There are a number of ways with which you can use Building Blocks to extend and enhance the Blackboard experience. This tutorial will help you to understand where Building Blocks integrate with the native Blackboard user interface and begin to think about where best to integrate your tool.
Blackboard GUI Overview
User interaction with Blackboard Learn is through a portal-like interface that consists of a header frame with navigational tabs and a content frame for displaying course sites and other content. Below, we will investigate each of the major areas of user interaction and highlight where Building Blocks can be used to extend the product's functionality to integrate with your solution.
When any user logs into Blackboard, the user is presented with a portal-like interface. There are tabs and buttons along the top, there are user tools along the left hand side, and there are several modules that populate the content area of the My Institution page. A module can be used to display information on the My Institution page either before login (when using Portal Direct Entry) or when a user logs into Blackboard Learn. Certain modules, such as the "My Announcements" and "My Courses" modules, ship with the product. The content and layout of the My Institution page is customizable to meet an individual's or an institution's needs.
When a student enters a course, they are presented with that course's site. Each course site can contain a number of different areas for holding content, taking assessments, participating in online discussions, accessing the course calendar, and using additional course tools among other things. The default course entry page now also has portal-like capabilities.
Similar to students, the Courses tab provides instructors with an overview of those courses that they are teaching. Accessing an individual course displays a view similar to that a student sees. The instructor Control Panel now appears as a series of drop-down buttons on the left. In addition, the instructor has the added ability to enter "Edit" mode to modify his or her course.
System Administrator Perspective
System Administrators have access to additional functionality. On the System Admin panel, a Blackboard administrator is presented with many options to configure and manage Blackboard Learn.
Building Blocks - Installed Tools
There are many types of Building Blocks: Modules, Tools, Content, Authentication Modules, and Content System are the major categories. Module Building Blocks can be displayed in the portal-like areas of Blackboard Learn, including on tabs and on course home pages. Tool Building Blocks can be added to a number of different areas and show up as additional links in the native Blackboard user interface. Content Building Blocks extend the range and types of content with which an instructor can populate his or her course. Authentication modules can be used to facilitate custom authentication or Single Sign-On requirements. Content System Building Blocks can be used to alter the workflows used with the Content Management capabilities of Blackboard Learn.
Module Building Blocks
As stated above, a module can be used to display information on the My Institution page either before login (when using the Blackboard Community System) or once a user logs into Blackboard Learn. An example of a module is one that displays information from another information system on campus within the Blackboard user interface. Modules can be added to any tab or to the course home page.
NOTE: Module type Building Blocks are only available to clients who license Blackboard Community System.
Tool Building Blocks
Tool Building Blocks can be added as links in a number of different areas in the native Blackboard user interface.
User tools appear on the left hand side of the user interface on the My Institution page. An example of a user tool might be one that allows a user to update their contact information directly into your school's student information system.
When accessing an individual course, you can see that the left hand column is populated by several links to access course content. Course tools appear as links from the "Course Tools" area of each course and are available only to non-students through the Course Control Panel drop-down.
It is now possible to add a link within a group to your Building Block. This would be useful to extend custom collaboration functionality to a group within a course.
Tools appear as links from the "Tools" area of each course and are available to both students and instructors. An example of a tool might be a link out to an external course survey tool. Communication type Building Blocks from previous editions of Blackboard's learning platform will also appear under this link.
System Administrator Panel Tools
On the system admin panel, a Blackboard administrator is presented with many additional options to configure and manage the Blackboard Learn environment. Tools that are only accessible to the Blackboard administrator are implemented as system admin tools. Building Blocks can be added as links in the "Tools and Utilities" area of the system administrator panel. An example of a system admin tool is one that can run background reporting on a nightly basis.
Content Type Building Blocks
When building a course, an instructor has the ability to add a number of different kinds of content to the course site. Content type Building Blocks enable you to add customized types of content that can be added to each course site. Custom content is added by using the "More" drop-down in any content area of a course as shown below.
Content System Building Blocks
Content System Building Blocks provide hooks into various menus within the Content Management areas of Blackboard Learn and allow customization of workflow. In addition, a full range of APIs is available to interact with stored content.
Blackboard Tag Libraries
The Blackboard Tag Libraries provide an easy way to leverage the look and feel of the core Blackboard application inside your tool. Many UI widgets (such as the calendar or color pickers) are also available for use within your Building Blocks.
Behind the Scenes
Some of your ideas might not fit into any of the above Building Block categories. Examples of these include but are not limited to tools which run background processes or extend our product through web services - in other words, "behind the scenes" stuff that might not have a good fit in the user interface. The Building Blocks architecture also supports these types of tools and does not require a tool to have a specific "hook "into the Blackboard user interface.
It is also sometimes desired to link to a Building Block via a tab or a link placed elsewhere in the user interface in a place other than the areas detailed above. This scenario would likely require additional steps to deploy, but it is certainly possible to create other types of links directly to a Building Block.
Blackboard's APIs also support the ability to create your own custom authentication scenarios. These would allow an institution to leverage existing investments in central authentication systems or single sign-on mechanisms above and beyond those supported by the core product. An example of an authentication customization is using CAS (Central Authentication Service) for user authentication.
The System Administrator can view installed Web Services, render them available or unavailable for use, and manage the IP addresses which access a specific Web Service. Web Services allow a developer to connect to the Blackboard Learn environment using their choice of programming language including .NET and PHP. It is also possible to further restrict access to the Web Services based on more granular security requirements.
Building Blocks - Proxy Tools
Similar to Building Blocks - Installed Tools, Blackboard Learn ships with a capability called Building Blocks - Proxy Tools. Based on the IMS Learning Tools Interoperability standard, Proxy Tools allow a System Administrator to install and configure an educational tool that runs on an external server. When combined with the Web Services, the Proxy Tools framework allows a tool running on another application to be accessed in a secure and seamless manner using many of the same UI hooks that are provided by Installed Tools as detailed above.
Brands and Themes
Branding and themes provide a way to customize the look and feel of the Blackboard Learn environment by editing the CSS files used to render the product UI. There are several that ship with the core product. This enables a high level of customization of the UI at each institution.
Language Packs allow the customization of the default textual content throughout the entire product. Not only is this useful for supporting foreign languages and internationalization, but it also allows an institution to customize the terminology in the core product to match the pedagogical terminology in use at the institution. For example, some institutions refer to courses as modules. It is possible to change the display of this text in the Blackboard UI to reflect these local customizations.
It is possible to import IMS Content Packaging-compliant packages, NLN-compliant content, and SCORM-compliant content when using the Open Standards Content Player.