One of the commonest pieces of student feedback that we hear is “why doesn’t Professor X have a Blackboard site.” A query that crops up quite regularly at IT Support is apparently “My Blackboard site isn’t working: there’s no link to Module Y.” Both are symptomatic of a mismatch between our students expectations of our primary e-learning platform (which at Swansea happens to be Blackboard) and our provision of e-learning support. Quite simply, our students see the absence of a module from Blackboard as a bug!
In this first of an occasional series, I will attempt to persuade you to address this for your own modules by passing on some lessons that I’ve learnt about exploiting Blackboard for students’ benefit without incurring too much extra work for yourself. Hopefully, by creating Blackboard sites for your modules and exploiting some of these tips, you’ll earn the gratitude of your students (and the higher satisfaction scores that your teaching materials no-doubt deserve) without incurring too much additional stress.
One of the most regrettable features of Blackboard is that once a resource is uploaded into the system, its continued maintenance becomes a bit of a pain. For example, let’s say you have updated your PowerPoint slides for a lecture and you want to update the Students’ version. You have you go into Blackboard, locate the file, switch to the “edit view”, enter the “modify” page, delete the file, press OK a couple of times, re-enter the modify dialogue, upload the new file and press OK a couple more times. And of course if you regularly update your resources (and we all do at least once a year right?) you have to go though this process for each piece of content!
If only, you think to yourself, Blackboard could link to a file on your computer and update itself automatically when you finish your edits. Well actually it can, if you switch from uploading your documents to linking them. The following procedure is easiest to set up if you can upload your documents to a public website, but it should also work if your files are kept on a public windows file-share, Outlook public folder, web folder or SharePoint site. If you are not concerned about making your documents visible to the world, this method would also work with a file hosting site such as drop.io, box.net or Google docs.
One of the content types that Blackboard supplies is the so called “External Link”. This is actually no more than a way to create a hyperlink to some resource on the Internet. When we first encounter this feature, our first instincts are to link to module-related web pages such as on-line articles, Wikipedia articles, BBC news etc. But a hyperlink can link to any resource providing that there’s a protocol that can make the connection and the resource is accessible to the browser (even if via a separate login). The following list gives some suggestions of how you might exploit this feature to simplify your Blackboard course support maintenance. They are presented in roughly the order of difficulty/technical know-how needed.
Use a public file share. If you already have the files that you want to share on your computer, you can share the folder and link to it or its contents by using a
file: URL. For example, lets say that your computer is
mycomputer.swan.ac.uk and you create a public share called mymodule then the URL
file:///mycomputer.swan.ac.uk/mymodule/ should give access to the folder and the URL
file:///mycomputer.swan.ac.uk/mymodule/adoc.doc will link to the document mydoc.doc. Of course, the link will only be available to students using Blackboard on campus (probably what you want) when your computer is turned on (which may not be). A variation of this idea would be to exploit an already existing public share or make part of your P: drive available (if this is possible) but those options would require some help from IT support. The benefit for you is that if you edit the document on your computer and save the changes, the new version is automatically available to your readers via Blackboard without any further effort on your part.
Use a web folder. This tip is a variation on the previous one in which you share your documents using a Windows web folder. The technical details of how to set this up are out of the scope of this article but it is not too much more complex than setting up a shared folder. However but it may require you to install an additional windows component – the Internet Information Server IIS. Once created, the web folder and its contents will appear on the Web with the familiar
http: URL (e.g
http://myhost.swan.ac.uk/myshare/mydoc.doc). Your access to the folder and the documents will continue to be through the normal file system, but they can also easily be linked to Blackboard. Web folders can also be used to provide across-the-net access for opening and editing too, and most modern versions of Office know how to access files stored in web folders . Web folders that you create on your own machine of course are only available when your machine is turned on. However, because they are based on web protocols, they have an advantage that when they are available, they can be accessed from off-campus.
Upload to a public file sharing site. If you don’t want to mess around with file shares or web folders, another fairly low-effort alternative is to upload your files to a file sharing site such as box.net, drop.io, Windows Live, or Google Docs. All these services will allow you to store documents on line. Some allow you to even edit them in place. All services are free, at least up to a given amount of storage, and all allow various levels of sharing from public through to “by invitation only”. Once on the site, your documents will have a fixed URL which you can use as an external link in Blackboard. Maintenance is going to be less simple than the file sharing options above as you’ll now need to download/edit/upload via the site . But it’s still likely to be less effort than Blackboard’s approach, and some systems, e.g. Google Docs, even have version control.
Upload to your own web site. This approach may have some appeal if you already have documents stored on your own web server, or on a departmental web server. Simply provide a link to the resources that you already have available on your web site. If you are tech. savvy enough to have a web site, you probably know how to do this. If not, just visit the resource with your browser, copy the URL and paste it into a Blackboard external link. You (or your IT support staff) will still need to maintain the original document on your web site, but any changes (providing the links themselves don’t change) will automatically be reflected in Blackboard. If you prefer, simply link to the home page of your web site, and the whole site, complete with all its resources and navigation, will appear within Blackboard with no additional effort at all.
Link to your own wiki. If you’ve been bitten by the Wiki bug, you can create a wiki for a module and link to it. The advantage of this may be that your students can engage with the material, discuss it and indeed edit it themselves to clarify it! I’ve done this for one of my modules as you can see if you visit EG-259: Web Applications Technology. The course materials are outside Blackboard, but by using External Links the wiki appears to live inside blackboard. If you prefer, you can even create a wiki within Blackboard itself using the new wiki tool. But such a “hosted” wiki will not be quite as easy to share.
In this article I have demonstrated how you can use the External Link feature in Blackboard to embed resources that you may already have into Blackboard, thus avoiding one of the hurdles that may be preventing you using Blackboard with your students. The beauty of this technique is that you avoid doing too much that is different from what you are already doing, but you are giving your students access to your resources from the central point where they expect to find them. In future articles I intend to look at other tips and tricks. Subscribe to this blog and follow along. And, of course, your comments are welcome!
 File URL scheme, Wikipedia.
 Sharepoint, Microsoft’s latest collaboration platform, uses a variation of the web folders idea. It may already be available in your School or Department and I understand that it is also being considered as a campus-wide facility for document sharing.
 In Google docs, your office documents are converted into HTML files and thereafter edited through a browser. Windows Live documents can be edited directly over the wire from Office.
Chris Jobling May 14th, 2008
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