July 15, 2014

Perspectives on Disability MOOC Receives Exemplary Course Award

Banner for Perspectives on Disability

In Fall 2013, NIU offered its first massive open online course (or MOOC), titled Perspectives on Disability. The course was led by College of Health and Human Sciences professor Greg Long, a Presidential Teaching Professor in the School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders. The 10-week experience, based on the for-credit AHRS 200, a general education course entitled, “Disability in Society,” was designed to raise awareness and increase knowledge about disability.

Recently, the MOOC was awarded a 2014 Blackboard Exemplary Course Award with Director’s Choice for Courses with Distinction. According to Blackboard, Inc., the Exemplary Course Awards recognize those who develop “exciting and innovative courses that represent the very best in technology and learning.” Award recipients are chosen based on the Exemplary Course Rubric that evaluates four major areas (Course Design, Interaction & Collaboration, Assessment and Learner Support). Reviews are conducted by a peer group of Blackboard clients and winners are selected by the Exemplary Course Directors.

Here is a brief course tour that highlights some of the best practices used in the MOOC design.

YouTube Preview Image

You can also enroll in the course on the Blackboard Open Education platform.

For those interested, the course was selected for using three stand-out practices.

Stand-out Practice 1 – Universal Design for Learning

Because the course topic was perspectives on disability, and one of the course goals was to “create awareness, comfort, and sensitivity toward disability as an issue of cultural diversity and inclusion,” the course had to be entirely accessible. To accomplish this, we used principles of universal design for learning (UDL).

Screenshot of MOOC demonstrating UDL features

For example, content was delivered in plain text and multiple formats were provided for screenreader compatibility. The menus and content used high contrast colors for low vision. Videos were kept short for engagement & bandwidth. The videos were posted on YouTube and embedded using the Blackboard Mashup tool so that videos would have keyboard controls. All of the videos had captions and transcripts. Assignments had multiple options and open submission deadlines.

Stand-out Practice 2 - Developing empathy through critical thinking

Screenshot of a video with a guest speaker

Most courses on disability focus on the medical or legal facets of disability. This MOOC was designed to help students develop empathy by focusing on higher-level critical thinking skills. The goal was for students to see disability as a natural aspect of life.

The guest speakers in the videos told personal stories about disability, which began the process of engaging students in empathy. By using the same speakers throughout the videos, students were able to see the guest speakers’ stories develop through the different topics.

The activities helped students form personal connections through reflection, interviews, or teaching. Even though the activities were not graded, like a traditional course, they were designed to be educative instead of evaluative. For example, the process of interviewing someone was more important than the product of that interview. By engaging students in critical thinking, the activities guided students through new ways of thinking.

The final assignment of the course required students to reflect on the entire process and what they had learned. Many reported that their views on disability had changed and that they were more aware of issues related to disability, including stereotypes, portrayal in media, physical barriers, and etiquette.

Stand-out Practice 3 - Best practices as a MOOC

Screenshot of how to download certificate

Perspectives on Disability was challenging to design as a MOOC. It needed to be open, flexible, and student-driven so that learners could engage in the higher-level thinking needed to develop empathy and challenge their perspectives, but also linear and structured enough to support new learners without extensive technology skills.

Our approach was to provide a strong and consistent structure that still allowed students to connect with one another and maintain a sense of personal control. Weekly introductions and a consistent format helped students connect with and navigate the course. Clear instructions and links to help and accessibility support on the menu allowed students unfamiliar with the technology use the tools for the course.

Students were encouraged to form a community by posting to discussion boards and providing each other with feedback on their learning. In addition, social media was used to help students build a personal learning network outside of the course.

Objective quizzes with multiple attempts allowed students to self-assess their understanding, while multiple options for assignments let students determine their own forms of expression and the direction of their learning. In the absence of feedback or a grade as motivation, badges served as both motivation and recognition of student progress through the MOOC.

Feedback from Students

Most importantly, the students loved the MOOC! In their final reflections, students shared what they learned and how the experience impacted them. Here are a few of their comments.

“I learned that you should not judge a book by its cover because if you judge you will have that stereotype of what this person might possibly be. I learned that everyone has a story and the only way to learn their story is to ask and learn from them.”

“I loved the guest speakers. I loved how personal it was. I feel a lot of learning was through the speakers because they are in the present, living with their disability and are each very easy to relate to.”

“This course taught me to recognize my own attitudinal barriers and become more self-aware of my thoughts and behaviors towards those with disabilities.”


“As an educator, I will have opportunities to work with individuals with disabilities, and this course has provided me with the knowledge to better assist those individuals.”


“I want to express my deep feelings that I have towards this and sincerely thank each and every one who came up with this course because it was very helpful to the extent that I cannot express through writing.”


“I am going to recommend this course to many people at my place of employment. It was easy to use and very helpful.”

“I learned that the way that people view people with disabilities is completely unfair. I never really thought about my own views, and this course has definitely opened my eyes. I was completely wrong and this course has given me a glimpse into the ways others want to be treated/viewed.”

July 10, 2014

Opportunity to Shape the Future of Blackboard (and Earn an Amazon Gift Card!)

Laptop keyboardBlackboard is conducting a series of user research studies as they design the next generation of Blackboard Learn, and are looking for feedback from faculty and students. They are partnering with TecEd, an independent research firm, to conduct usability tests with some new features.

What: You will try some features of the redesigned Blackboard Learn and tell them your thoughts

Where: At your own computer, speaking on the phone with a researcher during the one-to-one research session. Sessions will last 30 or 60 minutes for students, and 45 or 90 minutes for faculty

When: Sessions will take place July 11 – August 29, 2014

What else: Participants who complete a session will receive an Amazon gift card to thank them for their time and input. The card value will range from $50 to $150, depending on the session length

To apply to participate, please go to https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/XHLZYLZ

If you meet the study criteria, TecEd will contact you to schedule a research session. Please note that the gift cards are not provided by NIU or the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, and we have no control or input on who is selected to participate in the research study.

May 12, 2014

How To Write Engaging Questions for Online Forums

Online asynchronous discussions are often incorporated by faculty into blended or online courses, providing opportunities for rich dialog among students outside of the traditional face-to-face classroom environment. A number of steps can be taken to promote an engaging and interactive online discussion, beginning with drafting the discussion questions that students are asked to respond to. This infographic highlights a variety of suggestions that can yield more meaningful and deeper online discussions.

How to Compose Engaging Questions for Online Forums Infographic
Source: BangTheTable

What additional suggestions do you have for writing engaging questions for online discussion forums?  Feel free to leave a comment with your ideas!

April 29, 2014

Scheduled NIU Blackboard Outage – May 24-25, 2014

See What's Better

A significant upgrade is scheduled to be performed to the Blackboard Learn System over Memorial Day Weekend. The upgrade will begin at 5:00 AM on Saturday, May 24, 2014 and will complete by 5:00 AM on Sunday, May 25, 2014. The Blackboard Learn System (http://webcourses.niu.edu) will be UNAVAILABLE during this time.

The latest version of Blackboard Learn, 9.1 Service Pack 14 (SP14), will introduce several new exciting features, including:

  • Quick Links: Improved navigation experience for keyboard-only users.
  • Date Management: Seamlessly “shift” content and dates in a course following a course copy.
  • Achievements: Add excitement and recognition to courses by offering badges and certificates for course progress.
  • Test Exceptions: Use Text Exceptions to define customized delivery settings for specific students or groups, such as number of attempts, timer, auto submit, etc.
  • Group Management – Enhancement: Easily manage multiple groups, create Grade Center Smart Views, and more.
  • Inline Assignment Grading – Enhancement: Grading just got even easier with new full screen mode. Inline grading is now also available for Blogs, Journals, and Discussion Boards..
  • Grade Center – Enhancement: Adjust total points possible for a test, use values greater than 100% for grading schemas, and more.
  • My Grades – Enhancement: New inline feedback and custom re-ordering options for students.
  • Course Message Notification: Course messaging notifications are now integrated into Notification Dashboard and My Blackboard.
  • Blackboard Collaborate – Enhancement: Schedule sessions with simplified settings or use permanent rooms for each course and faculty/instructor

To learn more about the upcoming features, please visit www.niu.edu/blackboard/upgrade

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact the ITS Helpdesk at 815-753-8100 or helpdesk@niu.edu.

April 28, 2014

Blackboard Releases Update to the SafeAssign Originality Report

Safe Assign LogoOn April 26, Blackboard, Inc. released an update to SafeAssign that establishes a new look and feel for the Originality Report and general bug fixes. Because Blackboard, Inc. maintains the SafeAssign servers, NIU had no control over the timing of this change. Fortunately, the general features of the plagiarism check and report have not changed, and the new report is cleaner and easier to read.

The new Originality Report opens as a small pop-up window with the text of the submitted document visible. Click the … button in the upper right to view the details about the plagiarism check, including percent matching and citations that may have been plagiarized, or resize the window wider to display the right column.

SafeAssign Originality Report

The Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center has put together a guide to using the new Originality Report, available here.