Brigham Young University adopted Blackboard in 1999 (when it was still known as CourseInfo). Like most institutions adopting course management systems in the late 1990s, the purchase and implementation of CourseInfo was treated as an experiment. Consequently, little thought was given to long-term support plans for it. Between 1999 and Fall Semester 2004, Blackboard usage at BYU skyrocketed and because of this it became essential to establish effective support organizations to meet faculty and student needs. Current Blackboard usage at BYU is summarized in the table below:-
Current Blackboard usage at BYU (Fall, 2004)
Total Number of Blackboard Courses
In this article, we outline BYU’s experiences, challenges and current practices for Blackboard support. Specifically, we address support needs in three distinct areas: infrastructure, technical support, and pedagogy.
Coordinated Support for Blackboard
Several organizations are involved in supporting faculty and student use of Blackboard at BYU. The responsibilities and functions of these organizations are as follows:
The Office of Information Technology (OIT) and the Center for Instructional Design (CID) partner to provide basic Blackboard availability (“dial tone”) and stability. OIT engineers are responsible for monitoring application performance (BYU is a Blackboard ASP customer) and integration with University systems (particularly registration synchronization via the Snapshot utility). CID is responsible for Product Management (vendor relations, upgrade strategies, product development roadmap, etc.).
OIT and CID also partner to provide technical support for Blackboard. OIT’s helpline provides most Tier I support, forwarding all Tier II support calls to CID’s Instructional Media Center. See below for more details about how the Instructional Media Center (IMC) is organized to support faculty and students.
CID partners with the Faculty Center and the Library to provide pedagogical support for faculty members who wish to use Blackboard. Taking a lead role, CID provides training and support for 400-500 faculty members each year. The training focuses on how to design or redesign a course to take advantage of the affording technologies available in Blackboard.
Support for Blackboard at the IMC
The Instructional Media Center is a subunit of the Center for Instructional Design. Its purpose is to provide “just-in-time” training and support for faculty members using instructional technology on campus. The IMC is supported by several full-time employees at CID, but primary responsibility for day-to-day operations falls to the IMC Manager. Twenty one part-time student employees work in the IMC, directly interacting with faculty members.
During the first month of fall semester 2004, the Instructional Media Center successfully resolved over 1,500 Blackboard help requests submitted by students or faculty. About one third of the requests dealt with some type of infrastructure support (i.e. students not being able to connect to the Blackboard servers). Another 20% of these requests were for some type of Blackboard training, and could be classified as pedagogical support. The remaining support requests focused on various technical issues, such as adding students or changing personal information.
While all of the IMC’s student employees are capable of addressing basic Blackboard questions and problems, five are designated “Blackboard Specialists.” Many of the support requests handled by the IMC are simple. One of the most common instructor requests is to be introduced to the basics of creating an online quiz in Blackboard. However, some support requests are quite complex and require a more sophisticated understanding of Blackboard. The IMC’s Blackboard Specialists are very familiar with the application and its integration with University systems, especially the student registration system. Should they be unable to resolve a problem, each specialist has a “Behind the Blackboard” account and can escalate issues directly to the ASP team. Blackboard Specialists also provide basic pedagogical support and consulting, conduct training seminars for instructors, and assist in the creation of online support resources (some of these tutorials can be viewed at http://cid.byu.edu/blackboard.htm).
Blackboard Specialists are required to have both advanced Blackboard skills as well as an ability to make connections between specific Blackboard functions and features and instructor teaching and learning goals. Specialists work closely with the IMC Manager (a professional trained instructional designer) to acquire these abilities. A recent example a Blackboard Specialist’s interaction with an instructor is illustrative of the kind of work they do. A faculty member came to the IMC to find out how to use an existing learning object as the basis for a quiz. The learning object, an interactive map created in Flash, allows students to display or hide various informational features on the map. Drawing on their deep understanding of the Blackboard assessment manager (and a bit of creativity), the Blackboard Specialists created a quiz that allowed students to interact with the map and use their work as the answers to the quiz.
IMC Ticket Tracker
Perhaps the biggest challenge the IMC has faced in order to provide Blackboard support has been to properly track help requests as they move through the request-resolution lifecycle. During the first few years of Blackboard use at BYU, a small database created in File Maker Pro™ was used to record new requests and track them until they were closed. However, by 2003 the number of requests being initiated outgrew the capacity of this system. After a careful evaluation of commercially available products, the IMC built a new, more robust tracking system. The system’s functionality is straightforward. An IMC consultant creates a new ticket for every support request. Users (faculty, teaching assistants, and students) can also submit their own tickets via a web form (available both inside and outside of Blackboard) (see http://cid.byu.edu/support/). The request can then be categorized, have notes attached to it, and be assigned to a specific Blackboard Specialist. The system also supports e-mail updates to instructors.
Knowledge Management System
Each year, support requests made to the IMC have steadily increased. Additionally, many of these requests have become repetitive, i.e. numerous inquiries are made about the same issues. To manage the support demands placed on the IMC and the Blackboard Specialists, the IMC created a Knowledge Management System (KMS) (see Figure 1). This system allows users to search for and answers to many of their own support questions. Blackboard Specialists add new entries to the KMS as they observe patterns of request in the Ticket Tracker.
While there are challenges associated with keeping the KMS updated with the most important questions and the most relevant answers to them, it has proved to be a valuable self-service support tool. By providing access to the KMS through the IMC website as well as inside of Blackboard, we have given users an additional avenue for resolving support issues. During the first three weeks of Fall Semester 2004, approximately 700 users found answers to their support questions using the KMS.
Blackboard Status Monitor
In addition to the Knowledge Management System, the IMC created a specialized “mini application” to address on of the most frequent support questions—what is the current status of the Blackboard system? This question is most frequently asked when the Blackboard Specialists have the least amount of time to answer it, i.e. when there are problems with the system. To address this challenge, a “Blackboard Status Monitor” is visible on the CID home page (http://cid.byu.edu) and on the Blackboard login page (http://blackboard.byu.edu). In addition to providing a quick visual indicator of current system status, users also have the opportunity to go directly to the Knowledge Management System (“Common Questions”) or open a support ticket. The most frequently asked recent support questions are also listed to the right of the monitor for quick reference. Although the status monitor has only been available for a few weeks, initial feedback from BYU’s user community has been very positive.
Recommended Best Practices for Supporting Blackboard
Based on BYU’s experiences support Blackboard, we recommend the following “best practices”:
- Make a clear distinction between infrastructure, technical and pedagogical support needs. Even if the same unit or people provide all three kinds of support, it is important to recognize the different resources, planning and expertise necessary to provide each.
- Effectively allocate support between student (or part-time) and full-time personnel. With a modest amount of training, student employees can provide excellent technical support. A few more talented and experienced students can also assist with infrastructure and pedagogical support. However, some support needs (given their complexity and clientele) require full-time staff support. Providing a full-time mentor for students assigned to address more difficult aspects of support has been an effective approach at BYU. The IMC’s Blackboard Specialists are trained, supported and coached by a full-time instructional designer (the IMC Manager) and a full-time OIT Engineer.
- Where appropriate, provide automated and other online support tools to provide users the flexibility they need. Not all users have the same support needs or expectations. Providing self-guided tutorials and a Knowledge Management System addresses the needs of more independent and technology savvy users, while other users need more direct, personal support, i.e. face-to-face training, telephone and walk-in support.
- Automated solutions also allow institutions to effectively allocate limited support resources. Carefully planned and well-maintained online support tools can free up critical human resources to address more complicated issues. A good place to start is by creating online training or support modules that address an institution's top two or three support requests. We recommend doing so in a way that anticipates future growth and more sophisticated online training and support offerings.
Requests for additional information may be sent to: Jon_Mott@byu.edu or Jason_McDonald@byu.ed.
Jason K. McDonald, Manager, Instructional Media Center, Brigham Young University
Jonathan D. Mott, Director, Center for Instructional Design, Brigham Young University