Trends in Blackboard Tool Usage at NIU

Blackboard Learn, the course management system utiilized by Northern Illinois University faculty, staff, teaching assistants, and students, continues to be an important platform for facilitating teaching at learning at NIU, with over 96% of students and 92% of teaching faculty using the system during Fall 2014.  To gain even more insight into how NIU faculty and students are using Blackboard, the Division of Information Technology has implemented new custom reporting capabilities within Blackboard that extends the built-in statistics tracking features for tracking individual tool usage by course. As a result, we have an even better understanding of overall Blackboard adoption and tool use at NIU and will be able to track usage trends over time.

Reviewing this additional usage data, the following infographic, available for download here, was developed to highlight notable trends in Blackboard tool usage.

NIU Blackboard Tool Use 2014

A few noteworthy usage trends as of Fall 2014 include:

  • Overall Blackboard tool use by course instructors has continued to increase over the years – particularly tools relating to grading, testing and assignments, and online collaboration. Interestingly, the percent usage of these tools increases considerably over the summer semester.
  • Student use of the Blackboard system has remained high for the past several years (~96%).
  • Recently, Blackboard adoption by teaching faculty has made a significant jump from 82% (2013) to 92% (2014).
  • Most course instructors make use of Blackboard for posting announcement and content items (e.g., PowerPoint Slides, PDFs, Images, etc.), as well as for posting grades.
  • Use of Blackboard Collaborate Web Conferencing has risen significantly over the past year, with now 11% of courses using Blackboard Collaborate

Thank you to the Division of Information Technology for providing these usage statistics, as they have been useful in identifying what tools are being used most in Blackboard as well as recognizing trends usage over time.

For more information about Teaching with Blackboard at Northern Illinois University, visit

Helix Media Library: A Secure Solution for Uploading and Sharing Video

A useful new tool for securely sharing video online is now available to the NIU community, the Helix Media Library (HML). The HML is an on-campus streaming media server that allows faculty, students and staff to store media content (audio and video). Even more intriguing is that the HML is integrated with the Blackboard Learn course management system, making it easier to incorporate media into Blackboard courses by encoding and converting media so that it is optimized for streaming and able to play on most devices, including computers, laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

In the past, faculty who wished to post media content to Blackboard, especially video, may have experienced difficulty when adding it to their course. The process was unwieldy and awkward, yielding inconsistent results because the Blackboard server was not able to optimize the streaming video.

In addition, because video files are often larger than other course content, uploading media content could quickly fill up Blackboard course quotas. As a result, faculty might have resorted to using outside services such as YouTube or Vimeo, to post and distribute content. Now, with the HML, it is much easier to post audio and video files to this on-campus server and share them within the university or publicly. The HML operates behind a firewall, with content regularly backed-up by NIU.

The HML is a Mashups tool appearing in the Text Box Editor (see below). When you click the Mashups button, you can select the Helix Media Library link to begin the process of uploading content.

HML Mashup02

This means that media content can be uploaded anywhere in Blackboard that there is access to the text box editor, by both faculty and students. For example, faculty can add video or audio as an Item in a content area, or while creating Announcements, Assignments, and posting a Discussion Board topic. Students can upload their own media for a video assignment or when collaborating on the discussion board, blogs, wikis, or journals.

Currently, every NIU faculty, staff, and student has an HML account, with 4 GB of space available. However, if you need more space, you can submit a request to DoIT (Division of Information Technology) to increase that for free in 4 GB increments. Individual files can be up to 2 GBs in size, which allows you to upload longer video segments. Since video is uploaded into HML accounts, Blackboard course quota space remains unaffected.

When a video is uploaded, the Permissions feature allows you to determine who has access to view it. If the video is uploaded from within Blackboard, the ‘Personal’ setting allows only the instructor and students enrolled in the course to view the content. Selecting ‘Protected’ makes the content available to all NIU users (i.e., faculty, staff, students). Selecting ‘Public’ opens the content to potentially all online users.

You can check out your own HML account by logging into You will be asked to authenticate with your university-assigned username and password.

To learn more about using the HML, be sure to visit the HML informational website.

In addition, the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center offers a specialized workshop periodically, Adding Video to Your Blackboard Course Using the Helix Media Library, to train faculty and staff about how to use this tool. One-on-one consultation is also available.

How to Go Beyond the Textbook Using Open Educational Resources

Almost 30 participants braved the extremely cold weather on January 10, 2014 for the afternoon session of the second day of the Spring Teaching Effectiveness Institute on Beyond the Textbook: Using Open Educational Resources.

Tracy Miller, presenting
Tracy Miller, Online Teaching Coordinator, introduces Open Educational Resources at Teaching Effectiveness Institute

Creating educational resources for students can be time-consuming and potentially expensive. Open Educational Resources (OER) are free resources that can supplement teaching and learning needs. OER can include lesson plans, learning modules, videos, and interactives, just to name a few. However, Institute participants wanted to know: How do we find reliable resources, do we have permission to use them, and how do we add it to our courses?

The workshop began with a quick lesson on how to search, find, and evaluate open educational resources. Facilitator Tracy Miller suggested some search strategies, which can increase the likelihood of quick success. Every search should begin with your learning objectives in mind. Next, consider the type of resource you are looking for: an image, a lesson plan, a video. She offered some techniques to search for and find valuable OER to enhance courses. The first technique was to start at common places people search for resources such as Google or YouTube; however consider adding “scholar” or “education” to the search field or URL. Including such words can help refine and locate more reliable resources. But, always make sure you completely review the resource before sharing it with students.

Next, participants explored OER repositories such as OERCommons or Merlot. These repositories are designed to target searches and organize resources. Repositories are also a great place for faculty to share the learning objects and course materials they have created. Faculty who share their materials with the open community offer great recognition for themselves and their university.

Another option is to begin searching for OER by using Creative Commons (CC). Materials with a Creative Commons license are available for faculty to use, share, and adapt (depending on the specific CC license). Creative Commons allows individuals to use the work of others free of charge and provides clear guidelines on how the author prefers others to expand and share their original work. If you decide to share your materials with the open education community, Creative Commons can provide you with a license to copyright your work the way you choose.

Once you have found a potential open educational resource for your course, evaluate it carefully before sharing it with students. First, be sure that it aligns with learning objectives. Determine if the copyright or Creative Commons license allows the resource to be modified or shared. Check that the resource is accessible to all learners. When in doubt, ask colleagues for their opinion of the resource.

Participants also learned how to embed OERs into Blackboard Courses. Dan Cabrera provided best-practice methods for embedding videos and other popular resources. Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center staff can help you learn how to best incorporate OERs into your course. Doing so can be as easy as linking to the resource or embedding the resource within your Blackboard course.

The afternoon wrapped up with a discussion on incorporating OERs in active learning strategies. Here are some tips from Jason Rhode for introducing active learning activities to your students by using OER in your courses.

  • Keep your course objectives in mind
  • Identify activities and resources you currently use to create key learning moments
  • Look for activities or resources that will enhance the learning experience
  • Be explicit – Provide clear guidelines and expectations for students on assigned resources and activities
  • Help students realize why resources and assigned activities are not just “busy work”
  • Whenever possible select resources and activities that all of your students can access
  • If multiple resources or activities are available, let students choose the option that fits them best
  • Consider incorporating student-generated content for future classes


Blackboard Video Everywhere: Increasing Faculty and Student Communication

It is increasingly important to engage students and foster a sense of community and connection between students and faculty. This is true in all courses, but is particularly true in online courses, where students may not have the opportunity to meet together or with faculty. Simulating face-to-face interaction may help students feel connected to a learning community and enhance students’ motivation to learn (Carr 2000). Bolliger, Supanakorn, and Boggs (2010) reported that college students in an online course who had the option of hearing their professor’s voice in a course podcast made them feel more connected to him or her, while ‘listening’ to explanations of core course concepts translated into more meaningful learning compared to only reading a textbook. This supports the perspective that technologies can assist faculty to personalize and humanize online instruction by integrating multimedia elements that attempt to engage students in active and meaningful learning activities (Lee, Tan, & Goh, 2004).
Video Everywhere Icon
The ‘Video Everywhere’ tool in Blackboard can augment communication between faculty, student, and course content. Video Everywhere, which became available at NIU following the upgrade in June, 2013, allows users to record video anywhere in Blackboard that the text box editor is available (see image, right). Faculty can use this feature for creating and posting videos of course announcements, brief lectures, clarifications, discussion board posts, and instructions for assignments. Students can also post videos as submission to assignments, blogs, journals, and discussion boards.

Video Everywhere uses a webcam, either integrated in a laptop or connected via USB. Videos can be created quickly, but it is not possible to edit the videos.

Videos recorded with the Video Everywhere tool are stored in YouTube, so faculty and students must have Google accounts to use Video Everywhere. Once the video is recorded, Blackboard posts it to YouTube as an Unlisted video. This means the videos will remain private and will not appear in YouTube searches or on a users’ YouTube page. In addition to recording videos, users can also use the Video Everywhere tool to embed videos that were previously uploaded to their YouTube channel.

Some NIU faculty and instructors have already begun to incorporate Video Everywhere for their assignments. For example, Mary Kocsis from the School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders uses Video Everywhere to test her students’ receptive skills in sign language. She records herself ‘signing’ a message within a test question. When students take the test, they must interpret what she signed. Other faculty have recorded and posted a video message welcoming students to a new course at the start of the semester. This can be especially beneficial as a ‘meet and greet’ if the course is entirely online, and never meets face-to-face.

There are other applications for student uses as well.  Students might record themselves ‘signing’ a message for a sign language assignment (demonstrating expressive rather than receptive skills), speaking a foreign language for later review in a language course, or conducting  ethnographic interviews for a cultural anthropology course.

Faculty who are interested in learning more about Video Everywhere can use Blackboard’s help guide for Video Everywhere or view the following brief tutorial, which is available at


Bolliger, D.U., Supanakorn, S., & Boggs, C. (2010). Impact of podcasting on student motivation in the on line learning environment. Computers & Technology, 55, 714-722.

Carr, S. (2000). As distance education comes of age, the challenge is keeping the students. Chronicle of Higher Education, 46(23), A39. Available from

Lee, C.S., Tan, D.T.H., & Goh, W.S. (2004). The next generation of e-learning: Strategies for media rich online teaching. Journal of Distance Education Technologies, 2(4), 1-17

Increase the Fun in Your Courses with Digital Badges

Intro to Badges
A common concern in university courses is student motivation and engagement. There are many approaches to overcoming these issues, including Problem-Based Learning, Experiential Learning, and Service Learning. Game-Based Learning is also gaining popularity. Game-Based Learning incorporates elements of game design like mastering content or skills, overcoming challenges, earning points, and competing with others, into the learning process. Games are exciting, interesting, and motivating in ways that many courses are not.

Badges Defined

Digital badges, which are similar to Boy or Girl Scout merit badges, are a new way to add game-like elements to your course. Essentially, badges are digital artifacts that recognize an individual for learning or mastering a new skill. This could be the result of a formal learning experience, such as taking a university course, or something more informal, such as taking a community education course or belonging to a club, group, or other organization.

Depending on their implementation, badges can serve one or more of five social psychological functions (Antin & Churchill, 2011): goal setting, instruction, reputation, status/affirmation, and group identification. By defining goals for students, badges can motivate students to achieve the goal. Badges also provide instruction about the types of activities and social norms expected, particularly for students new to a field or system. Badges visually convey a student’s reputation within the system and provide information about their skills and expertise. Because badges also serve as a reminder of achievement, they also serve as a personal affirmation of past success, like a trophy on display. Finally, when badges reward a set of shared activities, badge ownership indicates group membership and can create a sense of solidarity among members.


Merit Badges
Photo courtesy Girl Guides of Canada

Many social websites have made use of badges, including Foursquare, Codecademy, and Khan Academy, to motivate users and increase use of the site. Some MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) use badges for recognition and achievement. In many cases, like the social websites, the badges are contained within the system and can only be viewed or shared internally. However, many systems are adopting the Mozilla Open Badges framework that puts the student in control of the badges. The open framework allows the learner to decide which badges to display and how they want to share them. In this way, badges can supplement a traditional resume or portfolio.

Course Implementation

The first step to implementing badges in a course is to define outcomes, goals, or skills that are significant. Many badge systems reward incremental progress rather than only completion, so it is possible to break large goals into smaller milestones. Based on the five social psychological functions, consider including badges that are not tied to mastering specific knowledge or skills. For instance, students could earn a badge for getting started, like submitting a first assignment or demonstrating knowledge of the syllabus and course structure. Badges could also be effective for encouraging and rewarding contributing to the course community, like taking the lead in a group project or being active on a course discussion board or blog.

Once the outcomes have been identified, create the images for the badges. Generally, badges have to be a .png image file. The image files are usually square and range from 150×150 pixels to 260×260 pixels (the final size will depend on the system used to deploy the badges). Be creative with the badge design. Most badge graphics are round, but other shapes, like shields, stars, and award ribbons are common as well. The image can include shapes, icons, photos, and text. Any graphics editing program can be used to create badges, like Adobe Photoshop, Inkscape, or pixlr. It is even possible to build the image on a PowerPoint slide, then save as an image (by right-clicking).

Finally, decide how to deploy and distribute the badges. One of the easiest systems to use is It is a free service that establishes a redemption code for each badge. Students redeem the code to claim the badge. Purdue University is developing Passport, a learning system that demonstrates academic achievement through customizable badges. At the time of this writing, Passport is in beta but looks promising. It includes a badge-builder to create the graphic as well as student tracking to determine who has earned the badge.

In January, 2012, the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center offered its first badge for participating in the Teaching Effectiveness Institute on Teaching in the Digital Classroom. The response was very positive.

badge for intro to badges
Intro to Badges

Non-traditional credentialing, through MOOCs and other means, is gaining popularity. The digital badge movement is part of the overall trend towards more granular and less formal methods of demonstrating competency. It is easy to get started with awarding badges for courses or organizations, and it may even add some fun to the experience!

Note: You have earned your first badge by reading this article! Click here to redeem your badge: (You will need to create a free account to accept the badge.)

Suggested Readings

Educause. (June 11, 2012). 7 Things you should know about badges. Retrieved from

Hickey, D. (October 30, 2012). Introducing digital badges within and around universities. Retrieved from

Mozilla. (2012). What are open badges? Retrieved from

Young, J. (October 14, 2012). Grades out, badges in. Retrieved from


Antin, J., & Churchill, E. (2011). Badges in social media: A social psychological perspective. Paper presented at the CHI 2011, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Retrieved from

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