History Tech Tips #2: A Question About Blackboard

We’re back to school this week and I’ve started teaching my first classes for the Fall 2010 semester at Mount Royal University. MRU is now the sixth university where I have been an instructor and with each new university comes a new flavour of online course management software.

I’ve seen a variety of versions of WebCT/Blackboard and Moodle and I’ve taken my fair share of training seminars on how to best use these technologies in the classroom. This year, I’m using yet another iteration of the Blackboard Learning System for my Canadian history courses.

University educators have debated the utility of such systems in the past, but online course management systems like Blackboard and others have become ubiquitous on campuses across Canada. NPR’s All Things Considered put together a short news piece on the growth of the use of these systems in the classroom that’s worth a listen.

[audio:http://npr.vo.llnwd.net/kip0/_pxn=0+_pxK=17273/anon.npr-mp3/npr/atc/2010/03/20100329_atc_04.mp3?dl=1] All Things Considered, 29 March 2010 [3:49]

Online course management systems serve a useful purpose and students seem to respond positively to these tools. This certainly raises questions about whether Canadian universities should be supporting proprietary software like Blackboard or instead opting for open source technologies like Sakai and Moodle. And scholars have shared their frustrations with the limitations and design of Blackboard.

My question, however, is about how instructors use online course management systems. How do you use these technologies in the classroom?

After my third Blackboard training seminar, I realized that I didn’t need to learn how to upload a PDF of my syllabus again. What I really wanted to learn were the different ways that instructors use this technology. These systems are quite flexible and can be used in such a variety of ways that I wondered if there were instructors out there who use them in creative or unusual ways.

Here are a couple of things that I do with my Blackboard courses:

1.) Online discussion rooms – Each semester I set up online discussion rooms for every in-class tutorial I teach. I like to think of these as the virtual overflow rooms. I tell students that they can use the online discussion rooms to add to in-class conversation both before and after class. I find this to be pretty helpful for those students who might be too shy to speak up in class.

2.) Custom headers – Whenever possible I like to put my own custom header on my Blackboard site. It’s just a cosmetic thing, but I find it makes your site look a little better and makes it stand out from the default display.

3.) Embedded rich media – Again, if possible, I like to embed audio and video into my Blackboard sites. This is especially useful for shorter tutorials where there might not be enough time to watch a whole movie in class. Instead, I assign the movie in advance to be watched on Blackboard. The National Film Board of Canada website includes html embed codes for all of their online videos to allow you to do this.

Those are just three examples of things that I do with Blackboard. I’d really like to hear about some creative uses of online course management technologies from readers. How do you set up your sites? What tips and tricks do you have for other readers? If you are one of my students, let me know what things you want added to your Blackboard site. Post your examples in the comments.

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