Blackboard European Teaching and Learning Conference at Aston University, Birmingham

Last week I was in Birmingham for the Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference. This conference allows those interested or involved in Learning Technology to get together to discuss, demonstrate and network with colleagues from institutions all over Europe.

The main themes involved:

  • Engagement & Retention
  • Instructor Adoption
  • Digital Collaboration Solutions
  • Institutional Value
  • Large Course Support

The ‘Roadmap’ session.

This session is always one of the best attended sessions at the conference.  Blackboard representatives present an outline of new and interesting developments and features that are likely to be available soon.  Some of the features proposed at this session included:

  • Post first on discussion forums; before a student gets to see what other students have written they have to create their own post/message first.
  • Roll over of course dates for the following year which will automatically adjust the dates for the next year in one go!
  • Reward badges; mimicking Playstation and Xbox games where you are rewarded for completing set tasks or achieving set expectations.

Some features suggested for later releases include:

  • Improved chat and virtual classroom; a bit like a stripped down version of Collaborate for any tutor to use to deliver or support their students in their own module or course area.
  • New Assignment submission tool that enables online marking and commenting – similar to the GradeMark tool within Turnitin but with enhanced features.
  • Mobile app for marking work through your iPad.

The Roadmap session was particularly relevant to us as we are looking at upgrading in the summer.


“Using Blackboard Collaborate to Engage Postgraduate CPD and eLearning Students”

The first session I attended was presented by Graham McElearney about University of Sheffield’s pilots of Collaborate.  It was reassuring to hear that they have experienced similar issues to our institution in regards to minor issues when setting up for the first time (Java installation and initialising) when using Collaborate and the suggestion to have someone who knows the software to be on hand to help during the first session or two.

The University of Sheffield have found Collaborate a useful addition to their system in regards to flexibility of CPD provision as well as adding value and ease of providing the teaching to a diverse range of students.  One of the tutors involved in the pilot commented that Collaborate was:

“Making distance learning less distant”.

They offered a number of words of wisdom:

  • Set up a ‘coffee space’ in Collaborate that was available to students to give the software a go, to help them become acquainted with the space and how they interact with it.  Imagine it being like a coffee area where students would discuss and converse with ideas much like they would do in a physical space, just that this would be in a virtual space.  This would be unmonitored to allow students their own space and time to try out the software.
  • All distance learning tutors should be encouraged to practise what it is like to be a student in a Collaborate space so they can relate to the student experience.
  • For the pilot project, a Senior Learning Technologist acted as Project Manager and worked with an Academic (who provide the materials and the delivery) and also had other Learning Technologists to support with any technical queries.
  • The lesson of the story though is to not over provide support just because it’s a pilot! You have to be realistic with what can be done in a virtual classroom. If whilst piloting you have excessive levels of support then this would be unrealistic in actuality.

We can use this model to manage future pilots and to help bring in new products quickly and with relevant and timely guidance and support.


“E3: Elevating use of eLearning, eSubmission, eMarking and eFeedback”1

This fascinating session by Gillian Fielding from Salford University gave an insight into how staff development is delivered in other institutions.  Salford issue reasonably strict guidance on baseline expectations within Blackboard and have even produced a chart of ‘essential’ and ‘desirable’ criteria in areas.  They managed to train 85% of their academic staff in the new Blackboard (9.1) in just 5 weeks using a mixture of classroom based and online delivery of materials.  They used examples of good and bad practice to demonstrate to academics what a student would experience.  Further, a report was sent to directors to highlight who had or hadn’t been on the training that helped target missing attendees.  Finally, students would be asked to check Blackboard areas to discover whether they were up to the pre-defined standards that were set.

We will take on board some of the good ideas offered from this session in our own delivery of staff development to give you more of what you need when you need it and help you keep track of your own development.


“How to help your instructors in finding the right tools in Blackboard”

When migrating to Blackboard 9.1,  staff at Leiden University were offered software to handle the move called ‘CarePack’.  Although now discontinued, the principals for this software can still be very useful when constructing a Blackboard course.

The tools in Blackboard (and any plugins) are divided into groups; Assessment, Content, Collaboration, Management and Information and staff can use a ‘pick and mix’ technique to construct their course as long as they pick at least one tool from each category enabling them to create a rich Blackboard area.

More can be seen about the software here:

See some examples from Leiden University on their blog:

We’re looking towards producing our own version to help our academics with their Blackboard area creations.


“Is your Blackboard getting its 5-a-day? Planning and controlling your SIS Integration”

The final session I attended concerned something we are already developing with the aim of incorporating into our own Blackboard instance; SIS Integration.

SIS stands for Student Information System and integrating it into our other existing database systems should help the streamlining of all information between SID (our own Student Information Database) and the Blackboard Users and Courses database.

Our processes to create course areas and student enrollment are mainly automated – with some manual processes around combined course areas and tutor enrollment.  Using SIS would completely automate the process and also allow us to link more data fields between the two systems allowing a greater level of control and offers far more possibilities in handling and passing data from one system to another.

2The session, delivered by Staffordshire University, covered ‘What to feed’, ‘When to feed (with planning tools and strategies)’ and ‘How to set up SIS Integration’.  It involved identifying stakeholders and how to control what is being fed from SID to Blackboard.  This may be as simple as users being attached to a course or much, much more.  The key to developing a link between two (or more) systems involves not just how the data is stored but what is stored basically meaning, don’t worry about where you’ve got it stored as long as it is stored – it can always be pulled out!  This helps to identify ‘missing’ data which in turn can then be included into an existing database or a new database created.

An excellent feature demonstrated (developed by Staffordshire University), that may appeal to anyone who currently manages or delivers a Blackboard course, was a tool that would list all courses within an institution with details of whether that course is available or unavailable.  You can then choose to change the course’s status – great for those last minute checks of ‘have I released my course!?’ If you choose to make your course available (if currently unavailable) the system will then email all tutors on that course to say it has been made available.  Great!

Having this integration will open up new doors of possibility when it comes to passing data between our systems.  This means that tools like the one mentioned above can be developed for the utilisation of all members of staff to help them use Blackboard efficiently and effectively.


Presentations from the conference will be available in the next few weeks if you are interested in learning more about the above sessions or any other sessions that were delivered over the 3 day conference.

If you are interested in developments of our Blackboard system please contact either your Learning Technology Development Officer (click on ‘Faculty Contacts’ on this pageor email LTD Support on [email protected] and arrange to have a chat with one of the team.  




Carol Chatten,
Learning Technology Development Officer