Month: July 2011

Blackboard 9.1 Groups – first impressions

I had a quick look at Groups in Blackboard9.1 this morning with a couple of colleagues. Before I forget, here are my recorded highlights:

  1. Overall
    As a space for collaborative work, dare I say that I quite like it; it has a handy suite of tools all together in one place and students can probably do most kinds of stuff which group work requires here. Groups are easy to set up and Blackboard will, I believe, even create random groups of a given size for you. Hurray.
  2. Send email
    One of the difficulties with group work, but particularly with online group study, is what to do about students who don’t contribute – or pitch up at the end when it’s almost finished.  Group emails mean that members can be reminded that their participation is necessary, hopefully in a supportive and non-judgemental way.
  3. The Wiki.
    Unlovely as it is, as unintuitive as its buttons are, it is a proper wiki. Participation data can be collected, there is basic versioning  meaning a student’s contribution can be seen (though not easily -some kind of colour coding would have been helpful for that). Embedding images is reasonably straightforward. Tutors can grade the wiki and give feedback, though with nothing like the facility afforded by Turnitin.
    On the other hand, students can’t easily extract their work in the wiki, for example to add to a portfolio or to refer to later. Nor can it be exported to other platforms or submitted to Turnitin.
  4. File exchange
    Students can upload files to a repository area to share. These can be given a title, but not a description or explanatory notes. May be useful, who knows.
  5. Collaboration – which means Virtual Classroom and Chat.
    Awful. Why anyone would use these in a world containing Skype and MSN escapes me. Maybe because they don’t want the other students to have their msn ID?
  6. Group Blog/Group Journal 
    Not sure what the difference here is. In both blogs and journals entries can be posted/edited by anyone in the group; in both there are comments/discussions for each blog post. The journal looks like it’s written on a piece of lined paper torn from a spiral bound notepad. Outside of the group spaces journals are private to the student and instructor, maybe this can be turned on within the group setting so students can reflect on how they’re finding the collaborative process.
  7. Group discussion board
    Haven’t looked closely at this. A normal Bb discussion board I believe.
  8. Group tasks
    Very basic task manager. You can set tasks, give priority and deadlines. Maybe in the descriptions you might assign tasks to individuals? I kind of like it, based on a recent study experience where my group muddled through to no particular success and a rival group set and assigned tasks to win kudos. Mind you, they used a wiki to do it, which might be a more transparent way of going about it at least in the initial phases.
  9. Group Homepage
    You can add widgets – sorry, modules. I enjoyed adding the school Twitter feed to ours and links to Library resources.
  10. Customise Group Banner/Colour
    Some students will really enjoy doing this in the first 10 minutes in the Group space.
Hope to spend some time in the space and test drive some of the features in more depth. So far, not seeing anything that screams ‘no’. Which is nice.

Upon being on the last lap of an online course

General observations about an online learning experience. Identifying names/details have been removed or changed.

Group size
Other participants have reflected that a group of 9 is too big. I agree; it’s difficult to engage with 8 other individuals in a face to face setting where you’ve spent a little time with ‘getting to know you’ activities. A group of 5-7 would probably work better, allowing a large enough group to complete the task collaboratively if a couple of people drop out.

Peer support
Some students have mentioned that they kept working because they felt some commitment to the other people in their group; as designers of online learning we should foster this kind of support and engagement rather than letting it happen.

Time given for the task
A week seems like quite a short period in which to do the task. Not because the task was very onerous, but because it’s online and therefore collaboration takes longer. Also, if you’re having a particularly difficult week at work or at home, you run the risk of missing the whole thing. If this task had been assessed, this would have been a major headache. I don’t think this is a criticism of this course because it’s very short.

Other online courses I’ve taken have allowed a couple of weeks for group work and make sure that the first task is well structured with clear instructions and support from the tutor. Second time round is much easier because everyone knows what they’re doing. The problem is, if the first time round goes wrong, students may not stick around. Another approach is to have individual tasks running concurrently with group work so that the group work can be given longer.

I shouldn’t really comment on this since I missed the online tutorial. However, my opinion based on no experience is that having different roles for group work which people assign to themselves/each other is an interesting idea. That said, in situations where you don’t really know who you’re dealing with or the exact nature of the task, it can add an unwelcome layer of complexity. In most group situations, everyone does a bit of everything. I do think it’s useful to have a ‘chaser’ but this is somebody who needs support from the tutor and probably the email addresses of the other students. Maybe the role thing would work better for a second or third group work.

Nit picking
Our brief for week 3 began “Hello North Group” (we were West Group). Yes, I did wonder for a second if I was on the wrong page. Ah, the perils of cutting and pasting.


  • Getting around any online environment is a lot easier if links are assembled logically and if link text describes the link page.
  • How about putting the group lists before the group discussions, so we can see who we’re working with before we start working.
  • Also, how about having the task on its own page so we can easily refer to it? It has been remarked that some re-reading of the task was done. Assume that this will be so and make it easy to find.
  • Maybe have the reflections after the activity?
  • The ‘week 3 activities’ link goes to a page entitled, erm, week 3 learning outcomes. Is an outcome the same as an activity? Am I alone in finding this confusing? Actually, the word ‘activity’ is only used on that page with reference to the activity that the students will be designing.


Scenario based self-access tutorials

I’m currently working on a branching scenario self-access stand-alone tutorial on treating trauma patients. The idea is that somebody turns up with injuries that present clinical choices to the practitioner. In standard MCQ style tutorials, is basically a three step process:

  1. Read/view scenario
  2. Choose one of available actions
  3. Receive feedback
This is fine, but doesn’t allow the learner to see consequences of their actions further down the line. Also, it is inauthentic in that in ‘real world’ situations there usually isn’t somebody at hand to give you feedback and allow you to guess again.

In the branching scenario the process is more authentic in respect of feedback, but also more complicated. The process I’m looking at goes like this:

  1. Read/view scenario
  2. Choose on of available actions
  3. Go to resulting situation
  4. Choose one of available actions
  5. Cycle through steps one to 4 till an endpoint is reached.
  6. Receive feedback
In addition I am finessing the process by reflecting back student decisions to them step 3:
“You have chosen to continue without attempting to obtain parental consent”.
The idea is that this will give learners pause for thought and contribute to some reflection.
Step 6 gives a summary of the previous steps: basically ‘you did these things right, you did these things wrong’ and the option to begin again.