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Walk the Chalk: 'Blackboard Essentials for Teachers' by William Rice

By Brad Jones / May 2013

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There's no shortage of Blackboard training and help resources. So why read a book?

Probably because most of the other resources are small, just-in-time items delivered online. Blackboard Essentials for Teachers written by William Rice takes a longitudinal, staged approach, in the time-honored fashion of software demonstration via the use of copious screen shots, which translates well to a book format. It aims to show a teacher how to construct and deliver a professional quality course using Blackboard's most essential features.

To demonstrate this Rice relies on building an example course in Coursesites, Blackboard's free site for teachers. The book begins with a general tour of the demonstration course which is featured thereafter, followed by individual chapters covering items in detail: organizing course material; adding static material, discussion boards, blogs, wikis, and assignments; testing students; working with groups; communications using Blackboard; using Collaborate/Coursesites Live; and grading students.

Blackboard Essentials thus fills the role of providing a useful work-through resource. Whilst aimed at a relatively basic level, for motivated teachers with limited online learning and computer skills, it is still useful for more advanced users, and contains some comparisons to classroom pedagogical practices and the occasional "handy hint."

Given these considerations, the book is quite successful at setting out what it aims to achieve, with some qualifications.


Gone are the days when a book would display its potential obsolescence by featuring the software version on the cover. The world changes too quickly, and such publications go for broader coverage to maintain market relevance over a longer time frame. Nevertheless, I feel that if the reader is paying good money for a software book he or she should be able to identify what version of Blackboard they are reading about in order to make appropriate allowances. While the book does mention that features and tools depend upon specific versions, it does not identify which version is the starting point here. The only cross-reference is to Coursesites, which will generally be running the latest version (Version 9.1, Service Pack 11 as of the publication of this review) and the two will increasingly diverge over time. Since the publication of this book, Coursesites has been updated; the "Visual Text Box Editor" in the book has been replaced and now includes the "video everywhere" YouTube capability for webcam content creation on the fly. Social is also a new feature that can enable cloud-based social networking for students to "collaborate," with settings for private, course, institution, or global—literally any other Blackboard user anywhere on the planet.

Herein lies a dilemma: Oddly, software screenshots must be version specific with functionality described in step-by-step fashion, but things quickly change. However, many a function may generally behave as one might anticipate, and can still enable the user to get the gist of how it should work even if the specifics begin to unravel over time. In many ways it is the big contextual picture that matters to the user, and by the time this begins to coalesce the user is moving on—seeking, using and making sense of more esoteric help screens and other granular help resources.

I illustrate this with a little Web searching that suggests the other principal book in a similar vein that is still out there is a Dummies publication dated 2006, which, in terms of Blackboard LMS functionality, was the Middle Ages!

What is 'Blackboard'?

Another concern is that, from the client perspective, users tend to see what "Blackboard" is at their particular institution as the standard universal product. It isn't.

  • The LMS is one piece of software that lives within the different ICT ecosystems of each institution.
  • Different institutions may be running different versions of the LMS.
  • The LMS can seamlessly run along with other optional Blackboard modules: Transact, Connect, Community, Content Management, Analytics, Collaborate, and Mobile.
  • Blackboard has partnered with various others to expand the product—particularly, of late, with content providers.
  • Third party products can replace or augment Blackboard functionality—though they may work differently—in areas, for example, such as blogs and wikis, plagiarism detection, and content systems.
  • Blackboard has a variety of themes and customizations. There may be variations in branding and appearance. Features and functionality may be turned on or off, thereby changing the software behavior.

Given all these permutations, Blackboard can be highly variable. For example, my institution currently runs the Learn LMS, plus the Institutional Mobile App, a third party content management system (that is very different to Blackboard's) and has access to a standalone and rebadged earlier version of Elluminate (which does not dovetail into Blackboard as does Collaborate).

As a consequence there may be some differences with screenshots, appearance, and functionality. Given that the book focuses on essentials, then the areas that it covers are likely to be the most consistent in behavior. The author does note that different licensing may apply for the Blackboard content system (but not third party systems), and for Collaborate. However, I would personally suggest users might like to acquaint themselves with their own institution's setup, any significant features and customizations, and help facilities.

Are all Essentials Covered?

Blackboard is a profit-based company, and has its own upselling style. It is marketed as if everybody has access to the whole product suite. Presumably, when users have been playing with some "must have" taster only to find that their specific Institution does not license it, those users then begin to pressure their Institutions to license the additional modules.

This is, after all, the purpose of Coursesites. It is the "try before you buy" latest version of Blackboard, with Collaborate (a tasty, but not cheap, extra module) happily running seamlessly with the LMS. Collaborate was intended to be platform agnostic, in keeping with Blackboard's latest diversification moves, and now has integrations with other LMS platforms as well.

The inclusion of Collaborate as a teaser in a book on essentials, to my mind, would be well received by Blackboard's marketing arm. However, it also begs the question of whether there are any other items that are not covered and might be of relevance.

In reflecting on this, I might have expected a couple of minor additions. In scanning the teaching and learning side of the Blackboard product suite, there are a couple of features that I would suggest as more available and "essential," though not as sexy, as Collaborate.

Plagiarism is a genuine nuts and bolts teaching concern. Some time back, Blackboard acquired a company with text matching software—generally used for plagiarism education and detection. Unlike some of its other acquisitions, it incorporated this into the standard LMS product as a no-cost feature it called "SafeAssign." Thus, I felt the inclusion of this capability would have been valuable as part of the "essential" requirements for teachers.

Similarly, Blackboard's business model tends to evolve. One example is the mobile app, which is now available in the app-priced consumer marketplace. Again, this would seem to warrant some coverage even if, from a teacher's perspective, it came to planning for mobile friendly courses and appreciating the increasing significance of mobile devices. Collaborate, on the other hand, is easy to get enthusiastic about. Nevertheless, it is, in my view, somewhat further removed from essential-at least in these economic times where reality forces compromises between limited budgets and technolust.

Keeping Current

While the book starts off with a good intro and works through most functionality, it seemed to stop abruptly with the GradeCentre—where, understandably, most courses would stop. However, to me it felt a little like a story left up in the air. Rather than treat the book as a complete resource, other resources to complement and supplement the book and increase relevance as expertise grows might have made a welcome conclusion. Specifically the lifelong learning "teach a man to fish" approach toward some self-sufficiency on the help front. Referral to Blackboard's resources, such as the OnDemand Learning Centre and a run down on help areas, as well as other possible institutional and other resources, could help the reader feel a little more reassured in transitioning beyond the book to more advanced skills, institutionally different setups, and subsequent versions.


In summary, the lack of version identification and the variability of Blackboard as an offering bother me but perhaps the consumer is somewhat more forgiving. Some coverage of SafeAssign and mobile would have been more "essentially" useful before Collaborate. Some advice as to other resources would also have been valuable. These comments aside, as a work-through book format resource for gaining and building a basic understanding of the Blackboard LMS, which I certainly appreciate, this is the most recent and welcome offering and successfully achieves its stated aims.

About the Author

Brad Jones is the Manager, Learning Technologies at Southbank Institute of Technology, in Brisbane, Australia. A qualified teacher and librarian, for the last six years his role has included Systems Administration of the Blackboard LMS and related technologies, and monitoring emerging technological developments relevant to the vocational education and training sector. He can be reached at [email protected].

Any views expressed are those of the author and not his employer.

© 2013 ACM 1535-394X/13/05 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2483758.2488310


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