Preparing Test Questions with Blackboard 9.1

I have just spent many frustrating hours setting a test for my students, mainly using questions that I already had within the Blackboard system (imported from the previous version).

Creating questions with Blackboard Learn 9.1 is slow and tedious. This is not helped by a slow response from the server. A facility for efficient offline working is badly needed!

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My Experiences of Blackboard Learn 9.1 So Far

For the 2012/2013 academic year my institute switched to Blackboard Learn 9.1 from Blackboard Release CE 8. I have to say that right now, early in the second semester, my experiences of the switch and of Blackboard Learn 9.1 have been rather frustrating and a lot of my time has been taken-up because of the switch. Blackboard should provide a better upgrade path, as users do not want to go through a major updating process every time a new version of Blackboard is introduced.

One aspect of any online course management system is that it needs to be fully available from day one for all students taking a module. It can happen, especially at the start of an academic year, that students join a module late or it may be unclear or uncertain which students are taking a module. Consequently some students may not have access immediately to the online learning system. That can throw a spanner in the works, as some students may not be able to access the learning materials or assessments. For reasons such as these, in addition to the fact that a version change had occurred, I decided not to use Blackboard Learn 9.1 with a particular module in semester 1, even though I had used Blackboard CE 8 for that module in the previous academic year.

When it came to semester two, I had a greater need for online assessments with two modules I was delivering. I already had suitable assessments set-up in the previous version, so I decided I would use Blackboard, but the transition and the updating were not straightforward.

My biggest frustrations were with calculated formula questions that had been imported from the previous version. These needed editing to make them work and the editing interface had been changed in several ways.

Dropbox Alternative

In semester 1, I made my course materials availabe to my class by providing a link to a folder I created in Dropbox. I shortened the link at the website so that it was easy for the students to make a note of it and to input it to their browsers. That worked very well. For assessments, I made do with short multi-choice questionnaires on paper, given out during lecture time. There is a lot to be said for simplicity!

Imported Questions

For some strange reason, the Blackboard software treated all my imported questions as ‘linked’ questions. When I tried to check what a particular question was linked to, the software provided the answer: ‘The origin source of the linked question is null.’ I guess that was Blackboard’s way of saying that the question was not linked to anything. Why then did it identify it as ‘linked’ (with a chain link icon)? In order to unlink each individual question I had to copy it, edit the copied question (going through all the steps as if creating it for the first time) to remove the inserted words ‘Copy of’ from the start of the question text and then delete the original linked question.

The wording of the questions did not wrap. When displayed in a browser the text continued to the right, beyond the edge of the intended frame, on one single line. It was thus very inconvenient to read and it would have looked a mess if I had left it as it was. To overcome this I had to go into the HTML and hard code the width of the paragraphs that constituted the wording of the questions, e.g. <p style=”width:85ex;”>.

Calculated Formulas

The previous version of Blackboard allowed the insertion of a picture into the question (or just below it). This feature was not available for calculated formula questions. I had to upload the required picture into the Blackboard file system and note its permalink there. Then I had to go into the HTML code for the question text and insert an image tag, specifying the URL of the image as the permalink address with the name of the image file.

It took me a lot of time to sort out the formulas. The Blackboard help implied that almost any combination of letters and numbers could be used for names of variables. I did not find this to be the case. I ended up using single lower-case letters. In some cases I had to place ordinary brackets around each symbol in the calculation formula. I found the software to be quite capable of producing answers that were incorrect, without flagging the fact of the error or the causes. For instance, if I used an asterisk for multiplication in the result formula, this was accepted and an incorrect answer generated. I found many inconsistencies and the help information available was not adequate to help me to resolve the issues. For instance, having tried many variations of a result formula, all of which gave incorrect answers, I decided to try putting ordinary brackets around each symbol (all single-letter lower-case) and the correct answer was produced. If the answer was correct with the brackets, then mathematically at least it should have been the same without the brackets. The Blackboard software was happy to serve up incorrect values and leave me to sort things out through extensive trial-and-error. The newer version lacks the preview feature that was available with the previous version. I am sure that few users are as dogged and persistent as I am. Quite simply, in my opinion, the software is poor for its purpose in these respects.

Every aspect of setting up and editing calculated formula questions was painfully slow. In many cases it took about twelve seconds after pressing the next button for the screen to be updated and for that next step to be available. Even a minor change, such as inserting a comma, required tediously going through all of the steps, as if the question was being created anew.

Blackboard and Java Security Risk

Software that is not fully debugged can be very frustrating indeed. I am a user of Blackboard Learning System—version CE Enterprise License (Release CE 8.0.5) []—and every time I open it I receive a ‘Java Security Warning’ that says ‘the application requires an earlier version of Java’ and asks ‘Do you want to continue?’ with an exclamation mark in a yellow warning triangle. It goes on to explain that ‘the required version of Java, 1.6.0-oem, is not the latest and may not contain the latest security updates.’ I am presented with two options: ‘Run’ or ‘Cancel.’ I choose one or other and the pop-up warning closes—why present me with two options if whatever choice I make has exactly the same outcome? If I wanted to design software specially to addle the user I would find it hard to outdo this—I am lacking in depth of creative mischieviousness. Three of the warnings appear every time, one behind the other, so I have to click ‘Run’ or ‘Cancel’ three times in succession. In my lifetime so far I have spent a good number of seconds doing this.
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Teaching of Science

Photo of Jim McGovern asking a question

Jim asking a question

In the afternoon of Monday 18th May, 2009, I had the honour of attending a lecture about transforming the teaching of science, which was delivered by Nobel Laureate Dr. Carl Wieman at the Dublin Institute of Technology in Bolton Street. I took the opportunity of asking a question and was very satisfied with the reply I received—the photo shows me asking the question. In my view, science is a way of thinking and experimenting, freely and effectively, and it must never be learned, or taught, by rote. Dr. Wieman points out that there is a much better way and that research shows that the better way works. The lecture, including the question and answer session that followed, is available at
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