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.



Assessment, Assessment, Assessment (or, Assessment, Assessment, Assessment)

Whoo boy!  This is gonna be a wild trip…  Short and simple, our institution is in the midst of a massive shift in the way stuff is being done, and part of that shift involves assessment.  Lots, and lots of assessment.  What are we doing?  How do we know we’re effective?  What could be done differently?  We have to provide documentation for practically everything, and help the faculty move forward in this process as well.

For faculty, the challenge is a bit different.  In their case, they must examine their courses and evaluate how everything ties in to the course objectives (goals).  Assignments must be mapped to specific course goals, which must match align to program goals and/or General Education (GenEd) goals, and this must be done for every assignment in every section of every course offered on our campus.  And it needs to be done by, oh, sometime last week.

This is where I come in.

We’ve only been on Blackboard for about 18 months now, and I’m comfortable working in the GUI and from the command line to make things happen the way I want them to happen.  So now my task is to use the Goals tool in Bb to align assessments to the appropriate objectives and to align the objectives with higher level objectives.  All the objectives already have been created, but they’re in about 500 or so separate documents (one for each class we offer).  To get them into Bb is going to be a mammoth task and a royal pain.  My plan, however, is to do it all via XML, so it won’t be as difficult.

Then, once all that wonderful data is in place and we have legitimate student data to work with, I get to use my yet-to-be-developed ‘R’ programming skills to perform the statistical analysis.

This is gonna be fun!!

Making Discussion Forums Readable, but Disabling New Posts (or, Archiving the Discussion)

Quick hit post today, for those who don’t know this already.  I’m still kinda new to this whole Blackboard Admin thing (only about 18 months in), so this was a new question and a new answer for me.

The question:  I want to set my old discussion forums so that students can still review the discussions but not contribute any new posts to the forum.

Good question!  By default, Blackboard allows you to disable a forum or make it invisible to students, but to make a forum still available in a “read-only” mode isn’t a quick and simple operation…. or is it?

As demonstrated in the video above, an instructor can make a discussion forum “read-only” by doing the following:

  1. Go to the Discussions area of the course.
  2. Click on the Action Arrow for the forum they want to make read-only, and click on Manage.
  3. Click on the checkbox in the header of the participant list to select all participants.
  4. Click on the Edit Role dropdown menu and select “Reader”.
  5. This will set the discussion to “archived” for all users.  They will be able to view old posts, but can’t contribute any new posts to the forum.

Til next time…. if you’ve got any comments, concerns, questions, or (gentle) criticisms, hit me up!

~Rodney Hargis

Guidelines for Adopting a New Textbook for an Online Course (or Expecting the Unexpected)

Typically, I write things like this for work where they become part of the standard documentation that we use internally.  But this is a topic so universally applicable, I thought I’d share it with the rest of the distance learning world and hopefully get some feedback on best practices used by others as well.

I’m not a faculty member, nor do I play one on TV.  I am, however, an instructional technology geek and Blackboard administrator, so I’ve gone through more textbook changes in my tenure as an LMS administrator than most folks endure over the course of their careers.

The proliferation of publisher resources makes changing a textbook a much trickier proposition in an online course because, quite often, much of the course content relies upon a connection to some publisher resource.  These guidelines are designed to help ease the transition from one textbook to another and minimize (hopefully eliminate) student frustration.

STAGE I – Evaluating Textbooks

As you review textbooks and consider adopting new texts, invite your LMS administrator to be a partner in the review process.  In most cases, your LMS admin will not be an expert in your particular subject, but they will have an understanding of how publisher components integrate and work with the LMS at your school.    We all know that publisher sales reps are honest, upstanding folks who desire nothing more than student success.  However, in spite of their intentions, publisher sales reps don’t fully understand the technical details of their offerings and the true compatibility of their materials with various learning management systems.

As you evaluate textbooks, ask your publisher rep for 2 accounts to their online resources.  The first account is yours, as the instructor, to use as you see fit.  The second account is for the LMS admin.  This will enable them to test the various publisher resources and verify that these resources will will function as expected in the LMS.

Consider what will be involved in adopting a new textbook. These are just a few questions to consider.  These aren’t all the things, but they are a few that I’ve encountered over the years.

  • How will the structure of the online course change?
  • Will the online course need to be re-designed from the ground up to accommodate the new text?
  • Will the test banks need to be revised or recreated?
  • How will the change in text alter the manner in which students meet the learning objectives of the course?
  • How will it change the way students meet unit-level objectives?
  • Will any of your lectures/presentations need revision or recreation?

As you consider each of these factors, remember that each change involves time, and the bigger the change, the more time it will take to make the change, especially if these changes involve major adjustments from the LMS administrator.  So plan accordingly.

It looks like magic, but it’s not.  LMS admins do a lot of research and back-end work to accommodate textbook changes, and the more information and time we have, the more smoothly the transition will be.

STAGE II – Implementing the Change

So you’ve worked with your LMS admin and your publisher rep and you’ve found the textbook that you want to adopt.  Congratulations!!!  Here’s where the work really begins.  Regardless of how well you’ve planned for the shift, there will be unanticipated bumps in the road.  This is where you and your LMS admin need to work together to make sure everything functions as it should.  At this point, you’ll want to get together with your LMS admin and set everything up.

Create a single complete module.  Sit down with your LMS admin and work out a plan of attack, starting with one module (or unit) of material.  Break the unit down into smaller pieces (“chunk” it!) and build each element in your LMS. My recommendation is to begin with a list of learning objectives (written from a student’s perspective), followed by an assignment checklist.

The assignment checklist should contain everything the students should complete in the order it should be completed.  My personal preference is to start each entry with an active verb in bold type, followed by a thorough explanation of the task. (EXAMPLE:  Read Chapter 6 “Analytical Perspectives” from the textbook, paying special attention to the section on Data Modeling  (45 min))  When possible, each entry on the assignment checklist should include an estimate of how long the task should take.

Assemble the module, taking care to put the components in the order in which they should be completed.  Anything that will be done outside the framework of the LMS should be clearly noted, and this is where the partnership with the LMS Admin comes in to play.   Work with the LMS Admin to test the components and make sure that they work.

Test every element the first module (including gradebook functionality) from a student perspective before moving on.

Repeat for the remaining modules.

STAGE III – Launch

Before the course is open, make sure you provide clear step-by-step instructions for the students, outlining, in detail, exactly what they are supposed to do to get started with the course.  One of the biggest mistakes instructional designers, instructional technologists, and faculty make is in overestimating the technical skills of their students.  Never assume that students will intuitively know how to perform any tasks within the course.  While it may seem simple to you (the instructor), for students, the LMS is a brand new world, and the idea of jumping from the LMS into a publisher site and back can seem incredibly daunting.  So take the time to provide clear instructions.  Provide the instructions in both static (PDF with text and screenshots) and video formats.


Students enroll in courses to learn the curriculum.  They don’t enroll in courses to learn how to use an LMS and a publisher platform.  Any time students spend learning the technologies of the course is time they aren’t spending learning the course material.  Frustration with course technology translates into frustration with the course.  If students don’t feel comfortable in a course from the gate, they will be less likely to succeed.  (No, I don’t have data to back that up…. yet).  But the goal is, and always should be, student success.

So the point of this whole babbling post is this… if there is a change in the text and publisher resources are being brought into the mix, do the work up front to make sure that the course is solid and ready to go for the launch of class.  Reach out to your LMS admin and ask for assistance before, during, and after the migration to a new text.  It will improve the quality of everyone’s experience in the long run.

If you have anything to add or any other suggestions, please, hit me up in the comments, and as always, if you have any questions, comments, concerns or (gentle) criticisms, please feel free to reach out to me.


#WorstPractices in Presentation Delivery (or, The Hat Jugglers We Call Students)

It’s not that we, as humans, intend to screw things up. In fact, I’d wager that the vast majority of us spend exorbitant amounts of time trying to make sure that we don’t screw things up, doing an awkward tightrope balancing act with a big long balance pole that has an elephant on one side and a feather on the other, and it’s our job to keep everything perfectly still as we walk the wire to our destination and next, often more complex, challenge, complete with a heavier load and a thinner wire.  But, the reality is, everyone has the occasional ‘D’OH!’ moment now and again.  And that’s okay…  It’s all about how we recover from it that matters.

This morning, I got an e-mail from a student who was having issues accessing materials in her online course.  Turns out, the instructor uploaded .PPT files directly into the LMS, rather than putting them in Google Slides and embedding the presentation or simply converting the .PPT to a .PDF file.  Why is this so terrible?  Why would this prompt a rant on #WorstPractices?

This, in and of itself, is not bad per se (yes it is.  who am I kidding?).  Sure, students are being given access to the material, but this particular student didn’t have PowerPoint on her computer and even though I guided her through the process of installing the PowerPoint Viewer, this took up time that she’d initially intended to spend studying (which I’m sure we will all agree is a far more important exercise than wrestling with technology).  In fact, what I should have done at the outset (and what I eventually did do) is convert the .PPT files into .PDF format and e-mail copies of the .PDF files to the student.  But neither solution is the best answer. Either way, the student had to spend time contacting my office, waiting for a response, attempting a solution, and then moving forward to studying.  An hour or so of valuable study time was lost.

So what do we do?  How can we, as instructional technologists/designers/faculty make sure that we’re putting together presentations that work for all of our students?

First, as we design and develop materials, it’s critical that we think from the student perspective.

So, let’s play a game, shall we?  Put on your student hat.  Now, while wearing your student hat, also don your full-time employee hat.  (Go ahead, try and balance the full-time employee hat on top of the student hat.)  We’re not done yet.  On top of those hats, add another hat labelled “parent”, and another labelled “adult”, and one more called “human being”.

Now, with these five hats on your head, sit down in front of the computer, log in to your online course to do some homework, only to find that you can’t open the files inside your course.  You can get frustrated, but be careful, YOU CAN’T LET ANY HAT FALL OFF!!!  You contact the support folks and they help you with a workaround, but the clock was ticking that entire time, and in just a few minutes, the student hat has to be replaced by the full-time employee hat, which will be replaced by the parent hat later in the day, and the adult hat will have to come out sometime because the laundry doesn’t wash itself, and only then will the student hat be back on the head.  (And we’ve completely forgotten about the human being hat.  We’re so busy being humans doing that we forget that we are humans being, which will cause all sorts of trouble down the line, but we’re not there yet and don’t even have time to contemplate all that stuff.)

Those are our students.  This is our audience.

As we design and develop materials, we must bear all of that in mind.  It is incumbent upon us to recognize the limitations our students face and do our best to accommodate them.  (Sure, there are some who would argue otherwise and insist that their courses should be students’ only priorities, but that ain’t real life.)

So let’s consider our options for presentation delivery.  These options don’t even take into account that the materials are appropriately chunked for online delivery. (There should be no 75-slide presentations here.  Maybe 3 presentations with 25 slides apiece?  Better yet, 3 presentations with 15-20 slides apiece with all the fat trimmed out?  But I’m gonna let that slide for the moment.)

  • #AbsoluteWorstPractice: Provide students with no resources
  • #WorstPractice:  Upload a PowerPoint file into the LMS
  • #BadPractice: Convert PPT to PDF and upload PDF file into LMS
  • #PrettyGoodPractice: Upload PPT into Google Slides and include a link to ‘Printer Friendly Version’ so students can download PDF.
  • #GoodPractice: Provide PPT with embedded narration, plus printer-friendly version of presentation in PDF format
  • #BestPractice: Create interactive presentation with embedded narration, formative assessment activities, and printer-friendly version of presentation in .PDF format

Obviously, none of us have the time or resources available to create full-bore interactive presentations with narration and embedded formative assessment activities for every single lesson in the course.  That’s asking too much (we are walking tightropes, remember?).  But, what can we do that will improve on the model of uploading a PPT file into an LMS?  The #PrettyGoodPractice above is, in this edutech geek’s mind, probably the best solution in most cases.  Use Google Slides.  It is your friend, and an invaluable resource for education.

One of these days, I’ll blog on Google Slides and how it can totally change the way we design, develop, and deliver presentations for online courses  But for now, suffice it to say that it is one of the most important Instructional Technology tools to emerge in the past….. ever.

As always, if you have any questions, comments, concerns, or (gentle) criticisms, don’t hesitate to reach out.
You can find me on The Twitter @rhargismccc



Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (or OMG! We’re Moving to Blackboard!!)

It’s been a while since I posted any fresh material here, and that’s basically because when last I wrote, my institution was beginning to discuss the possibility of switching LMS’s.  As this evaluation process was a confidential internal matter, I opted not to mention it at all and decided to put the blog on hiatus until such time that I felt I could write about what was going on.

So, we’re in our first pilot semester running Blackboard.  We’ve got Bb Learn 9.1 running about 20 sections, and the remaining courses are in ANGEL.  We’ll be transitioning into Blackboard with new batches of courses each semester until finally, in Spring 2015, we’ll be 100% in Blackboard.  The migration process is complex and fraught with potential pitfalls.  We’ve done what I feel is an exceptional job planning for the transition, but as with any major system change, we are prepared to experience rough spots along the way.

My job in this transition takes several forms, and as the migration progresses, I’ll be using my blog as a platform on which to vent my frustrations, chronicle my discoveries, and the hats I wear look like this…

First, I’m responsible for getting the data to flow from our SIS into Blackboard.  Without data, the system is sort of useless.  My first task was to take the data from our SIS and bring it into Blackboard so that Blackboard would create courses and user accounts, and associate users with courses.  The data had to be parsed and formatted for two LMS’s and I had to make sure that the right data was going to the right place.  A gigantic mind map of the process and code worked wonders in helping me keep everything on track.  Here’s how it works… We get the data as a flat text file from our SIS, and I wrote a set of VBA macros to parse, reformat, and export the data into the appropriate formats.  There are 3 files that I get from the SIS, and I had to process those files and generate 8 output files (4 for each LMS).  I won’t bore anyone (including myself) with the details, but suffice it to say, it was a mammoth task.  Now that this is running, I’m refining the process a bit more so as to expedite file processing and streamline all the processes.

My second task was to customize the Blackboard interface for our institution.  So, I did just that.  Blackboard provides a certain amount of flexibility for customization, but there are points where our hands are tied.  (Our Blackboard Learn platform is hosted by Blackboard.  If we were self-hosted then we’d have power to do pretty much everything.)  For example, while I can customize practically every visual element of the LMS, I can’t change the system icons (which are hideous).  So, in my more ambitious design tasks, I’ve opted to forego the use of system icons and use the “text only” option, then add my own images to the descriptions, but that’s in the course design portion of our program which I’ve not even talked about yet….

The next task, and one which will continue for the next year or so, is the migration of courses from ANGEL into Blackboard.  This is a tedious and often frustrating endeavor, but again, it’s gotta get done.  So we roll up our sleeves and dig in….  We create a copy of the course in ANGEL and ask the faculty members to clean up these “Migration Master” courses.  Once they’ve cleaned up the courses, we export them from ANGEL and import them into Blackboard.  Then, the real work of digging through each element of the course kicks into high gear.  We have to inspect all the course elements and make sure that they carried over properly.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  It all depends on the course and the way the content was developed and organized.

Along with this, I’m working with a faculty member to design and develop a fully-online lab science course.  This is our second such course.  Our first, a fully online human anatomy course, relies heavily on publisher materials and was quite easy to migrate.  This course, however, uses lab kits provided by a vendor, but the course content is 100% home grown.  Needless to say, this has been a mighty learning experience.  But the resultant course is a thing of beauty.  It incorporates many of the features that make Blackboard Learn 9.1 such a strong product, and offers some creative solutions to problems that vex anyone designing fully online lab science courses.  One of these days I’ll write a more extensive article about how this was done.  It’s an amazing course and we’re very proud of our work.

On top of all this, we’re training our faculty to use Blackboard.  The faculty participating in our pilot this semester are all experienced online instructors, and their feedback has helped us shape the training we give other faculty members.  We’re grateful for their participation.  We can design and develop and migrate all day long, but if we don’t have the faculty to teach the courses, there ain’t a whole lot we can do.  These brave folks have weathered the complications like true champions.  Once we get done with this first semester, I think I’ll buy a drink for each of them….

So the hands are full right now, and we’re juggling a bunch of stuff.  But I love this, and I’d be a liar if I said otherwise.  I’ll be posting more about the process as it continues, and I plan on using my blog as a repository for links just so I can find the things I need as I move along…

Til next time…