Creating a Stimulating Online Learning Environment

Blackboard in the College Now Classroom

a review by Ian Gardiner


During the month of July 2003, College Now students enrolled in my credit-bearing Philosophy of Technology course at the New York City College of Technology (NYCCT) used a Blackboard-based online component to supplement their study of the philosophy of technology. Blackboard, a stimulating, online learning environment — called a “Course Management System” by its owners, Blackboard Inc. — allows students to strengthen their understanding of academic subject matter while providing instructors the opportunity to extend their pedagogical expertise. My College Now students participated in weekly Blackboard assignments, including discussion board exercises, online quizzes that were scored automatically in the Blackboard system, and off-site Internet research tutorials.

Blackboard 5.0 allowed me to design the appearance of the College Now NYCCT Philosophy of Technology site, where I chose the number, style, and type of ‘buttons’ — intra-Blackboard, interactive links having the appearance of Windows-style buttons — that students used for navigating their e-learning environment. Blackboard has a functional aesthetic, maintaining an easily apparent route or path from one feature to another. I will proceed to describe the Blackboard site I used at NYCCT, but readers wanting more detail should consult the Blackboard Instructor Manual, which is a more comprehensive look at Blackboard as provided by its designers.


When first logging on to NYCCT’s Blackboard site, each user sees a Welcome page that announces the current version of Blackboard being used, and is offered just one interactive option: the “Login” button, although some college sites may also offer a “Course Catalog” option. The login page has a window for entering a username, and a window for entering a password. Again, the only interactive option available is a login button, located below the password window. After a successful login, each user is taken to a page showing a personal welcome, and 6 areas containing interactive options: Tools, Search the Web, My Announcements, My Calendar, My Courses, and My Tasks; the My Courses section has the sub-categories “Courses you are teaching,” and “Courses you are participating in.” (This feature is an intrinsic part of the Blackboard platform, and not a tailor-made feature only at NYCCT.) You may be an instructor of one course and a student in another at the same institution, and only one login is required to access both.


I taught two independent sections of the philosophy of technology, and so used two independent sections of Blackboard, for the purpose of allowing students in the same course section to develop the practice of interacting with the same group of peers in the classroom and (asynchronously) via the discussion board. In fact, each Blackboard section had identical interactive options and near-identical assignments. Pedagogically, it was helpful for me to be able to compare student participation and progress in Blackboard with classroom participation and progress. For my students, three of the most useful interactive options of the 10 total interactive buttons that I used were: Announcements, Discussion Board, and Web Sites. The most useful button from my point of view was the Control Panel. It was here that I created and managed each weekly student activity, and was able to post new announcements, add new discussion topics to the Discussion Board, communicate individually with students by writing them an email directly from Blackboard, email a new password to a student if the old one was forgotten, monitor individual login frequency and duration, chart and log student scores on Blackboard-based and -scored quizzes, and maintain control of the appearance and development of the site.


Worth the Time and Effort

My working familiarity with Blackboard was gained before I taught the course, but I was still able to explore some features with the eye of a novice. Learning to use Blackboard is a little like becoming accustomed to operating an automobile — practice makes perfect. As facilitator, I not only held the role of instructor to the class, but also was charged with enabling students with the opportunity to create online personas that best represented their academic interests in and contributions to the course — all the while endeavoring to maintain close communication with the Blackboard people in the IT department for issues that were beyond my capabilities. The IT department was an essential partner in resolving access issues (the NYCCT server went down for an entire day, but no information was lost) and assisting students on-site with Blackboard pointers. I could communicate with IT staff directly when I was unsure of how to edit some trial entries that I had made in the course gradebook.


Personal time expenditures when designing the site before the semester began amounted to about 12 hours; I saved zip files of my Blackboard course sites, which will cut down on the time needed to design Blackboard sites for future classes. Time spent in the role of facilitator during the semester required approximately 3 to 5 hours per week. The extra effort on my part was worth it, as students who regularly participated in Blackboard exercises showed more interest in classroom activities and did not object to being called upon in class to give their points of view.


Student feedback on the online component of the course was encouraging, and I took some classroom time each week to discuss the previous week’s assignment and its relation to our classroom work. Student attention was drawn to each weekly activity through the Announcements feature, which I chose to be the main page for each section of the course. Unfortunately, Blackboard did not have a feature that allowed me to post the same announcement simultaneously to each of our Blackboard course sections, and so duplication of work was necessary.


All Students Can Participate

Blackboard activities comprised 30% of a student’s final grade, and so, early on in the course, each course section had 2 full Blackboard sessions (in lieu of classroom lectures) at the on-site computer laboratories at NYCCT to ensure that each student had an adequate working introduction to the course site. Every student was allowed access to NYCCT’s student computer laboratory during out-of-class hours so that a student who did not have an Internet connection at home would not be completely disadvantaged when trying to complete the e-learning component of the course. Home Internet connections were valuable, but on-campus Blackboard users did not participate less often or qualitatively, on average, when compared to the group as a whole.


Student familiarity with an online environment was widely distributed, from almost none to the level of programmer. The advantage of the Blackboard system in this regard became apparent after only a couple of sessions: Blackboard allows users to post messages in HTML (Hypertext Markup Language, the language of the Web) as well as ‘Smart Text,’ and so the more adventurous students posted some messages to the Discussion Board using the HTML option.


Leaving Blackboard for a Valuable Internet Search Tutorial

Blackboard also enabled me to expose all students to some valuable scholarly resources on the Internet using the Web Sites button. The button opens off-site links in a new window, which not only would keep students logged in to Blackboard, but also maintained their participation (and focus!) in Blackboard activities. For example, students took the “Bare Bones 101” tutorial, which is a part of the USC Beaufort Library Web site. “Bare Bones 101” is an extremely useful and hands-on scholarly resource for (vastly!) improving Internet search techniques. Many students expressed delight in learning about the “Hidden Web,” as evidenced by their comments in them Discussion Board.


Blackboard will remain a staple of the courses that I teach in the future, and especially so in the case of College Now courses, owing to the high degree of comfort that younger students show when working with interactive software. Blackboard allowed me to create a course that challenged and inspired students with new tools for learning, and I hope that other instructors will learn to use and demand more from this educational resource.


Ian G. Gardiner is a doctoral candidate in the Philosophy Department at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, where he specializes in the history and philosophy of science, and has recently completed the requirements for a certificate in Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. Mr. Gardiner is currently a Writing Fellow at York College of CUNY, where he is liaison to the Mathematics and Computer Science Department, and a discussion leader for the Brooklyn Public Library’s presentation of a 6-part video series from National Video Resources on the Research Revolution in 20th Century Science.