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.


Shortcut Keys and Macros

After reading Todd Sodano’s entry on shortcut keys, I thought, “Hmm…that’s easier than what I do for some things” … only to find out that, in another skirmish between MAC and PC, it ain’t so easy on PC. There is, however, more that we can do in MS Office to make our lives easier. Office allows for the use of macros to perform repetitive tasks. All recent PC versions of Office, and most recent iOS versions allow for macros. (One recent iOS version featured a MS Office suite without macros.)

There are a surprisingly large number of things that I do repetitively in MS Word. In particular, when I grade, edit or review, I find that there are mistakes that my students make frequently, resulting in comments that I make frequently. For example, in formal papers, I require my students to use formal grammar and style. Therefore, it seems like I’m always putting the following comment into papers:

Figure 1

Without macros, I would find myself using the mouse to highlight the problem, then going to the menu (or “ribbon,” to give that object its official name), clicking on Review | New Comment, and then typing in “Colloquial”… many, many times.

Fortunately, there is a better way: one can record a macro, assign it to a shortcut key, and then use the shortcut key to complete the task very quickly. The process to create a macro on a PC is as follows:

1. If you are going to do something that connects to highlighted text – e.g., change font, or highlighting, or insert a comment, remember to highlight the text first! That applies to the example here.

2. On the menu, choose “View” and then drop down (i.e., click the little downward pointing triangle) under the “Macros” button to reveal the following:


3. Choose “Record Macro” to get the following dialog box:

Figure 2

4. Type in a macro name, one that is informative. Then, make sure that “Store macro in:” is set to “All Documents (Normal.dotm).” Next, click on the “Keyboard” button, and assign a shortcut key to the macro. For example, when I created the above macro, I used the name “Colloquial.” Clicking on the Keyboard button pulled up another dialog box:

Figure 3

I pressed the “Alt” key and the “Q” key, and it showed that “Alt+Q” was “[unassigned,] i.e., not assigned as a shortcut for anything elsePress “Assign” and then “Close.” You are now ready to record the steps of the macro.

5. For this macro, I chose “Review | New Comment” and then typed “Colloquial.” In general, do whatever is needed for your task. Some other examples of things I do frequently:

a. When reviewing a paper, I find that authors frequently leave a citation out of their reference list. Hence, I have a macro named “Missing Reference” that recorded the mouse clicks: “Review | New Comment” followed by “Reference is missing in reference list.”

b. I have a macro named “Grammar” assigned to “Alt+R” which highlights in red whatever text has been selected. This macro recorded the mouse clicks for “Home | Highlight dropdown (in the “Font” section)| Red.” This is used for marking grammar/spelling mistakes.

6. When you have completed all the steps of your task, go to “View,” drop down under “Macros,” and choose “Stop Recording.”

That’s all! From then on, you can highlight text (if needed), press the shortcut key, and move on. Yes, this requires a bit of time upfront to set this up, but given the number of times I have to note that a student used a colloquialism in a formal paper, the initial couple minutes for setup has saved me hours of time.

A few final notes:

Make a cheat sheet to keep by your computer until you have done things enough times for the shortcut key to be automatic. For example, you could have something like this:

Figure 4

Important: This process stores everything in “Normal.dotm.” Without going into details, Normal.dotm is the file that MS Word uses as a template to create and/or open documents. If this document gets replaced, which has been known to happen on some networks, you will lose all your macros. I strongly suggest that you find this document, and make your own backup of it, just in case. (This backup will also allow you to easily move Normal.dotm from home to office or vice versa, so that you have your macros in both placed.)

Lastly, there’s another use for macros, outside of the context of grading or reading: From time to time, I have used macros in a consulting role by setting up MS Excel workbooks for various nonprofits who want to analyze the data that they collect. In doing this, one sheet was set up for data entry, and that sheet has a single button on it: When pressed, that button runs a macro. Hidden worksheets literally and figuratively “behind the scenes” allow for all sorts of calculations, and are all activated upon the push of the button. Usually these macros are more involved than the above, but they still aren’t incredibly hard. Using macros this way allows for many tasks to be executed without having to train people to do them. It isn’t necessarily a time saver for you, but oftentimes clients have appreciated having automatic analyses.

Digital Badges: What Are They & What Can We Do With Them?

Have you heard of badges? No, I don’t mean those that are worn by police or military officials, or even merit badges collected by boy/girl scouts and displayed so proudly on the child’s uniform, though digital badges are somewhat modeled after these badging systems. According to the MacArthur Foundation, “a digital badge is a validated indicator of accomplishment, skill, quality, or interest that can be earned in many learning environments.” Similar to the physical badges that signify the completion of a task or acquired skill level, digital badges can be used to visually display a wide variety of skills and competencies online, including both physical and virtual skills, as well as hard and soft skills. Digital badges also take some principles from video game design as they can be used as a reward for completion of a task or a means to unlock additional tasks that must be completed in a sequential order.

So, now that we know a little more about what digital badges are, why would we want to use them in an educational setting? In general, digital badges are a relatively new educational technology so the answer to this question is evolving. However, there is a significant amount of research on topics that overlap with the use of digital badges like the effects of student motivation, both intrinsic and extrinsic, on achievement, as well as the use of rewards and recognition within virtual communities. These techniques can be implemented in a variety of ways, but digital badges have become a new option to incorporate these strategies into educational settings. Digital badges really started to get attention in 2011 when the Mozilla Foundation announced the Open Badges Project, which provides a set of standards for creating, credentialing and displaying badges of all kinds. Without this type of underlying infrastructure for badges there would not be the attention from the education market that we see today. Digital badges also overlap with ePortfolio technology, as one of the main components of collecting badges is to display them to others as evidence of your skills or accomplishments on given topics. ePortfolios can be a useful place to display this type of information for academic and professional reasons. Digital badges have also generated discussion around the tracking and credentialing of informal learning. With the increase in MOOCs and other non-credit educational experiences and the issue of how to assess and award credit for these types of learning experiences, the use of digital badges have been suggested as one of many possible solutions.

Please take a few minutes to watch the following video to learn more about digital badges and how they may be used within education.

Source: MacArthur Foundation (http://www.hastac.org/digital-badges)

Below are a few examples of those using digital badges in higher education:

University of California, Davis – Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Program

“Instead of being built around major requirements and grades in standard three-credit courses, the Davis badge system is based on the sustainable-agriculture program’s core competencies—”systems thinking,” for example. It is designed to organize evidence of both formal and informal learning, from within traditional higher education and without.”

Read the full article here: http://chronicle.com/article/A-Future-Full-of-Badges/131455/

Purdue’s Passport Project

“In one early example of Passport’s use, instructors are giving out badges for students who pass an 8-week MOOC-like course in nanotechnology that doesn’t have credit attached. In another example, the provost’s office has created a badge related to intercultural learning that students can earn for their work in different disciplines and departments.”

Read the full article here: http://campustechnology.com/Articles/2013/06/20/How-Badges-Really-Work-in-Higher-Education.aspx?Page=3

Carnegie Mellon University – Computer Science Program

“Carnegie Mellon University has included badges in the Computer Science Student Network (CS2N), which provides a distributed learning infrastructure for computer science and STEM skills. Learners participate in a scaffold environment and work on achievements ranging from entry-level skills to industry certification. Badge pathways provide a clear view of progress, as learners can clearly see how lower-level competencies lead to higher-level competencies. Creative competitions provide additional motivations and opportunities for peer review and learning from others’ work. Learners can progress to the levels of achievement that tie into industry-accepted certifications and entries to employment.”

Read the full article here: http://edtechdigest.wordpress.com/2013/06/28/put-a-badge-on-it/

As well as the above examples, Blackboard has also recently released a tool to allow faculty to create badges and award them to students directly within their courses. The Blackboard Achievements tool connects with the Mozilla Open Backpack project, so that students can display badges acquired within a course on a public page for individual use. Here at Fisher, the Achievements tool was part of the recent upgrade to Blackboard that was completed over the holiday break. If you would like to know more about the Achievements tool, please contact me directly and we can discuss your own badging ideas together.

Would you like to learn more about digital badges and discuss their use in education with other interested faculty at Fisher? On behalf of the Educational Technology Roundtable and the Fisher Geeks Blog, we would like to invite all interested faculty to participate in the following webinar sponsored by Pearson and hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as participate in an open discussion following the webinar.

Designing Your Own Open Digital Badge Ecosystem

Thursday, February 6, 2014
 2:00 p.m. in Nursing 209

For a full description of the webinar, please click here.

Keyboard Shortcuts for Grading Writing Assignments

We’ve made it to the end of the semester! Before you take a deep breath in anticipation of the onslaught of student essays you will receive over the next few days, I’d like to share with you a few tips and tricks for streamlining the grading process. Earlier in the year, I described how you could use podcasts to communicate with your students. In this entry, I will show you how just a few keyboard shortcuts can save you time and give your students more useful feedback on their writing assignments.

Within the last two years I have required students to electronically submit their writing. I had traditionally graded and annotated student papers in ink. However, in trying to minimize printing, I began requiring students to submit (via Blackboard) their essays. In so doing, invention became the mother of necessity. Students now can upload their documents in a .doc or .docx format, and I can grade them directly in Microsoft Word using keyboard shortcuts, which allow me to perform tasks without having to use the mouse and navigate menus and submenus. (The instructor can also grade directly in Blackboard, providing even more convenience. If you’ve experimented with that technique, please share your insights below!)

First, create an official assignment on the course’s Blackboard page: click Assessments (in a content tab from the far left menu) followed by Assignment (see below).

Creating Assignment on Blackboard

Students can upload their writing assignments to that location, where you can download all of them at once and eventually upload your subsequent graded and annotated document too. After you’ve downloaded your students’ essays, change the name of the document (click File -> Save As) so that you acknowledge that this is the one that contains your comments and corrections; e.g., change “Pat Smith COMM 264 Research Essay.doc” to “Pat Smith COMM 264 Research Essay GRADED.doc.”

After you have downloaded the student’s file and renamed it, click Tools -> Track Changes -> Highlight Changes

Highlight Changes

and activate all four options; by clicking “Track Changes While Editing,” Microsoft Word will keep track of all the edits and comments you make for the student to see. Once you have activated Track Changes, you are ready to grade and annotate the student’s essay.

I primarily use three shortcuts: highlight, strikethrough, and new comment, through which I can emphasize student errors, cross out superfluous words or phrases, and comment directly, quickly, and legibly on what the student has written.

To create these keyboard shortcuts, which fortunately you do not have to recreate every time you open up Word, click on Tools -> Customize Keyboard. Once that window opens up, scroll all the way down in the Categories section and click All Commands. In the Commands section of this window, find the word Highlight and assign a keyboard shortcut to it.


You may want to use “Control” and “H” (for highlight), so that every time you want to highlight student’s text, you can use the cursor to select the passage in question and press Control and H simultaneously. Of course, you may wish to use a different combination of keys or even change the color of the highlighted text (my default color is yellow), which you can do by using the pull-down menu in the toolbar next to the italic and underline tools (see below).

Changing Highlighting Color

You can then create more keyboard shortcuts, such as Strikethrough. Again click Tools -> Customize Keyboard, select Categories -> All Commands, locate the Strikethrough option, and assign Control + S for Strikethrough.


Do the same to Insert New Comment (I use Control + C), where you can write marginal comments for your students to read.

New Comment.

If you type faster than you write, this offers a great opportunity to provide useful feedback. Furthermore, this is a wonderful solution for those of us who have poor penmanship, so that students don’t waste time deciphering what we have scribbled on their pages.

Because you created an official assignment through Blackboard, you can avoid having to email each student his or her graded assignment. You simply click on Grade Center -> Full Grade Center -> Assignments and upload the “GRADED” file where you enter the student’s grade.
NOTE: Students probably cannot read your marginal comments in the Word document on their smartphones. You might wish to advise your students to download the graded document to a computer, where they can read what you have written.

Grading papers often feels like a challenging, neverending task. Keyboard shortcuts can help you to save time and offer more constructive criticism to your students. Do you grade essays electronically? If so, do you have any tips or tricks or shortcuts that you’d like to share? Have you used Blackboard’s new features that allow you to grade student essays directly in that program?

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.

The Power of Learning Analytics: The Wegmans School of Pharmacy Approach

As a follow-up post to The Power of Learning Analytics from last spring, guest blogger Jane M. Souza, Ph.D., Assistant Dean of Assessment in the Wegmans School of Pharmacy at St. John Fisher College, shares the strategies used within the school to collect, analyze and continuously improve the Pharmacy program through the use of the computer-based exam management software, ExamSoft and the School of Pharmacy assessment process.

All courses have learning outcomes listed on the syllabi. All faculty members strive to teach learning outcomes in ways that encourage student achievement. These facts are nothing new and are common among any undergraduate or graduate level course, but the way faculty in the School of Pharmacy are looking at student progress on learning outcomes is new. Rather than relying solely on test grades to assess student progress, they are tracking density of coverage on each course outcome along with whole-class as well as individual student achievement within each of those areas. How are they managing that much data? They are testing in an electronic environment using ExamSoft. The implications for change management at the course level are outstanding and only exceeded by the ability to drive quality improvement at the program level and opportunities for self-monitoring at the student level.

So how does this work exactly? It all begins with pulling data out of existing exams maximizing the potential of embedded assessments. Test items, or questions, have been crafted and honed by faculty over years of teaching experience. The items include true/false, fill-in-the-blank, multiple choice and essay questions. Using ExamSoft, each item is electronically tagged or coded to identify the question on multiple levels including the following: learning outcome, program standard, accreditation standard, and level in Bloom’s Taxonomy (e.g. knowledge, application, synthesis). Questions can be tagged several times as needed. For example, one question may be addressing course learning outcomes 1, 3; program outcomes 1e, 2g. 3a; accreditation standards, 16.2, 32.1; and application level.

When students take their exams, data is collected for each test item. Faculty are provided a wealth of information previously unavailable to them. They know how much time, to the second, students spend on each question – both individually and as a class.  WSOP_1This is great information for time management and test construction. They know how many questions they asked per exam and per semester on each learning outcome. Most importantly, they know the student achievement on each of these learning outcomes. Consider the two tables to the right and below. The table to the right shows the course-level information available prior to electronic testing. The table below shows the detail currently available and how faculty might use the data.


From the tables above, it is easy to see how faculty can make evidence-based changes to their classes. The same information can drive curricular reform. Consider the old-style curriculum map. It documents that the curriculum has been taught, but does not record what was learned.

Old Style Curriculum Map


Evidence-Based Curriculum Map with Density of Coverage and Student Performance (note the opportunity for improvement)


At the student level, individualized learning analytics help students consider their own strengths and opportunities for improvement. Whereas, in the past students were monitoring their progress through course grades, they are now able to reflect on their strengths and weakness at the learning outcomes level. Previously hidden deficiencies are now revealed and can be addressed promptly.WSOP_5

The student represented in the table to the right appears to be strong in each area, but are there hidden deficiencies?

The student may have a lack of understanding for a single learning outcome, but the deficiency is masked by high achievement in other areas. When students are able to see their performance at the learning outcome level, as shown below, they are able to work on remediation well before they encounter critical assessments such as exit or licensing exams.


The learning analytics made possible through electronic testing have been put to good use in the Wegmans School of Pharmacy. The faculty are employing the data to make course-level changes, the students are addressing their areas of weakness, and curriculum and assessment committees are analyzing the data for continuous improvement at the program level.

Feel free to visit us at Wegmans School of Pharmacy to see this process in action, or stop by and see me. I am always happy to talk assessment.

Jane M. Souza, Ph.D.
Assistant Dean of Assessment, Wegmans School of Pharmacy

Did You Miss Christmas in July? What’s New in Blackboard for the Fall

Thanks to the upgrade to Blackboard around the Fourth of July holiday, there are now a few new tools and features available in your courses. As you begin to prepare for the fall semester, I thought it would be helpful to share a little more about each one.

My Blackboard Notificationsbbnotification

When you log in to Blackboard you will now notice your name in the upper right corner, as well as small number indicating notifications available for your review. Notifications like these are available for faculty and students and include a list of all courses you are enrolled in, a view of discussion posts across all courses, general updates on course activity, as well as retention center notification (which we will discuss in greater detail below) and calendar items across all courses. The notifications area also provides a quick way to navigate from one course to another within the system. Another new feature available through the My Blackboard Notifications area is the ability to add a photo to your Blackboard profile. The profile picture next to your name in the upper right corner is nice, but the real benefit of this feature is that the photo will also be visible through interactions within a course. For example, when a student authors a blog post, discussion board message or a journal entry, you will not only see their name, but their profile photo will be visible as well next to their message. Especially for courses that spend a significant amount of time communicating within Blackboard, this provides a personal touch to the course that was not previously possible.

New Content Editor

The new content editor is an improvement over the previous content editor and will perform much better with the copy and pasting of text from outside sources, like Microsoft Word documents. You will see in the image below all of the same functionality is available in the new editor so hopefully this change won’t be too significant for most, but might relieve a few formatting headaches that we have had in the past.


Improved Calendar

As mentioned above, the calendar will appear as one of the options in the My Blackboard Notifications area. The new calendar view will now display calendar events across all courses and each item will be color-coded based on the course with which it is associated. This view of the calendar is extremely helpful for students who want a single place to view the deadlines in all of their courses at one time and any possible overlaps. The overall look of the calendar is now similar to the look and feel of other modern calendar tools and includes many common features that you are probably used to already, like viewing the calendar by day, week or month and the ability to drag and drop items from one day to another. Faculty and students can also add personal items to their Blackboard calendar that are not associated with any specific course, but private to the individual. It is also now possible to import the Blackboard calendar into other outside calendar tools like Gmail or Outlook if desired.

Improved Discussion Features

In general the discussions tool will look the same as previous versions, but a few new features really change the flow of conversations that are possible. The most significant improvement is that all posts within a discussion thread now appear on one single page. This makes it much easier to read a conversation without having to go back and forth between pages for each message that you are trying to read. As well, it is now even easier to reply to a message of another class member and the message can be written directly in-line with the conversation. Another new feature in the discussion area is the ability to restrict student access to discussion responses from their peers until they have already posted an original response of their own. This feature will cut down on the issue of students only replying to the comments of their classmates instead of posting their own responses to the question directly. The usability enhancements and new features in the discussion tool will make a real difference in courses that rely heavily on the discussion tool for course communication, especially online and hybrid courses where instructors and students spend a significant amount of time within this area of the course.

New Assignment In-line Grading

If you use Blackboard for the electronic submission and grading of student work in your courses, this is the feature where you will most likely notice the biggest difference. Blackboard has incorporated totally new functionality within the Assignment tool. The creation of a Blackboard Assignment is the same and is still done from within a content area of your course. However, once students begin to submit their work and you visit the Grade Center to review it, you will quickly notice the changes. All documents submitted by students will be immediately available for viewing from the View Attempt window directly in the browser without downloading the files to your own computer. Comments and annotations to the student’s work can also be done directly on this screen. This method of providing feedback to students on their written work is an alternative to using the track changes functionality available within Microsoft Word. However the track changes method is still available for those that prefer that process. Both the original student submission and the document including annotations can be downloaded to your own computer for archiving. This new functionality should make the process of grading and providing feedback on student papers faster since you will no longer need to download and upload documents for each student.

New Retention Centerretentioncenter

The new Retention Center features are an improvement to what was previously available in the early warning system within Blackboard and is available under Evaluation in the Control Panel of every course (shown to the right). The Retention Center is only available to instructors and allows for the identification and communication with students who may need further assistance in the course. A number of rules are added by default to identify at risk students, including students who have not accessed the course for at least five days, students whose overall course grade is at least 25% below the class average, students who have missed assignment deadlines and students who are at least 20% less active overall in the course than their peers. These rules are completely customizable and additional rules may also be added.

Click here for the BB_WhatsNew PDF,  a short summary handout on all of the new features.

Please remember to visit the Educational Technology website for more information on Blackboard, including documentation and tutorials for faculty and students, as well as a list of upcoming events and workshops. Also, I am always available for 1-1 training sessions on any specific tool in Blackboard you would like to learn more about.

Best of luck with your fall semester classes!

Geeking Out In the Cloud with Evernote

Last week my parents brought a dusty box to my home. “What’s in here,” I asked, as I looked around my den, already cluttered with magazines and random papers. “It was in the attic.” Ugh. I don’t have anywhere to put this, and if I haven’t needed it for 18 years, why would I need it now? I opened the top of the box and discovered notebooks and binders and papers from my undergraduate studies. That got me thinking about how over many years, moves, and changes in technology – it has been awhile since I’ve worked from a 3.5″ floppy disk – I lost some good work, including graduate research and writing still relevant to my professional work today. I wish I knew where it was and could access it with ease. I also wish that the students with whom I work had a simple way to archive and access their college work. And that got me thinking about Evernote.

What is Evernote? This 50-second video explains the cloud-based storage service for information and ideas.

Evernote’s best features include ease of depositing information and easily retrieving it anytime, anywhere.

A few quick examples of things that you can do with Evernote (occasionally referred to as “EN” from this point forward):

Academic – Professionals
  • assemble content (PDFs, Word and Excel docs, etc.) for use in lessons, write and store lessons and syllabi
  • quick access and easy retrieval of ideas: thoughts typed out, pictures taken with a mobile device, articles (full or snippets) seen on the web, musings recorded on smart phone – a great help in the car, EN can even transcribe your long voice note into text
  • record audio from a student presentation with a smart phone, reference it for grading and send back to students for their review
  • collect e-mails, papers, and other items to reference for annual performance review

Academic – Students
  • store scans or photos of returned papers, tests and quizzes for future reference, creating a simple to use, easily accessed e-portfolio
  • using a mobile device, take pictures of the white board at the end of class and pay more attention to the lecture (with instructor permission?)
  • type outlines for class notes and readings – review anywhere
  • rehearse for a presentation by creating an audio note on a smart phone
  • collect research materials for papers – Evernote automatically records the URL of all saved content

  • keep pictures of a driver’s license, ID card, library card, medical insurance cards, important receipts, contents of a suitcase, closet, or other valuables in a residence hall or home
  • storage for all instruction manuals (PDF, scanned, web) and warranties
  • recipes clipped from the web, scanned from a recipe box or as pictures taken from a magazine with a mobile device
  • lists containing long term goals and checklists of things to do and items to pack for different kinds of trips
  • pictures of price tags for items when you’re comparison shopping – should I buy razors at Target, BJ’s or on Amazon?
  • record audio notes and capture artwork from young children, automatically stored in the cloud and easily shared

Getting information into Evernote is easily accomplished with desktop, web and mobile applications. You even get your own Evernote e-mail address: anything sent there goes right into your EN account. Notes can be placed into a specific notebook, much like a folder on a PC, and individual notes can also be assigned tags. For example, I have dozens of notes in a “Tricks” folder where I keep different activities for warming up a group, goal setting, decision making, self-disclosure, etc. Some of the activities are specific to only one purpose, and are tagged as such. But I can use my “Face to Face” activity as a general group warm up or to focus specifically on disclosure, so that note gets both tags.


As you can see, this note was once an index card, one of many, but the EN version also contains my notes on uses for the activity. Now that I’ve scanned my “bag of tricks” index cards I can easily search for a group activity or study strategy at home, in my office on campus, or in the classroom.

Organizing notes can be as simple as throwing everything into one notebook, or more complex by utilizing multiple notebooks nested into different stacks. No matter how you work it, EN’s search functionality makes it easy to find what you’re looking for. It even recognizes pictures of handwriting and typewritten words, so if you’ve taken a picture of a poem that you scrawled out on a napkin a couple of months ago, just search for a word from that poem and the note with the photo should show up. Here’s the main page of the EN for Android app looks like. To take a picture of that napkin and automatically send it to EN, I just press “Snapshot.” 

If the note wasn’t legible, search all notes with pictures by date – it’s in there!

Notes can be shared by e-mail and to various social media hubs. My Freshman Seminar Peer Advisor and I would meet to discuss upcoming classes, and I’d take notes during those meetings in EN. From those notes, I’d write a lesson plan, complete with all attachments and links to other relevant notes that I had already created. Then I’d e-mail my Peer Advisor the link to that note, which brought her to a neatly formatted page, locked from editing. I wrote this blog post in Evernote – here’s the shared link: http://www.evernote.com/shard/s55/sh/393ed150-445c-4982-8285-952e1c27f46c/69f4b8a06381209c5551fbd144d74ade. If I want to break the link, I can tell EN to stop sharing.

You can even share an entire notebook, giving individuals various levels of access: view, modify, and invite others.

Notes can also be linked together. Students who take pictures or scan their returned papers and tests into Evernote could link them together to create a coursework master note, allowing them to easily reference those materials as they prepare for a final. If students were encouraged to use Evernote to do this with all of their work, they’d be developing their personal e-portfolios.

Evernote has a number of companion products. I recommend Web Clipper, a browser plugin that simplifies importing web content, and Clearly (Chrome and Firefox), which creates a distraction free web page reading experience. They’ve also developed partnerships with existing companies and software that you might already use. Check out what they’ve done with the iPad in Evernote PeekLivescribe and Moleskine. The company has done a nice job cultivating communities (education, organization, parenting, etc.) with Evernote Ambassadors. Foodies will like Evernote Food, a separate but similar application that is especially robust on the iPhone and iPad.

Concerns about privacy are addressed in a reasonably written privacy policy. Your information is password protected and your password is protected by encryption. That said, Evernote is among the most recent victims in a history of hack attempts on major web service providers. They responded quickly by notifying all users by e-mail and forcing password resets. They are aggressively pursuing two-factor authentication for their users, a security option that Google, Dropbox, and others offer. Evernote also allows you to selectively encrypt text in individual notes, but there’s no way to retrieve that text if you lose your special encrypted password. If you ever want to pack up your data and go elsewhere, you can export your notes.

Want to try Evernote for yourself? Get started with a free account for basic use. Overall storage is unlimited, but the amount of synchronized data that you can add in any given month is capped at 60MB/month with a 25MB limit per note. There’s no limit to local storage. You can go premium for $5/month or $45/year and enjoy 1GB of uploads each month, single notes up to 100MB, and a number of other features. I started as a basic customer, but after a year I decided to upgrade when I scanned my wife’s grandmother’s recipe box into EN and then shared that folder with her. She still uses the box, but when she can’t find what she’s looking for I swoop down to the rescue.

So what of that box from the attic? For now I’ll just wedge it into a corner in my attic. Maybe someday I’ll get a scanner with auto duplex and stuff those papers into Evernote.

What uses have you found for Evernote?

Video Killed the … Traditional Paper?

By Todd M. Sodano

Some of today’s better-equipped college graduates exhibit the triple threat of being able to effectively write, speak, and present visually. If you’re struggling to find an assignment for your students to hone such skills, consider the video essay. If you’re studying film, television, or digital media, consider the video essay. (Here is a popular site that offers sophisticated analyses of films, TV shows, music, etc. – http://blogs.indiewire.com/pressplay/.)

Each semester in my intro to video production course, in which they learn how to tell original stories through shooting, directing, and editing digital video that they produce, my students also critically analyze films. This type of analysis advances the traditional critical essay students have written. After writing a brief essay that answers questions I have posed for them in advance of them viewing the film, students record podcasts in which they orally deliver their analyses.

They don’t stop there. The students then edit their audio to remove vocal fillers (“uhhs” and “umms”) and mistakes as well as to include any music or sound effects. Upon completion of the audio recording, they add video clips from the actual film or television program, which enhance the claims they have made. Students with a fundamental understanding of nonlinear editing (e.g., Final Cut Pro, Avid, Adobe Premiere, iMovie) can easily incorporate elements from the original text to produce their video essay, which enhances the basic, voice-only criticisms that Prof. Sarachan’s students have used.

Because the “amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole” is minimal and the students are not affecting the “potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work,” the Fair Use doctrine would apply to this assignment. Moreover, there would be no need to secure permission for using the original text. The challenge is to make sure the film or TV program is in an “editable” format (e.g., a .MOV file) that allows the student to manipulate it. For instance, since DVDs are encrypted, copy-protected works, consider (if you have a Mac) using such free programs as HandBrake or Mac the Ripper to descramble the work and MPEG Streamclip to export the ripped file to that editable format. According to the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress, this also is permissible. See § 201.40 – Exemption to prohibition against circumvention (page 19).

The video essay allow students to grow more versatile with digital media while upholding the traditional principles and techniques of good writing. And, at the very least, it allows us to save on printing costs.

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.