Bringing about a sense of a university-wide communication has always been the goal of the Blackboard Portal system. With the release of version six, Academic Computing is bringing this vision one step closer.
The Blackboard system was first introduced to USF in January 2002 and has continued to grow as a teaching resource for both faculty and students. The system allows students to gain extra material, check grades and maintain a virtual community with others throughout the university.
Alicia Balsera, associate director of Academic Computing, said the vision for the program has always been about convenience.
“The main objective from day one was to create a one-stop shop to be able to give access to most, if not all, activities that (users) may need to do online,” Balsera said.
One of the major improvements to the system comes with more customization options for both students and faculty. Students have the opportunity to fine-tune their experience with the addition of two pages that they can fully customize with modules that offer a multitude of additional functions.
Modules range in functionality, from the latest news briefs from various sections of the New York Times to a listing of courses in which a student is enrolled.
While creating a university-wide arena, an online flashcard module has been created. This module allows students to generate flashcards to aide them in their study time.
The flashcard module also carries a function that will help students who feel they may benefit from other classmates’ input when studying for a test.
“We created (the flashcard module) so that students could create the flashcards and keep them private or make them public,” Balsera said. “If you make them public, you can also use someone else’s flashcards to study.”
Students will not be limited to text-only cards, as they will be able to upload pictures to use in card creation.
Along with these additions comes the inclusion of a module that provides access to a user’s university e-mail account within the Web portal. Students are no longer required to access a separate Web site to check e-mail.
Keeping with the upgrades, USF faculty has also been given additional control over the content and appearance of their Blackboard sites.
Commenting on the previous version, Balsera said the new version allows faculty members to better fit the content to their preference.
“There is much more flexibility in how (the professors) can construct the site,” Balsera said. “(The previous version of Blackboard) was pretty much a template that was fixed, and in this one it is pretty much up to the instructor.”
In the previous version of Blackboard, instructors were restricted to the 10-to-12 pre-created areas of content that served as a sort of table of contents for visitors. These areas were created by Blackboard and could not be changed to custom tailor an instructor’s needs.
Beginning with the new version, instructors will be able to create as many areas of content as they want, while adding any labels it may require. Adding to this customization is the ability to cater toward more aspects of the student population.
“Instructors can do away with buttons and graphics and they can create it as text only, which is very useful in making it more efficient and screen friendly for those with disabilities,” Balsera said.
Faculty will also benefit from a new system of delegating assignments online.
“The developers have added a new assignments manager tool for assignments or quizzes that allows for them to be added anywhere on the instructors site,” Balsera said.
As a way to help both faculty and students with the setup that may be required for Blackboard to run properly, Academic Computing has created a browser wizard to ensure that a user’s computer is properly configured.
The wizard runs a series of tests that notify a user if there are any plug-ins that need to be downloaded to view certain content on the portal.
These enhancements will help students gain further use outside the system. Unfortunately, they will be useless if users aren’t familiar with the benefits that exist.
To help curb this problem, Academic Computing offers tutorial classes on using the system that are available to students free of charge.
Classes are offered in the Academic Computing Technologies Training Center, which is located on the sixth floor of the Library. Students are encouraged to arrive early for sessions because of limited seating.
Scheduled of class times can be found on Academic Computing’s Web site. Although the Blackboard system has been used for more than a year, Balsera recognizes the technology is still in the process of developing system uses.
“It takes some time for students and the university to get accustomed to a new technology,” Balsera said. “We went online with the portal in January 2002, so (the idea) is still fairly young.”
Balsera remains confident that the learning process will eventually lead to increased development with more Blackboard users.
“I am expecting as students get more used to it, that they will learn not only how to use the features that we have put up there but also they could come up with ideas of what they would like to have put up (on Blackboard),” Balsera said.
Students who feel they may have ideas for additional features or general comments on the system are encouraged to send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
An example of a previous request that has been fulfilled was the creation of a discussion board for Student Government under the organizations tab of the system.
Although all of their comments are read, users must remember that not all of their requests can be fulfilled.
“Some things we may be able to do and some we may not, but we would like to have a clear picture of what (Blackboard users) would like to do via the portal,” Balsera said.
The process of student suggestions is one of the many things Balsera said she wants to see as the program grows.
One of the steps she would like to see would be for individual departments on campus to get involved with the project.
“It would helpful if each of these individual departments who offers services to students would use this as a vehicle to provide information, so that when (users) log on to the portal it would all be there so they would not have to search anywhere else,” Balsera said.
This upgrade is part of the updates that are offered by Blackboard Inc. to users of its software.
The program goes through a major renovation every two years, with minor updates coming every other year.
Keeping the Blackboard system up to date is one of the more exciting aspects of the program, Balsera said. By upgrading to version six, the university is assured that Blackboard Inc. will continue to work toward the goal of a university-wide network.
“This is an on-going development, and I think that is the most exciting thing because this means that (Blackboard Inc.) always wants to offer improvements,” Balsera said.