Photo David Montes de Oca, Director of e-Learning Services and Andrew Kapunin, Sr. Developer at Center for Innovation in Learning, National University.

How to Effectively Use Community Participation Tools in Blackboard Learn


Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on Aug 23, 2017 – Click here for the Spanish version

Today, there is a rising demand for alternatives to traditional educational institutions. As diverse student bodies pursue degrees in specialized fields, they require a more flexible and responsive education to meet their needs. Not only are busy working adults looking to further their careers, many other populations could benefit from an alternative educational approach. The National University System is meeting this need with a unique one-class-per-month format, along with the implementation of their LMS across multiple affiliate institutions.

The National University System (NUS) is a non-profit educational system that serves learners of all ages through its affiliates. Founded in 1971, its main affiliate, the National University, is an accredited private non-profit university with a one-course-per-month format. National University offers flexible online and onsite programs, serving adults and veterans with flexible online education options. More than 70 degree programs are available fully online across all NUS affiliates, including:

David Montes de Oca is a system administrator of a shared multi-tenant LMS environment, comprised of the four unique Institutions mentioned above. With experience in functional extensions of LMS environments, such as LTI integrations and custom solutions development, David works with a team of developers and project managers on the functional extension of the system. Working alongside him is Andrew Kapunin, a senior programmer with a background in project planning, research, development and support. They spoke with Blackboard about utilizing the native features of Blackboard Learn’s Community Engagement Module (CEM) and the Quick Enroll Module (QEM) tool to consolidate a single managed-hosting environment for all affiliates, while maintaining a high level of autonomy among brands. They shared their experience and provided some advice on best practices to take in to account when approaching similar projects.

The Community Engagement Module

When David, Andrew and their team executed the migration from their previous LMS to Blackboard Learn, they applied the same administrative and faculty access structure they already had in place. Once that was set, and courses were being migrated over to the new platform, the CEM stood out to the team, as it allowed them to build an institutional hierarchy with a node structure that was native to the platform. As a result, David and the development team could create a platform tailored to the affiliates, schools or colleges within the system and courses by subject. Administrative access, course access and tool utilization can be managed with the creation of delineated admin roles and privileges for different individuals. 

Establishing an Institutional Hierarchy

Trying to make one system act like another is a risky approach, so, with the complex structural organization of multiple institutions, the management of users and courses by a small department would have been virtually impossible. At the same time, it is important to separate access to student data for each affiliate. With that in mind, the team at National University’s Center for Innovation and Learning (CIL) established a detailed hierarchy of the entire National University System within Blackboard Learn (System Admin > Communities > Institutional Hierarchy). This allowed them to designate administrators to each node, with the ability to manage courses and organizations under that node. Essentially, each node administrator can have extensive privileges, but within a limited scope.

The Quick Enroll Module

Under the institutional hierarchy for NU, CityU, JFK, and NUVHS, they also use another customization tool called the Quick Enroll Module. They can path an administrative role to a course level role specific to each affiliate. For instance, CityU has an administrative role that is used by three staff members in charge of faculty support. They provide best practices for the use of online tools or troubleshooting of technical issues. David’s team created that role within CityU’s hierarchy, very much like a partition, so that only those staff members have access to their affiliate’s courses but with specific privileges, such as turning tools on and off or managing Tabs and Modules. The experience is seamless for the end user, and administrators can be sure that their activity won’t affect entities outside of their affiliate’s hierarchy.

Having a Quick Enroll feature, however, does not automatically provide an experience like National University’s, but it does make it possible, as faculty have the freedom to access tools that are specific to a subject matter or institution. It’s in the way in which faculty make use of that freedom that makes that experience possible. For example, an LTI (Learning Tool Interoperability) integration could be executed and turned on for single subject matter courses only. 

Reasons to Consider an Institutional Hierarchy

  • Custom branding

With Blackboard Learn, the team was able to customize each brand in detail. A set of cascade style sheet (CSS) files was downloaded in the form of a theme package. Each CSS file describes how every element of the user interface will be presented. This gives administrators and developers an excellent tool to manage the look and feel of the LMS. Not only were they able to create a custom theme for each affiliate, they could also further improve the user experience. For instance, the font Awesome was added as an open-source icon kit within the course content. This functionality is available in System Admin > Communities > Brands and Themes.

  • Delineated permissions

The next challenge was to provide users with unique content, depending on the school or institution they were enrolled at. This was possible due to the flexibility of Tabs and Modules (System Admin > Communities > Tabs and Modules). This section allows for the creation of top-level navigation, second-level navigation items, and modules for each page. Modules are small widgets (pieces of content) that are flexible enough to display content associated with a particular tool, or simply with HTML.

  • Admin roles

Blackboard Learn administrative support staff helped the development team to find a way to map an individual Program Director or Course Lead role to a specific course role with administrative access, so they could search for a course by term, course name, or course ID. Quick Enroll allows them to avoid having multiple versions of courses that can increase loading times and create confusion with enrollment.

To engage each brand with users and their affiliates separately, and to show only relevant modules to those users, Institution Roles come into play (System Admin > Users > Institution Roles). Each user, when enrolled in the LMS, is assigned an institution role that represents the brand of the affiliate and their target group (students, instructors or staff). Each theme, navigation structure and set of modules is also associated with the respective institution roles.

Key tips for approaching a hierarchy:

  • Institutional hierarchy should not be forced. This means being very mindful of the course management permissions for different users and tool availability, such as feature customization for a smaller student body with different needs, or an LTI integration.
  • Set up efficient communication channels with Blackboard Learn administrators. Team leaders should discuss which permissions should be granted to different users. If permissions are not enabled by default, discuss with the Blackboard Learn administrative team what options are available.
  • In a shared environment, it is a give and take relationship between institutions, and roles should be clearly defined to prevent possible mishaps with admin settings. It is useful to focus on how the experience for the staff member that serves students and faculty is in practice. Then, it is easier to map a similar role in the new LMS without providing full system admin access, as it is a shared environment.

In short, trying to make one system act like another is risky, as David and Andrew have revealed. When trying to find the way through an LMS implementation or integration, National University System’s experience shows that expectations can be met, even surpassed, when the Design and System Management teams are mindful of the tool’s capabilities and limitations. This, along with careful planning, is the key to building a seamless end user experience.

Photos by: AFP Bill Wechter