Author Archives: Jeremy Sarachan

A Review of the Blackboard Online Grading Tool

Regardless of the specific tool used, online grading offers a green solution that is more easily archived for students’ use. In addition to eliminating problems of not-so-legible handwriting, students and teachers benefit when a student can read over a professor’s comments prior to coming to class, and only ask questions after having time to contemplate the feedback. Microsoft Word offers this capability and two previous posts on this blog have covered shortcuts available with this option. However, Blackboard now provides an online grading tool distinctly different from Word.

Comment and Score

The grade and feedback section in the Blackboard Grading Tool.

The most significant advantage of the new tool is a simplified workflow. With Microsoft Word, one must download the papers after they are submitted through the Assignment feature. Each paper is graded and either uploaded back into Word or e-mailed to the student. With the new integrated Blackboard tool, students more reliably receive and keep the graded paper. Additionally, since all grading is completed in Blackboard and a final comment and score can be included to the right of the paper, the grading process is faster. (See the screenshot to the right.)

After submitting a student’s score, Blackboard automatically switches to the next paper. Each comment is saved as it is made, and the dilemma of where to put the final summary feedback in Word is eliminated. (I always used to debate between including this final comment on the paper itself or placing it within the feedback section in Blackboard.)

Notably, the options available for grading are quite different from Microsoft Word. While Blackboard does not include the ability to create keyboard shortcuts, other convenient tools missing in Word are available. A cross-out tool allows an instructor to place a line through unnecessary text and make a quick comment above (or fill in a more appropriate word choice.)  Three separate tools allow one to comment on highlighted text, a user-defined rectangle, or a specific point placed anywhere in the document. Microsoft Word requires that each comment be placed with highlighted text, but highlighting an entire paragraph can be messy and confusing.

The Blackboard grading tool also offers the ability to ‘draw’ on the student’s paper, which can come in handy if one wants to suggest moving a given paragraph to another location in the paper. A text tool allows the instructor to write anywhere on the document. This technique more closely simulates grading with pen or pencil on hard copy than any of the Microsoft Word options.

The instructor can use highlighting, comments, flexible placement of text, and strikeouts when grading.

The instructor can use highlighting, comments, flexible placement of text, and strikeouts when grading.

While the screen size appears to be an issue as it can be hard to see the paper and the comments at the same time, Blackboard fortunately offers a full screen mode accessible by clicking on the four arrow icon in the upper right. (See the first screenshot above.) In this mode, the screen is more open and ample area exists in which to grade.

One small problem that I’ve noticed (at least on the Mac): when resizing the screen using Command-Shift-‘+’ or Command-Shift-‘-‘, the comments can get shifted from their original placement.  Returning to the original magnification fixes the problem.  An easy solution would be to set your magnification before starting to grade a given paper and don’t change it during the process.

I’ve tried to work with the Blackboard Grading Tool on the iPad. A single option allows the user to click anywhere on the document and type a comment; the full screen mode creates a reasonable workspace. However, the onscreen keyboard makes the workflow cumbersome; those using an external keyboard will likely find this process more efficient. Improvements are coming, including the ability to write comments right on the iPad screen with a finger—although that recreates the problem of potentially bad handwriting. A quick Google search suggests that alternative grading options for the iPad exist, so this topic could be another post for Geeking Out at Fisher. (Anyone want to be a guest blogger?)

Despite some limitations, and the fact that the ability to add keyboard shortcuts should be part of Blackboard’s next upgrade, the convenience of grading and commenting in one place, along with the combination of drawing tools and text fields, make the Blackboard Grading Tool worthy of consideration both for those already using another online grading tool and for those interested in trying online grading but concerned with the logistics of using Microsoft Word.

The Affordances of the Whiteboard

All too often, professors and administrators view educational technology as an expensive and specifically digital tool.  I prefer a broader definition and so for this blog, I argue that reconsidering the use of whiteboards is indicative of the ways in which educational technology can be repurposed and redefined—the tools should serve users rather than dictate uses.

The whiteboard in the Mac Lab, with student work displayed.

A student’s wireframe for a website can be marked up in a classroom critique.

In the Macintosh Computer Lab (Basil 101), we have several whiteboards and I put in the request a couple of years ago to have a whiteboard placed under the screen.  The request was questioned, and I made assurances that this was not a mistake.  Typically, one projects on the screen and then writes around it, but I (and others) find it often helpful to write on the display. Projecting onto a whiteboard has often proved invaluable for discussing designs or student writing with the entire class. (Of course, Smart Boards have this feature and also can save the written content.)

Similarly, I’m now teaching a programming class and I often need to explain to individual students concepts best clarified visually. For the first few weeks, I walked to the board, which was a distraction for other students working on their own projects and created physical and cognitive distance from the student needing help.  Other times, I would write in a student’s own notebook, which had the advantage of giving him or her a permanent record of our discussion, but didn’t allow the student to reproduce the drawing (which would help to solidify understanding) and led me to feel oddly intrusive—I was writing in the student’s notebook.

My Own Whiteboard

Translating coordinates from (0,0) on the x-y axis and then determining the x and y coordinates of a moving circle using the radius and angle of a right triangle.

Finally, I purchased my own paper-sized white board—the kind you stick to an office door.  Now, I have it with me during lab time and I can write all I want when working with a student one-to-one without wasting paper or using the student’s notebook pages.   It’s easy, personal and green.

Technology can work for you.  A technological affordance refers to a way in which particular technology can be used, and often a meaningful affordance differs from the officially described use.

Case in point: the college recently installed Vision Classroom Management Software in PC labs.  The company’s website emphasizes its classroom management functions over pedagogical advantages. Consider its harsh and somewhat alarmist tone: “[m]ake classroom screens go blank in a click, locking students’ keyboards and mice. Capture attention and stop all activity the instant you need to,” or, “[v]iew an expandable thumbnail image of each student’s screen on your computer, so you can follow their activities from your desk in real time.” These “opportunities” are questionable.  I’d rather walk among the students, observing first hand what they are doing; if I am standing at the teacher’s station, I’m not sure I want to be aware that one student is virtually sneaking off to a social media site.  It would be hard to ignore, and yet I’d hate to disrupt my own lecture and the collaborative tone of the class to take time to penalize that single individual.

Some features of the system do function reasonably: sending my screen out to all student screens while demoing a new technique is appealing and limits distraction in a non-threatening manner. However, much of the promotional wording takes a “lock down” approach, which I found eerily close to philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s conception of the Panopticon (discussed almost two centuries later by Michel Foucault), whereby prisoners’ behavior is self-monitored through the fear of observation. While students self-policing may be effective, this prisoner metaphor creates a disconcerting mindset for a liberal arts classroom.

However, this particular problem can be resolved by imagining pedagogical uses.  I haven’t been able to put any into practice yet: I’m teaching this fall in the Mac Lab (as mentioned above), which does not yet have the software.  However, when I find myself in a PC lab, I will reconsider the Vision Classroom Management Software as a teaching tool which can facilitate more efficient design critiques and peer reviews of writing. Like my hand-held whiteboard, I prefer to think of Vision as flexible enough for creative uses (and in my humble opinion, the company should rewrite its website.)

Balancing a Pencil.

Before dismissing a given technology, we should imagine everything it can do. Rather than place emphasis on official recommendations, we would do well to reconsider affordances that can address our pedagogical needs and teaching styles.  A pencil can be used for writing.  It also can demonstrate how to distribute weight evenly, be used to estimate distances or be used to poke someone.  It’s our call.

Listen, Watch, and Read: Using VoiceThread for Assessing Student Reading

Making sure that students read assignments can be a challenge.  Some professors use reading quizzes or one-page papers, while others create discussion boards on Blackboard, Facebook, or Yammer. But as a given semester nears its end, those options can seem laborious to both students and the instructor. Voicethread offers an alternative that gives students options of how they respond, while still satisfying the goal of assessing how well they read assignments.

Voicethread Example

Students in the VoiceThread environment

Voicethread allows a user to create a page in which the person “in the middle” (see screenshot above) first records a short video about an assigned topic or reading using the webcam on his or her laptop or desktop.  This person can be the professor. However, for my Emergent Media and Web Culture class,  I require each student to take a turn asking the rest of the class about an assigned reading.

After creating this initial video, each student distributes the link of the VoiceThread.  (Here’s one from my class. And a second example. )

Students can respond to the question a number of ways:

  • They can type a response.
  • They can create a video response.
  • They can create an audio-only response either through their computer microphone or by phoning a specified number.

VoiceThread places all the submitted answers in one place on one user-friendly screen. Prior to class, I review the answers and then make a note of who completed the VoiceThread afterwards. I emphasize that this assignment cannot be made up—the VoiceThread’s purpose is to prepare for class discussion, so completing it late has little value.

A few considerations:

  • Students like a venue that’s easy to access (VoiceThread only requires a username and password) but doesn’t interfere with their other social media use. VoiceThread is almost exclusively used for educational purposes.
  • Students can express themselves briefly, but sufficiently, so that I can tell they’ve completed the reading. I typically give students a check for completing each VoiceThread. In the few cases when an answer makes it clear that the student did not complete the reading (or skimmed it too quickly), I do not issue credit and explain why.
  • Students tend to submit text responses, although I’ve stressed that video is probably easier: no proofreading is required.  It’s also more interesting for everyone to view video submissions.
  • While completing every assigned reading is expected, I typically ask students to complete ‘x’ number out of the total.  This eliminates excuses and requests for forgiveness due to occasional unforeseen circumstances.
  • I require that students share this link two different ways: they e-mail the class through Blackboard and also post to a shared Google doc.  They have to complete the task approximately 36 hours before class. (e.g., for a Wed. 10:10am class, they have to have it done Monday night at 10pm. For the Monday class, I set the deadline at 10am Sunday morning, although a majority of students have had it completed by Friday or Saturday night.)
  • Students have to be reminded to create questions that truly require that the reading be completed.  (Alternatively, the professor could create all the questions, but I believe that students tend to write questions for their peers that are more likely to motivate discussion.)
  • A user can only create five VoiceThreads before having to purchase a Pro Account.  You can delete a fifth thread to add another one.  Another option (which I follow) is to have each student create the one VoiceThread that he or she is presenting so that no one student (or professor) has more than one or two threads throughout the semester.
  • The work is easily assessed and exists as long as the student doesn’t deactiviate his or her VoiceThread account.

Ultimately, Voicethread offers a platform that visually simulates a real discussion and helps to prepare students for class in an engaging manner that offers practice for not only writing but (for some students) oral presentation skills.

Some uses for folksonomies: musings on user-created structures

The presence of folksonomies defines much of the modern web. The term is derived from taxonomy, which defines an official means of cataloging objects or creatures or nouns of some kind. Folksonomies differ in that they are user-defined. Specifically, they help users of web and related technologies organize and find information more readily, based on categories that make the most sense to them. Since no one lives in a complete social bubble, these user-created definitions are likely to be applicable to other users who are related by profession, hobby, or genetics (i.e., family members).

Folksonomies result from social bookmarking (as just one source). Social bookmarking sites (e.g., allow web users to bookmark a site online rather than within their browsers and then tag each of these sites with appropriate terms. A search within for St. John Fisher leads to tags like St_John_Fisher_College, Lavery_Library, New York State, sports, and journey. By engaging in these searches, users of the site can find other users with matching interests and relevant sites that match their objectives.

But despite the many uses of social bookmarking sites, I’ve yet to meet an actual user. In the times I spoke about social bookmarking at faculty development events (while I was Blackboard Info-Course director), I usually met stiff resistance. Blackboard even offered its own social bookmarking tool—which is now gone. ‘Nuff said.

What went wrong? I believe there’s a limit to how many social media sites most people want to use, but sharing and folksonomies endure within more popular sites.

Twitter and Facebook‘s major functions are to repost information and links. Facebook doesn’t provide folksonomy tools to organize this data, so to find something, you have to remember who posted it and then scan their feed. However, Twitter offers hashtags. A word preceded by a hashtag (#) binds topics of similar interest. You can search for tags on twitter or other sites and see what’s being discussed about a topic. This can be used to get a feel for opinions on current events—social media managers use it to monitor online discussion about a brand. Take a look at what people are saying about and at Fisher. (When I wrote this, the stream primarily consisted of happy high school seniors.)

Hashtags frequently are used at academic conferences as backchannels to follow what attendees are experiencing at multiple sessions. Professors use it in the classroom as a means to have a second conversation or Q&A during a lecture. I’ve tried this as an experiment and am usually left with the sense that it works better when it’s actually needed: in large 200+ student lectures where one can’t ask questions and when a teaching assistant is monitoring the channel. At Fisher, it seems superfluous for most classes.

One does sometimes see hashtags on Facebook, but there’s no practical reason for it. They appear either because a user has linked his Facebook and Twitter accounts, or because it’s just a convenient way to summarize an experience. “Dropped all my lecture notes in front of the class #epicfail”.

Pinterest is different—a collection of images according to theme-based boards which provides a visual folksonomy. Pinterest is somewhat unique in its approach, although I doubt it remains so (see for one text-based up-and-coming competitor). But the site does have uses in education.

So, outside of popular social media sites, how might professors use folksonomies? If considering the concept in its broadest sense: how one organizes information for the convenience of users (students), three suggestions come to mind:

1) Keywords. I imagine many of you have submitted articles to journals and been asked to submit 5-7 keywords. That’s an example of folksonomy. You’re stating how you want your own article to be categorized in databases—with the assumption that other scholars use the same terms that you do. Similarly, I’ve asked students to write keywords for their papers: certainly for the final draft, and sometimes earlier as well. It should be an easy task: write five words that encompass the main ideas of a paper. And it’s easy for most. But, if a student does have difficultly, then this leads to a conversation; early in the writing process, a researcher at any level should be able to define one’s paper in such terms.

2) Word Clouds. While word clouds aren’t based on text themes, but rather simply word count, using a word cloud folksonomy postcreator like can give some insight into the topics of a paper and allow students to reflect on the topics/words used in a paper. If nothing else, it may help a student become aware of an overuse of certain words or phrases. To the right is a word cloud for this article.

3) Amazon lists. I recently had a motivated student ask me for a list of books I recommended that covered advanced topics in web design. is a for-profit business, but it offers tools that can be of use in education. I created and shared a list of recommended books to the student. Now I have the list readily at hand if others ask for something similar, without having to sort through e-mail or my own files. Yes, Amazon wants me to do this since the receiver of the list will be strongly tempted to purchase the books through Amazon. That doesn’t make it any less of a convenience and no one is obliged to buy the books through Amazon. For one example, here’s a list of some of my favorite books about digital media.

Regardless of how one accesses or uses folksonomies, web technologies give us ability to organize according to user/student needs and such organization can make information retrieval more convenient.  More significantly, it can also help students consider their writing and research from a different perspective.

(And yes, the tags immediately below are an example of a folksonomy.)

Who’s there? Do I want to know?

Getting to know your students’ names and work ethic is always an important task in the first couple of weeks of the semester.  But how much information is useful and what is too much?

Last spring I began using an iPhone app called, appropriately, Attendance.  At $4.99, it’s proven to be a worthwhile and remarkably functional tool.  Not only does the app maintain attendance records in your phone, but it also delivers reports delivered to your e-mail and more significantly, offers a means to easily learn students’ names.

By integrating with the iPhone’s camera, you can take a photo of each student directly from the app. The picture is then displayed next to the student’s name (and can be enlarged when necessary).  On the first day of class, I take the students’ pictures, explaining to them what I’m doing and why.  I make sure to take everyone’s photo, even if I know several of the students from previous classes.  Everyone has been accepting of my mildly intrusive behavior.

The app offers multiple features.  Prior to the start of the semester, you can set up the names by typing each of them into the app (which is time consuming) or by importing a class list using Blackboard to download an Excel file of the class (using the download button in the Grade Center); you can manipulate this spreadsheet to include three columns: “first”, “last” and “email” (not “e-mail”, as I learned the hard way).  The students’ usernames are included in Blackboard download, so you paste “” after each username to create an e-mail column.  Finally, by e-mailing this revised spreadsheet to yourself in .csv format, your iPhone mail program offers the option to open the attachment in Attendance.  The inclusion of the students’ e-mails allows you to send an entire note to your class from your phone.  (Car broke down?  Have to cancel class at the last minute?)  Then, an instructor either can add all the class dates in a few minutes time prior to the start of the semester or simply add the current date each day before taking attendance; with a touch of an onscreen button you set everyone to “Present” and then switch any missing students to “Absent”, “Excused”, “Late”, or “Unknown”.

In the App Store, you can learn more and see images of the app, which is satisfying to use, saves paper, makes the attendance task a bit more fun, and makes learning names a snap.

However, sometimes technology tells you more than you need to know.  Just as the Attendance App helps me learn the students’ names and faces, I find using Facebook as a platform for discussion helps students to not only access our workspace easily, but also to become familiar with each other (since profile pictures are part the layout).

Specifically, I create a group and require the students to join.  This process does not require “friending” students.  (As for the students who don’t have a Facebook account, I suggest they make a FB account with a fake alias—I just ask them to reveal their real identity to me and their classmates.)  Facebook is very effective for distributing articles of interest published during the semester.  It also offers a highly intuitive discussion board interface.  (Some of my colleagues have chosen to use Yammer, which offers a similar experience, matching the Facebook interface within a closed environment.  While you have greater privacy and a more clearly defined academic space, there’s also less convenience in that you must access yet another site.)

This semester, I had a new experience.  During the first weekend after classes began, my phone vibrated with every discussion posting, offering a notification of who had made the post.  These intrusions gave me an interesting overview of the work habits (or at the least the work times) of my students.

In the end, I’m uncertain about what to do with this newly gained information.  There’s something to be said about the leveling of student effort when one simply collects papers on the due date.  On the other hand, most online discussions include a time stamp, but these more easily go unnoticed.  Ultimately, getting up-to-the-minute notification of student achievement offered added weekend entertainment (“when will it vibrate next?”) and insight into the variation of student work habits.  (More students worked Saturday night and fewer completed their work late Sunday than you might expect.)

But, before the following weekend, I readjusted my Facebook settings, mentally wished my students well, and left the knowledge of their work habits behind me, allowing them to work with greater anonymity and myself to enjoy some peace.


Thanks to Joellen Maples for joining our blogging team.  Todd Sodano is up next in a couple of weeks!

Ready to geek out?

Welcome to Geeking Out at Fisher.  Modeled after the Profhacker blog published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, this marks the beginning of a project to increase conversation not only about educational technology, but also pedagogical philosophies emerging from the influences of digital media in education.  The title comes from the book Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out by Mimi Ito, et al., which explores (from an anthropological and educational perspective) how teenagers behave, experiment, and create with technological tools.

This project began after Dr. Todd Sodano, Dr. Rik Hunter, and I received a Learning Circle grant this past summer to attend the New Media Consortium Conference at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  This yearly international conference focuses on pedagogy and technology, primarily aimed at a higher education audience. Rather than simply presenting, as the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences remarked, “what you did this summer” at a single PETAL session, he suggested we come up with something more ambitious.

So, here it is: the start of a ongoing blog that will be updated bi-weekly and permit and encourage faculty participation in the discussion section below each post.  We’ll send out a brief reminder with each posting (at least at the start of this endeavor), and perhaps make a Facebook or Twitter account to offer another means of notification. And we’re ambitious—the conversation can and should go beyond the campus community at Fisher, so let your friends know about the blog.

Our educational technologist Katie McDonald has agreed to join our group of writers.  Unfortunately, Rik Hunter has left the college for a position in British Columbia, and so the three of us would like to invite another colleague who might like to contribute on a regular basis to come aboard. Furthermore, if anyone would like a “guest slot,” just contact Todd or myself.

Here are just some of the upcoming topics to look forward to:

1)   Challenge-based learning and how student-directed projects focused on big themes and problems can create a cohesive unit (or semester).

2)   The pros and cons of peer-review software.

3)   Using Facebook and Twitter for information flow in the classroom.

4)   How Dropbox and an e-reader can make your life easier (and it doesn’t just include reading books).

5)   Learning analytics and assessment.

Finally, consider this:  everything is ‘technology’: a pen or pencil, the classroom computer, Powerpoint. There’s no escaping it.  Collaboration and discussion can only make it work better for each of us. Geeking out is merely being willing to have fun and experiment with technology for the betterment of the classroom experience.

We hope this will provide a valuable service to the college and lead to meaningful discussion.

Welcome back.