Blackboard and the National Learning Network Materials
With the National Learning Network (NLN) materials now available to Further Education Colleges, Specialist Colleges and Adult and Community Learning, identifying suitable content for Blackboard should now be much more straight-forward. We have approximately 600 hours of interactive, engaging learning material covering 21 subject areas from which to draw learning material, including some generic material that can be used in a variety of contexts.
However, for most of us that isn’t the end of the story…
It’s great to have the materials, but here are the further challenges!
(1) How can an institution make the materials readily available to all their staff?
(2) How can we support browsing or searching the materials to allow staff to find the content students need?
(3) Having selected suitable content, how can we best integrate the NLN material into a Virtual Learning Environment such as Blackboard?
Basically, how can we use the National Learning Network materials to best effect?
At Gateshead College we haven’t perfectly solved all of the above, but perhaps we’ve made a start. Hopefully some of the ideas and experiences presented here might help you to move forward, or perhaps you would like to put forward some other approaches or ideas in response?
An NLN Browser
The story starts with the release of the first batch of NLN materials. The initial aim was to get the materials onto the college intranet in the minimum amount of time. Fortunately we were lucky to have a highly skilled developer available who had the skills to create a browser. Having unzipped the hierarchy of NLN folders, Rich Manley-Reeve devised a system that dynamically reads the folders and presents them for browsing.
This ‘Mark 1’ NLN Browser (Figure 1) lists out the various folders, allows you to click on a folder to move into it, and then sub-folders or lists of learning materials themselves (Figure 2) are displayed. Clicking on the name of one of the learning materials will launch it and allow it to be used and previewed.
Where descriptions and keywords are shown in Figure 2, these are being read from the XML files that describe the materials.
The system gave a quick way of making NLN materials available to all staff (the first challenge listed above).
As a college starting out with Blackboard at the time of the first release of NLN materials, it was necessary to find a way of bridging the gap between the NLN materials browser and Blackboard courses. How could we find a simple way to support teachers who, having identified suitable content, want to make material available to students as part of a Blackboard course?
The answer is in Figure 2. Notice how two buttons are provided under the titles of learning materials.
One button ‘Copy Link’ grabs a copy of the URL for a piece of learning material. This can then be pasted into Blackboard (or a Word document, Powerpoint presentation etc… as appropriate).
Some of these URLs could be rather lengthy and unpleasant looking – perhaps in some cases this type of format:
(note this is an example of the format, not a genuine link!)
Pasting this link straight into Blackboard may work, but it is rather unsightly, and perhaps some people may not easily recognise it as a link.
Rather than always providing this type of messy-looking URL, a second button ‘BB Link’ was added. This option provides a sample of HTML that can be pasted into Blackboard to create a link that has similar functionality but which looks much neater. The HTML would typically look like this:
<a target="_blank" href="http://nlnserver.gateshead.ac.uk/nlnmaterial/Health%20Care%3B%20Medicine%3B%20Health%20and%20Safety/Occupational%20Health%20And%20Safety/desq_PL11_Work-related%20stress/index.html">Work-related stress</a>
(again this is an example of the format, not a genuine link!)
Teachers do not have to worry what this HTML means, they just copy it from the NLN materials browser by clicking on the ‘BB Link’ button and then paste the code into Blackboard.
This left one problem: how to search the NLN materials to find suitable content? This problem has been addressed with the ‘Mark II’ version of the browser. There are also a number of other new and improved features in this version of the browser, making it much easier for example to add new NLN material to the system.
The ‘Mark II’ system has been developed as part of the OWL project – a regional project involving a partnership of 6 colleges and 3 universities in the North-East of England.
Figures 3, 4 and 5 show the new interface and the search facilities. When a keyword is entered into the browser (in the example in Figure 4 the word ‘speed’), a match is made with any words in the description or keywords, giving search results as in Figure 5.
The ‘Mark II’ system also has a ‘Bookmark’ facility that allows resources of particular interest to be marked by the user. This facility aids users in searching and identifying suitable resources by allowing bookmarks to be saved in a ‘Bookmark List’ and then copied collectively with one action.
How does it all come together?
The NLN Browser sits alongside and complements Blackboard and gives an easy means of finding the material that you need.
The approach of storing the NLN materials outside of Blackboard, and then linking to the materials using the ‘Copy Link’ or ‘BB Link’ method has proved to be the most practical one. It may not appeal to purists who might argue that the VLE is there to hold content, and therefore should be used for this purpose rather than regularly linking to external material. However, the ‘external link’ method has practical short term advantages in terms of increasing flexibility of use of the materials, conserving disk space and improving the ease of finding suitable materials.
The example in Figure 6 shows how material can look inside Blackboard using this technique. Here we have part of a Blackboard course devised to support tutorial activities by providing help and advice on a range of relevant study, lifestyle and personal development topics. Relevant content from the NLN materials was identified, including some ‘Healthy Living’ materials covering Smoking, Alcohol and Drug Use. Figure 6 shows how a link to the relevant NLN content has been included (using the ‘BB Link’ pasting HTML method described above), alongside a relevant image sourced from the web.
So, where do we go in moving on from this? Here in the North-East, the OWL project is now leading any further development of the NLN material browser, and the ‘Mark II’ version is being used in each of the 6 local colleges.
From a Blackboard perspective, this work perhaps emphasises the need for a powerful Blackboard ‘Content Management’ tool allowing easier sharing, indexing and browsing of learning materials.
Personally, I think quick and effective searching for materials is absolutely vital. We all have a lot of demands on our time, so we therefore need to pinpoint resources quickly, allowing us to have more time for planning how to integrate and deliver material with sound pedagogy and best meet the individual needs of our learners.
It will be interesting to see how the process of finding and selecting relevant content can perhaps be made easier still in the future. It would be very interesting to hear suggestions from other practitioners for effective sharing of materials such as the NLN resources. Perhaps we could define more specific metadata describing courses, units and contexts in which particular NLN material have been found useful. If this could be searched, we could have an even more powerful system. A lot of expert knowledge is out there (NLN Mentors, teachers and lecturers, information from the NLN web-site and so on), but how can we capture this knowledge and use it to enable teachers to quickly and easily identify the learning material that’s best for their learners?