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A Screenshot of the first slide in Jacob's presentation


Wow!  What a whirlwind week we had last week.  I am so thankful for the great conversations, the knowledge shared, and the information gleaned at bbworld19.  I always feel like I am coming home, when I head to my favorite conference of the year.


As promised, I wanted to provide links for all of the content I referenced during my Certifying Faculty to Teach Online - a 360 Degree Model.  Here you go:



I was really excited about the turnout for the session as well as the feedback I've received from attendees. For those that won them, I hope you are enjoying your beaver nuggets!nuggetsofwisdom 

Instructor presence in online courses is crucial for student success.  The instructor plays an important role in student satisfaction in online courses.  Online instructors interact with students in discussions, virtual office hours, feedback, and other important ways.  One facet of instructor presence in online courses is feedback for the student’s submitted activities/assessments.  Most of this instructor feedback has been textual in nature.  Instructors generally type in their comments and try to personalize the text they use when doing so.

For some time now, Instructors have had the ability to provide feedback with other tools (audio/video/etc.), but it has been a kluge.  Recording a video somewhere else, selecting a mash up, or pasting embedded code in the appropriate place was how more personalized feedback could be given.

Blackboard’s Insert Recording Feature

One of Blackboard’s latest feature releases allows instructors to record and insert an audio or a video recording right into the feedback area for a Blackboard gradable item.  Watch this short video to learn how to provide audio and/or video feedback to your students seamlessly with the Insert Recording tool.

Video Walk-through - Blackboard Tip: Video and Audio Feedback in the Blackboard Grade Center Source - YouTube

Best Practice Alert

You don’t have to do a video/audio feedback recording for every grade!  Limit how many you do during the semester.  Here are a couple of strategies to get your started:

  • Make a list of your students and decide how many times you will leave video or audio feedback during the semester.  Use check-boxes to keep track.
  • Select a small number of activities where you will provide this more personalized feedback and use the tool on them.

Host “Virtual Office Hours” in your Blackboard course with Blackboard Collaborate Ultra


collab_sessions.pngOnline instructors face the unique challenge of trying to provide office hours in a digital environment. There are many applications out there that can be used like Skype, Google Hangouts and other messaging/meeting clients.   Those tools are good communication vehicles in their own right, but they come with a couple of things you might want to consider:


  • Your students will need to leave the Blackboard environment
  • They require a separate login (username/password)


Using Collaborate Ultra for office hours also allows for easy recording and sharing of a question or problem discussed in the meeting that might benefit the class.  For instance, if you were answering a student’s specific question about the use of pivot tables in excel, you could record that interaction and make it available for other students in your class. 


#PROTIP: Placing a link in the Virtual Office section of your online course with instructions on when and how to take part in “Office Hours” is a good practice.



I hope that you will have a wonderful holiday and are looking forward to a prosperous new year.  In the spirit of looking forward, here are some strategies that you can look forward to implementing to provide your students with a firm footing and a good start in your online course(s) during the first week.


1. Connect your students to the Blackboard App

blackboard_app_icon.pngYour students spend a large amount of their time with their faces pointed toward a mobile device.  Why not have them spend some of that time looking at push notifications from your course?  Connect your students to the Blackboard App and increase student engagement. Students will be updated when they have a test coming up, an assignment is due as well as when new grades are posted.  The push notifications can engage your students and drive them to your course. The Blackboard App provides your students with:


  • Activity Stream
  • Course Timeline
  • Collaborate Ultra
  • Course Outline
  • Assignments and Tests
  • Grades
  • Connecting Cloud Content (Google Drive, Dropbox, OneDrive)
  • Discussions
  • Push Notifications


You can place this link in your course:, and it will direct them to where they can download the Blackboard App for iOS, Android and Windows devices.


2. Record a video introduction


video.pngA Video Introduction performs an important function in any online course.  One of the drawbacks to digital communication is that it divorces the person from the medium.  An e-mail, discussion post or instant message cannot convey meaning or tone of voice.  A Video Introduction allows you to speak to the student as you would speak to them in your office or in class.  They get to hear as well as see "you" rather than just a paragraph or two of text welcoming them to the course.

Here are some suggestions for content of your introductory video:

  • Introduce Yourself
  • Brief Description of Course
  • Virtual "Tour" of the Course/How it will work
  • Expectations can be Relayed


Giving yourself a social "presence" in the course with a video introduction is an important first step in getting your students engaged and ready to contribute.  The good news is that it is easier than ever for you to provide this feature in your course.  You can use tools like YouTube, Kaltura or Blackboard Collaborate to upload or directly record and upload your introductory video yourself.


3. Create an introductory activity


introductory_activity_sm.pngResearch shows that students who feel they have contributed to a course, or have "co-ownership" of their learning, report a higher level of satisfaction with the course and instructor. One way to start your students contributing early on, is to have them participate in an introductory activity.  The activity serves multiple purposes. First it does what it says it does and allows your students to get to know you and each other.  Doing this helps them break the ice and feel less wary about reaching out to each other as the semester progresses. Secondly it shows them how to use the tools in the course and gets them in the habit of interacting with each other in the manner set by your instructions.  Finally, it gets them started and active in the course.  Student who feel like they are not just sitting around, report a higher level of satisfaction and are more likely to finish the course.


Note:  Since this is the “first” activity in the course, it might be a good idea to model the behavior you want your students to display.  Go ahead and be the first person to submit the activity or link to previously used example.


4. Establish student and instructor expectations


A great way to cut down on cut down on student confusion about course expectations and activities is to create an Expectations content item in your course.  This part of your course should contain 2 sets of expectations.  What you expect of your students and what your students should expect from you.  You can even have your students post that they have read and understood the course expectations. Here are some examples of course expectations:


expectations.pngExpectations of Students

  • Use the virtual office to ask general course questions
  • Check the course homepage, discussions and their e-mail several times a week
  • keep up with reading assignments, activities, assignments and quizzes
  • Participate actively in class discussions, responding to at least 2 colleagues for each forum
  • Practice Netiquette in the course.  No flaming (negative hurtful comments); use correct grammar and spelling; don’t yell (write in all caps)


Expectations of Instructor *These will vary depending upon your comfort level

  • I will read and respond to discussion posts directed at me, e-mails and other forms of communication daily (not on weekends)
  • I will post grades for your assignments and exams quizzes within a week of submission
  • I will have office hours at these days/times: (insert times here) via Skype (Skype address here) or via phone (phone number here)


Letting your students know what to expect from you and what you expect from them will go a long way toward ensuring a successful experience for them and you in your online course(s).


5. Create and utilze a syllabus quiz


syllabusquiz.pngIn a brick and mortar class the first day is usually spent covering course expectations, policies and yes the syllabus.  You have a captive audience at least for the hour or hour and a half that you have your students in the classroom.  Even if the students didn't seem excited about being there, you know they at least heard you go over the information.  In online courses it can be difficult knowing if the students have even looked at your syllabus even though it may be prominently displayed in your course. 

A great tool to employ to ensure that your students have looked at your syllabus (at least once) is the Syllabus quiz.  You can offer questions that point to what you think might be important parts of your grading policy and or course schedule and whatever else you think might be important.    The syllabus quiz can have two other benefits besides ensuring your students are least familiar with the Syllabus.  It gives your students a first look at the testing mechanism in your online course, and if you employ adaptive release, it can become a gatekeeper for the rest of your course.  You can set a point threshold for them to reach in order for them to be able to access the rest of the course


So I felt the need to compose a blog that reflected on an experience that we just had at our office and how it relates to how we approach our jobs supporting online/face-to-face/hybrid students and faculty. Our office recently relocated to a "new-to-us" location.  We really love the location and appreciate the way it improved our "esprit de corps".  We did however notice one issue that had us perplexed.


You see, we couldn't figure out how to lock our inner-office doors.  There was a door knob, and a place to fit our keys to unlock our office doors, but we couldn't lock the door using our keys.  We tried it with our individual keys, with our office master-key and even tried it on different doors, but to no avail.  We couldn't figure it out.  Finally we just decided that the locks must be broken.  After all, why give us keys and a key hole, but no way to lock the doors that these key holes belong to.  Confident in our assumptions, we put in a ticket with facilities and asked them to come fix our problem.


Well later that day a gentleman from facilities showed up and check out the doors.   He took one look at our "broken door-locks" and asked, "Did you push the button?"  The button?  We couldn't find any button and we told him so.  Finally, he directed us to where the latch comes out of the door and told us to press in what we thought was part of the latch and low and behold, the doors locked!  Who would think to look for a locking mechanism on the side of the door, rather than make it part of the knob?


What was intuitive for the facilities employee was NOT intuitive for us.  Now, in the moment, we all laughed and rejoiced in our new found ability to lock our inner-office doors.  A few hours later as I was sitting at my work desk, I realized that this situation related well to our jobs as instructional technology guides, helpers, trainers and designers.  What do we think is intuitive?  The learning activity, proctoring software or the LMS?  We live and breathe this stuff day in and day out, while our students and faculty may be experiencing it for the first time.


We should be putting all of our documentation, course work, and interactions into this context.  Are we we forgetting the mechanical instructions when we design learning activities and just putting in the academic?  Do we design technology how-to documentation with an assumed level of experience?  Would taking this into consideration change how we approach support calls from students or faculty?  I think it would.


Jacob Spradlin M.Ed.

Associate Director, Instructional Technology Support Services
SHSU Online
Blackboard Certified Trainer & Bb MVP


In face-to-face courses, students have the luxury of benefiting from questions asked while in the classroom or the ability to stop by your office to discuss an issue they might be having.  In both cases they get the chance to interact with you and possibly some of their fellow classmates.


Sometimes, students find it challenging to find that same connection in an online, hybrid or web-enhanced environment.  The good news is that with Blackboard and other learning management systems, you can create a virtual space where your students can experience the same kind of connection and feedback they receive in their brick-and-mortar classrooms. 

Using a virtual office in your online/hybrid/web-enhanced courses provides many benefits. For the purpose of this blog post, we will focus on three.  Using a virtual office:

  • puts the instructor in the course
  • cleans up email inboxes
  • promotes the use of Blackboard (the LMS or Learning Management System)

The virtual office puts the instructor in the course


Placing a photo of yourself, your contact information and a little biographical info can go a long way toward helping your student see you as a person and not some synthetic-robot version of yourself.   If you want to go the extra mile, replace the photo with a quick Intro or Welcome video that can bring out your personality and help the students get to know you.


By subscribing to your own virtual office discussion forum you will receive prompts when questions are posted.  These prompts will help you engage with your students in a timely fashion and make the students feel like you are in the course.

The virtual office cleans up e-mail inboxes


Let’s face it, we all “misplace” e-mail.  For some of us, our inbox receives a hundred new messages or more each day.  Why not make life easier on you and your students by reserving course-oriented email for things of a personal or private nature.  Have your students post general course questions to the virtual office discussion forum. When you answer questions via e-mail the only people that see that correspondence are you and the student. If a question is answered in a public space like the virtual office, everyone benefits.


You may have to use the first week of the course as a “training week” where you ensure you point your students to the virtual office for answers to course questions.  Make it a requirement in your syllabus, an expectation on your course expectations page and a question on your Syllabus quiz to ensure students know where to go.


BONUS:  The virtual office builds a course FAQ over the course of a semester that you can then use as part of your next semester's course.


The virtual office promotes the use of Blackboard (the LMS)


The more time a student is spending in your course, the more connected they are to what is happening.  When your students establish the habit of checking the course regularly, they will be more engaged and more successful. 


Encouraging your students to check the virtual office daily will get them in your course and connect them to the information and activities they need to conquer course objectives.

ally_logo.pngSo, if you found yourself in New Orleans at BbWorld in late July, then odds are you heard, saw, bumped into something having to do with Blackboard Ally.  Blackboard Ally will help faculty, instructional designers and administrators make course content more accessible.


[Begin Personal comment] This acquisition by blackboard is one of their best purchases to date.  It (the acquisition) demonstrates Blackboard's commitment to reach students where they are.  This, to me is more important than new tool features or a visually appealing interface.[End Personal Comment]


What follows is my interpretation of a great session given by Nicolaas Matthijs, the creator and now Product Manager for Ally at Blackboard.


Nicolaas began his session by shining a bright line on the challenges around accessibility for students, instructors and the institution when it comes to learning management systems like Blackboard.

  1. Student - explicit requests for accommodations, long delays on receiving requested format, excludes many students, closely related to quality and usability.
  2. Instructor - Lack of awareness of what to do, lack of understanding of how it affects students, lack of guidance on how to improve accessibility
  3. Institution - No insight into how institution is doing, difficult to track and identify what to focus on, manual remediation workflow, lawsuits, because of legal requirements

He also spoke about how the solution is really a three part solution.

  1. The Platform: Making the platform (Blackboard) as accessible as possible.  Blackboard is WCAG 2.0 compliant.
  2. The Content: Using Ally to ensure the Content is accessible
  3. The Services:  Using Blackboard services or local university services to ensure you are making the process of applying, matriculating etc.. as accessible as possible.

Nicolaas then pointed to the research around accessiblity of course materials and the slow pace of improvement.  Specifically, he mentioned an Inside Higher Ed article where Blackboard shared their research on the subject.


Now on to the the 'meat' of the post.  Next he went on to talk about the role the LMS plays in the process.  Nicolaas affirmed that he/Blackboard is committed to providing ally to everyone, including non-blackboard products, potential for integrations(library systems, public website content, content collection systems).    Currently available Learn 9.1 q2 17, Canvas and Moodle Rooms (English, Spanish and Dutch).  <-- This was one of those "wow" moments in the session.  Blackboard allowing this to continue speaks again to the importance of accessibility in the space (even if they are making money from competitors).


The workflow for Ally is as follows:

  • Instructor adds course content
  • Automated accessibility checklist (based on WCAG 2.0 AA) run on the uploaded content.
  • Taking Place in Background: Machine learning Algorithms: full structural visual analysis to learn semantics of document.  Identify headings, heading structure, paragraphs, footers, tables, lists, mathematical formulas, etc.
  • Ally produces alternative accessible versions: HTML, ePub, audio, electronic Braille, etc. and OCR version of all scanned documents. (Instructors original version is always kept as the default).
  • Instructor Feedback - Ally will provide feedback to instructors about accessibility of their course content, guidance on how to fix, aims to generate change in behavior over time.
  • Institutional Report -- provides a detailed understanding of how institution is doing, helps identify where problem areas are, what to focus on, what to target, etc.


Now for some photos of interface: (apologize in advance, as these were grabbed from the presentation screen during the session by my phone)


What Students See:


By using a contextual menu drop down, students gain access to the accessible versions of the uploaded file (HTML, ePub, audio, electronic braille & the OCR version of all scanned documents)


What Faculty See:


ally_ux_faculty_see1.pngJust by accessing the meter icon, faculty can gain access to:

  • Guidance on how to fix accessibility issues with images and documents.



Ally Reporting

The following screen shots go from broad to specific in terms of Ally's institutional reporting capabilities:







In the spirit of full disclosure, my institution has purchased Ally and we will be implementing it in the fall.  If you haven't already, take a look at the Ally Video for more information or visit Blackboard's Ally Page.  All-in-all, it was a great session!  If your institution is interested in accessibility and meeting your students where they are, then Blackboard Ally is something you should check out!