Written by Erin Whittaker, English and Creative Writing
The usability testing activity I completed during the Student Learning Ambassadors project prompted me to write my blog post on the ease and accessibility of finding specific information covered in lectures and seminars based on the chronological layout and labelling of their files. Having navigated my way through two previously unseen exemplar modules and another of a module I took in 2nd year, I found that the module layouts that were most accessible and easy to navigate were those in which the information and materials for lectures and seminars were labelled by week and topic title, rather than simply the number of that specific seminar; ie. ‘Seminar: Week 2 – Learning about Specificity’ > ‘Seminar 2’. Labelling the files in this way made finding the information covered in those specific seminars and lectures straightforward and less time consuming than having to trawl through multiple seminar PowerPoints in order to find the specific information I was seeking.
Additionally, the most obvious folder for storing both the lecture and seminar Panopto recordings and accompanying PowerPoint slides would be, in my opinion, ‘Learning Materials’, along with additional materials such as the Aspire Reading List, workshops, tutorials, and schedule overview for that module. However, it would be my recommendation that if the files for seminars and lectures are plentiful in number, ie. more than three files per week, that they are given a separate folder under the title of ‘Lectures/Seminars’ within the left-hand folder column, along with a copy of the Aspire Reading List.
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.
We’re the Learning and Teaching Enhancement Unit. Based in Information Services, we work with staff across the university to support and develop learning and teaching. We run a wide range of activities to do this.
Pedagogical literature emphasises the importance of students’ active involvement in all initiatives which impact their learning experience. As we, the LTEU, work so closely with teaching staff advising them on best practices in learning and teaching, we felt that our provision would benefit from students’ direct involvement. We decided to partner with a group of students, acting as Student Learning Ambassadors, to focus on one of the most frequently raised issues in student feedback – Blackboard modules’ design.
A lot has been done already to improve navigation and consistency of Blackboard modules, e.g., we introduced departmental Blackboard menus and Blackboard Required Minimum Presence. There are some excellent examples of Blackboard modules out there, some of which are showcased in our Exemplary Course Awards. Nevertheless, comments on difficulties in navigation and lack of consistency of the Blackboard module still appear in student feedback (e.g., Digital Insights Survey).
Before starting the project, our Unit had an opportunity to attend a workshop on student-staff partnership delivered by Ruth and Mick Healey who are the leading consultants in this aspect of student engagement. The session as well as follow-up consultation focusing specifically on the Student Learning Ambassadors project was invaluable. Although our project was focused mainly on consulting students, we did our best to implement underlying values of student-staff partnerships, empowering students to take ownership of the project, helping them to realise the impact of their work and reflect on how it benefited their growth.
The Student Learning Ambassadors project was advertised through the AberWorks scheme and the AberCareers platform as well as among current Peer Guides and Student Representatives. In the week before the project started students completed their induction which included familiarising themselves with health and safety working procedures, information security and data protection guidelines, and introduction to the LTEU.
Now that the 2021-22 modules are available to staff, we can link them together at the module co-ordinator’s request. This process is known as parent-childing. Linking modules together is an effective way of dealing with separate modules with the same content so you don’t have to upload materials to two or more different modules.
This process makes one module the parent, whilst the other module(s) become a child. There’s no limit on how many modules you make a child but there can only be one parent.
If you’d like to parent-child your modules, and you’re the module co-coordinator, contact email@example.com with the module codes for the parent and child modules.
Examples from Aberystwyth
Many members of staff are currently using parent-child modules across the institution. Some examples are:
Modules are taught the same content but there’s a module available for different years
Modules with the same content delivered in English and Welsh
Modules that bring together different degree schemes and have different module IDs, for example dissertation modules
Essentially, any module that shares the same content is ideal for parent-childing.
What do students see?
Students will see the name of the module that they are enrolled on (even if it’s the child module) when they log into Blackboard but they will see all the content placed in the parent module. Instructors will not be able to place content in the child module.
In the week beginning from the 12th of July the LTEU run the What is a well-designed Blackboard module? project. We recruited 9 students to work with us as Student Learning Ambassadors. The group included: one 3rd year undergraduate History student, one 3rd year undergraduate Childhood Studies student, two 2nd year undergraduate English Literature and Creative Writing students, one 3rd year undergraduate Economics student, one International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law Postgraduate student, one 3rd year and two 2nd year undergraduate Psychology students.
Throughout the project students completed the following tasks, working independently as well as part of the group:
mindmapped what it means for a module to be well-designed
generated a list of items that should be included in a Blackboard module
categorised the list of items they came up with
took part in usability testing on two existing Blackboard module
gave us a tour of a Blackboard module from their department that they found easy to use
wrote a short blog post on one aspect of a module design that is important to them with practical tips for teaching staff
identified common issues in Blackboard modules, reflected on the impact they have, and created a set of recommendations on how they could be fixed
proposed changes to existing Blackboard Required Minimum Presence
In the next few weeks, we will be publishing findings of the project including blog posts written by the Ambassadors themselves. We are incredibly grateful to Angela, Erin, Katie, Ammaarah, Elisa, Lucie, Charlotte, Gabriele and Nathalia for all the hard work they contributed to the project. We believe that all staff will find the findings as useful as we did. As my time as the Online Learning Specialist in the LTEU comes to an end I am extremely pleased and grateful to be able to conclude it by running this project. I genuinely believe that active involvement of students in the design of their learning should be a priority and I hope for more opportunities for student-staff partnerships. I would like to thank all staff I had an opportunity to work with these past months, thank you for your inspiring work and continuous commitment to providing the best possible experience to our students.
This case study is based on and includes extracts from the Student-led Planning of Tourism and Hospitality Education: The Use of Wikis to Enhance Student Learning book chapter written by Dr Mandy Talbot (Aberystwyth Business School) and published in the Routledge Handbook of Tourism and Hospitality Education.
What tool do you use and how?
Dr Mandy Talbot used Blackboard wikis to facilitate ‘a student led, collaborative learning project (…) on the second year, bachelor degree module: international tourism development. (…) The module course work required students to work in small groups to identify and evaluate the tourism development strategies that were being followed in given tourist destinations and to compare these with approaches being taken elsewhere. Due to the collaborative and interactive nature of the assignment the most suitable web tool was the wiki.’
Why did you choose this tool?
Before implementation of wikis ‘students undertook the exercise by creating and delivering a group PowerPoint presentation of 15 minutes to the class, with a further 10 minutes for questions.’ Dr Mandy Talbot changed the format of this assessment in order to:
‘Improve the cohesiveness of student group work: The wiki format provides a collaborative work space for students to develop their work’
‘Provide students with more opportunity to interact with the work of other groups: The wiki format enables students to visit each other’s’ presentations over an extended time period. Wiki pages also have comment boxes which enable students to pose questions and engage in discussion on the other sites.’
‘Develop student IT skills: Students will learn how to create and structure web pages’.
Every year, the E-learning Group create new modules in Blackboard ready for next year’s teaching. For the academic year 2021/22 departments decided internally whether modules would be blank or have content copied over. Modules for 2021-2022 will be available from the beginning of August.
Staff in Geography and Earth Sciences and IBERS will have modules created blank. We have prepared these FAQs with detailed guidance on copying different elements from one module to another in Blackboard.
All other departments will have their modules copied. As part of the course copy process, the following tools and content are not copied:
Panopto recordings and links
We would like to assist staff with preparing their modules as much as we can. We are happy to arrange a consultation over Teams. To do so, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
The second case study on using interactive Blackboard tools showcases effective use of tests for summative and formative assessment by Dr Ruth Wonfor from IBERS.
What tool do you use and how?
I use Blackboard tests for either formative or summative tests in most of my modules.
Why did you choose this tool?
I’ve chosen to use Blackboard tests for a variety of reasons. For summative tests, I have used these in a first year module on anatomy and physiology. This module provides a lot of foundation knowledge on basic biology that is used by students in future modules, therefore I wanted to design an assessment that would enable me to test a wide variety of topics across the module that meets quite a broad learning outcome. The use of multiple choice tests has worked really well for this and it fits really nicely with the work I do in this module to try to get students to use flashcards in their learning. Students can really see the benefit of the flashcards through this test.
For the formative assessments, I have chosen to use Blackboard tests for quite a range of reasons. I have previously tended to use them to allow students to test their knowledge at the end of a topic. However, whilst we have been teaching online I have started to use them to ask questions that I would have asked in the lecture to check understanding. This has been great to help me to structure the learning and ensure that students aren’t rushing onto new sections without fully understanding what they needed to in the previous section.
How did you design the activity using this tool?
How I design the Blackboard tests very much depends on what I am using them for. The summative tests are quite rigid with only multiple-choice questions. I tend to use standard question formats, such as choose the correct answer to a question, choose the correct statement or what structure is the arrow pointing to on an image. Whilst students have been able to take this test at home during Covid-19, I have also introduced some short answer questions into the multiple-choice test. These have worked really well to prevent students just looking up every multiple-choice answer and giving a good marks distribution.
For the formative tests I use a wider range of options in the questions to fit what I want the students to learn. For example, I’ve used the matching questions after going through terminology, so that student have to match the terms with the correct description. I also try to use the feedback in these formative tests to get the students to direct their learning. So instead of telling students that they have answered a question incorrectly and what the correct answer should have been, I instead use the feedback to direct the students to the slide or section of the lecture where they can find the answer, hopefully encouraging students to structure their learning and revision further.
Finally, whilst we have been teaching online I have found adaptive release combined with the BB tests really useful for structuring topics. I often start some lectures with a bit of revision of information that they should have covered in previous modules that is the basis of the topic we are covering in that session. Therefore, I’ve used BB tests to cover this revision. I use the feedback to direct the students to further information if they need to brush up their knowledge and then use adaptive release to only release the topic to them once they have attempted the revision quiz. The students get clear instructions that they need to have a go at the quiz and then they will get access to the lecture topic. This seemed to work well and so it is something that I hope to keep in place for future years so that I can remove the revision from the lectures, allowing more time for application of the knowledge gained in the lectures.
What do your students think of this tool?
I’ve had pretty good feedback from students about the use of the BB tests, a lot have said that they have found them really useful to help them revise and go over topics to understand where they need to put more effort into their further study. I’ve also helped to reduce student anxiety about the final summative test by using formative tests throughout the module. As the summative test I use is on a first-year module in semester 1, students are often quite anxious about what to expect at university level. I can therefore direct them towards the formative tests as examples of the level of questions that they will be expected to answer in the exam.
Do you have any tips for people who want to use this tool?
My main tip would be to allow yourself a fair bit of time to construct the tests. The initial start up to write good questions and feedback for the students takes a while. However, once you have spent that time, you have the tests ready to roll out each year. It is well worth the time spent to help the students and get an idea of their understanding and where you may need to clarify topics again. Also make sure that you take the tests yourself! I’ve noticed a few mistakes or questions that need further clarification when taking the test myself and it’s really useful to see how the student will see the final question formatting in their view.
We would like to thank Dr Ruth Wonfor for sharing her experiences of using Blackboard tests.