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.


Semester Rollover Re-Revisited (or, Slaying Mammoths)

I’m a Blackboard administrator.  So some of what follows may not make much sense if you don’t know a little bit about Blackboard or a little bit about teaching online.  This post is a rough draft of an idea that I’m piloting in the coming months, so the execution may change, but the core ideas should remain the same.

First, some backstory….

Each semester, I am responsible for making sure new course shells are created in Blackboard and that these course shells are populated with the appropriate materials.  I’ve gotten the SIS Integration piece of the puzzle down to a science.  I wrote a program called MOBbBEUS (MercerOnline Blackboard Back End Utility System), which, among other things, takes the data from the SIS, converts it into a Blackb0ard-ready format, then uploads the resultant data into Blackboard.  It’s gone through several iterations and is now at a place where I can comfortably say that it’s pretty much capable of handling any scenario at our institution.

As of July 1, 2016, all of our face-to-face courses will have Blackboard shells as well.  This is a big move for our institution, and one that has involved a lot of work for my team.  We’ve been building up to this for years, and in a few short months, we’ll be diving, head-first, into the LMS-for-all waters.  We moved from ANGEL to Blackboard about 18 months ago, and now we’re bringing all of our faculty and students onto Blackboard.  It’s a mammoth task.

Tackling the Mammoth

But let’s go back to the first sentence of the second paragraph of this post…. “Each semester, I am responsible for making sure new course shells are created in Blackboard and that these course shells are populated with the appropriate materials.”  How do I know what content I’m supposed to use to populate all those course shells?  Simple… I survey the faculty. Once courses have been assigned for each semester, I send a survey to all faculty members who use Blackboard and ask them to let me know what they’d like to have in their new shells, then we follow their directions and populate the courses.

But beginning in July, ALL of our courses (about 1,000 sections per semester) will have Blackboard shells, all of which will need to be populated.  How do we manage this?  This got me to thinking.  And this is what I’m planning to do.  We’ll see how it all works out…

I have decided to streamline the process a little further.  In the new process, we download the files from the SIS and run them through MOBbBEUS, as usual.  But now, MOBbBEUS will do something more.

  • When files are downloaded from the SIS, MOBbBEUS adds all courses to a “Course Status” table in the semester database.  When an instructor is assigned to a course, this is reflected in the data we get from the SIS.  MOBbBEUS will take this assignment and generate an an e-mail to the instructor.  The e-mail will contain a link to the course population request form (an Excel form) which the instructor must complete.
  • Once the instructor submits the form, two things happen:
    • The course is flagged in the Course Status table of the semester database as “ready for population” and MOBbBEUS sends an e-mail to our team containing a list of courses which need to be set up and the complete instructions on how to populate the course.
  • If the instructor does not submit the form within 3 days, MOBbBEUS will send out a reminder e-mail, and will continue to do this every 3 days until the instructor has responded.
  • Once we have populated the courses as requested, we contact the instructor to let them know the process is complete and life goes on.

At least, that’s how it will happen in theory……

It’s gonna be very interesting to see if I can make this all fly…..

oh, and it has to be coded, tested, QC’ed, and in production by sometime in late April.  It’s February 11 right now.

Well, I certainly do love a good challenge……


Hosting Course Content in the Cloud (or, There’s Got to Be a Better Way!!)

I cannot sing the praises of cloud storage loudly enough.  The cloud has revolutionized the way I deal with files and if it’s not changed your life yet, it’s only because you’ve not tried it or haven’t used it properly.   While I could go on about the collaboration tools and the ability to host forms and collect data and all that great stuff, I’m going to to restrain myself for now and talk about one big topic that’s dear to my heart (or at least that has a major impact on my day-to-day work).

If you’ve read this blog with any regularity (or just looked at the “About.Me” in on the right-hand side of the page), you’ll see that I’m the Senior Analyst and Blackboard Administrator for a community college in New Jersey.  Our institution does not have the infrastructure or finances required to host Blackboard on site, so we’ve opted to use Blackboard’s managed hosting services rather than buying the necessary hardware and hiring the additional staff required to maintain physical servers.  Managed Hosting has proven to be a fantastic solution for us, and I’d recommend it for any cash-strapped institutions who want to be competitive in the online course market.  But because we are managed hosting clients, we do have some restrictions, and space is one of them.  That space issue, dear readers, is the topic of today’s sermon.

One of the biggest issues I face as a Blackboard administrator is the constant need to evaluate the amount of space being used on our Blackboard servers.  We set limits for course sizes, but (of course), we get those calls from faculty who are desperate to add content to their courses after having met their quota for the course.  While I could be a jerk and say “You’ve met your quota…. figure it out.”  I don’t do that.  I try to accommodate the faculty requests and help as much as possible..  (We are on the same team, after all).  But there comes a point where I have to drop the tough love bomb and utter that oh-so-difficult two-letter word….. “no”, and direct them to post their materials in the cloud, then post links in Blackboard that will direct students to the files that are hosted on the cloud servers.

For the most part, I recommend that our faculty use Google Drive, for two big reasons.  First, most folks already have Google accounts, so the setup is very simple.  Second, and more importantly, in my mind, Google Slides presentations are mobile-friendly by default.  We have a responsibility to our students to meet them where they are, and most of them want to be able to access course materials via a mobile device.  So, when I meet with faculty to discuss moving materials to the cloud, here’s how I tackle it.  I talk about…….

Benefits of Cloud Storage

  • All documents for all courses in one easy-to-access location.
  • Updated documents are immediately available in online course shells.
  • No more uploading documents to multiple sections.  The single link to the document in the cloud can be used in all sections of a course.
  • Works great on mobile devices!
  • Saves space on Bb servers and keeps Rodney happy.

Usually, points 2 and 3 are the ones that get ’em hooked.  If you’ve ever taught an online course, you know what I’m talking about here. In the pre-cloud era, if you’ve misspelled a word or decided to add something to a presentation or document, you had to update the file on your computer, re-upload the updated file to the LMS and repeat the process for each class in which the presentation or document appeared.  That’s not a big deal for one or two items, but if you have to make substantial edits throughout the course of the semester, it can get really tedious and time-consuming.

But, if you’ve got everything in the cloud, you just open the document or presentation, make your edits, save your work, and you’re done.  The only thing you need to do to get started is to upload your materials to the cloud, share the presentations or documents or whatever, copy the link to the presentation or document, and add it to your online course.  That’s it!

Over the next few days/weeks, I’Il be posting a series of articles on how to use Google Drive to manage course content in the cloud and completely liberate yourself from the old-fashioned chore of edit, upload, repeat….

Til next time……

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