A Blackboard Roadmap: What? Why?

It may take you seven minutes or less to read this roadmap and a day or so to set up your course in Blackboard.  That is one day and seven minutes that can save you time spent relocating lost course materials, having to make copies for a student who lost an assignment, having to redistribute a syllabus when you  have made changes, reminding yourself to announce homework or an upcoming due date, copying grades and calculating totals…

In short, consult this Roadmap if you want to find out how Blackboard can help you adopt a smoother and more integrated course management workflow.  For concrete instructions on workflow steps described in this Roadmap, open “A Blackboard Roadmap: How?” document along side this one and check off instructions for items of interest as you follow the Roadmap.

Beware: the following Roadmap is NOT a summary description of Blackboard features.  Blackboard itself has a good Help tool.  It also offers clear instructions on every step you take in activating a feature or creating an item.  For an in-depth understanding of all Blackboard features and instructions you can consult the Blackboard Instructor Manual available here.

1.    Setting up a private Blackboard repository for all course-related content files

What? Why? You probably have on your computer a folder and subfolders collecting all the files dedicated to a specific course.  Some of these files are for your own private use: lesson plans, quizzes, exams, ideas for teaching…  Others are meant to be distributed to your students: the syllabus, assignments, grading rubrics, a video, a recording…

The advantages of uploading to, and then organizing and managing all these files from within the Blackboard environment are multiple.  The first one is evident:  you get a free backup!  As for the files intended for distribution: ever had a student asking for an extra copy of the syllabus, or this or that handout?  However many times “the dog ate it,” in your course on Blackboard, a “new” copy is always available…  Other advantages are no less tangible: you control which file can be released when (the “adaptive release” feature) and to whom; files need not be copied in order to appear and be used in multiple contexts; files can be linked to each other and to assignments, tests or the grade book…

The greatest advantage of all comes when you opt for moving the course files on your computer (or a copy of them) to the Blackboard Course Files web folder as opposed to simply uploading them to a non-web Blackboard folder.  Once on the Blackboard Course Files web folder, your files can be accessed from any Internet-connected computer and can be modified without you having to first download and then upload them again!  No need to leave your Blackboard workspace, unless you want to get that much needed cup of coffee, of course.

2.    Planning Your Course and Building the Course Menu in Blackboard

It’s one thing to create, collect and organize your “course content,” but it’s quite another to plan your actual teaching.  What will be learned when?  What are the course objectives?  What are the assignments?  When and how will students be assessed?  How do you plan to communicate?  Questions like these usually guide the planning of a course and result in “the syllabus.”  Depending on your department, you may be asked to more or less strictly follow a ready-made syllabus, or may be expected to come up with one yourself.  Whatever the case, your syllabus is a good starting point to begin building your course in the Blackboard environment.

Your Course Menu

What? Why?  What to teach when? or, What’s on the menu?  You’ll probably consider it the meat of your syllabus, the section where content, assignments and tests are neatly arranged in shells of weeks or chapters or learning units or whatever else might be on the semester’s timeline.  Start building your course in the Blackboard “Course Menu,” the upper section of the sidebar, with creating a set of organizing folders that you’ll name, in accordance with your organizing principle, “chapter #” or “week #” or whatever suits your teaching style or your course’s organizational principles.  These folders are the shells in which you can now begin placing some of the files you uploaded and stored in your course repository (Blackboard’s Course Files folder in the lower Control Panel section of the sidebar).  You’ll soon see how you can also put “tools” in the course menu, right alongside your content shells.  One you should install right away: the Blackboard “Help” tool!

Blackboard Tools for the Course Objectives

What? Why?  What will your course enable students to do?  What skills do they need to acquire?  Do they need to learn how to analyze texts, audio, video, and do they need to write and speak about their observations?  Do they need to learn to collaborate, and to give and receive feedback?  Blackboard has some very nifty tools that can make learning these and other skills more meaningful, more effective, and, yes, more fun!  And what is in it for you?  Letting your students work on their various assignments in Blackboard, gives you the advantage of having to work in only one environment, and it is an environment that easily lets you build an effective workflow.  Want to make sure your students know what work is due when?  And wish students would be routinely reminded?  Grade homework and copy the grades to your grade book?  Nothing is more straightforward in Blackboard: most of the tools mentioned below can be easily configured with various announcement, notification and grade book–the Blackboard “Grade Center” –integration options.

Tools for Writing.  Check out the Blog, Discussion Board and Wiki tools.  Each of these allow you to set different privacy, peer visibility and grading options.  For collaborative projects, these tools come with fairly good ways to track and evaluate the participation of individual students or student groups.

Tools for Speaking.  Check out the Blackboard Voice Email and Voice Board tools.   Use Blackboard’s Voice Email tool to make students record a speaking assignment and send it to your email inbox, where you can listen to it and leave comments and suggestions in a reply email.  Blackboard’s Voice Board is a tool that lets students create an audio recording and post it on a forum, just as in the Discussion Board.  One possible activity is letting one group of students ask questions, another respond and yet another, or the whole class, analyze possible—nay, likely—communicative mishaps.

Reading and Listening.  Do you assign reading, listening or watching activities other than those from the text or workbook?  Text, audio or video files, or links to such files (beware of copyright issues), can easily be imported as content in any of the shells you created in the Course Menu.  You can opt for adaptive release (who gets to see what when) and for tracking the number of views (who accessed what when).  You can also import any kind of file in a Blog entry and let students blog about it, or post any in the Discussion Board to start a discussion forum.  Both tools offer various options for grading student participation, with Grade Center integration at your service.

Tests and Assignments

Tests. Consider the class time spent on having students taking tests with their fill-in the (multiple) blanks, true/false, short answer or essay questions, precious time that could be so much more productively spent on activities that involve real-time, live communication!  Why not let your students take these tests in Blackboard at home or in the library?  Even better, why not hook up with colleagues and create a collective pool of fill-in the (multiple) blanks, true/false, short answer or essay questions, from which each section’s instructor can then pick and choose for their test?  Pools of various question types associated or not to text, image, audio, or video can be uploaded to or directly created in Blackboard itself.  True, creating a first test can be a bit arduous (but not any more than the properly formatting of a test in Word), but, especially if you create a pool, your effort largely pays off as questions can be reused, and widely shared.

What’s next?  Check out all the options you have to deploy the test. Some, like setting the number of attempts or the time and duration of the test’s availability, are designed to reduce the risk of cheating. Others, like the option to set the type of feedback, to let an assessment be what it pedagogically should be (e.g., formative).  Too good to be true!  And don’t forget: “Grade Center” integration once again is only one checkbox away!

Assignments.  The creation of assignments in Blackboard, similarly, comes with Grade Center integration and various useful options regarding availability and distribution.  Another truly pedagogically indispensable feature is that any assignment can be associated with an appropriate Grading Rubric, which can be made visible while you are grading.  As they clearly spell out an instructor’s expectations, grading rubrics should be made available to the students before they start the assignment, so make sure to check that particular availability option.  It is also a good idea for a department to share Grading Rubrics.

When you suspect there is a possibility of plagiarism, you can create a Blackboard “SafeAssignment:” it checks submitted assignments against a given corpus and then gives a detailed report about any possible plagiarism.  It’s set up and gets to your students faster than you can read this sentence.

You may also consider each day’s or session’s homework an assignment.  After all, you thoughtfully planned and scheduled it.  Instead of spelling all the specifics and due dates out on the syllabus that you distribute at the beginning of the semester or that you simply post online–a document students may easily lose or lose sight of in a busy semester—you can, from the get-go, create each homework as an assignment.  Its name can be as simple as “Due 9/20/2012”,  as description you can put “Workbook, p.243, A-C, F, J.” Do specify a beginning and end date.  Advantage?  The system will let you and your students know when an assignment is due, whether it has been submitted or not, or if it needs attention.  See below for how to set it up this way.

3.    Setting up Channels of Communication

What? Why? Now the folders or shells you created in the course menu according to the organizing principle of your syllabus are filled with content, practice activities, assignments and tests. So it is time to set up ways to let your students know what is happening and what is due when.  You may also want to set up ways for students to communicate among themselves, in groups, or just with you, privately.


The biggest advantages of using the Blackboard email tool are that it is very easy to select recipients and, if you check the Return Receipt box, that you have proof that students received the email and get notified about those that did not.  Make sure that all, you as well as your students, have their qc.cuny email address listed in the system.

Discussion Board and Blog Tool

You could use a course-wide Discussion Board to let students talk among themselves about textbook explanations, class notes, assignments or upcoming tests, while the Blog tool can be used for private journals.

The “My Grades,” “Early Warning System” and “Report tools”

Making the “My Grades” tool available allows you to give students access to their grades in the Grade Center.  As an instructor you control what students get to see when.  The Early Warning System tool lets you set rules for the system to notify students about their progress, or lack thereof.  As the name implies, the Report tool lets you create and send fully customizable student reports.


Assignments and tests: you thoughtfully planned and scheduled them.  Why not also, from the get-go, create them as reminders with the “Announcements” tool that allows for adaptive and selective release, email notification and linking to any item in a course shell?  The tool can of course be used for any announcement, any time-sensitive piece of information that needs to reach your students.

Setting the Notification Dashboard

The biggest advantage to using the Announcements tool is that any announcement can also be made to appear outside of your course, on the Blackboard’s user’s home page in the notification center: the place where due dates for all a user’s courses come together.  Tomorrow is Tuesday?  Yep, and your students have to post an entry to the Blog for their French class, comment on an article for their history class and listen to a song for their music course: it’s all listed in their Notification Dashboard.  You, the instructor, can have the system post, besides announcements, due dates, notifications as to when an assignment is submitted, or a Blog entry posted.  You can also activate a Task manager to which you can post any course-related to-dos.  It is a good idea to make your students, too, set the notifications in the Alerts section and activate the Task manager on their individual home page.  In this comprehensive set-up, “I didn’t know” is not an option!

4.    Making Your Course Appear in Your Colors, Make it Available, and Enjoy!

Before you make your course available to your students, or other users of the Blackboard system if you so desire, you want to check its appearance: you want to choose the order, shape and color of the folders in the Course Menu, you can choose and import a banner, set where students “enter” your course and how it will be described in the Blackboard system.

When you’re ready for your students, set the course availability to “yes,” and you’re ready to go!

Taking attendance

In life, only two things are certain: death and taxes.

In teaching at Queens, two acts are an absolute must for faculty: producing attendance rosters at the beginning of the semester and producing grades at the end. Both of these acts are performed using CUNYfirst. We leave grades for a future post, focusing now—at the beginning of a new semester—on attendance.

First, let’s justify taking attendance. You teach college, so your students are adults and they’re paying to be in your class. You may think that taking attendance is “mothering” your students, that it may even discourage responsibility. We find just the opposite: taking attendance regularly encourages students to come to class regularly, by signaling to them that their presence is important to you. Also, taking attendance regularly, especially at the beginning of the semester, is a great way to learn your students’ names and to help students recognize and get to know each other.

If these reasons don’t persuade you to start taking attendance, consider this: if you don’t take attendance regularly during the first three weeks of class, and you don’t submit a Verification of Attendance Roster, you are jeopardizing your students’ financial aid and your negligence could result in serious fines for Queens College.

Verification of Attendance Rosters are submitted using CUNYfirst, after the third week of the semester (or equivalent, for shorter semesters in the summer and winter sessions). You will receive Queens College email early in the semester, announcing the period for submitting attendance rosters, and what you need to produce is simple: confirm whether each of your students has attended class at least once.

  • Step-by-step instructions for using the CUNYfirst system to submit attendance rosters are here.
  • The CUNY-wide policy on verification of student attendance is here.

There are probably as many ways to keep a class-by-class record of attendance as there are preferences for organizing any other aspect of a class. Here are some suggestions, most of them pretty low-tech:

Paper-and-pencil method (so familiar, that we hardly need to describe it!): Get a list of your students from CUNYfirst or Blackboard, and use it to make a table with your class meeting dates. A paper print-out is good enough, or you may find it comforting to use a notebook. A downside of this familiar methodology: you will have to collate your records manually to produce your verification of attendance roster or to perform any analyses of attendance records.

Passing around an attendance sign-in sheet: This method works well with large classes, for which reading a complete roster aloud would take up too much in-class time. Make a table with your students’ names and add a space for their signature. Print the sign-in sheet and ask students to pass it around during class.

Using your laptop or other device: Paper-free teaching enthusiasts will want to try taking attendance electronically. One tactic is to type directly into an Excel spreadsheet. Another is to use an app designed just for taking attendance. One we have used is Attendance (for iOS; reviewed here and here). Yet another is to use a Google Form to create an attendance survey, as described here.

Using clickers: If your class happens to use audience-response devices (“clickers”), you could use them to take attendance, but you may want to think carefully about how to incorporate the attendance task into your clicker routines, so you don’t give students the wrong impression. Rather than an “Are you here?” question, try an easy warm-up question that’s related to the topic of the class session, and use that as your attendance check.

A final note: per CUNY policy, attendance can’t be used as a factor to determine course grades, and you’re not required to take attendance beyond week three. But this doesn’t mean you can’t incorporate attendance-taking into tasks that produce in-class participation points. We will discuss these in a future post.