How to Organize a Blackboard Course
The most successful blackboard course sites are not only intuitive to students, allowing them to navigate remote learning tools with ease, but they can also help to communicate the logic of the course. Among the many factors to consider in organizing a course site, clarity, consistency, and context are essential to developing a site that supports students’ learning and allows them to focus their efforts on course content and assessments.
Successful Blackboard sites clearly communicate what students need to do to complete the course, how the course is organized and the content is delivered, and where to find course materials such as lectures and assessments. Carefully crafting the left menu links and organizing your course into learning modules can help students follow the logic of your course organization and content.
To help students navigate your course, try to be consistent in how you organize and present course content and materials. For example, if you always begin each learning module with a checklist of what students need to do, students will know what materials they need to look for to complete their work for that week. Moreover, if you consistently upload assignment sheets, quizzes, or lectures to the same folders throughout the course, students can more easily find what they need. Finally, if you release course materials, such as assignment sheets, quizzes, or lectures/podcasts at the same time each week, students can better plan their time and work.
In remote learning, students are asked to work through course materials and assessments with less oral guidance from faculty on how they should approach a topic or task. For this reason, it is helpful to provide context for the items you post. For example, if you post a link to a video or reading, provide instruction on why you are including this item, what you want students to consider as they engage with it, and how the item will contribute to their learning. Similarly, if you post a link to a file or resource, make sure to explain its purpose and what students should do when they click on the link or download the file.
What to consider when creating the course home page
From the moment a student enters a blackboard course, we want them to be able to sense its clarity and consistency. Unfortunately, the default Blackboard home page is cluttered with rarely used tools and offers little sense of how to navigate the course. The Trent Blackboard Template bypasses this homepage and takes students directly to the announcements page, which allows them to focus on timely and important course matters. It is also helpful to create a banner for the course, which provides students with an engaging reminder of which site they are in. Here are a couple of examples of site home pages that use different models to guide and welcome students.
Figure 1: Homepage for IDST 1001H. This homepage uses the Trent Blackboard Template, which takes students directly to the announcements page. Shared with permission of Professor Haroon Akram-Lodhi.
Figure 2: Homepage for HIST 1501. This homepage adapts the default blackboard page to include a colorful banner image that is relevant to the course content. It also provides quick links to course announcements and a calendar of due dates. Shared with permission of Professor Olga Andriewsky.
Best Practices for Organizing the Homepage:
- Consider adding a banner image on the top of the page.
- Consider bypassing or adapting the default page to focus students on announcements and other relevant tools.
What to consider when creating the main course menu (left menu):
The main course menu (left menu links) is the central means by which instructors communicate how their course is organized and how they want students to navigate their course. Take time to think about the best way to convey the logic of the course through these left menu links. Avoid confusing or redundant labels and make sure that materials are placed in locations that will make sense to students.
See an example of a course menu from HIST 1501. Notice the use of dividers to group links together into categories and the use of a “START HERE” welcome page (shared with permission of Professor Olga Andriewsky).
Best Practices for Main Course Menus
- The Trent Blackboard Template provides an excellent system of organizing the main course menu with links for the syllabus, a welcome page, learning modules, assessments, communications, and student supports.
- Consider including a “start here” or “welcome page” link toward the top of the menu. Within that content area, you can provide space for introductions and give students information about how the course will be organized and delivered (see figure 3 for an example).
- It is helpful to include a link to the syllabus on the course menu so that students can find it quickly. Invite students to annotate or ask questions about the syllabus to encourage them to read it with care.
- Make sure the labels of the menu links correspond to your syllabus.
- Use the divider functions to group common items together into categories. For example, you may want to create a section for assessments that includes links to content areas for assignments, quizzes, and exams.
- Consider adding a “resources” section with links to technical, academic, and mental health supports.
Figure 3: "Start Here" page from IDST 1001. Notice how this section provides an overview of how the course will be delivered, what students can expect from the course, and how they can access required materials. Shared with permission of Professor Haroon Akram-Lodhi.
What to consider when creating course content
One of the most important sections of any blackboard site is, of course, the course content. This is where you provide students with the information, ideas, and resources to help them achieve your course objectives. Course content can include recorded lectures, discussion board prompts, links to readings, questions to consider, or activities.
Rather than uploading all of your course materials separately, which will create a very long list of files, it is helpful to organize materials into separate learning modules, each with their own content area. You can ask students to complete each module according to a given schedule, or you can allow them to work at their own pace (see the CTL’s Sample Plans for Remote Courses for different ideas for organizing modules). The important thing is to use the learning modules to provide a structure to course information and assigned work.
It is also helpful to organize course materials in the same order within each learning module. Trent’s Remote Teaching team recommends that, within each module, you follow the order below. We provide an example from a first year site of each of these module components for your consideration.
1. Provide context to help guide thinking and learning (this can be done by embedding a poll or asking a questions). You can also give students a sense of where they are in the course or how this module connects to previous ideas and concepts.
Figure 4: Introductory Page for Learning Module from IDST 1001. Notice that the page uses a combination of image and text to invite student engagement with the topic. It gives an overview of ideas that will be introduced in the module as well as questions to consider. Finally, it explicitly tells students how to enter the learning module. Shared with permission of Professor Haroon Akram-Lodhi.
Another approach to the module start page is to provide students with a detailed checklist of what they need to do to complete the module (see Figure 5 for an example). The CTL has other examples for you to consider on our website.
Figure 5: Checklist from HIST 1501. In this course, each module begins with a detailed checklist of what students need to consider, watch, read, and do during the week to come. Shared with permission of Professor Olga Andriewsky.
2. Ask students to read select chapters, passages, or material.
Figure 6: Readings from ENGL 1005. Notice that the file of readings is embedded in a page with explanation that provides students with context and questions to consider as they read. Shared with permission of Professor Joel Baetz.
3. Ask students to watch videos that pertain to the subject matter.
Figure 7: Recorded lectures from ENGL 1005. Notice that the lecture videos are embedded in a page of explanation that provides students with context and questions to consider as they watch. Shared with permission of Professor Joel Baetz.
4. Ask that students do specific tasks either in the form of assessments, assignments, reflections or thought exercises.
Figure 8: Practice activities from IDST 1001. Short activities or discussion board posts can help students to apply material and practice skills. Notice that the files are embedded on a page that provides context and instructions. Shared with permission of Professor Haroon Akram-Lodhi.
5. Provide context for the upcoming module or milestone
Figure 9: Looking ahead page from IDST 1001. Shared with permission of Professor Haroon Akram-Lodhi
Best Practices for Course Content:
- It is helpful to create content areas for each learning module or week of the course. Within each module, group together lectures, readings, and links to discussion boards or weekly assignments.
- By organizing materials in the same order within each module, you can help students to know what to expect and where to find learning materials.
- It is helpful to start each learning module with a checklist to help students keep track of what they need to read, watch, think about, and do. The CTL provides a checklist template that you can adapt for your course.
- Give files or videos descriptive titles that match your syllabus.
- Within Blackboard, if you create an “item” or a “mashup” rather than a file, you can write a description of the file you are uploading and then link the item. You can also guide students in terms of what you want them to think about as they watch or read a given source or how you would like them to approach a particular topic. This gives students context for the file before they open it.
What to consider when creating assignment sheets
- It is a good idea to group assignment sheets together in a separate assignment folder and/or integrate them into the learning module in which students should begin working on the assignment.
- If you create an “item” rather than file, you can create a description of the file you are uploading and then link the item. This gives students context for the file before they open it.
- Many students find it helpful to have a video or audio explanation of the assignment to accompany the textual file.
- In addition to posting the assignment sheet as a file, it is also a good idea to link the assignment instructions to the assignment drop-box page.