Dr Scot Peterson, a lecturer in Politics, just gave an excellent and informative talk as part of the OUCS “make:” lunchtime sessions.
Scot also teaches at Reading University where he has to use the Blackboard VLE. My ears pricked up when he described it as “far inferior” compared to the Sakai-based WebLearn. He constantly referred to the inflexibility of Blackboard and the advanced collaborative facilities of WebLearn.
I was so enthused with the whole presentation that I thought I would summarise his key points here – his experiences and tips could be used as a template for others regardless of department or college.
- The ordering of the tools in the left-had side menu is important; put the most useful tools near to the top of the list. This can be achieved via Site Info > Page Order.
- Keep the home page dynamic – this makes students return again and again. Scot posts pertinent Announcements and also changes the main content of the page by replacing the default text with topical web pages (such as recent Election coverage). This is achieved via Home > Options > Site Info URL.
- After adding his students Scot creates one internal group per paper that he teaches – this saves time in the long run, he can easily email specific groups of students (using Mailtool) and he can control access to certain areas of the site to prevent students from getting confused about what to read. To create internal groups use Site Info > Manage Groups > Create New Group.
- Once material has been added to the site it is possible to get a rough idea of how it will look to students by clicking on the Switch to access role link at the top of the page. (Remember not to do this on an unpublished site as unpublished sites are not visible to participants with the access role!)
- The Resources tool is the single most useful tool in the system. Scot recommends creating one sub-folder per paper and within each paper, a further sub-folder per topic.
- Rather than make copies of journal articles, it is far better to use the Resources > Make Web Links (URLs) to link straight to a JSTOR entry. Using a link is far better from the point of view of copyright.
- Scot also likes to use the Email Notification option within Resources to let the students know of new items.
- Selecting Edit Details alongside a folder or individual item allows one to restrict access to one or more internal groups and helps to reduce confusion.
- One tip for increasing site activity and get students thinking is to use the Mailtool to send a provocative email on a current topic.
- If a particular tool or activity doesn’t appear to work then don’t be afraid to abandon it and try a new approach. The intention was for students to discuss issues within the Forums tool but they were reluctant to do so. Instead the students use the Chat tool. They would use it for both synchronous and asynchronous communication at all hours of the day. Scot will often read Chat transcripts and respond to questions that have been raised; if students know that their questions will be answered then they are far more likely to use the tool and return to it later.
- Students also like to use the Chat tool as essay deadlines loom. Note that it is possible to set up a variety of chat rooms dedicated to different topics but one should strike a balance between simplicity and fragmentation.
- It is recommended that students be allowed to delete their own messages – sometimes things are said in haste and it is reassuring for students to be able to recant. Do this via Chat > Permissions > access > delete.own.
- Some of Scot’s students decided to use the Wiki tool to help their own understanding of a particular subject. One student wrote her understanding of a particular topic and asked others to correct it or comment. As the Wiki tool has version control she was able to see who had made corrections to her original and what the edits contained. This can be achieved via Wiki > History > [Compare] To previous
- More dynamic content can be added to the site by using the News tool to display news (via RSS), blogs or Twitter feeds.
- Scot sets all required Essays through the Assignments tool – this allows for (optional) routing via JISCs Turnitin plagiarism detection service.
- The Site Stats tool is a great way of seeing what worked. It is possible to see which documents or links within Resources are being accessed and also what the response has been to a provocative email – there was a noticeable jump in visits and chat room activity just after an email was sent.
- The final tip was don’t use the browser’s back button – always use the two blue arrows in the main tools area: “Reset the tool to its default state”.