Issue 51 - March 2007
Eighteen months into the University’s e-learning project, the first focus of the Information Systems Strategic Plan 2005-2010 (Ref: Network Computing Issue 46 - December 2005), every credit-bearing course is now provided with an e-learning component on the Blackboard (Bb) Academic Suite. This arrangement streamlines the process of Bb course site creation, relieving teachers of the burden of course management, allowing them to easily make use of the e-learning platform to communicate with their students as well as involve them in teaching and learning activities not only within, but also beyond designated class times. Now that a major milestone has been reached, the next phase of the e-learning project is to enhance the value and usefulness of the e-learning platform by further enriching it with more Bb built-in functions and add-on packages. The aim is to enable and encourage both staff and students to continue to make use of the e-learning platform to maximize their own productivity.
New functions and features include the rolling out of the Blackboard content system for all our users, providing them with the capability for online storage and management of their personal content (My Content) and the ability to distribute and share their content with others (My Portfolio). To help teachers combat the issue of students copying others’ work without proper acknowledgement, anti-plagiarism software Turnitin and Safe Assignment has been added to the e-learning platform. Besides these proper releases, there are a number of packages on pilot. These include the voice tool, Wimba and two popular web tools, blogs and wikis from Campus Pack. Apart from the commercially available add-on packages or building blocks, there are quite a few internally developed ones which warrant our attention as these also provide the valuable service of helping to enhance student learning. The following sections briefly describe these various functions and add-on features.
My Content & My Portfolio – A powerful combination for reflective learning
All CityU members are familiar with the e-Portal and the Learning Management System of Blackboard. Apart from these two components, Blackboard also has a content system providing extra storage and functions to allow users to manage their content more effectively. Every regular user on the Blackboard system has now been granted space in My Content. The initial quota on creation is 50MB, with an annual increment of 50MB on a designated date. This content area is a simple yet efficient storage device allowing individual users to deposit materials and retrieve them anytime, anywhere. The My Portfolio function available in the Blackboard system is intuitive and easy to use, allowing individual users to include any information into e-portfolios for effective dissemination. My Portfolio itself does not have a storage capability, so users can make use of My Content to store materials to be published via My Portfolio.
By making use of the web space and communication infrastructure provided by the Blackboard system, My Content and My Portfolio form a powerful combination to provide the storage, web presence as well as easy dissemination needed to assist students in starting up their learning portfolios. Together, they make a useful tool for students to gather and showcase achievements of their learning, allowing reflections on their learning to be recorded. This is of particular significance in our OBTL initiative as evidence of students achieving specific learning outcomes.
The My Portfolio function was made available to a few groups of people to pilot since late 2006. One project supported by the Teaching Development Grant (TDG) involved colleagues from the English Language Centre (ELC) and the Education Development Office (EDO) working together to enable participating students to create their individual English Language portfolios documenting improvements in their language as well as recording their reflections on their own learning. This pilot formed the basis of a larger language portfolio project funded by the University Grants Committee (UGC) for collaboration amongst all 8 UGC-funded institutions. With experience gained on, and results shown in, the Blackboard My Portfolio functions, our ELC is considered as a pioneer in this cross-institutional project. Other pilot projects involved the use of My Portfolio as part of the teaching and learning activities, as well as the outcomes evidence gathering mechanism, of individual courses, thus further facilitating OBTL adoption.
With these new functions, it is important to be aware that each individual user has sole responsibility for the materials stored under his/her My Content area and disseminated via his/her e-portfolios. All use must be compliant with the laws of Hong Kong and the regulations of the University. Furthermore, when a user leaves the University, the space allocated to the user under My Content and My Portfolio will be automatically recovered by the University, and any material that is left in these areas will be deleted without prior notice.
Turnitin and Safe Assignment – Two popular plagiarism prevent tools
With the issue of plagiarism and blatant copying becoming a worldwide problem adversely affecting student learning, we want to make use of our e-learning platform to first and foremost, alert our students to moral and ethical matters regarding their learning. In addition, we would like to provide teachers with tools to detect plagiarism. Thus Turnitin and Safe Assignment, two of the most widely used plagiarism prevention packages have now been integrated into Blackboard for all course sites. Although the workings of the two packages are similar, their philosophy and coverage are not exactly the same; hence both packages have been acquired to allow teachers and students to use them as appropriate to their requirements.
Systems on Pilot – Wikis, blogs & voice tools
Apart from the officially released features and functions described above, in our continued effort to source suitable packages of practical use and interest for teaching and learning to add onto the e-learning platform, there are a number of systems currently on pilot.
With blogs and wikis so prevalent on the Internet, we are letting colleagues try out these tools on Blackboard with the help of the package Campus Pack. The blog tool, Journal LX enables the classroom community to have a more engaging platform to gather, share and reflect on course-related topics, projects and assignments. The authoring tool, Teams LX (wiki) allows students and teachers to author a dynamic website collaboratively with version control and participation tracking function.
An important attribute of a CityU Ideal Graduate is competent communication skill, thus providing opportunities for language enhancement to our students is also a priority for the e-learning platform. The voice tool, Wimba enables voice announcements, voice assignments and voice feedback within courses in Blackboard. It helps to add extra dimensions and variety to language learning by clever deployment of technology. The Wimba tool itself is not only for language learning. A podcasting project supported by TDG is currently underway to explore the use of the tool in helping students comprehend, remember and make use of terms and phrases within specific subject disciplines by storing glossaries in MP3 format for online "feeding" to students via en mass iPod downloads.
"Home-grown" Features & Functions – More integrated and more user-friendly
Apart from the above mentioned "off-the-shelf" building blocks which were supplied by external vendors, our own Computing Services Centre (CSC) and Enterprise Solutions Unit (ESU) have been working in collaboration and with other units for specific learning applications to work on the Blackboard platform to help further enrich the learning experience for students. We are all familiar with the single-sign-on (SSO) between AIMS and Blackboard which allows teachers easy access to their class lists and profiles of their classes. Apart from facilitating communications between teachers and students, these functions also help teachers to better understand the compositions of their classes and their students’ learning strengths and deficiencies via the aggregated LASSI scores. Another excellent example of "home-grown" learning enhancement feature is the SSO between the PDA system and Blackboard pioneered and developed by the Faculty of Business. This integration allows students to move seamlessly between the Blackboard and PDA environments, hence extending the learning environment from PCs and laptop another step further onto a mobile device. Other pertinent examples include a programme calendar and seat reservation functions developed by the Chinese Civilisation Centre (CCIV) and a programming assignment assessment system developed by the Department of Computer Science (CS).
"Home-grown" building blocks must go through the same stringent testing and verification before they can be released for general use on the e-learning platform. As the system is now so heavily used, we cannot afford to allow any add-on features and functions to have adverse effects on the performance of the system. Further information and procedures on developing building blocks can be found on http://bbtest.cityu.edu.hk/building-block-bbtest.htm.
Online Guides and Further Assistance
We strongly believe in making use of the Blackboard platform to help users learn to use it, as "doing" is an effective way to learn. To introduce these newly released or piloting functions, Blackboard user guides with examples are available online to help students and staff get started. The respective URLs are:
Blackboard instructor user guide:
Blackboard student user guide:
Direct links to instructor user guide on:
The EDO has also scheduled instructor workshops to introduce the use of the various functions and packages to teachers. Furthermore, we are inviting interested teachers to join the pilots so that we can truly evaluate the packages before the University officially commits to purchase them. Interested colleagues, please send an email to email@example.com. But it should be noted that with all pilots, we need to monitor the stability and performance of the tools under trial, so colleagues have to be tolerant of defects and deficiencies and take appropriate measures to protect essential materials.
For students, the ELC and EDO have jointly organized appropriate introductory workshops for My Content and My Portfolio. Further workshops will be arranged as the project progresses.
Performance Tuning and Capacity Planning
With the e-learning system becoming mission critical with more and more features and functions being released on it, we have to be mindful of the demands on the system and monitor its performance. Users expect the system to be stable and reliable. So, rather than allowing the system to grow "organically", we should be proactive in planning for its capacity growth. In view of this, a consultant from Blackboard has been engaged for a performance tuning and capacity planning exercise. This exercise will last for four weeks, starting from 19 March 2007, and through it, we can foresee the demands and growth of the system, then plan and act accordingly to sustain good performance for September 2007 and beyond. A major task of the exercise is to push the system to its limits to flush out the "weakest links". This will be accomplished by generating huge loads on the system. Further announcements will be made to alert users to take necessary precautions. The fact that this performance tuning and capacity planning exercise is done when the system is still in "very good health" signifies that from a system administration perspective; we are moving from a reactive mode into a proactive and anticipatory one. Hence, the sound practices of risk assessment and management are being adopted to protect a most important asset of the University.
As e-learning evolves into an integral part of our academic learning environment, continued enhancement of the environment becomes an important task. The enrichment will ensure that appropriate tools and features will be made available to staff for more student-centred teaching and learning activities, for students to further engage themselves in learning, and most importantly, for evidence of the improved learning to be gathered and documented.
The release of the content system of the Blackboard Academic Suite represented an important new phase of the e-learning project of the University. Accompanying the new functionality is new responsibility for proper use. As such the Committee on Information Technology and Services has established a subgroup to review existing rules and regulations covering the use of IT resources with the aim of updating them for appropriate coverage in the 21st century.