “Hide from Students (on/off)” from the dropdown menu.

tweaks00aColumns hidden from students are displayed with an orange slash to the left of the column name.

To make the column visible to students, simply repeat the steps outlined above.

STEP 2 – Toggle Column Visibility for Instructors

tweaks03Now that the column has been hidden from students, you want to hide it from yourself so that it doesn’t annoy or confuse you in the future.

To hide a column from the instructor view of the grade center:

  1. Go to the Grade Center (the main grid) in your Blackboard course.
  2. Locate the column you want to hide.
  3. Click on the action arrow at the top of the column.
  4. Select “Hide from Instructor View” from the dropdown menu.

And that’s it.  The column won’t be around to bother you any longer.  But, of course, if you need to, you can go in and make the column visible again.  And this brings us to to main point of this article….

Column Organizationtweaks01

Now that we’ve discussed deleting and hiding columns, let’s dig in a little deeper and look at one of the most powerful screens for configuring Grade Center display settings; Column Organization.  To access Column Organization, hover over the “Manage” drop-down and select “Column Organization” from the menu.

The Column Organization screen allows you to:

  1. Show or hide columns.
  2. Change a column’s category.
  3. Rearrange columns.

This won’t give you the power to do every single tweak imaginable to your Grade Center, but it will definitely get you started down the right path.

The Screentweaks05

Pictured to the right, the Column Organization screen allows instructors to configure the appearance and configuration of the Grade Center.  The screen presents the grade center columns in list view with the left-most column appearing at the top of the list.  Columns that are visible in the main Grade Center screen are in black, while columns that are hidden from the main Grade Center screen are in grey.

Showing / Hiding Columns

To show or hide a Grade Center column,tweaks06

  1. Select the column by clicking on the checkbox to the left of the column.
  2. Hover your mouse pointer over the “Show/Hide” menu (at the top and bottom of the Column Organization screen).
  3. Select the desired action (“Hide Selected Columns” or “Show Selected Columns” from the menu.
    NOTE:  Changes will be made immediately on the screen, but will NOT BE PERFORMED until the “SUBMIT” button has been clicked.  So, by all means…
  4. Click the Submit button (located at the top and bottom of the Column Organization screen).
  5. This will return you to the main Grade Center view, and you will note that the changes you made are reflected in the Grade Center screen.

Changing a Column’s Category

In part two of this series (Initial Setup), I covered how to configure categories and how to assign a category to grade center column.  Typically, those things won’t change, but once in a while you may find it necessary to change the category with which an assignment was associated.  From the Column Organization screen, it is very simple.

  1. Select the column that is to be changed by clicking on the checkbox to the left of the column name.
  2. Click on the tweaks08button (located at either the top or the bottom of the Column Organization screen.
  3. Select the new category for the column.
  4. Click the Submit button.

Rearranging Grade Center Columns

To rearrange Grade Center columns (it’s really really simple),

  1. Click on the cross-arrow icon crossarrow to the left of the item you’d like to move and hold down the mouse button.
  2. Drag the item to the desired location.
  3. Release the mouse button.

I know, those are pretty complicated instructions….
Here’s an animated gif that demonstrates the process.


Now what?

So that’s pretty much it for hiding/deleting columns and using the Column Organization screen to tweak the Grade Center.

The next installment, “But Wait, There’s More!” will cover a few additional topics that didn’t quite fit anywhere else, but are still good to know about.  Things like SmartViews, Grading Schemas, Color Coding, and Exporting grades to a spreadsheet.


As always, thanks for stopping by, and if you have any questions, comments, concerns, or (gentle) criticisms, please feel free to reach out.


Blackboard Grade Center Basics – Part 3: Do the Math! (Calculations)

This is the third installment in a series on using the Blackboard Grade Center. The first installment, Getting Ready discussed the general idea of Grade Center and provided instructions on what to do in preparation for Grade Center configuration.  The second installment, Initial Setup introduced the Grade Center itself, and provided instructions on how to configure categories and columns.  This installment deals with creating and managing calculated columns.

Introductory Notes

For the sake of simplicity, I’m dividing this post into two sections, Points and Percentage, as your Grade Center calculations will depend entirely on which method you use.  Neither method is better nor worse than the other.  They both have strengths and weaknesses and at the end of the semester, they all morph into A’s,B’s,C’s,D’s, or F’s.

The point is that if you’re using points, just read the Points section of this tutorial.  If you’re using percentage based calculations, then just read the Percentage part.

If You’re Using A Points-Based Grade Center

If you completely followed the steps in parts one and two of this guide, then you’ve got everything in place for a Points-based grade center.  The TOTAL column should represent an accurate total for the course.  In the next installment of the series, I’ll discuss how to review this and make adjustments if necessary.  But at this point, if you’re using a points-based Grade Center and have assigned the correct values to each graded activity column, then the TOTAL column should be right.  So just hang back and wait for the next installment of the series (which will be coming in just a couple of days).

If You’re Using A Percentage-Based Grade Center

In part two, I demonstrated how to create categories and columns then discussed how to associate those columns to the appropriate categories. Now, it’s time to configure the WEIGHTED TOTAL column, which is where we associate the values to the categories and perform the actual calculations.

gc012In Blackboard, go to the Full Grade Center.  Once the Grade Center loads, click the action arrow for the WEIGHTED TOTAL column and select “Edit Column Information” from the drop-down menu.

The ‘Edit Weighted Column’ screen will then load.  From this screen, you will be able to configure the column to accurately calculate the grades for your percentage-based Grade Center.


The image below provides an example of the first part of the ‘Edit Weighted Column‘ screen. Note: You can change the Column Name to anything you choose.  You may also change the Grade Center Name as well.  “Grade Center Name” is what displays at the top of the column in the Grade Center.  If there is nothing in the “Grade Center Name” field, the column will display the Column Name by default.  If you do change the the Grade Center Name, make sure it’s set to something short, otherwise, it won’t fit in the column heading and could cause confusion if you have similarly named columns.

The Description area is populated with default text which you can modify or delete.

Beneath the Description box are the Primary and Secondary Display options.  You may choose from any two of the display options (Percentage, Points, Letter, Text, or Complete/Incomplete).    A common combination is the Percentage for the Primary and Letter for the Secondary Display.

Whatever combination you choose, they will display in the following format:
Primary (Secondary)

So, if you chose Percentage as Primary and Letter as Secondary it would appear like this:
93.00% (A)


Now that we’ve got the display options out of the way, let’s get down to the nitty gritty… let’s get this show on the road.

Configuring Calculations

Section 3 of the Edit Weighted Column screen is where you will configure the actual calculations.  If you configured the individual columns using categories, it’s pretty simple to do.

First, select the category from the “Categories to Select” list.  When you select a category, the assignments associated with that category are displayed in the “Category Information” box just beneath the category list.  This will help you make sure you’re selecting the correct category.

Second, once you’ve selected a category, click on the > button just to the right of the “Categories to Select” box.


Once you’ve clicked the > button, the category will appear in the Selected Columns box.  Enter the weight for the category in the % Category box (as shown below).  If you plan on dropping the lowest x grades, enter the number of grades to drop in the Drop _ Lowest box.  After you’ve added a value for a category, you’ll notice that the total weight is displayed just beneath the Selected Columns box.


Repeat this process with each category.

The Calculate as Running Total radio buttons beneath the Select Column section is of critical importance.

  • If Yes is selected, then any assignments which don’t have grades (assignments which ave not been submitted or graded) will not be included in the calculations.
  • If No is selected, any assignments that have not been submitted or graded will be calculated as zeroes.
  • NOTE:  If you select “Yes” you’ll need to make sure that you enter “0” grades for unsubmitted work.

Click the ‘Submit’ button to apply the new configuration.

So that’s it?

Yes and no.  The Grade Center has been configured, but it’s not quite complete.  You’ll probably want to make a few tweaks here and there, hide some unwanted columns, put things into a different order, etc.  So yes, the bare bones Grade Center is ready.  The next installment in this series will show you how to make those little tweaks so that your Grade Center is just exactly perfect.


Blackboard Grade Center Basics – Part 2: Initial Setup

This is the second in a six-part series on the Blackboard Grade Center.

In the first installment of this series, I discussed what needs to be in place BEFORE setting up a Blackboard Grade Center.  Once you’ve completed those steps and have a clearly defined Grade Center configuration, you’re ready to dive into Blackboard and make your vision a reality!

Just a couple of notes before we get started…

First, this guide is intended for faculty who don’t teach online and who are using Blackboard as a supplement to their face-to-face courses.  While the steps are the same, faculty who teach online will notice that their Grade Center is populated by columns for discussions, assessments, and assignments as they are created, so they won’t see the tabula rasa that I demonstrate below.

Second, the examples I use are from our Blackboard system at MCCC.  Your Grade Center may include different columns by default or may have a different color scheme.  Disregard all of that.  The concepts are still the same.

gc001.pngTo access the Blackboard Grade Center, log into Blackboard (duh), go to the course you’ve been assigned and click on “Grade Center” in the course menu on the left-hand side of the screen.  From the menu that will appear, select “Full Grade Center.”  This will load the complete Blackboard Grade Center.

When you first start out, there isn’t a whole lot to see.  Just some buttons across the top and some column headings.  Not very exciting, right?  Fear not.  It will become quite exciting in short order.  gc002.png


Igc003f you look at the section where your actual grades will go, the only two columns that would contain grade data are the default, pre-generated, WEIGHTED TOTAL and TOTAL columns.  Before we go any further, let’s get rid of You’re only going to need one of them, so let’s get rid of the one we’re not using.

gc004.pngIf you’re using a POINTS based grade center,  DELETE the WEIGHTED TOTAL column.  To do this, click on the arrow at the top of the column (that arrow shall henceforth be known as the “action arrow”) and select “Delete Column” from the menu.





If you’re using a PERCENTAGE based grade center, delete the TOTAL column, but this is a little trickier, as the TOTAL column is configured as the “External Grade” by default.  Basically, the “External Grade” column is the one that has been designated to represent the final grade for the course and there can only be one of those (obviously).  Also, you can’t just go around deleting the final grade column, so you must remove the “External Grade” designation from the column before you can delete it.
gc005.pngTo designate the WEIGHTED TOTAL column as the “External Grade”  column, click on the action arrow for the WEIGHTED TOTAL column, and select “Set as External Grade” from the drop-down menu.



Now that we have gc004.pngthe WEIGHTED TOTAL column designated as the External Grade for the Grade Center, we can remove the unnecessary TOTAL column from the grade center.  Same as above, click on the action arrow for the TOTAL column, and click the “Delete Column” link from the bottom of menu.





Using the examples I created in the first installment of this series, we’re going to create some categories for the Grade Center.  That category configuration looked like this….


gc006.pngUltimately, these categories will be configured in the “WEIGHTED TOTAL” column, but before we can do that, we need to create the categories in the Grade Center.  To do this, hover your mouse pointer over the ‘Manage’ drop-down button (just above the row of column headers we were just working with), and from the drop-down menu that appears, select “CATEGORIES”



Once the “CATEGORIES” screen loads, you’ll find that seven pre-defined categories are already waiting for you.  The categories can be used for calculations, but they cannot be deleted or edited.  They can, however, be ignored, which is what I’m going to do in this tutorial.  You see them in the image below, but I will not be using them for this tutorial.  You can use them if you’d like.  There’s no harm in doing so, but for the purposes of this tutorial, I thought it better to create fresh categories that specifically match the grading breakdown above.


The default Blackboard ‘Categories’ screen.


Creating one’s own categories is quite simple.  Just click on the “CREATE CATEGORY” button, then provide a name and (optional) description for the category, then click the ‘SUBMIT’ button.


Once you’ve created the category, you’ll be taken back to the main CATEGORIES screen, where you can repeat the process above to create all the categories for the course.

Once you’ve finished the process, it will look something like this.   Take a moment to marvel at your work, then click on the “OK” button to move on to the next step.



For instructors who are inheriting a course or who already have content configured inside their Blackboard shell, you may find that you already have columns configured in the Grade Center.  For this tutorial, we’re working with a tabula rasa, in which there are no pre-configured assignments.  But I wanted to mention it just in case your Grade Center looked a little different from mine.

Now that we’ve created grading categories as outlined in the syllabus, it’s time to move on to create columns for each graded activity in the course.  You can add columns during the semester as you come up with new assignments, or you can manually add them all at once prior to the start of the semester.

PLEASE NOTE:  If students are submitting work in the Blackboard environment (to an AssignmentTest, or Discussion Forum) then those individual elements will automatically have Grade Center columns generated when you create them.  This tutorial assumes that students will be handing in work in class and not submitting it via Blackboard. In the end, it all works out the same way, but I wanted to mention that so that you didn’t manually create a column for something that already had a column automatically created by Blackboard.


So, looking at the calculation configuration outlined above, let’s make some assignments….

For this course, students are graded on:

  • Attendance (5%) (many instructors keep a single column for attendance and populate it at the end of the semester).
  • Homework (15%) (10 assignments)
  • Quizzes (10%) (10 quizzes)
  • One of each of the following:
    • Research Paper (25%)
    • Mid-Term Exam (15%)
    • Final Exam (30%)

Now, using this information, I’m going to create 24 columns in the Grade Center, one for each graded assignment.  (No, I’m not doing screenshots for all 24, just for 1 of them.) 🙂

To create a Grade Center column, click the “CREATE COLUMN” button in the Grade Center. and complete the form that loads.gc011


In the screenshot above, you’ll see that three areas are highlighted.  These sections MUST be completed FOR EACH GRADED ACTIVITY in order for your Grade Center to function properly.

  1. Column Name: I don’t think I need to explain what a name is.  Just be concise and clear with your naming.  Use the same conventions as you go along.
  2. Category:  The Grade Center won’t calculate data properly if the activities aren’t assigned to the appropriate categories.  Make sure you select the category that this particular activity falls into
  3. Points Possible: It’s a graded activity!  How much is it worth?  What’s the highest score someone could possibly achieve on this assignment?
    • IF YOU ARE USING A PERCENTAGE-BASED GRADE CENTER, you should be using 100 as the highest possible score here.  You can use some other value, but it’s easier to track 0-100 scores in a percentage-based grade center.
    • IF YOU ARE USING A POINTS-BASED GRADE CENTER, you need to make sure you enter the correct point values for each assignment.

There are other options that can be configured (Due Dates, Rubrics, etc.) but this is a basic, introductory tutorial, so we’re not going into all that fun stuff at this point.

Once you’ve got your information entered, click the “Submit” button to save your work.  Repeat the process and create a Grade Center column for each graded activity in your course.


It’s not as bad as you think, I promise.  There will be a little bit of a learning curve as you navigate the screens for the first time, but, as with most things in life, the more you work with it, the easier it will become.

In the next installment of this tutorial series, we’ll go into actually calculating the grades.

So, your homework between now and then is to create the categories in Blackboard, then create Grade Center columns for each graded activity in your course.

Good luck!!

Blackboard Grade Center Basics – Part 1: Getting Ready


This tutorial series is designed to assist faculty who are just starting to use the Blackboard Grade Center to keep track of student grades.  While this series may be helpful to faculty who are teaching a fully online course, this series is written specifically for faculty who are using Blackboard as a supplement to their face-to-face course.

A little background….  If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I’m the Blackboard admin for Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, NJ.  Recently, we made Blackboard available to all courses, and as such, we’ve seen an influx of faculty who are hoping to use the system to track student grades.  These tutorials are designed to assist those faculty who are new to Blackboard to configure and use the Grade Center tool to track student performance in their classes.

The series will contain 6 tutorials:

  1. Getting Ready (this post): Introduces the series, explains the concepts being covered, and outlines exactly what faculty will need before getting started.
  2. Initial Setup: How to set up assignment categories in Blackboard and how to create Grade Center columns for individual assignments.
  3. Do The Math (Calculations): Provides step-by-step instructions for setting up calculated columns in Grade Center.
  4. Tweaks: Using Column Organization and adjusting column visibility to improve usability of the Blackboard Grade Center.
  5. But Wait, There’s More!: Other tools that enhance the use of the Grade Center.
  6. Uh-Oh! (Troubleshooting Grade Center Issues): Common Grade Center issues and their solutions.

Now that I’ve got the pesky little introduction out of the way, let’s cover the first part…

Are you ready to get ready?

Before you set out to tackle your Grade Center configuration in Blackboard, you need to have a solid grasp on how your Grade Center will be configured.  It’s much more complicated to retrofit a Grade Center due to poor planning than it is to take the time, map it out, and configure it correctly from the start.  So save yourself the headaches and confusion of trying to fix it.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  1. Pick one:  Points or Percentage?  Decide if you’re using a Points or Percentage based Grade Center.  You can’t mix and match here.  It has to be one or the other.
    1. In a points-based system, students start with 0 points and with each completed assignment, accumulate points throughout the semester.  High stakes assignments (like mid-terms or finals) will be worth more points than weekly quizzes or homework assignment, and that can be controlled on the assignment level.  So, if the homework for Week 6 is more complex and more deserving of value than the homework assignment for other weeks, you can just make it worth more points.EXAMPLE:
      • Attendance (30 class meetings at 1 point per meeting) = 30 points
      • Homework (except Week 6) (15 assignments at 10 points each) = 150 points
      • Week 6 Homework (1 assignment worth 20 points) = 20 points
      • Quizzes (10 quizzes at 10 points each) = 100 points
      • Research Paper (1 paper worth 100 points) = 100 points
      • Mid-Term Exam (1 exam worth 50 points) = 50 points
      • Final Exam (1 exam worth 150 points) = 150 points
      • MAXIMUM SCORE: 600 points
        • A = 540-600 points
        • B = 480 – 539 points
        • C = 420 – 479 points
        • D = 360 – 419 points
        • F = 359 or fewer points
    2. In a percentage-based system, categories are clearly defined and assigned specific weights.  The sum of all percentages must be 100%.EXAMPLE:
      • Attendance = 5%
      • Homework = 15%
      • Quizzes = 10%
      • Research Paper = 25%
      • Mid-Term Exam = 15%
      • Final Exam = 30%
  2. Once you’ve made a decision, write it out!  As outlined above, your grading system should be clearly elaborated.  Blackboard’s Grade Center doesn’t handle nebulous concepts well, so make sure you’ve got everything written down.
  3. If you’re using extra credit or are dropping lowest x grades in a particular category, make sure you make special note of this, as they will come into play later.  (I’ll be handling Extra Credit in the “Do the Math” post in this series.)
  4. Assignments for each category (Percentage-based systems):  All of these wonderful categories are useless if we don’t have any assignments in them!  Make sure that each graded assignment in the course belongs to one (and only one) defined category.
  5. A syllabus with a clearly defined grading system that matches the Grade Center configuration:  Your Grade Center and your Syllabus MUST MATCH.  If you provide students with one grading configuration in the syllabus, but use a different one in the Grade Center, you are begging for problems.

Now what?

In the next installment of this series, I’ll be discussing how to put this all into Blackboard for the first time.

Thanks for stopping by, and as always, questions, comments, concerns, or (gentle) criticisms are welcome.



Thoughts on Openness, Access, and Creeping Corporate Control (or, Bridges are Better than (pay)Walls)

This post has very little to do with educational technology, yet it has everything to do with educational technology.  When I post to this blog, I try to keep my thoughts and comments to strictly edtech matters and avoid any overtly political statements.  But this is 2016, and everything is politicized, so there’s little doubt that I’d eventually post something that is slightly political.

On June 3rd, Rajiv Jhangiani published a blog post called “Principles vs. Publishers” where he described his recent battle with Cengage over a chapter he’d written for inclusion in their upcoming Thematic Approaches for Teaching Introductory Psychology anthology.  Jhangiani’s chapter dealt with open educational resources (OER) and offered ideas on how faculty could adopt an open approach to teaching Introductory Psychology.  The publisher, as is their right, requested that the author alter the text of the chapter to make it less critical of the publishing industry and caution faculty to use OER materials at their peril (my words, not theirs).  In the end Jhangiani pulled his chapter from consideration for the text and published the aforementioned blog post.  Inside Higher Ed wrote a piece about it, and that’s how I heard about the whole thing.

A few days later, on June 6, EdSurge published this Op-Ed piece by a Senior VP at Pearson who encouraged community colleges to leap into bed with publishers and allow the corporate deities to solve all their problems.  Perhaps I exaggerate, but only slightly.  I read the article and promptly shared a link on Twitter accompanied by the following Dylan lyric:

“Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”

Tombstone Blues – Bob Dylan
Copyright © 1965 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1993 by Special Rider Music

Now, why would I say something like that? Shouldn’t I embrace the opportunity for community colleges to finally have their “Camelot moment”?  Have I become too cynical in my old age? After all, the author had only the best of intentions and hoped for nothing more than the expansion of access to education, yet here I am being all cynical, assuming there was some profit motive behind it all.

Whenever publishers or other entities declare their love for community colleges and offer up new initiatives designed to help us, the first thing they need to know is that we can’t afford their “help”.  Their “help” has contributed mightily to the problems we currently face, and the OER movement is one way that educators (and the dedicated staff who support them) are trying to clean up the mess.

Community college students are struggling, juggling jobs, education, families, etc., and when students have to choose between paying a utility bill or spending $250 for a textbook and access online publisher materials, guess what doesn’t get bought?  

As an LMS administrator for a community college, my goal is to create seamless, simple, streamlined solutions for our students, to design a system where students spend less time learning how to navigate multiple platforms and more time learning course material.   Each minute a student spends frustrated, trying to figure out how to access or navigate an external platform or trying to figure out how to make the technology work on their particular system, is a minute they’re not spending learning course content.   Every semester, without fail, we get the calls from students who are struggling to access publisher materials that are oh-so-conveniently housed outside of our LMS, and every semester, we see students drop out of courses because they can’t afford to purchase access to the publisher’s proprietary platform. Ofttimes, the answers come slowly, and by the time student issues are resolved, the student’s are already behind.

I’m sure you’re thinking, “Rodney, that’s not what that article was about.  It didn’t even mention Pearson’s web-based learning resources.  It was about something different, something innovative, something transformative.  It was about community colleges forging a strategic partnership with Pearson, a ‘public-private partnership,  with shared revenue.’ Come on man!  Get with the program.”

Sorry.  I can’t get with the program.  What I see is another attempt at the corporatization of the community college.  So please forgive me if I’m not eager to entrust retention to the very folks whose business practices have contributed so mightily to student attrition.

If publishers and other outside interests are so eager to help community colleges, they can start by embracing the OER movement.  If they want to help faculty and students, they can listen to Rajiv Jhangiani, take his suggestions, and work with institutions to increase openness and access to knowledge, not explore new ways to exploit institutions by outsourcing professional staff and corporatizing their processes.  If publishers want to help community colleges, they should help community colleges do what they do best, which is to provide affordable, accessible educational opportunities to students who have chosen to attend an open enrollment institution rather than a traditional college or university.  How can they do that?  Simple.  Stop hiding content behind paywalls.  Work with community colleges and instructional technologists to develop streamlined solutions for content integration rather than walling off content and forcing students to purchase access codes.

OER is here to stay, and if publishers are wise, they’ll accept it, embrace it, and find ways to add value to the content they market. After all, in the words of presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, “Bridges are better than walls.”

Satisfaction is (at most) 140 Characters Away (or, a Customer Service Revolution)

I’ve using Twitter since 2009, and while I’ve never used it to its full capacity (meaning I don’t have thousands of followers, I don’t follow thousands of people, I don’t typically share pictures of my meals), I use the platform to meet my needs.

I maintain two accounts, one professional (@rhargismccc) where I keep up with news and trends in higher ed and instructional technology, live tweet during conferences or webinars, and interact with others in my profession.  On my personal account (@3twenty6), I follow some of my favorite sports teams (the New York Yankees and Carolina Panthers) or bands (Twitter was indispensable during 2014’s #FareTheWell concerts) or to live-tweet during some of my favorite TV shows (#Banshee, #BetterCallSaul, and #TWD, etc).

When I mention Twitter to friends or colleagues, many of them  say something to the effect of “Oh!  I don’t Tweet!” or “I just don’t get Twitter” or “What’s the point? I’ve got Facebook already.”  If you’re reading this, the odds are that you already get Twitter and don’t need me to explain it.  But I do want to share a couple of experiences where Twitter was used for customer service and how I got immediate satisfaction.

Scenario One:  Qwickly Resolved

This semester, our institution is piloting the Qwickly Attendance tool in Blackboard. Things have gone very well, and from unless something goes horribly wrong, the odds are good that we’ll add Qwickly to our arsenal of tools once the pilot expires.  On February 2, I was hosting our first faculty training session.  That morning, Qwickly released an update to the Building Block which contained significant functionality upgrades. I had given it the cursory testing on our test server and updated it on the live server.  I was eager to show off these new features, and they worked in my test course, so I didn’t take the time to do thorough testing and create a new course with a new instance of the tool (my fault).  Before I went to the training session, I tweeted that I was getting ready to do so and included @QwicklyTools in the tweet (to which they promptly responded), then off I went to showcase our new and groovy tool.


The presentation started off well enough, I opened a course and showed faculty how easily they could take attendance in a class.  Then I went to demonstrate how to configure the tool, and at that point something went wrong…..  I couldn’t get past the setup screen.  I went into the Blackboard admin panel, uninstalled the update and re-installed the previous version and resumed my presentation. and our faculty (who are always great when tech snafus happen) were quite understanding and forgiving, and didn’t let my error dissuade them from using the tool.  But still, I’d presented to a room full of people, and my presentation didn’t go as planned.  I was not amused.  So I took to Twitter and said vented my frustration….


Within a matter of minutes, Qwickly was on the case.  They corrected the issue, released a patch, and all was right with the universe.  And, of course, I offered the obligatory shout out Tweet.


Not too bad. Yes, there was a technical issue. Yes, something failed to perform as expected.  Yes, it was partly my fault for not performing thorough testing.  However, the problem was quickly resolved. Nothing exploded. No data vanished.  And it was quickly resolved because I took to Twitter to voice my concerns and the good folks at Qwickly were quick to respond.

Scenario Two:  Politely Kvetching

Last night, I’m at home watching the Yankees season opener (It was a 1pm game, but as an MLB.TV subscriber, I can watch every game on demand), when an ad comes on the screen saying that T-Mobile customers can get a free year of MLB.TV.  I’m a T-Mobile customer and felt a little bummed that here I was having already paid for something I could have gotten for free.  So again, I take to Twitter to politely kvetch about my situation.  I posted a tweet, bemoaning my plight and within a matter of minutes, T-Mobile replied to me.


After a few Direct Messages where I provided proof that I am who I say I am, T-Mobile and MLB hooked me up, and again, I publicly expressed my gratitude.


While I didn’t get a refund for my investment into MLB.TV (an investment I make annually anyway), I DID get a credit for MLB’s store for the amount of my purchase ($109).  So now, I can almost afford that Brett Gardner jersey I’ve been wanting.  🙂

The Point

Okay.  So here’s the thing.  One of the things that makes Twitter great is that it is a fully public environment (unless you configure your account otherwise).  Anything said on Twitter goes out to the entire universe.  Most of the time, it’s of no consequence (like when I make some comment about a TV show or a play in a ball game).  It’s just a place where I can hang out with folks who share a common interest and discuss the interest in real-time.

But, as a consumer, Twitter is more than a place to hang out.  It’s an invaluable platform, a public arena for airing grievances.  Any company that wants to stay in business will pay attention to what’s being said about them on Twitter.  It’s just part of doing business in the twenty-first century.  In the two cases I mentioned, both companies provided me (the consumer) with prompt service and a complete resolution of the issues.  But what if they hadn’t resolved the issues so promptly???

Ooh! That’s Nice! (Or, My Other Favorite Obsession)

This is going to be a relatively short post because there’s not a whole lot to say about it that isn’t readily apparent.

When I’m not living in the digital world of instructional technology or trying to figure out ways to make Blackboard play nice with various instructional materials, I spend a good amount of time obsessing over music.  While my primary area of focus is pre-depression era blues and folk recordings, I have a deep appreciation for jazz as well.

The David Niven collection of jazz recordings at, is a phenomenal collection of recordings that were painstakingly selected and lovingly assembled by record collector and jazz aficionado David Niven.  The collection consists of about 1,000 hours of material that was recorded and released between 1921 and 1991 and is well worth exploring.

If you’re a jazz neophyte or a die-hard fan, there’s definitely plenty of great stuff in this collection to explore.  Me, I’m gonna start with the Bud Powell…. or maybe Chet Baker… or perhaps the Bessie Smith… or the…..

Yeah. I’m going to be digging this stuff for a while!!

Attendance in Blackboard (or, Seeing my Name “in print”)

Funny how this whole blogging thing works.  Sometimes, I’ve written a draft or I’ve thought about publishing a post on a topic, but for whatever reason I didn’t actually write the post.  Today is one of those times.  I could have sworn I’d written about this before, but apparently I have not. So here goes….

In Spring 2014, we began the process of migrating from ANGEL to Blackboard.  As anyone who has used both systems knows, there are some pretty significant differences between the two systems.  There are certain things that one can do in one but not the other, and one of the native elements of ANGEL that is missing from Blackboard is the ability to track attendance.  We tried the Hardin-Simmons (formerly Baylor) Attendance Building Block, but encountered a few issues with the configuration (long story), and decided to look for an alternative solution.

We are piloting the new Qwickly Attendance tool this semester and are quite satisfied with it so far.  The folks from Qwickly (Twitter: @QwicklyTools) have been incredibly helpful and responsive to each issue we have experienced.  There have been several updates since the initial release of the Building Block, and each update has added significant functionality to the Building Block.  The new update (3.2) is rumoured to bring even more functionality, but I won’t install that on our production server until after the semester is over, as the new version is not backwards compatible with previous versions.

The building block is simple to install  and configure, and even simpler for faculty to set up and use.  I created a video for our faculty that provides a quick review of how to set up and use the tool in a course.  You can check it out below.

Now, I must admit, I’ve been taking a different sort of attack for support with this tool, and it seems to be working very well.  While I do make the traditional support requests via Qwickly’s site, I’ve also taken to publicly stating my issues on Twitter.  Each time I’ve done this, they have responded almost immediately to my concerns.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I feel that I must mention that I was asked by Qwickly to answer a few questions regarding why we chose to pilot the building block, and what benefit I saw from using it.  My comments were included in their press release and appeared in an article on eCampus News.

As we near the end of the semester, I will post another update to this post to share how the pilot ended, but so far, things are looking quite promising.

As always, if you have any questions, comments, concerns, or (gentle) criticisms, reach out!


No, really… I can’t hear you (or, The Funniest Thing on YouTube)

Want to see something really funny on YouTube?  I’m not talking mild chuckle funny, I’m talking about side-splitting, laugh until you cry funny?  While videos of screaming goats are always good for a belly laugh, but if you want to guffaw, check out your own videos.  Yup.  The ones starring you.  The ones where you provide detailed instruction or the ones where you are discussing some heavy topic in great detail.  Those videos.  Yeah.  They’re a riot.  To see the “funny” version of your video, play the video with the closed captioning turned on.  Unless you’ve done the work to correct the closed captioning, you will be amused by YouTube’s automated closed captions and how YouTube thinks it knows what you’re saying.

They can be terribly funny…. to everyone except the hearing impaired.  To those of us who are deaf, partially deaf, or have less-than-perfect hearing, YouTube can be one of the most frustrating places on the web to visit.  (Full disclosure…. I’m deaf in one ear and have a cochlear implant which helps me to a certain degree, but in order to fully understand what’s being said in many videos, I have to turn on closed captioning.)


That’s me, and my Cochlear receiver (aka the outside part of my “robot ear”)

So what is to be done??

Two simple steps can be taken to ensure that your message is communicated clearly to those who have hearing impairments.

First, if the video is a screen-capture that contains instructions on how to complete a certain task, include text in the video itself.  I use Camtasia, which includes a plethora of “call-outs” and other ways to add text to videos, but the option to add text to the video is available with most video editors.

Second, if something is important enough to distribute (via Twitter or in a blog post), then take the time to edit the closed captions.  YouTube’s machine captioning provides a reasonable starting point, but it misses a lot of the nuance.  Punctuation is practically non-existent in YouTube’s auto-generated captions, and if you have a particularly long video, it may take extra time to get it just exactly perfect.  But it’s worth it!

Sure, I realize that you may not have time to go perfect every little detail, but if the message so important enough that you created a video, shouldn’t it be equally important to reach all people?

So that’s my rant for now…. Perhaps my next task is to create a video showing how to edit captions on YouTube videos.

As always, questions, comments, concerns, or (gentle) criticisms are welcome.


EdTech and the Community College Student (or, Blindfolded Tightrope Uni-cycling in a Hurricane Blizzard)

Last week, I was fortunate enough to bear witness to the first online Future Trends in Technology and Education Forum on the Shindig platform.  The forum was led by Bryan Alexander (Twitter @bryanalexander) and featured special guest Audrey Wattters (Twitter @audreywatters) of Hack Education.  Both Bryan and Audrey are, in my humble opinion, giants in our field and offer incredible insights into the current state of education and technology (henceforth referred to as EdTech) and the hopeful yet horrifying future of EdTech.

If you’re reading this, you probably know this already, but it bears repeating.  Education technology is like a tightrope…. an icy tightrope…. an greased-down icy tightrope that one must navigate while riding a unicycle, blindfolded, in a hurricane blizzard… It’s the job of the educational technologist to cross this tightrope, knowing full well that the fates of many students hinge upon the successful navigation of this oh-so-treacherous path.

Okay.  I admit.  Maybe I’m engaging in a bit of hyperbole here, but I’m not off the mark by much.

In case you missed the memo, technology is advancing at an ever-increasing pace, and with these advances in technology, so expands the overall knowledge of the human race.  The education system is struggling to keep up, fighting tooth and nail to deliver the most current, relevant instructional material to our students with (particularly at the community college level) ever-decreasing funds.

Now that I’ve stated the obvious, let me get to the point.  During the Future Trends Forum, a few of us were tweeting about the topics at hand, and the advances in EdTech, and the following exchange occurred…


It’s been on my mind ever since.

(In truth, this is a topic that is rarely far from my mind, but the more I ponder it, the more troublesome it becomes.)

We have been witness to all sorts of marvelous advances in technology which have produced myriad learning tools, each one more revolutionary than the last. But for the average community college student, what does that mean?  How many (if any) of these tools are actually designed with the student in mind?  For that matter, how many of these tools will even be around in two or three years?

During the forum, the conversation shifted to the role of the “VC”  (no, not Viet Cong…. the Venture Capitalists) in the development of these new tools, and the cynic in me commented that most of this stuff is designed not for the end user, but for the company itself to gain revenue so that future updates could be applied, thus generating further revenue for further updates, which would spawn more revenue for more updates and even more revenue for……. you get the picture.

And, of course, we can’t talk about new learning tools without discussing analytics and all the wonderful, glorious mounds of data that will be generated by these tools and how we can have legitimate assessment of learning through analytics and on and on and on….

But, as Audrey and Bryan both pointed out, all this quantitative data is meaningless when assessing learning.  The only thing data can truly tell us is what we already know.  Sure, we can get broad ideas about students as a whole, but at the end of the day, did Learning Tool X really make a difference?  Well…. we really don’t know.

But what about “adaptive learning” and the rapidly developing AI??  Do they change the game by personalizing the experience?  (And how many buzzwords CAN I fit into one blog post anyway?)

So where am I going with all of this?  What is my point?

It’s this.

The LMS (Learning Management System) is a mess. It was designed by engineers for technicians.  It’s difficult for faculty and students to find their way around, and when new third-party tools are added, most of the time they don’t work as advertised.

As an instructional technology professional at a community college, it is my responsibility to make the LMS experience as simple and seamless as possible.  If students can’t log in or can’t figure out how to access course materials, or if course components don’t work on the student’s mobile device, then the student spends time learning to navigate the system or troubleshoot their problems.  This is time that should be spent learning curriculum.

So here I sit, deicing and de-greasing my tightrope, working on my balance skills, and trying to see things from a student’s perspective. I’m working on new interactive tutorials and updated designs for our Blackboard environment.  I’m even considering implementing badges into our student training materials so we can make the “learning how to use the LMS” experience more fun and engaging.

But it’s an uphill battle, and every new update, every new tool, every new earth-shattering, groundbreaking, data-driven, integrated, future-ready tool or platform that rolls out makes doing my job just a little bit trickier.

I enjoy tricky.  Tricky makes life interesting.  But at the same time, I want to make sure that at the end of the day, our students don’t get so lost in the latest and greatest technologies that they forget to learn the curriculum.

I’m rambling (or venting) at this point, so I’ll stop the madness.  But I’m going to keep thinking about this, and keep trying to solve the riddle of how to make the experience better for the students….

stay tuned.