Written by Angela Connor, Psychology
I know asking whether your modules on Blackboard speak your student’s language may seem odd. I can almost hear you declaring “Of course they do”. Obviously, you upload materials in English and Welsh. But that’s not quite what I mean. To ensure Blackboard is as easily accessible for as many students as possible we need to put ourselves in their shoes for a while and look at the layouts and content objectively to see if they are laid out as best they can be for the intended cohort so they can easily understand your modules.
It is often said in education that if you adapt your delivery to those with additional needs in mind, you’ll actually be making it easier for everyone. Perhaps this ethos could be applied in terms of Blackboard, enabling all students to fulfil their peak potential with as little stress as possible.
There are undoubtedly elements of a Blackboard module that require formality and professionalism, such as Unacceptable Academic Practice, and the module handbook. The handbook acts almost as a contractual agreement between the module coordinator and the student, and vice versa, as it clearly outlines what the module will deliver and what will be expected from the student in return. However, keeping educational jargon out where possible, or introducing it gradually can help with increasing your students’ confidence and familiarity with these terms. For example, how many students really understood the new terms of “synchronous” and “asynchronous” that were suddenly thrust into education last year? And when they were understood, were they occasionally mixed up for sounding so similar occasionally? I know it caught me out a few times.
So, think about students who are neurodiverse, dyslexic, have ADHD, care leavers who are going it alone for the first time, mature students who are often juggling work and caring responsibilities, and joint honours students who have two departments and their nuances to work with. If your modules are laid out clearly, all of these groups in the student population, and many others, will be helped a tremendous amount.
I shall be using examples to demonstrate some points from Dr Victoria Wright and Dr Alexander Taylor’s Blackboard modules, both from the Psychology Department, whom I thank for their permission to do so. Their modules have been chosen for clarity, resourcefulness, enthusiasm, motivation and ease of use. As a final year student these module layouts, and the resources provided, really supported me to work through the modules to my full potential. Well, full enough potential, as with a pandemic going on I was probably hindered at least a little.
Firstly, think about how your module will look to a student the first time they access it. Is it friendly and welcoming, thus exciting and motivating them about the upcoming semester? Is it clear as to what to expect? All of this can be achieved with small introduction videos giving a personal touch and allowing students a connection to the lecturer, and the wider university. It is perhaps even more important at present in a time of decreased interaction. These intro videos can also lay out clearly the basic aims of the module. Both Victoria and Alex had this approach and their home (Victoria’s is below) and/or module information pages were populated with everything their students needed and became the Go-To page for students requiring direction and information.
Don’t underestimate a timetable.
Below is a great section from a module by Chris Loftus who had embedded links within the timetable so students just had to turn up, check the date and then it would take them to where they needed to be within the learning materials, and in a new tab so they could easily go back to the home page. What an awesome tool.
Timetables are useful for those students who want to get ahead so they know what upcoming topics to begin reading for. Timetables are also helpful to those who need support organisationally as the clarity keeps them on track. Generally, there is a great deal of comfort in being able to clearly see where you are within the module, where you are heading, and just as importantly, how far you have come.
One more thing- double-check that the dates are correct if you are using them in timetables though as when mistakes occur it can lead to confusion. I’m sure Chris’ was spot on, but if you are concerned about errors, numbering the weeks as Alex did (below) help to alleviate issues and decrease the chance of stress, particularly for those students with added complications to their studies.
Consistency and a clear layout are key to an easily navigated Blackboard module and will decrease the stress of locating necessary materials, speeding the process up. There are different ways of achieving this, e.g., a week-by-week method, as in Victoria’s Psychology of Language module (below). Everything required for each week was in one place, therefore keeping students on track for all tasks, one small manageable chunk at a time.
Or, by dividing learning materials into their specifics, e.g., lectures, seminars, learning activities, etc., as in Alex’s Behavioural Neuroscience module. Each lecture, or seminar folder of his contained everything students required for that week or session, filled with prerecorded lecture videos, reading materials, and a whole manner of other resources to support the students learning. This can be a challenging module due to its scientific basis that can often be a significant change in direction for Psychology students. Using a variety of mediums as resources supports the diverse learning needs of a wider range of students.
Both modules’ prerecorded lectures were relatively short, making them easier to break learning up and cuts down those overwhelming feelings if faced with a 2-hour lecture in one sitting. Victoria and Alex’s lectures had captioning (I know these aren’t without their own issues at times!) and they displayed themselves on the screen, again keeping up the connection between the lecturer and the student. These videos are fantastic as they don’t have the often terrible sound quality and interruptions that the live recorded Panopto lectures had. They can have their speed altered which is particularly useful if you are studying in a second language (so I’m told) and can be paused for note-taking. Although doing these recorded lectures must have been a mammoth undertaking this year, they were truly appreciated by students and allowed the live sessions to be around delving into topics and asking questions which, in my experience, not many students are comfortable doing in a lecture theatre.
As you can see these are just a few tactics for making a module accessible, but without huge efforts in time and technological know-how, but they certainly pack a punch in clarity which is so beneficial to students. A module following the same pattern as the examples I have used here had a very calming effect as I knew exactly where I was with the module and my learning, and as the module coordinator was obviously very organised, it made me feel in safe hands.
Obviously as there are so many disciplines being taught across the university there can’t possibly be a one size fits all approach. But if each department thinks about their students, and their content, I’m sure each department’s Blackboard layouts could be consistent and exemplary across modules, meeting their students’ requirements.