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As new online programs and courses rapidly emerge, the use of online delivery applications in institutions of higher learning has become a major issue. Examples of this type of application include Collegis, Complete On-Line Teaching Systems (COLTS), e-Education, WebCT, and Blackboard. This paper describes Blackboard and how it can create or enhance a class.
What is blackboard?
"Blackboard 5" is a Web-based server software application that enables a complete e-Education enterprise including online teaching and learning, campus communities, and institutional services" (Yaskin & Gilfus, 2001, p. 3). CEO Louis Pugliese explains that Blackboard's goal is to help educational institutions become completely digital (cited in Lichtenberg, 2000). Even textbooks will be converted into digital materials that instructors will incorporate into their courses, whether they are on campus or across the world.
Course Design and Tools
Blackboard is widely used to create or enhance courses and has been positively received by many students and professors. Blackboard can be found in more than 1,500 schools, from large universities such as Harvard, Georgetown, and Ohio University (Swanson, 2001, Crawford & Thomas-Maddox, 2000) to small liberal arts colleges such as Gettysburg College, where Blackboard enhances face-to-face classes. Designing a course in Blackboard is a simple process because it is easy to use, easy to update, and it is generally well received by students (Cartwright, 2000, Dragan, 2001, Sealey, 2000).
Ahern (2001) states that instructors should adapt the technology to the learners' needs. To do so in Blackboard, instructors need not be experts in this tool because they can easily learn what they need to know to match Blackboard's technology to the task. Blackboard is rich in flexible features. Institutions can customize the tabs that they want to use and choose from 100 button-styles, although the My Institution, Courses and Academic Web Resources tabs are always included. The Control Panel button, which is only visible to the instructor, allows him/her access to the course site administrative area. Blackboard provides instructors with the flexibility to create, modify, and remove content areas by simply following a format provided in this button. Knowledge of HTML is not required. Foreign language instructors can use characters in the language they are teaching, which is especially important when students are asked to take quizzes in a foreign language where punctuation is important.
A new feature on Blackboard 5.5 is the ability to schedule materials to reach students at a predetermined date and time so they are able to access the material at the appropriate time during the term. The instructor can also allow students to access the syllabus or assignments at any time and assign specific course work to a student or to a small group of students.
Blackboard provides built-in thread and chat capabilities where synchronous and asynchronous discussions can be used according to the needs and philosophy of each institution and class. In the Spanish Department at Gettysburg College, professors use asynchronous discussions in literature and film classes. For example, students complete assigned readings or viewings, then post their ideas about them as part of their class preparation. Students show higher levels of thinking and reflection when they post their comments in this way.
In language classes students can use Blackboard to finish a story or review a specific grammar point. Some instructors include immediate feedback, so students can learn from their mistakes. Video and audio can be used, as long as the students install the appropriate plug-ins (e.g., Real Player, Media Player), which can usually be downloaded for free on the Internet. Instructors can ask their students to watch different types of video clips (e.g., music, culture, history, text-related video) and answer questions about them. This feature is particularly useful in language classes because students can hear the pronunciation of the target language.
Among Blackboard's useful features are online testing and grading. Instructors can create multiple choice, true/false, ordering, matching, multiple answer, essay, and fill-in-the blank questions in Blackboard. Quizzes can be timed or not, according to class requirements, and specific questions for quizzes can be generated randomly from a bank of questions as the students take the quizzes. On the down side, placing quiz questions into Blackboard is tedious, because one must create each item one field at a time. Fortunately, questions can be transferred from one class to another, and the Instructional Support Team can usually make those transfers for the instructors.
Blackboard provides a grade tool based on points for each item (e.g., test, quiz, homework). It is not possible to weight categories of items according to their percent of importance for the class grade. This limits the instructor whose grading system is based on percentages and weighted categories. On the positive side, students can be given online access to their grades so that their status in the class is never in doubt.
Blackboard offers a firewall service that allows clients to determine who may access the Blackboard application. Some publishers require this feature before giving permission to have their materials posted online.
According to Blackboard's Web page, Blackboard product support provides assistance to its clients 24 hours a day, 7 days a week through Web forms, e-mail, or phone assistance to ensure customers' satisfaction. Blackboard provides immediate access to all available documentation, such as its built-in 276-page instructor manual, and a built-in student manual. Clients can see sample courses and tutorial resources as well as review and download a variety of texts, multimedia tutorials on assessment tools, career options, and suggestions on how to integrate Blackboard into the specific framework of an institution. Blackboard.com provides ten online training sessions of varying levels of difficulty, introductory courses, special topics, and several self-taught training courses through traditional manuals, CD-ROMs, or downloads from the Blackboard website.
According to Siekman (2000), prices depend on the server and the level of support (basic or elite). The Blackboard Web page states that Blackboard provides predictable costs. There is a fixed, inclusive, monthly fee that covers an extensive line of services. There was no cost for the most recent upgrade to 5.5 for institutions already using Blackboard.
Overall, Blackboard is flexible and easy to use. Blackboard's rich features are easily customized by both individuals and institutions to meet their needs, and extensive training is not necessary to start creating or enhancing classes. Posting information is a simple process but, in the case of quizzes, a time-consuming one.
As a language instructor, I really like Blackboard's capability to use video and audio. Students can listen and respond online to questions posted in any language. Another positive feature is the capability to use foreign language characters when posting comments, quizzes, or other materials. This is essential in a foreign-language class.
On a five-point scale, I give Blackboard a 4.5. Blackboard's design and organization make it an easy to use and effective tool for both new and experienced online students and instructors. It loses a half point, however because of its limited grading tool and its tedious quiz-creation mechanism.
Ahern, T. (2001). Will technology really change education? [Review of the book Will Technology Really Change Education? From Blackboard to web]. Teachers College Record, 103(1), 136-188. Retrieved October 9, 2001 from Wilson Select Full Text.
Blackboard. (n.d.). Retrieved September 20, 2001, from http://www.blackboard.com
Sealy, M. (2000). Blackboard.com (www.blackboard). [Review of website http://www.blackboard.com]. Technology and Learning, 20(9), 18.
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