Adapting Your Blackboard Shell

All, Teaching Tips

Over the course of the 15+ years I have taught online and hybrid classes I have experimented with many of Blackboard’s features to support communication and collaboration. This blog post will share the system that I eventually developed for my own use in hopes that those of you building Blackboard course shells for the first time will find the information useful. We use Blackboard for our course management system at Morehead State University which is why I use it. I am not a fan, but to be fair, I am not a fan of any course management system. There are always trade-offs, because it is a system designed by someone else that we, the instructor, must somehow retrofit for the way we teach. Also, to be fair, Blackboard has come a long way over the 15+ years I have been using it teach online and hybrid classes. At least it doesn’t lock and crash multiple times a session any more and they have added in some new tools.

Every instructor has to make a long list of decisions during the course-design process including the structure or organization of the course, the flow of communication in the course, and how the work of the course will be supported. When planning how you will use Blackboard (or your designated course management system), it is important to think through these issues. After years of experimenting with various Blackboard tools I was unsatisfied with using Blackboard to support the recursive, interactive feedback loops that I prefer when teaching writing, so I use Google docs for our actual drafting and feedback. Similarly, I prefer to use HyperDocs to support my instruction (check out my new unit/weekly templates), although I did successfully use Blackboard to support instruction for years before I discovered Hyperdocs. Blackboard does serve an important function in my undergraduate course as the communication hub, home base, and gradebook.

Blackboard offers four tools to support asynchronous communication:

  • Blogs – these do not function much like traditional blogs but I have found them to be more useful for discussion than the discussion board as they are more informal and conversational
  • Discussion boards – these work as any other discussion board and have their uses however I don’t like the way DBs structure the conversation
  • Journals – these can be private (between instructor and student) or public (open to class) and could easily serve any of the same purposes as a paper journal
  • Wikis – very collaborative spaces using both pages and comments to support student conversations although I have often found students don’t understand how wikis work so it takes a lot of support and for that reason sometimes things go awry in ways they don’t with the other tools

I have used all four tools at various times and will use three tools this semester although I have adapted the tools to my own purposes. The only tool that I am not currently using is the wiki. I have many friends who use blogs and wikis to support authentic writing, but Blackboard blogs and wikis are not the right tool for that. And since I have moved much of our discussion out of Blackboard I haven’t found the need to use the wiki feature. I primarily use the discussion board to support our Q-and-A for the semester (I call it the Information Booth) although sometimes it is handy to collect quick information from students. I use the journal as private communication channel for students that I call Direct Line. I use Information Booth and Direct Line as alternatives to email as my inbox is always a terrible mess and sometimes the volume can mean important communications from students can get lost. Also, the Information Booth means that I do not answer the same question more than once. This semester I am adding in a Community Check-in via a class blog in Blackboard. This will be an informal space intended to keep students connected to our class community. Blackboard makes it super easy to scan blog post titles as well as participation which is a plus. I also use Announcements to communicate important information and reminders to the class via email. I strive to send out weekly announcements on the same day of the week.

Blackboard also serves as the home base for our course primarily through the use of a single Blackboard content area. This content area is titled Start Here and begins with essential information about the course (such as syllabus, calendar, and instructor information) and then includes sections for each unit broken down by week. Conversations about student grades that do not take place in person are held in the private Direct Line (Journal) space in Blackboard and then grades are recorded in the Blackboard gradebook.

I also adapted the Blackboard menu (see below) to help students locate the information and tools they need for their work. I deleted the Home Page, Faculty Information, Assignments, and Course Documents links as all that information is now available via one link–Start Here. I then inserted course links to the Information Booth discussion forum, the Direct Line journal, and the Community Check-in blog. I introduce each of these tools in the orientation I provide students at the beginning of the semester and then individually as we encounter them in our work.

One final note. I have been paperless for a long time and Blackboard was an essential part of making that work. I really liked the ease of having a quick visual of completed and pending assignments to plan my grading sessions and track student work. I only abandoned this process because I have switched to conference grading. However, I still use Blackboard to support this process using the private Direct Line space.

And so that is how I use Blackboard to support my writing courses and I hope you find this useful as you contemplate your own Blackboard course design. What questions do you have about using Blackboard to support your courses? What tips do you have to offer other new-ish Blackboard users?


  • This was really helpful, Deanna. Thanks for sharing that! Do you have your students participate in asynchronous discussions on a different platform? I hate how Bb organizes them, too; it’s a mess.

    • I use Google docs. I create a table for the first round of participation and then we use additional columns or comments for successive rounds.

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