What is Blackboard? Everything you need to know about the online learning platform

Hybrid-learning classroom
Blackboard is an increasingly common platform for online learning.

  • Blackboard Learn is a highly customizable online learning application that allows users to take or host online courses.
  • Students and teachers can interact using assignments, video conferencing, discussion groups, tests, and more in Blackboard Learn and its upgraded version, Ultra.
  • Blackboard’s mobile apps and accessibility tools allow students to participate remotely and flexibly in classes. 
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Blackboard is a customizable online learning tool that can replace or supplement traditional face-to-face classes for a school or any other classroom structure. Many conventional classroom functions have equivalents in Blackboard Learn, allowing students and teachers to emulate just about every physical classroom experience element. 

In a fully online format, the teacher might assign all materials to the students digitally, communicate outside of class using online tools, and have students discuss and collaborate online. But in a hybrid model, the class might meet in person only a few times a week and use Blackboard activities that students complete outside the course. Finally, in a web-enhanced model, the classes may be face-to-face, but instructors may post supporting materials like syllabus, assignments, or optional discussions online. 

Here’s what else you should know about Blackboard. 

Blackboard’s features and tools

Blackboard is host to many virtual and digital learning tools, but all revolve around its core component: courses. 

Courses, which instructors can only start, are accessible through the “Home” section of a student’s Blackboard account under “My Courses.” Classes are supplemented by various tools, focusing on several critical areas of the classroom experience: content, interaction and discussion, and announcements and scheduling. 

Courses & Content

Instructors can post content, including files, text, images, audio, and video, in their courses. That content can then be organized using learning modules, folders, or lesson plans. To help students navigate their course content, instructors can post a syllabus with descriptions of the course materials, assignments, grading expectations, and more in a section of the course menu or elsewhere within a course. 

Other content that you’ll likely see includes surveys, tests, and assignments. Instructors can customize grading for and assign grades to submissions. Students can view assignment and class grades by navigating to the “My Grades” section in the dropdown menu by their name. Meanwhile, surveys and tests are highly customizable and may be multiple-choice, timed, or written. While tests are graded, surveys are not. Surveys may instead be used to poll students or assess their knowledge and are marked as complete or incomplete. 

Announcements & Calendars

Blackboard offers several ways for students and teachers to stay on track throughout their class. Instructors can post announcements on changes to a syllabus, due dates, exam schedules, and more. Notifications may appear on the “Home” page of a student’s Blackboard account for their institution or within specific classes. Instructors and students can also keep track of important dates through the calendar tool, combining course, individual, and institutional schedules.

Interaction & Discussion

Instructors can set up discussion boards within their classes, with both students and educators can start new discussion threads and reply to an original prompt. Students in a class can also send direct messages to one another by clicking “Messages” in their course menu.

Instructors may set up groups of students within their class to complete group projects, have discussions, or share work. In addition to sharing files and having group-specific conversations, this feature lets users create shared journals. These are a way for students to interact privately with their instructor. Instructors create journal topics within the journal topic page, and students respond with entries that can be graded. 

There’s also a video-conferencing feature of the platform called Blackboard Collaborate, which allows for virtual discussions in group sessions or one-on-one meetings.

Additional Blackboard features

Blackboard has some other features that help students and instructors stay connected, whether with Blackboard Ultra, the mobile apps, or the accessibility toolkit. Here’s what you should know about them. 

Ultra

Blackboard Ultra is a cloud-based service like Google Workspace (formerly GSuite) or Dropbox, rather than a downloaded or installed software. It’s an updated version of the original Blackboard that institutions can access if they opt for SaaS (“Software As A Service”) deployment. 

Blackboard Ultra’s updated user interface and workflow include a responsive design that works on any device. It also features an “activity stream” that allows students to see updates from all their classes together in an organized list rather than class-by-class. Ultra’s calendar gathers due dates from all courses and offers a grades page that features all your performance together without navigating to each class. 

If you’re unsure if you have the Ultra or Original version of Blackboard, look at your browser window’s left panel after log in. If your name is shown in the left-hand menu, you’re using Ultra. If it’s in the top right, you’re using Original. 

Mobile apps

Blackboard’s apps, including Blackboard and Blackboard Instructor, are iOS 11+ and Android 5+ compatible mobile tools that work with both Original and Ultra interfaces. Once downloaded, the app will ask you to find your institution and log in with your Blackboard Learn login information. 

Accessibility tools 

To optimize accessibility on Blackboard, instructors can design content for students with visual, hearing, learning, and mobility-based disabilities in mind. 

Blackboard Learn is compatible with screen readers, and pages are designed to follow a common structure to allow quick navigation. Others can enable high-contrast styles on the login page of Blackboard Learn to match their computer configuration. Students who use keyboard navigation will find commonly used web formatting, while those who rely on key commands to navigate through pages can access them in the Quick Links tool or through hitting Shift+Alt+L. 

Instructors can caption all media types that they upload so that students can read information instead of listening. To reduce visual clutter and increase executive function, users can collapse menus or set up Blackboard Learn to send notifications and reminders. Instructors can also design tests with accommodations for extra time, varying visual displays, or more attempts. 

The Blackboard App also offers built-in accessibility features, like VoiceOver navigation, zoom for enlarged visuals, color filters, navigation through Bluetooth switch hardware, AssistiveTouch in iOS, and Switch Access for external devices in Android. 

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What is Blackboard Collaborate? How to use Blackboard’s video-conferencing rooms

Student remote learning laptop
Blackboard Collaborate is a web-conferencing tool that gives instructors and students more ways to learn virtually face-to-screen-to-face.

  • Blackboard Collaborate offers Blackboard instructors and moderators private, dedicated course rooms for breakout sessions, one-on-one meetings, and office hours. 
  • Available as part of the standard or Ultra Blackboard experience, Blackboard Collaborate is located in your Course Tools and is accessible through a desktop or mobile device.
  • Visit Business Insider’s Tech Reference library for more stories.

Blackboard is an online learning tool that allows students and instructors to host or take online classes as part of a school, university, or corporate environment. The educational platform is highly customizable, allowing users to tailor their digital classroom experience to an institution’s and learners’ needs. 

In Blackboard, students can view assignments, submit work, have discussions, and even meet for a video conference. Meanwhile, instructors can make announcements, post course materials, and grade assignments and classes. Blackboard’s apps also help students stay connected on their phones, and other features include calendars, discussions, groups, and assessments. 

Within Blackboard, several advanced features enhance or expand the interactive element of online learning. Blackboard Collaborate and Blackboard Collaborate Ultra are just one. The video-based conferencing tool within the Blackboard platform hosts private “rooms” for real-time educational collaboration. 

Here’s everything you should know about Blackboard Collaborate. 

What you need to know about Blackboard Collaborate

Blackboard’s video conferencing tool works with both the original and Ultra versions through different interfaces. Both allow users to meet in real-time, add files, and more. You’ll need to install the Blackboard Collaborate utility before you launch video sessions but will be prompted to download it when you click on a video session link. 

Blackboard Collaborate rooms are located in the “Tools” section of a course. In Blackboard Original, there is one video “room” associated with a given course if enabled. In Ultra, the instructor may create additional sessions for other uses, including breakout or group-study sessions that can operate regardless of whether the instructor is present. Instructors can also customize the rooms to allow private messaging, allow simultaneous speakers, share their desktop, or set recording options. 

The dedicated “Course Room” lasts for the entirety of the course, and instructors and students can join at any time without scheduling or without the need for an instructor to hold bigger classwide sessions. Instructors have an additional “My Room” that can be used for office hours or other smaller meetings with students. 

And much like Zoom, in Collaborate, instructors can create a unique session link. Instructors can use the link to direct students immediately from another course area (a folder, for example) to the Collaborate session.

Blackboard Collaborate interactive features and mobile access

Collaborate offers several features to help students and instructors get the most out of the “room” experience. Users can participate in polls, raise their hand (like the Google Meet and Zoom feature) to share a question or comment, and use the chat to message other students or the room moderator without disrupting the larger conversation. 

Collaborate will test your audio and video before you join the session or room, but in the case where your audio is not up to par, you have the option to call in and join the sessions using your phone. Or, you could go completely mobile by joining a Collaborate session from your mobile browser. Android users should sign into their Blackboard account using Chrome, while iPhone users can use Safari to join live classes and meetings, view instructor-shared content, and use all the same whiteboard and communication tools as a desktop device.  

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