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The Instructional Design Portfolio

Four years after Blackboard was adopted at the University of Kansas (KU), the Instructional Development and Support (IDS) unit wanted to assess faculty use of the courseware and then design an approach to encourage more innovation. The resulting partnership project, implemented in spring semester 2004, received such praise from faculty and students that IDS staff will expand their work in this area in the future.


In Spring 2003, the Instructional Development and Support (IDS) unit at the University of Kansas (KU) reviewed 893 Blackboard courses and randomly surveyed 150 instructors. IDS wanted to determine how faculty members were using (or not using) Blackboard, what tools and features they were using specifically and why, and what the resulting impact was on student learning.

The response told us that Blackboard was being used extensively to p ost documents, pictures, graphics, web site links, videos, assignments, and other information. In fact, posting materials was the most widely used tool/feature selected among the respondents (97%). This was an encouraging sign because it indicated that faculty individually and the university collectively had reached a level of comfort with the most basic function in Blackboard. The studies also revealed, however, that very few faculty members used the more advanced tools and features of Blackboard, including communication (22%) and assessment (32%). See Graph--1

Graph 1

We were also able to learn that 68% of the responding faculty who use Blackboard said they access it two or more times per week and that nearly 77% of them had been using Blackboard for at least one semester. Respondents further indicated that they were motivated to use Blackboard because they saw it as a vehicle to improve student learning (75%) and to enhancing their own teaching and technology skills (63%). At the same time, they said the primary barrier to even greater adoption of Blackboard tools and features was a lack of time (61%). A close second was the lack of technical expertise. Most, however, indicated a desire to learn how to use Blackboard more effectively to enhance their course, specifically in the area of incorporating instructional activities that increase the interactivity of student to student, student to instructor, and student to content. See Graph-- 2

Graph 2

As a result of the information gathered, IDS wanted to answer this question: How can we encourage more innovative use of Blackboard and other software applications in order to develop exemplary web-enhanced courses that will ultimately lead to improved student learning? In specific terms, the challenge was really how to encourage more interactive content and activities and more communication and assessment usage.

Using the theme from a popular television program, IDS decided to offer KU faculty an “Extreme Makeover” for their Blackboard sites. During Spring 2004, IDS invited KU faculty to apply for a “Blackboard Course Make-Over"—a personalized, private, course site review and redesign. Several instructors volunteered and five were selected for this pilot project to "beef up" their Blackboard courses with more interactive content activities and greater communication and assessment usage.

The entire process was coordinated by two Instructional Designers who met with participating faculty regularly, usually weekly, throughout the semester. The skills of other academic support professionals, including video producers, software trainers, and librarians, were also called upon as necessary to complete the project by providing technical support, production services, or academic guidance. In the end, IDS helped with many production aspects, including developing interactive materials, loading test questions into pools, and creating short video clips to integrate into the course site. Ultimately, each course was reviewed in the “before” stage, documented as it underwent various procedures, and revealed—the “after”—in its new format.

One course that particularly benefited from a “makeover” was a Journalism 608 class on Ethics and the Media taught by Professor Peggy Kuhr. In her application she indicated a strong desire to add more interactivity and move beyond simply posting content files. She was particularly interested in adding video elements, discussion opportunities, and exercises or games that could be easily adapted to the “news of the day.” Several initiatives were accomplished to meet these objectives. They were:

  • Encourage online discussion.
  • Because Kuhr was not teaching J608 in Spring 2004, we assembled a focus group of seven former students to help gather information, generate additional ideas, and review the end products. Their comments were collected on a discussion board both during and after the process.

Two permanent discussion boards were created. One, titled “Ethics Antenna,” is intended to make students more aware of the many media ethical dilemmas that arise every day. Essentially, students will be asked to find and post articles, web sites, photographs, and advertisements that illustrate possible ethical questions. The second discussion board is called “Life in the Real World” and will allow current students to interact with recent graduates and professionals in the field about recent ethical dilemmas and appropriate problem-solving strategies.

  • Provoke quick response to ethics issues in the news.

The instructor wanted to be able to easily create and deploy weekly Ethics Polls based on current media events. The Instructional Designer introduced her to a web-based application called PollMonkey ( A poll can easily be added, along with a photograph or additional links if needed, directly in an Announcement within Blackboard. The primary advantage of using this method over the survey function found inside Blackboard is that students are able to view the accumulated results of other respondents’ answers.

  • Extend classroom learning, particularly with emotional material.

Visual images often provoke strong reactions, so photographs in news and advertising campaigns can pose important ethical challenges – and have enormous consequences on media credibility. The instructor wanted students to spend more time considering such images.

First, the instructor’s collection of news photographs that pose ethical questions was scanned to digital format and uploaded to Blackboard to create a picture library. Next, the instructor developed a prototype lesson on a troubling question in photojournalism: pictures that include dead bodies. A narrated slide show was developed that showed several current images in the news, the ethical dilemmas they posed, and ultimately the decisions that various news organizations made. Impatica for PowerPoint ( ) was used to compress the PowerPoint file to a more manageable size for viewing within Blackboard and over the Web. Students will be asked to use a discussion board to follow-up and share their own viewpoints and impressions.

  • Provide interactive reading exercises.
  • Case studies are used extensively in the course to demonstrate important concepts. However, such exercises can become tedious for students and textbook chapters, while important, are often not compelling. SoftChalk LessonBuilder ( ) was used to create interactive reading exercises complete with text poppers for definitions and additional information, web site links, photographs, and comprehension questions embedded throughout. At the end of a lesson, students can see their “score” on how well they answered the questions.
  • Capture student journalists’ own experiences.
  • Journalism students working at the student newspaper, The University Daily Kansan, face a variety of ethical issues every day in their jobs. Four students were interviewed and videotaped speaking about specific ethical problems they’d run into. The interviews were then edited into smaller segments and delivered though Blackboard using a streaming server and in conjunction with the SoftChalk LessonBuilder application. For some assignments, students will be asked to watch the videos in two settings. In the first, they will be exposed to the ethical dilemma and then they will use a discussion board to describe what they would do in a similar situation. Finally, they will watch additional videos where the students explain what actually happened.
  • Offer an online decision-making “game.”
  • Quandry ( ) is a program that creates Web-based Action Mazes—interactive case studies. In this game, the user is presented with a situation and a number of choices. Upon choosing one of the options, the user sees the results and then must face a new set of options. Because the ethics course focuses on making good ethical decisions, students need extensive practice. This software can mimic the array of decisions that a journalist must face – and then give students instant feedback about the consequences of the choices they make.

At the conclusion of the project Professor Kuhr made the following statements:

“I liked the creative collaboration. I had visions of what might be possible; and IDS Staff, especially Craig Gerdes, took those ideas and helped me get there. They also had some great suggestions of things to try.”

“My Blackboard course is significantly better. I think the students will respond positively to the new ways information is presented and the interactivity of the lessons.”

  • Students in the focus group also had positive comments about the improved course site and said the new activities including polls, discussions, slide shows, and games, made the content more interesting and relevant. The course will be offered for the first time in its new format to students during Fall 2004.

By the end of spring semester, IDS felt t he “Blackboard Course Make-over” was an innovative and successful project for several reasons. First, instructors were more willing to experiment with new Blackboard tools, including communication and assessment features. This could be because the partnership with IDS allowed them to work in the p rivacy of their own offices and because an “expert” was always available for assistance, which could have made them more enterprising as well. Second, i nstructors were more willing to explore other software to be used within Blackboard to enhance content delivery and create more interactive exercises and activities. This was possible because of the u nique partnership agreement that was established and because initial production work was completed by IDS staff. Both of these factors helped eliminate the potential barriers of limited time and limited technical expertise.

While we believe each course that received a makeover is "new and improved," IDS and the faculty are anxious to see the resulting learning benefits once the course is offered to students for the first time with its new "look". As a result of the positive comments from the faculty participants, we plan to continue offering this partnership program in future semesters.



Craig Gerdes is an Instructional Designer at the University of Kansas. His major responsibilities include faculty consultation and training, program design and evaluation, and resource development. He has a Masters degree in Adult, Occupational, and Continuing Education and is a certified online instructor. He has worked in education for over 15 years and in the educational technology field for 5 years at both the K-12 and higher education levels.

Peggy Kuhr is the Knight Chair in Community Journalism for the journalism school at the University of Kansas. Before moving to KU in August 2002, she was managing editor for content at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. Professor Kuhr has also worked at The Hartford Courant ( Hartford, Conn.) and the Great Falls Tribune ( Great Falls, Mont.). Peggy has a master's degree in Organizational Leadership from Gonzaga University and an undergraduate degree from the University of Montana.

Author: Craig Gerdes & Peggy Kuhr

22 June 2005

VLE: Blackboard



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