Making Blackboard more visual and user-friendly
Blackboard varies little from course to course, and that familiarity helps students find course material. Nonetheless, you can make some modifications to Blackboard to improve its look, to make it easier to move through your course, and to give it a bit of personalization. Here are some approaches to consider:
Create a homepage
Students will get their first exposure to the class in Blackboard, so it is especially important to create an introductory page, often called “Getting Started,” that explains what the course is about, what is expected of students, what types of work they will complete, and how they will communicate with you and with classmates. You can set any page as a homepage by going to the Course Management panel on the left side of your course. From there, choose Teaching Style. On that page, scroll down to Set Course Entry Point, which provides a drop-down menu of all the pages in your course. If you don't see a page there that you want to use, you can create a page by going to the top fo the panel on the left, clicking on the "+" sign and choosing Content Area. You can name that page anything you want
Once you create a homepage or landing page for the course, consider adding these elements. You probably have many of these in your syllabus already, but putting them on Blackboard provides a reminder to students, or simply an entry point for those who don't read the syllabus.
This can be written, but a video or audio introduction provides an immediate personal element by allowing students to see or hear you as an instructor and listen to you explain the general expectations for the class.
List the objectives on the introductory page and explain how students will achieve those goals. Don't use language from the course catalog. Instead, explain the course in your own words and help students understand what they will be learning and why.
This helps students plan their online work. Explain the types of assignments (papers, projects, quizzes) they will complete, and when each is due. Also consider using Blackboard's calendar function, which students can link to their phones for reminders.
Tell students how they can contact you and provide general guidelines for when students can expect a response. Students will want to know when they can anticipate a response to questions and inquiries and when their assignments will be graded. Many instructors tell students that they can expect a response to email queries within 24 to 48 hours. Once you set a timeframe, though, stick to it. Don’t let messages pile up. A caveat: 24 hours is a long time to wait if a student is working in a condensed format class (four weeks or eight weeks), so you might consider a shorter window for those types of classes. Some faculty also schedule virtual office hours when they are available via chat or video link (Zoom, Teams or Skype, for instance). You can specify times for these or recommend an appointment.
Required course materials
Provide information about a textbook if you are using one and about any other materials, including technology, that students will need for the course.
Academic resources and services
Make sure students know where to go for assistance.
A clearly designed homepage will go a long way toward making your Blackboard course easy to use. There are other ways to customize it and give it a more inviting look and feel.
Modules are an important element for organizing your course. Create a folder for each week of the course or for each learning module. Provide a list of learning goals, an explanation of how students will achieve those goals, a list of readings and other assignments, a list of discussion questions, and any other material students need to complete the work. Creating modules or folders for this material helps students find course material easily and allows them to follow the progression of the class. This handout that explains how to create a module in Blackboard. In modules and other areas of Blackboard, use short paragraphs, headers and bulleted lists to make material easier to read and to find.
You can insert an image as a banner at the top of your course. (See an example above.) This is a small thbut it can add a touch of personality to the course. The space for the banner is horizontal and narrow, so you should choose an image accordingly. Once you have an image, go to the Course Management panel on the left side of your course. From there, choose Teaching Style and scroll down to Select Banner. You can upload the image there.
One way to add some visual appeal to your course is to use images in modules and content areas. For instance, adding images on the entry link to a module helps separate modules visually and gives students a sense of what they will be doing during that module. The example at right shows images in a Blackboard pedagogy course. You can do the same thing in other content areas of Blackboard.
If you want to create an even more customized look for modules on Blackboard, consider using Softchalk, a tool available for free download through the KU software store. A word of caution: Softchalk takes time and experimentation to create effective modules, so don't try to use it at the last minute. Once you have Softchalk set up, you create your module within that environment, adding text, images, video and other elements. You can also create things like self-check quizzes, roll-over pop-up boxes, and activities like crosswords, puzzles, flashcards, and drag-and-drop exercises. (The Softchalk website has many tutorials on how to use the tool.) Once you complete your lesson in Softchalk, you can load it into Blackboard, creating a self-contained module. Here's an example of a simple page from a Softchalk module.
Sway, from Microsoft, is another free tool that can create visually interesting course material. Like Softchalk, it takes experimentation. Sway emphasizes visual elements, so make sure you have plenty of charts, graphs, photos, and video if you intend to use it. Once you have completed your project, you can load it to the cloud and link to it or embed it on a website. It is not as easy to use within Blackboard as Softchalk is, so you may have to link to the Sway site. Sway is also a great tool for students to use for class projects.