What is a well-designed Blackboard module? Project

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Written by Ania Udalowska

A well-designed Blackboard module may mean different things for different people. We asked our group of Student Learning Ambassadors to brainstorm what does it mean to them that a module is well-design. The findings of this discussion divided into categories can be found below.

Module Information

Teaching schedule – showing what is expected throughout the semester (which is carried out throughout the design of the module in folders). It is not necessary to have to release all content at the start of the module rather a roadmap showing students what they need to plan for. Download the teaching schedule example:

Module handbook – one of the students explained that the handbook is almost like a contract between a student and a module coordinator. It should include all essential information (which may be, and in some cases, should be also included in different sections, e.g., all assessment-related information in Assessment & Feedback). Take a look at this blog post on comprehensive handbooks.

FAQs on the module – FAQs could be generated throughout the module based on queries received by the module coordinator and could be then used to help future students, e.g., what textbook is best / how do you set the assignment out/ suggestions of resources to help with a tricky concept etc. You could use the discussion board functionality to ask students for questions they want to know answers to.

Short introduction video – it would be nice to include a video that welcomes students into the module, explains how to navigate it and briefly outlines what will the teaching schedule look like. It does not have to be long nor formal!

Learning Materials

Folders – content should be divided into weeks (or topics). It should correspond with the teaching schedule. Consistency within folders is just as important, try to include the same type of learning materials in each folder (you can use small icons to indicate the type of activity) and keep them in a consistent order:

  • Live session preparation tasks – make it clear what needs to be done.
  • Teams links to live sessions.
  • Pre-recorded lectures (clear/ small chunks/ and no background noise)
  • Lecture slides and lecture handouts with space for notes (how to convert PowerPoint slides into handouts)
  • Activities to complete that give instant results/feedback to test knowledge. You could use Blackboard tests or Panopto quizzes.
  • Examples, relating theory to real-world as much as possible.
  • Reading – which items from the reading list refer to that week’s content.

Note: Where possible use review status and adaptive release – students progress at a different pace, some prefer for the content to be released all at once, others in stages. Having the review status and adaptive release can give students control over how much content they see at once and it also helps them to stay organised.

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Implementing ‘Tools for Academic Writing’ across all departments – Student Learning Ambassadors

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Written by Lucie Andrews, English and Creative Writing

The best Blackboard modules are organised effectively, easy to navigate and kept updated. However, I would like to focus on how Blackboard could be used as a resource for study skills and excellent academic practice. During the Student Learning Ambassadors project, we discussed what is a well-designed Blackboard module and some of the feedback included the way we felt that the referencing and citing guide was not easily accessible nor comprehensive enough to cover all student’s needs. We also talked about the idea of including assignment model answers as a template of what needs to be included and how to format assignments correctly. One way to act upon this feedback would be to include a new folder within the assessment and feedback section that focuses on study skills in order to improve Blackboard as a student resource.          

When analysing the different approaches to how different departments used Blackboard during the usability testing, I realised there was a useful section in the module menu called ‘Tools for Academic Writing’ in my department of English and Creative Writing that was not in the other departmental menus. Therefore, I would recommend that we should implement ‘Tools for Academic Writing’ across all departments by creating an additional folder within the assessment and feedback section to act upon some of the student feedback. Why should you consider this? And what will this new folder include? As Blackboard is the site used for the learning and academic aspect of the student experience, I believe that all students would gain from a folder dedicated to providing students with study skills and tips that will enable them to achieve excellent academic practice. Within this folder, it would provide a unique list of study skills relating to each department’s needs. Here is a general template of what this folder could include:

  • a detailed referencing and citing guide that meets each department’s stylesheet
  • a guide of essential study tips and skills including essay writing pointers
  • links to workshops offered by the university on study skills
  • a FAQ on study skills and general module information

As a student, I have personally found that there is mostly a focus on the material covered in lectures, seminars and workshops and a focus on the marks scheme and assessment criteria. However, there is generally less focus on how you can improve your writing/study skills independently and how to write an essay/assessment / referencing to the expectations that meets the standards of university practices. Therefore, this folder on ‘Tools for Academic Writing’ should be implemented in all department’s assessment and feedback section across the University as it would offer Blackboard something new that would enhance the student academic experience, and this would aid students to achieve better grades. Thus, I feel that by implementing a folder dedicated to study skills within each module that is specific to what students on that module need would enhance student’s learning experience on Blackboard and improve its resources.

The importance of comprehensive module handbooks (Student Learning Ambassadors)

Written by Nathalia Kinsey, History and Welsh History 

One of the things we discussed during the Student Learning Ambassadors project was how helpful module handbooks can be for students. Throughout my three years in the History department, module handbooks have been my go-to source of key information about each module. I often downloaded module handbooks at the start of the semester and kept them on my desktop, easy to reach for when I needed to glance at the marking criteria for an essay, double-check a due date, or find out what I needed to read for my next seminar. Having all this key information in one document meant I always knew where to look when I needed something, with no searching through Blackboard, wondering where a lecturer had put a particular piece of information. The key pieces of information included in the handbooks were:  

  • contact details for the lecturer;  
  • a brief introduction to the module;  
  • numbered lists of lecturer and seminar titles, with information about the preparation needed;  
  • assignment deadlines, word counts and the department assignment length policy;  
  • a list of essay titles to choose from (although this may not be relevant, or could be adapted for other departments)  
  • marking criteria.  

They also often included other details specific to the module, such as maps or family trees, as well as notes on referencing, frequently used primary sources, or spelling names that might have multiple versions across texts. Overall, I and others participating in this project have found module handbooks to be incredibly useful documents that would be helpful to have across departments; they provide a single place where all the key information about a module can be easily accessed and kept near at hand.  

Example of a comprehensive module handbook: 

Information on Assessments – Tips from Students (Student Learning Ambassadors)

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Written by Elisa Long Perez, Department of Law & Criminology 

Assessments are the predominant way for lecturers to test students’ knowledge in a module or subject. To make that possible, students need to know what criteria they are expected to adhere to, as well as where and when to submit. In some modules, this essential information are not as easily accessible as needed.  

During the usability testing activities, I completed as part of the Student Learning Ambassadors project, I noticed that some modules either had no marking criteria or had marking criteria that were not easily accessible to students. The absence of this key document often leaves students confused as to how they should approach their assignments, leading to lower marks. Other issues I found were to do with submission points and deadlines. Submission points were often included at the bottom of the Assessment and Feedback section or in a different section altogether which may lead to students either not submitting their assignments on time or they don’t submit them at all. Secondly, if the deadline isn’t emphasised enough or is easily missed the same thing happens; students won’t know when they are due to submit their assignments and may end up rushing to submit at the last minute or fail to submit on time.  

My suggestions to teaching staff would be to: always include the marking criteria in the Assessment and Feedback section and the module handbook; make sure the submission points are on top of the section and highlight the deadline in bold; send a reminder one month, one week and one day before the deadline.  

Written by Gabriele Sidekerskyte, Aberystwyth Business School 

Being a part of the Student Learning Ambassadors group was one of the most interesting projects I have participated in at the University. I am very glad that I was able to use my student experience as a tool to improve Blackboard and other students’ experience at Aberystwyth University. The fact, that students are the ones deciding how Blackboard modules should look like and what they should contain is amazing because students are the ones that are and will be using it, so their opinion is most important.  In the past years, especially during the pandemic, Blackboard played a very important role in my student life. I came across some issues like accessing reading materials and assignments. The reading lists provided by module coordinators are great, however, sometimes not all reading is accessible to students. Making sure that all materials on the reading lists are available in an electronic version is essential.  

In terms of the Assessment and Feedback section, the most important information included there are: the submission deadline and submission point, assignment requirements, marks and feedback. Although some modules include this information in the module handbook, it is much easier and more intuitive if they are included in the Assessment and Feedback section. It would be ideal if the submission deadlines for all assignments would be provided as early as possible so students can plan their time effectively. If the deadline has been extended, that should be announced clearly for everyone. Assignment topics, requirements, literature if available and weight of the assignment on the overall module mark should also be included in the Assessment and Feedback section, in the same place where students will have to submit their work. Similarly, it should be clearly communicated when students can expect their marks and feedback, especially if it changes. I think it would be great if students would get notified once the mark and feedback are available. Feedback should be clear and detailed, with examples and explanations of the mistakes made and suggestions for improvements as only then students can get better.   

I hope these words will be taken into consideration. I enjoyed this experience and I hope this project will improve the Blackboard experience for everyone. The teamwork and organisation side of the project were great, the meetings were just perfect length, and the activities were interesting. Thank you for the experience. 

Organisation of Blackboard content – Tips from Students (Student Learning Ambassadors)

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.

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Do your modules on Blackboard speak your student’s language? – Student Learning Ambassadors

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.

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Reflections on running the Student Learning Ambassadors Pilot Project

By Anna Udalowska

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.

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Students as digital producers

Professor Rafe Hallett from Keele University has recently delivered a fascinating keynote talk exploring the idea of students as digital producers.

The presentation encouraged educators to explore which modes of co-creation are already inhabited by their students and enable them to work collaboratively in the production of knowledge. As pointed out by Professor Hallett, this constructionist approach leads to a more meaningful experience. Students produce outputs which are available externally to university systems and can be showcased and shared as ‘theirs’. This contributes to the feeling that their work ‘matters’, in contrast to submitting assessment in a standard format which is read, marked and archived.

Enabling students to be digital producers requires them to build on skills they already have, but also to develop digital criticality to choose the right digital resources for what they are trying to do. It is one way of facilitating more authentic assessments, a concept explored by Kay Sambell and Sally Brown our recent mini-fest.