Blackboard Usability Suggestions — the W&M Student Perspective

Blackboard is our current learning management system (LMS) here at W&M, chosen way back in 1999.

W&M students are a notoriously busy group, so when I invited twenty of them to lunch to talk about Blackboard I wasn’t surprised that only four could attend. I was surprised, however, by some of the things they said. For example, while all of the professors I know are excited about flipping their classrooms, students worried that a flipped class was more work than a regular class. Some other surprises that came out of our two hour meeting:

Abbreviated Course Names Should Be Changed

Changing the course name in Blackboard helps students know which course is which.

Changing the course name in Blackboard — this helps students know which course is which.

Our Banner course system often abbreviates long course names. It’s not hard for someone who’s taught for a few years to know at a glance that “Politics,Relg,Arts&Gndr in Afr” is actually “Politics, Religion, Arts, and Gender in Africa.” For a new student the shortened course name can be a little bit confusing. Thankfully the Blackboard system doesn’t require professors to stick with the Banner course name. To change the course name:

  1. Log into your course
  2. Click on Control Panel
  3. Click on Customization
  4. Click on Properties
  5. Type the new course name in the “Course name” field
  6. Click Submit

Students Prefer to Download All Course Content at Once

When designing a course, professors may group readings and information into a logical sequence, only releasing files as the topics are covered in class. For my student group this presented an interesting problem. They liked being able to schedule their reading throughout the term, taking on challenging pieces when they weren’t pressed for time. Rather than returning to Blackboard to download information several times, they would prefer to download all of the files at one time. To make this possible in your class, upload all the files to one content area at the beginning of the term.

Things Often Seem Easy in Class, but Impossible After Class

When it comes to complex calculations or multi-step processes the students I polled didn’t have trouble understanding the ideas in class. Applying them later, when they didn’t have anyone to ask for help, was a different story. Students lauded classes with discussion boards that allowed them to ask their peers for assistance.

This also goes for course content discussions, for which they specifically recommended discussions where students talk over the question and the professors weigh in at the end of the discussion.

Handling Suggestions for Course Audiovisual Content

Students suggested two things about how to present course content — first, to have documents and links open in another tab or window, and second, providing audio files that do not auto-play when they click on them. In an effort to be as efficient as possible, the students in my group wanted files to load in one tab, while they read another tab. Having multiple tabs allowed them to switch back and forth between documents, checking facts and re-reading when an idea was unclear. At the same time, they liked to download audio files, whether they were lectures or music, for listening under ideal circumstances.

Final Thoughts…

When it comes down to it the preferences my student group shared focused on two things: efficiency and control. Students wanted to take as much control over the learning process as they could, in an effort to be as efficient as possible. Scheduling their time, reviewing all of the material at the beginning of the term, and having more options when they seek help were all priorities for them. Professors have their own priorities. Thankfully, our Blackboard Learning Management System (LMS) allows for some great compromises.

By the way, I’m still looking for a few good professors and staff members to help me evaluate the different LMS options. One of the possibilities has a Facebook-style interface, does that sound good or bad to you? Join the LMS search committee or let me know via email.