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.


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.


Video Tutorial: Adding Narration to PowerPoint Presentations

This is one questions I hear most frequently, so I figured I should address it on my blog so there will be a permanent home for the instructions.   Before you decide to record narrations for all of your PowerPoint presentations and call it an online course, please understand that the creation of materials for an online course involves much more than simply recording narration on a PowerPoint.   So before you watch the video, check out these two dire warnings…

CAVEAT #1:  In many cases, the PowerPoint presentation is not the best vehicle for delivering online course material because it typically lacks any opportunity for student engagement and interaction.  However, a PowerPoint presentation with audio narration does have its value, and a presentation with narration is far better than a presentation without narration.  

CAVEAT #2:  If you are using PowerPoint presentations with narration, you must also, at minimum, make a transcript of the narration available for students who are hearing impaired.

The Debate Rages On (or The Validity of Online Lab Science Courses)

When you get your taxes done, do you really care whether or not your accountant has ever dissected a cat?

It’s late and I’m thinking.  Never a good combination, I suppose, but this has been running through my mind a lot since a session yesterday on the fully online lab science courses created and offered by SinclairOnline.

After the presentation, the discussion turned to the question of whether or not a fully online lab science course is TRULY equivalent to a face-to-face lab.  One person brought up the fact that no one would want to have a doctor who had only completed online science courses, and I would have to agree.  When I go to a surgeon, I trust that this individual has done a lot of work on a lot of real live bodies before he/she took the scalpel to my flesh.

But this misses the point.  No one is suggesting the development of a fully-online medical school.  No one is suggesting that real hands-on experience in a science lab should not be required for students who intend on working in scientific fields upon graduation.  However, for students who are majoring in subjects such as HRIM (Hotel, Restaurant, and Institutional Management), Aviation, Dance or Digital Media Production (to name a few), why should such an emphasis be placed on the use of a real scalpel to cut the real flesh of a real dead cat.  Of what practical use will the hands-on examination of blood cells through a real microscope be to a student whose goal is be an historian?

Students who major in biology, chemistry, physics, nursing, and funeral service will have ample opportunities to get their hands dirty in a lab, and should, by all means, take as many hands-on traditional lab science courses as possible.  And in an ideal world, it would be wonderful if ALL students had the opportunity to participate and experience a full traditional lab science course.

But we don’t live in an ideal world.
Lab space is at a premium.
Budgets have been slashed.
We can’t hire more teachers.
We can’t build more science labs.
We can’t buy more equipment.
More than ever, community colleges are being asked to do more with less.

This is where the online lab science course is MOST needed.  With the online lab science course, students cover the same material, complete the same assignments, and meet the same outcomes.  The delivery method is different, yes.  But the end result remains the same.  Students learn the same concepts.  No, they don’t get to handle scalpels.  No, they don’t get to smell the formaldehyde.  But they DO get to master the concepts and understand the critical elements of the course.

By providing online lab science options to students, we free up valuable lab space for students who are pursuing degrees in the “hard sciences”.

Just my late night thoughts….

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


INND13: Day 1 – Session 5 – Pioneering Online Science Lab


In 2006, Sinclair began work on fully online degrees, which brings up the big challenge… How do you teach science online? After much internal discussion, they began to develop a fully online Astronomy Lab course. Using a team of faculty, Instructional designer, graphic designers, and flash developers, they created all the course content from scratch.

The course is housed in ANGEL, and includes text and multimedia elements to deliver instruction and assessments. As always, the most difficult part of creating an online science lab course is making certain that the lab sessions are equivalent, regardless of delivery method.

Established six standards for online labs, to make certain that onlinelabs are equivalent to face to face labs. Online labs must be:

  1. Intuitive
  2. Clear instructions
  3. accessible
  4. Reusable
  5. Platform Independent
  6. Meets Learning Objectives

Engaging Online Astronomy Students

Received a grant to explore possibility of putting lab online. Initially put materials online for face-to-face students to explore before developing and launching fully online version. Face to face students were impressed by online resources and their feedback encouraged faculty to move forward with development. Course Materials include step-by-step video instructions which demonstrate how students are to complete labs and interactive flash-based activities which students complete to meet learning objectives. In some cases, the web-based versions were easier for student to use and helped foster greater comprehension of course material. Outside publisher resources were employed to further enhance course materials where it was not feasible for the college to produce the materials in-house. Utilized 4 team fishbowl discussion forums. Fishbowl forums allow teams to post to each other and allow non-team members to view other teams’ observations but not respond inside of forum.

Immersing Online Students in Biology

As programs expanded, online Anatomy and Physiology course was needed. Online class mirrors face to face outcomes, objectives, and tests. “Articulation lab” has students open a virtual box of bones and assemble the structures as indicated. Provides direct and instant feedback to students, and assesses their knowledge of material. Also developed Android app “Skeletal Lab” for articulation exercises. “Blood Smear Lab” reproduces blood smear activities as done in class. Students perform all adjustments on virtual microscope to get blood cells into focus. Cells contain pop-ups which describe individual formed elements. Also contains a fetal pig dissection with video of real live dead pig dissection and then flash activities where students virtually dissect a pig and review various parts.

And the question comes up… Is the online lab equivalent to the traditional lab? In my mind, it depends.

What are the course objectives?
How will the course impact the students in later classes?

But this is something that will require deeper consideration and much greater analysis…