Posted by: Monideepa Tarafdar | December 30, 2010

Using Blackboard or WebCT for Structured Course Content

From my experiences over this past Fall semester, I find that it helps to keep the following in mind while disseminating structured content through course management tools such as Blackboard or WebCT. (Unstructured content such as discussions and other asynchronous student-student/student-faculty interaction that might form grade components are excluded from the scope of this post).

  1. Set Expectations: Many students feel that online or web-assisted courses are easy and less work, because they do not have to attend as many classes. To dispel such notions, it helps to send out an “Expectations Note” well before the actual start of the semester. The University of Toledo for example, opens up the online course management system only on the Saturday prior to the Monday that begins the semester, but opens up the list of registered students several weeks prior. What some of my colleagues and I do is to send out an expectations note to the students’ emails, similar to what many of us might be handing out the first day of our regular classes. Such a note might include: Syllabus details, Book and reference information, Class schedule, Work expectation etc. I have found that students then come back with preliminary questions about books, assignments etc., which can be sorted out before class begins.
  2. Set the Pace: Students, especially those in under-graduate classes often have a hard time pacing themselves in online courses. They do not always pay attention to the syllabus, and if they are taking multiple online courses in a semester, end up with many assignments or exams on the same day. Using the “calendar” option from Blackboard helps to lay out week by week when each assignment and test is due and how long it is going to be open. Students find it useful for pacing their work.
  3. Provide Regularity: I find that online courses can get disconcerting if there aren’t regular submissions from students. Since I cannot see them every week, I don’t have a way of knowing how they are dealing with the material. They don’t always use the email option even if they have a problem (unless the problem is related to their grade). Plus, they like  to have their performance assessed regularly, especially since they don’t see the professor. Having regular and pre-scheduled assignments and quizzes helps to keep students engaged and alert. The discussion board/wiki options are there of course, but that is unstructured content and the subject of a later blog post, hopefully at the end of the coming Spring semester.
  4. Specify Housekeeping Details: Online classes benefit from explicit specification of some details such as submission deadlines and deadline extensions (Toledo is on Eastern time while one student insisted that since he was in California he should be allowed Pacific time). Another example is email response – many students do their course related work only at night and write immediate emails to faculty if they run into problems, expecting immediate responses – it is important to specify the time within which the faculty will respond to email, at the beginning of the semester.
  5. Specify Cautionary Details: One of the most common excuses that students make is “the connection crashed when I was uploading or taking the quiz”. Students tend to take quizzes and submit assignments very close to the deadline, when the server is over-taxed and may create problems. It helps to caution students to complete their do-ables well ahead of the deadline, to avoid such situations. Also Blackboard/WebCT have options where the student can keep the time/stamp proofs of what they submitted. Many time students insist that they were “within one minute of the submission deadline” and insist that their assignments should be accepted – I ask them to retain their electronic time/stamp records as evidence of their submission times.
  6. Video Content: When posting video content, it is important to make sure that you specify the bandwidth implications. If the video is very long, students often find it difficult to download or stream it.
  7. Make frequent contact in the first two weeks: For the first one or two weeks, it is important to repeat previous instructions, make frequent announcements and generally communicate that the professor is available for discussions and answer doubts. That makes the students comfortable. At the beginning of the semester, if they know that the professor is available to answer questions and help, they feel more comfortable asking questions.They also feel – one student describe it to be as “secure” that there is a human being being the disembodied course management website who is there to help the student learn. For this same reason, it often helps to have a picture or video of the professor posted on the course management site, so that students can put a face to the faculty’s name.
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