The Blackboard Learning System (BLS) is a virtual learning environment / course management system that has been developed and is marketed by Blackboard Inc. The foundation of the system is web-based server software which enables the system to be accessed by most devices that have access to the Internet. Typically, for institutional use, the BLS platform is either hosted on local servers or managed by a division of Blackboard Inc.
The Main Board
The user logs into the BLS by inputting a username and password. The user is then directed to a main board which serves as the main access conduit into the other features offered on the BLS. The mainboard is user configurable and allows a considerable amount of flexibility in regard to the links that are available to the user.
Content found on the mainboard is typically organized in thematic frames that can include:
Main sub-menu tabs:
Usually at the top of the main board, the user is presented with a series of configurable tabs which allow the design team to create sub-menu tabs which can be used to divert the user to a specific functional area. Aside from the “My BLS” tab which takes the user back to the mainboard, other tabs might include categories such as “Teaching and Learning, Staff Services, Student Services, RSS feeds” or any other key activity group that the BLS designers wish to identify as a sub-menu. Useful links: “Useful links” are hyperlinks to other pages within the learning environment that the user might utilize during the learning experience. Often useful links are separated into "internal" and "external" links.
BLS designers can configure a frame which includes any new announcements that are sent from course facilitators or other students. These announcements can be configured to be posted in categories which delineate the nature of the announcement (i.e. specific course related, general university affairs, direct messages from course leaders, urgent announcements etc.).
"Quick links" are hyperlinks to pages that are most frequented by users of the BLS. These may include links to special documents, webmail, department or faculty websites, e-mail directories, or any other link that BLS designers deem to be in frequent demand.
Courses that a user is enrolled in, currently teaches or has received special access to are also delineated on the mainboard under a “Courses” frame. This allows users to seamlessly log into the system, check announcements in a glance and then proceed to a particular course that the user is involved in.
The "Organizations” frame is an area where links to all of the user’s groups or affiliated organizations are presented for easy access.
When a user clicks on to the hyperlink for a particular course, he or she is directed from the BLS mainboard to a sub-menu of “learning tools” that is also configurable by either BLS designers or by those who have the right to manage the course site. Within this design environment, the course manager or anyone who has rights to manage the course site can then choose which of the design features the students can access and what the learning environment looks like to visitors to the site.
In a typical design, hyperlinks to the features that the students can access are presented on the top left of the course sub-menu. These hyperlinks can be pre-designed to reflect different educational strategies including constructivist course design. Common educational tools accessible through the course home page include (typical tool names in bold):
The “announcements” function allows the course facilitators to post announcements to students. Settings allow the course facilitators to specify when the announcement is available to the students and define the dates during which a given announcement will be available.
“Blogs” can be created by course facilitators and these can be designed for either formative or summative assessment. Options allow the managers to determine when the blog is available, who can participate, which types of contributions participants may make and whether or not the blog posts will be graded.
A “calendar” tool allows the course manager to input events related to the course into a calendar to help students to manage their time.
There are two “collaboration” tools available: Chat and Virtual Classroom. "Chat" permits students to exchange text messages. "Virtual Classroom" allows users to exchange files, chat about projects, and view links in a collaborative manner. Both of the collaborate functions allow the users to record and save evidence of the collaborative activities undertaken.
The “contacts” tool allows course managers to provide key information on specified contacts and group these contacts in an orderly fashion. Typically this function is used for publishing contact information on course facilitators.
The “discussion board” tool provides an environment where discussions can be posted and students and facilitators can engage in interactive discourse. Discussion boards can replicate the advantages of face-to-face interaction associated with classroom learning. A number of options are available to the course facilitators in regard to this tool. The parameters for participation can be set and the duration of the discussion can be fixed. The discussion board also has a grading function which allows postings from students to be graded either informally or through a formal rubric. All assessment can be customized by the course facilitators.
The “glossary” is a page where key words or phrases related to the course can be listed and defined. This tool is particularly valuable in courses that are of a technical nature or in study environments where there are participants who are participating in a second language.
The “groups” tool allows facilitators to organize students into customized group sizes. This function also allows the course facilitators to select communicative and collaborative tools to be made available to the group members. The groups tool is also highly configurable. It provides an option that allows instructors to assign students to a group or that allows students to self-select into groups. Overall, the main purpose of the groups tool is to provide a mini-learning environment that provides all of the support necessary for the group to effectively collaborate.
The “journals” tool can be utilized either as a formative or a summative assessment. This tool allows students to post journals and allows instructors to provide feedback or assess the work. A custom setting also allows other students to view journal entries. Other custom settings allow the course facilitators to specify the number of entries required for a given journal, explicate submission dates and establish grading schemes.
Under the “grades” tools, students are able to view all of the grades that have been assigned to them for i) assignments that were designed within the system for grading or ii) grades from assignments that were external to the system (i.e. in-class tests) that were subsequently input into the system as part of the overall course assessment management system.
The “Ref works” tool allows the user to link to an existing online Ref works (a commercially available referencing software) account.
The “roster” tool allows users to access the course list. The course facilitators can customize the roster to also include e-mail addresses, thereby permitting students to search for fellow students by name and communicate with them through e-mail.
The “send e-mail” tool allows users to communicate to various groups that are created by course facilitators. Typical groupings that are preset include: all users, all groups, all students, all teaching assistants, all instructors and all observers. There are also options to create customized groups and to communicate to individual users.
The “tasks” tool allows users to keep track of work that is in progress. Course facilitators can set due dates and establish priorities for completing tasks.
Wikis: The “wikis” tool allows students to create and edit wiki pages that are related to the course theme. Course managers can specify the duration over which students have access to the wiki, whether or not students can edit or comment on pre-existing material and whether or not the contributions from the students can be graded.
Course Management Menu
For those who have the right to manage the course site, a "course management" menu is usually visible below this menu of “learning tools”. The course management menu permits course facilitators to access tools which permit further customization of the learning environment, design of educational activities, and control over administrative aspects of the course. In addition to all the tools described above in the “learning tools” section, “course management tools” include:
Batch group management
This tool allows the course facilitators to create or remove groups. This is how the instructor creates groups that can be accessed through the “groups” learning tool.
Batch group enrollment
This tool allows the course facilitators to enroll or remove students from groups. This function is used after groups have been created, if new students need to be added or removed from existing groups.
Class list: This tool allows the course facilitators to link to the institutional student records system in order to access the class list. This allows instructors to track in real-time the enrollment of students into the course and withdrawal of students during the course, as the student status is updated within the institution’s student records system.
The rubric tool allows course facilitators to create and edit rubrics to assess student assignments. Within this tool environment, course facilitators can define the criteria that are being assessed (i.e. overall quality, links to theory etc.) and establish grades and weightings for different levels of achievement. When the rubric is selected for a given student assignment, the assessment designer also has the option of sharing the rubric with the students to inform them of how the assignment is to be assessed or keeping the rubric hidden.
The safe assign tool allows course facilitators to establish folders into which student assignments are submitted and checked for plagiarism using the “safe assign” service, a commercial service for preventing plagiarism.
Self and peer assessment
The self and peer assessment tool allows course facilitators to upload documents that can be used for self and peer assessment related to group assignments or even individual assignments. Students then access these documents in order to conduct self and peer assessments.
Tests, surveys and pools
This tool allows course facilitators to design assessments or undertake student surveys. The pool function allows course facilitators to amass a pool of questions that can be used for assessment tool design.
- Tests can either be created within the system or imported as documents. When the test is created within the system, the test designer can choose from a menu of question templates. The question templates include calculated formula, calculated numeric, either/or, essay, file response, fill and multiple blanks, fill in the blank, hot spots, jumbled sentence, matching, multiple answer, multiple-choice, opinion scale (Likert scale), ordering, quiz bowl, short answer or true/false. Whenever the test designer chooses one of these templates, the designer is redirected to a new page which allows the test data to be input into the template and saved as a test question. Options within the “tests” environment allows the course designer to access the “pool” function in order to make use of questions that have been pre-designed or pre-used. A “question settings” tab allows the assessment designer to customize how the test is scored and how the test questions are displayed.
- Surveys can either be created within the system or imported as documents. When the survey is created within the system, the survey designer can choose from all of the question templates that are available to test design. The question templates include calculated formula, calculated numeric, either/or, essay, file response, fill and multiple blanks, fill in the blank, hot spots, jumbled sentence, matching, multiple answer, multiple-choice, opinion scale (Likert scale), ordering, quiz bowl, short answer or true/false.
- Pools can either be created within the system or imported as documents. When the pool is created within the system, the survey designer can choose from all of the question templates that are available to the test designer. The only difference is that the pool questions are saved to pool folders rather than being saved to a pre-defined test folder.
The Turnitin function allows course facilitators to establish folders into which students submit assignments that are checked for plagiarism using the “Turnitin” system, which is a commercial software service for preventing plagiarism. This tool also enables group assignments to be submitted.
Within the course management section, there is an evaluation menu which can be customized to help course managers compile useful feedback regarding how the courses are being used by students. Typical components include: course reports, early warning system, and performance dashboard.
This function allows the course facilitators to track student activity within the system. Reports that can be generated include user activity in groups, user activity in discussion boards, overall usage or performance that is benchmarked with preset usage goals. Course managers can access data regarding which sections of the BLS have been most frequented by the students in aggregate. Other functions allow the course managers to disaggregate the information to the individual level giving the course manager data on which sections of the BLS have been frequented by which students. Individual student reports can also be printed out which provide information on which activities the students spend time on within the system and how much time he spent on each activity. Such a report can be broken down to usage activity by day.
Early warning system
This function allows course managers to establish rules based on course performance that trigger a warning if the student falls below establish benchmarks. These rules can be based on grades, time accessing the system, last access of the system or missed deadlines.
This function provides course managers with a broad overview of activity within the system by student. Information includes when the student last accessed the system, times that they have visited the discussion boards links to student grades.
Within the course management section, there is a grade center menu which can be customized to help course facilitators manage student grades for the course. The two most basic components are “in need of assessment” and “graded assignments”.
In need of assessment
This section contains all student submissions that have yet to be graded within the system. This might include discussion board contributions, journals that require grading or group work that has been submitted.
This section contains all scores that students have been assigned for the various assignments that have been submitted and previously assessed. These grades are presented by student and can be printed, downloaded or exported to systems that integrate the BLS with institutional student records.
Within the course management section, there is section of tools for further customizing the BLS. These tools more or less represent tools that have not found a home in other sections of the course management menu.
Guest / Observer Access
This tool allows course facilitators to permit guest or observer access to the course. Guests are permitted to visit the course site and observe the activities that take place. Observers are similar to guests in that they do not participate directly in the course but they are permitted to visit the course site. Observers can also be given access to tracking data to observe one or more students.
This tool allows the course facilitators to set administrative properties, which govern some of the more general aspects of the course. Under “properties”, course managers can customize the course name, make the course available to students, and fix the language environment.
Quick set-up guide
This tool allows the course facilitators to pre-set some of the fundamental characteristics of the BLS environment. Course managers can alter the course name, choose the color scheme of the BLS, alter the way in which menus are presented and labeled and learn the basics of how to use the BLS. This section is frequently used to establish the basic structure for courses when they are newly introduced to the BLS.
This link allows the course manager to quickly choose which tools to make active.
Packages and Utilities
This tool offers a number of options for archiving the course web-site. Functions include bulk delete, course copy, and export/archive of a course.
This page offers two tools to assist course facilitators `who are having trouble with the course features. The first tool is a “contact support” link that allows the course facilitator or student to contact an institutional or BLS support team. The second tool is a “video tutorials” link that takes the course facilitator or the student to a website where tutorials on using the system can be accessed.
What Exactly is the Blackboard Learning System?
There's been a degree of confusion over what the BLS actually is. In a literature search, Watson and Watson of Purdue University identified 36 articles which referred to the BLS as a Learning Management System (LMS).
According to Bailey, there are five general characteristics associated with a Learning Management System. These are:
1. Instructional objectives, which are tied to individual lessons
2. Lessons, which are incorporated into the standardized curriculum
3. Courseware, which extends several grade levels in a consistent manner
4. Management system, which collects the results of student performance
5. Lessons, which are provided based on the individual students learning progress
Watson and Watson contend that the BLS is not a Learning Management System because it lacks the broad scope of functionalities that define an LMS. They argue that if the above five characteristics are adopted as the basis for defining a Learning Management System, the BLS does not sufficiently possess such characteristics. However, one could counter the argument that the BLS is user-configurable; and as such, could indeed be configured to exhibit these five characteristics.
Watson and Watson argue that the BLS is most appropriately defined as a Course Management System. According to EDUCAUSE, a Course Management System "provides an instructor with a set of tools and a framework that allows the relatively easy creation of online course content and the subsequent teaching and management of that course including various interactions with students taking the course".
Benefits Attributed to the Blackboard Learning System
According to Blackboard Inc, there are a number of beneficial features associated with the BLS. Prime features include:
- global navigation give students ready access to grades and assignments
- updates and notifications keep students up-to-date and informed
- collaborative spaces keep everyone in touch
- mobile capabilities allow students to learn anywhere, anytime
Efficient teaching elements:
- real-time feedback
- engaging contact
- ease of creating and reading assessments
- real-time information on student usage and performance
In a survey of 250 Blackboard users at Northern Arizona University, three benefits attributed to blackboard include: 1. Ease of use, 2. Enhanced ability to learn material, 3. Improved fit with learning style.
In the same study, students were asked to identify which features of Blackboard Learn were most useful. Enhanced instructor feedback, grade management, access to diverse instructional media, access to online materials, assignment submission functions, online assessment and enhanced communications were identified as the features most valued by the students surveyed.
Support for Constructivist Course Design
The BLS offers a number of features that enables facilitation of what Reigeluth calls “a new paradigm for an instructional-design theory”. This new paradigm should include flexible guidelines about the learning process. In this section, key features of the BLS are highlighted to demonstrate how the BLS supports constructivist learning strategies:
1. Learners should be given the initiative
The BLS offers a number of features that allow students to direct the learning experience. The platform itself allows for embedded links to other sites on the Internet, allowing the student to explore and extend knowledge discovery. The system’s discussion board allows students to communicate with the course facilitators and with each other in a proactive fashion, enriching the learning experience.
2. Learners should work in teams in authentic, real-world tasks
The connectivity associated with the BLS allows students to collaborate with each other while in the field. Moreover, the educational platform itself allows links to be embedded to connect students to live websites and real-world challenges via the Internet. The collaboration functions enable teams to share information and ideas real-time.
3. Learners should be allowed to choose from a diversity of sound methods
The numerous features associated with the BLS provide course designers with an array of tools that can be used to design course activities and assessment exercises. This embraces the spirit of constructivist instructional design that advocates for customizable learning strategies to respond to the diverse learning behaviors of students.
4. Learners should best utilize the powerful features of advanced technologies
The BLS offers an add-on called Echo360 that supports flipped classroom strategies. Echo 360 is a personal video capture device that allows facilitators to prepare lectures replete with video capture and PowerPoint slide integration. This frees up classroom time for more advanced discussion. In order to encourage collaboration, the collaboration tools on BLS offer groups a secure environment and a number of tools for supporting group work from a distance. The customizable learning assessment, journal and discussion board features allows facilitators to tailor make assignments to provide formative and/or summative assessment.
5. Learners should be allowed to persevere until they reach appropriate goals
The formative assessment options that are incorporated into test creation within the BLS allow students to progressively assess their acquired proficiencies in a given subject. Formative assessment options give students immediate feedback and allow students to revise and re-evaluate expediently. With online assessments, facilitators can also speed up the feedback process, giving students more time to work towards specified goals.
Drawbacks Attributed to the Blackboard Learning System
Research identifies at two key drawbacks associated with the BLS:
1. Use: Course management systems can, in general, be difficult to learn how to use
2. Cost: As the system becomes more sophisticated, subscription licensing can range between $200,000 -$400,000 a year.
In a survey of 250 Blackboard users at Northern Arizona University, the top four elements of dissatisfaction with BLS include: 1. A sizable learning curve, 2. System challenges (i.e. design glitches) which detract from the learning process, 3. Difficulty in navigating the site to find tools, 4. Insufficient notifications on updates.
In a survey of 250 Blackboard users at Northern Arizona University, students were asked for their impressions of the BLS. In response to the statement " Blackboard Learn is easy-to-use”, 26.6% of the respondents strongly agreed, 48.4% agreed, 17.7% disagreed and only 7.3% strongly disagreed.
In response to the statement "using Blackboard Learn in this course has improved my learning", 18.5% strongly agreed, 54.8% agreed, 20.2% disagreed and 6.5% strongly disagreed.
In response to the statement "I have had a positive overall experience using Blackboard Learn", 25.8% strongly agreed, 43.5% agreed, 20.2% disagreed, and 10.5% strongly disagreed.
In short, it is apparent that respondents to the NAU study found the BLS environment to be beneficial to the learning experience.
Integrating BLS into Teaching Good Practice
Bradford and colleagues have recommended seven principles of “good teaching practice” and discuss the role that BLS can play in enhancing best practice.
1. Good practice encourages student-faculty contact
The BLS allows facilitators to provide clear guidelines on course expectations and communicate more often with students. The discussion group tool on the BLS allows facilitators to develop Q&A forums for students to anonymously post questions that they have about course content or any other concerns.
2. Good practice encourages cooperation among students
The BLS environment allows cooperative activities to be well supported. The group discussion tool allows students to interact in a manner that encourages critical thinking. It also allows the facilitators to intervene to influence the discussion. The collaboration tools provide a secure environment in which groups can collaborate without having to meet in person.
3. Good practice encourages active learning
The BLS features tools such as the digital drop box which permits sharing of files, discussion forums and journals which encourage progressive critical thinking and collaboration tools which facilitate interaction between students.
4. Good practice gives prompt feedback
The BLS enhances communicative effectiveness. Assessments can be designed to provide prompt feedback both in a formative manner (through feedback mechanisms) and in a summative manner (through immediate grading of assessments). The discussion board on the BLS allows the course facilitators to intervene in discussions and provide prompt feedback.
5. Good practice emphasizes time on task
The BLS contains features that allow facilitators to monitor student participation. The course report function provides facilitators with up-to-date information on what students are studying within the site and when.
6. Good practice communicates high expectations
The diversity of BLS educational tool options and the ability to integrate activities both within the BLS and between the BLS and in-class activities helps course facilitators to craft increasingly challenging learning activities. It also allows course facilitators to share examples of high-quality work in order to establish educational benchmarks.
7. Good practice respects diverse talents and ways of learning
The numerous features of the BLS allow courses to be developed in a manner that appeals to different learning strategies.
- Anderson, T. and Kanuka, H. (1997). On-Line Forums: New Platforms for Professional Development and Group Collaboration. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3(3):0. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.1997.tb00078.xn
- Bailey, D. D. (1993). Wanted: a Roadmap for Understanding Integrated Learning Systems. In G. D. Bailey (Ed.), Computer-based Integrated Learning Systems (pp. 3-9). Inglewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.
- Watson, WR. And Watson, S. L. (2007). An Argument for Clarity: What Are Learning Management Systems, What Are They Not, and What Should They Become? Tech Trends. 51(2): 28-34.
- The results of this survey are available at: http://www2.nau.edu/~d-elearn/assessment/research/documents/images/ListeningToStudentVoices_17x11.pdf
- EDUCAUSE Evolving Technology Committee (2003). Course Management Systems (CMS). Accessed March 10, 2014 at https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/DEC0302.pdf.
- Blackboard Inc web-site
- Reigeluth, C.M. (1999). What is instructional-design theory and how is it changing? In C.M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory, Vol.2 ,. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
- Anderson, T. (2008). “Towards and Theory of Online Learning.” In Anderson, T. & Elloumi, F. Theory and Practice of Online Learning. Athabasca University.
- Jonassen, D. (1999). Designing constructivist learning environments. In C. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional design theories and models: Volume II. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Carnevale D (2003) Study of Wisconsin professors finds drawbacks to course management systems. Chronicle of Higher Education 49(43):26.; particularly for more mature students: Servonsky EJ, Daniels WL, Davis BL (2005) Evaluation of Blackboard as a platform for distance education delivery. ABNF Journal 16(6):132-135.
- Olsen F (2001) Getting ready for a new generation of course-management systems. Chronicle of Higher Education 48(17):25-28
- Bradford, P, Porciello, M, Balkon, N. (2007). The blackboard learning system: The be all and end all in educational instruction?. Journal of educational technology systems, 35(3): 301-314. Accessed 26/02/2012 at http://uupinfo.org/research/working/bradford.pdf