One Online Student’s Workflow

aka: How to Keep Blackboard from Driving You Insane

These days I find myself particularly aware of my workflow to stay on top of the two online courses I’m taking this semester as a part of my MLIS program at Syracuse University. One of my instructors has been asking about our online student experiences, and my mother is taking her first ever MOOC, so I’m in a position to share my thoughts. This is not intended as advice, but simply as an observation of how one student approaches the work – one very busy adult student who is also a working mother – a common demographic, I believe, for online learners. I’ll follow this up shortly with another post as  a narrative reflection on my experience with the pros and cons of classes that are fully online.

There’s a lot here about how to get around the Blackboard learning management system (LMS) – some will apply to another LMS, others won’t. If anyone has thoughts about an LMS that’s less frustrating, I’d love to hear it (Moodle?).

  • Scheduling

    • For my classes this semester, one has its week from Monday – Sunday, and the other from Wednesday – Tuesday. I’m finding this helpful, so I don’t have end of the week deadlines for both classes at the same time.

    • I schedule an hour of work time for each class every night, with extra time on the weekends, but realistically the weekday evening times often get pushed to the weekend after my other commitments – really, most of my classwork has to happen on weekends

    • I do at least try to do some reading for one class, if not both classes, each evening before bed.

    • I also try to check in with the discussion boards for each class daily, even if I don’t have time to write a post

    • At the beginning of the semester, I mark assignments in Google Calendar so that I can be sure to schedule enough lead time to work on each one. If I have assignments for 2 classes that are close together, or if I have a home or work conflict around the time of the assignment, I need to work on assignments further in advance.

  • Accessing materials

    • As an online student I’ve become acutely aware of the limitations of each browser, so I’m constantly switching between three:

      • Chrome handles files/downloads best, and works best with all the Google Apps I have become dependent upon, but has been very slow for me lately

      • Safari is best for printing (or saving material as PDFs), and has been the fastest of the 3 for me lately

      • Firefox is best for viewing video lectures in Panopto (see below), but also can be slow

  • Reading

    • When a new class week begins, I collect any readings:

      • I use my laptop to access Blackboard and download any readings

      • then I email it to myself and open it on my iPad

      • then I download it into the GoodReader app

        • this used to be easier – I could access Blackboard directly on my iPad using the Blackboard mobile app and grab PDFs directly from there – but Blackboard has updated the app so it only works with iOS system 6 and above, and disabled the old app, so I can’t use it with my first-generation iPad.

        • I can access Blackboard in Safari on my iPad, but it tends to log me out each time I leave Safari to download a PDF into GoodReader, which gets very annoying very fast

      • This is easier if the readings are already PDFs

      • If they are web pages, I open them in Safari and use the Print command  to turn them into PDFs, which I then email to my iPad and import into GoodReader.

        • I can also do this directly on my iPad using, but it doesn’t always work, and the formatting isn’t great

    • Once the readings are in GoodReader, I sort them into a folder structure, with a folder for each class and folders for each week within.

    • I use GoodReader because I find it very simple to annotate my readings – I can highlight, underline, circle, draw, type notes, whatever! There’s also great search capability, etc.
  • Other course materials

    • For future reference, I like to save all links (including public PDFs) to Delicious, tagged with class number and appropriate subject tags (this is one of my OCD parts)

    • I also save learning objectives, assignment instructions, etc. as PDFs, on my laptop

      • I have a folder for each class, and within, folders for each week and each major assignment

  • Lectures

    • In my classes so far, I have experienced a variety of technology used for “lectures.” Voice over Powerpoint slides is by far the most common lecture format, and works well, but I have experienced some other formats:

      • Panopto is my favorite for viewing lectures

        • Pro-tip – if you watch it in Firefox, you have controls that don’t exist in the other browsers. My favorite is control over the spead of playback. I imagine this could be great for students who are not native English speakers to slow a professor down – but I usually use it the opposite way, speeding everything up to 1.5x the normal rate. It still is very listenable, with many profs. If I want to take detailed notes about a section, I’ll pause the video for a moment, so I probably take the same overall amount of time to view a lecture, but it’s more focused for me this way.

        • You also can easily navigate through the slides, which are connected to the audio/video so you can easily replay a section

        • I also really like the way many profs use this to show slides or screencasts and their face at the same time. This “embodiment” gives me more of a connection with the professor, which is helpful.

      • For one class the instructor had made podcasts years ago and has been re-using them. Unfortunately he included references to specific due dates, and assignments that had changed slightly, so this felt a little stale. This would work better if an instructor re-used content lectures but created brief greeting lectures to address content specific to this incarnation of the class

      • For another class the instructor shared PDFs of slides without any voice over. At first I thought this would be insufficient, but he really did make the slides speak for themselves, and I enjoyed being able to go through them at my own pace. He also included many links to a wealth of video content already existing on YouTube, which exposed us to a wide diversity of perspectives, internationally.

      • If the lecture is in an audio/video format over slides, I do appreciate having the slides available separately as a PDF. I like to view the slides on my iPad in GoodReader while viewing the lecture, so I can take notes directly on the slides as I go.

  • Discussion Boards

    • For most of my classes so far, this is where the meat of the class really happens, which is particularly interesting given the variety of instructor interaction with the discussion boards. I have had classes where an instructor replies to many posts and adds other thoughts, others with instructor comments only 1-2 times a week, and others with no reply from the instructor whatsoever. Of course, the same is true in face to face classes.

    • In my program at SU, I am very lucky to have some very thoughtful classmates, who raise the level of discussion to a high level. My classmates and I often raise new questions, share links to additional online resources, and overall truly benefit from our interaction with each other. In most classes only a handful of students really participate in the discussion at this level, but again, that is true in face to face classes as well

    • asynchronous discussion (anyone can post at any time) really allows for more thorough exploration of a subject than the limited time and competing voices in a face to face classroom

    • however, when those limits from the face to face classroom’s time and space are taken away, in a very engaged class it can become very time-consuming to keep up with the discussion boards.

      • In one class of about 25 very engaged students, we all posted lengthy posts / replies about 5-7 times a week (not once a day, but several posts, a couple of days out of the week). I just looked back at my archived reading from one week from that class (see below) and the PDF is 86 pages long – for one week! But it’s hard to say what you could cut back from that – this particular class had a real variety of perspectives, including several international students, so I wouldn’t have wanted to miss their thoughts

      • For another class, the large class was divided into 3 smaller discussion groups, and we were only required to follow our assigned group. This was much more manageable, but then on one occasion I used the search tool in Blackboard to try to find a past post, and discovered a wonderful discussion thread in another group that I felt sad I had missed out on! You can’t have everything.

  • Communication with the class

    • In addition to the communication of the discussion board, Blackboard usually provides two other means of private communication, at the discretion of the instructor

      • Email – this function allows you to choose from a list of anyone in the class (including the instructor) to send an email. The idea is that by sending it from this system, all email communication is archived within the system. In real practice, this is very annoying. It’s great to be able to receive an email outside of the class system, but you can’t reply to it, because it’s not coming from the person who sent it, it’s coming from the system. You have to log into Blackboard to reply. If I’m working on a class project, I usually ask my classmates to send an email from Blackboard but to include their preferred email in the body, so we can use regular email from that point on.

      • Messages – there’s a message system within Blackboard which acts kind of like email, but is even more annoying than the situation above. This system exists entirely within Blackboard, with no notification system. If one of my classmates tries to reach me with this kind of message, and I’m not expecting it, it might be weeks before I happen to check the message module and notice that I have a message in my Inbox. The only way for this system to work is if you get into the habit of checking it every day, which for me and my busy schedule is too much.

  • Navigating Blackboard

    • I have had some instructors set up a great Blackboard, and others set up one in which it was nearly impossible to find a particular resource. Each instructor may structure the site in a different way, but what’s most important is consistency – that I know I can always find readings in a section called “Readings” for example, and that is true for every week and all content.

    • I find it helps greatly to have one central place for each week’s content, and everything links from there.

      • for some classes, I’ve had instructors create a single splash page with links to everything for the week

      • for most of my classes, instructors have created a learning module folder for each week, and within that are folders for readings, video lectures, assignments, etc.

      • for either of these formats, I usually start at the first page/section of the module and then methodically go through each section, capturing the content as described in the sections above

      • if no central learning module is provided, it is much more difficult to approach this methodically

    • Redundancy can be both good and bad – I appreciate it when professors link to the same content from several places in the site, so that it’s convenient. However, if they do this as a duplicate post, rather than a link to a post, this can get very confusing – especially if they change the information in one place but not the other.

  • End of semester archiving

    • I try to preserve all the content from each class to have on hand for future reference.

      • Learning Modules

        • Materials are collected during each week of class, as discussed above

      • Discussion board

        • once the class discussions are officially over, I:

          • visit each part of the discussion board, one at a time

          • expand all posts

          • use the “collect” function to view all posts on one page

          • save as a PDF (works best in Safari)

Fellow students, what did I forget?  New students, what else do you have questions about?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Also, please continue on from this outline to my next post, a narrative reflection on my perspective of online classes.

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