Teaching Assistant Orientation Materials Available Online

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The Fall 2010 Teaching Assistant Orientation (TAO) was a big success, and the largest yet. On August 17, 217 graduate assistants filled the Regency Room. Twelve NIU faculty and staff presented on a variety of topics, including Teaching and Teaching-Related Responsibilities, Managing Your Classroom Effectively, and Assisting Students with Emotional or Behavioral Concerns, to name a few.

Teaching Assistants

All of the TAO materials are now available online. While the materials are designed for graduate assistants, faculty may find the information valuable, as well. Also, if you work with a graduate assistant who was not able to attend TAO, feel free to point out the materials for him/her to review. You can view the handouts and presentations here.  Several of the sessions even have video tutorials that cover much of the information that was presented at TAO, for a more engaging way to review the content.

Blackboard’s Portfolio Tool Piloted During Fall 2010

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NIU is currently piloting Blackboard’s electronic portfolio tool and any interested NIU faculty/staff, graduate teaching assistants, and leaders of Blackboard communities are encouraged to try the this tool with their Blackboard course section(s) and/or Blackboard communities, thereby testing the initial implementation templates and features and providing feedback.

Blackboard’s Portfolio tool enables students and faculty to assemble, present, and share information online for documenting academic growth, career evaluation, and course preparation. The Blackboard Portfolio tool is bundled with the Blackboard Content System and allows users to collect and organize files and other digital content representative of their learning into custom Web pages. A portfolio can then be presented to individuals and groups of users. Users can grant access to other NIU Blackboard users and non-NIU users to view their portfolio as well as export the for offline viewing.

Sample Faculty Portfolio

Q Is the Portfolio tool for both student and faculty use?

A Yes. As a faculty member, you can create your own electronic portfolio to highlight your professional accomplishments and post your CV. Student portfolios can be used to archive and document artifacts of their best work, provide for reflection of their work, and serve as an evaluation tool of a selected body work.  If you wish your students to have access, ITS will need to be notified in order to enable the tool for your selected course section(s).

Q Can anyone view a Blackboard Portfolio?

A No. The owner controls who can access their portfolio by selecting who to share it with.  Once shared with fellow students or faculty, the portfolio owner can receive feedback from those viewing or assessing the portfolio.

Q What happens to the Portfolio when a student or faculty member leaves NIU?

A Portfolios can be exported for offline access outside Blackboard or archived to CD, preserving both the content areas and the artifacts themselves.

Q How do I get started?

A Faculty can schedule a hands-on training session that will cover initial set-up and an overview of the Blackboard Portfolio tool by contacting Jason Rhode at jrhode@niu.edu or 815-753-2475.  Additionally, an archive of the Blackboard Portfolio Tool Preview held on October 8, 2010 can be accessed here: http://www.niu.edu/facdev/programs/archives.shtml#10082010

You can also visit http://www.niu.edu/blackboard/portfolio/pilot.shtml for more information.

Tips for Efficient and Effective Communications Using Blackboard

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The announcement, discussion, and email features in Blackboard are just a few of the many tools available for faculty to communicate with students and foster collaboration in their courses. What are the most efficient and effective uses of the Blackboard communication tools? Below is a list of a few tips and recommended best practices for efficient and effective communication with students using Blackboard.


  • Compose emails in word processor and save for future reuse: Draft general email communications in a word processor and save them in a folder along with other files used in teaching the course for reuse in future courses.
  • Email students from Blackboard: Emails sent to students from Blackboard will be delivered to their official university email address. Email the entire class, groups of students in the course, or select individual students. A copy of all emails sent from Blackboard are also delivered to your email address.
  • Remind students to identify themselves and the class in the body of the email: Students often forget that faculty teach more than one course at a time and potentially are receiving email from students from several different courses. Remind students to identify themselves with their first and last name and not just their Z-Ids  in email messages and include the course name and/or course number in the subject of the email message.
  • Save a copy of Blackboard emails in a folder within your GroupWise account: Blackboard does not retain copies of emails sent. In order to be able to review emails previously sent, make sure to keep a copy of most emails in your GroupWise account.
  • Notify students of assessment deficiencies directly from the Grade Center: Faculty can email students directly from the Grade Center when necessary to remind students of missing assignments and/or other assessment deficiencies.
  • Avoid using Blackboard’s built-in Messages tool: Blackboard does have a built-in Messages tool, allowing for email-like communications to be sent and received within the course. In Blackboard 8, notifications of new Messages are neither obvious nor reliable. Until notifications of new messages are improved, deactivate the Messages tool within the Control Panel and use email instead. To deactivate the Messages tool in the Control Panel, click Manage Course Menu under "Course Options" and then click the "Modify" button next to Communication.  Click "Unavailable" for Messages and then click the "Submit" button.


  • Compose announcements in word processor and save for future reuse: Draft announcements in a word processor and save them in a folder on your computer so that you can reuse them in future courses.
  • Post important news items as announcements in Blackboard and simultaneously email to all students: The Announcement tool is ideal for facilitating communication to students about time-sensitive material such as reminders about upcoming due dates, changes in the course documents, and corrections or clarifications of course materials. When necessary to communicate such reminders or important news items, post as a new announcement in Blackboard and select the option also to "Email this announcement to all course users" to send simultaneously the announcement to all course users via email. Note that if students have installed Blackboard Sync either in Facebook or on their mobile device, they can access announcements on either of those platforms as well, without even needing to login to Blackboard.
  • Do not make announcements permanent so that Blackboard can organize them: The default setting when posting a new announcement in Blackboard is for announcements to not be permanent, in order that only the most current announcements (posted during the past 7 days) are featured when students access Blackboard. Do not adjust this setting, to ensure that once an announcement is over 7 days old, Blackboard will file it into an appropriate View folder. Students can continue to access these past announcements, but recent announcements are featured.
  • Include course links when notifying students of new course resources or assignments: If posting an announcement notifying students of availability of a new resource or assignment posted in the course, include a course link to that particular item so students can access with just one click when reading the announcement.

Asynchronous Discussions

  • Create "HELP!" discussion forum and require students to post general questions there instead of sending via email: To reduce the amount of email from students, create a discussion forum called "HELP!" or "Questions & Answers" and instruct students to post general questions that they may have about the course to this forum. If students submit such general course questions via email, simply reply and kindly ask that they post their questions in the designated HELP! forum in the discussion board. Answering the questions in this public discussion forum allows all students in the course to benefit from the responses, eliminates the duplication of email responses, and makes it possible for students to help one another.
  • Enable forum subscription to "HELP!" discussion forum and subscribe to be notified via email when new questions are posted: Especially when not checking Blackboard daily, consider enabling the option to "Allow members to subscribe to forum" and "Include body of the post in the email." Then, subscribe to the forum to receive any new posts via email. This will ensure that Blackboard will send notices immediately via email when students post new questions as well as when they post responses to each other in the HELP! forum.
  • Specify due dates for required contributions: If participation in an online discussion is required, specify when initial posts are due as well as responses. For example, if a unit begins on Monday and ends the following Sunday, perhaps require that initial discussion posts are due by Thursday midnight, with all follow-up responses due Sunday by midnight. If requiring student contributions to a discussion forum, include in the description due dates for initial posts and responses.
  • Make discussion forums available as needed rather than all at once: To reduce cognitive overload and help keep online discussions focused, make discussion forums available as needed rather than making them all available at the beginning of the course.
  • Reorder discussion forums in reverse chronological order to reduce scrolling: By placing the current discussion forum(s) at the top, students will not have need to scroll to the bottom of the page to access the discussions, saving valuable time and making it easier for them to see which discussion(s) are the current ones.
  • Do not remove past discussion forums: Students may want to review past discussions as they proceed through the course. Rather than removing a discussion forum that is no longer active, simply reorder the forums so that current forums are near the top.
  • Login daily during the weekday to read new discussions and participate where appropriate: Rather than waiting until the end of a unit of study to read student discussions, it is often more efficient to login once per day during the week to read discussion contributions. Logging in more than once a day can be ineffective as there may not be any new contributions to read while waiting several days may result in an overwhelming number of discussion contributions to read. Also, responding where necessary within 24 hours is one way to demonstrate faculty presence in the course.
  • Collect threads for viewing offline: For instances when it is preferred to read student contributions to class discussions offline, select all discussion threads in a forum and then click the Collect button to create a collection of all posts in a single page that can either be printed or copied and pasted into a Word file and saved for offline viewing.
  • Supplement text communications with audio: Especially in cases where the course is fully online or if meetings with students will be irregular, consider supplementing text announcements and discussion board posts with short audio recordings, perhaps as a podcast.
  • Create graded forums, if assigning a grade for discussion participation: In doing so, a new Grade Forum page is available that collects the forum posts for each student. Posts for a single student can be reviewed and a grade assigned directly from this page. Setting up a graded forum also automatically creates a Grade Center column for the forum. To turn on forum grading during forum set up, select the option to Grade forum and assign the appropriate number of points.

Synchronous Presentations & Discussions

  • Offer synchronous chat option for Q&A: At times, it may be preferred to answer students questions in real time rather than through the discussion board. Offering an online office hour using either the build in chat or whiteboard tools, Wimba Classroom, Wimba Pronto, or some other synchronous tool such as Skype will further help develop a sense of faculty presence in the online course and provide students with a synchronous communication alternative to the discussion board.
  • Archive synchronous sessions if possible to make available to those who cannot participate live: If synchronous sessions are included, archive the sessions so that those who cannot participate live during the sessions can still benefit from the information shared.

For more information on teaching using Blackboard, visit the Teaching with Blackboard site at: http://www.niu.edu/blackboard

Screencasts as a Pedagogical Tool

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Have you considered developing a brief computer-based tutorial as a means to extend course content to students who would like to view complex lab demonstrations again or for any students who cannot attend a particular classroom session to review what was demonstrated?  If so, you may
Screencasting as a Pedagogical Tool
consider developing computer-based tutorials or ‘screencasts’ that can be viewed by students whenever and however many times they need for both initial learning and subsequent review.

Screencasting is a digital recording of a computer screen’s sequence of actions. The resulting file is encoded into a format similar to video. With an accompanying voice narration or background audio from a program, screencasts can be ideal for developing on-screen tutorials and distributed for easy viewing in an online setting. As with other computer techniques, screencasting is valued for its support of self-paced learning, just-in-time instruction, and 24/7 access.

Screencasts can be designed to engage learners through a well-conceived sequence of planned activities and assignments.  For example, faculty can organize instruction by alternating screencast episodes with assignments students must complete before moving on to the next episode. When a screencast is well-designed, students can feel they are sitting with the faculty while viewing and hearing a sequence of instructional steps. Students can follow-up via email or face-to-face with questions for further clarification, if necessary.

There are a number of software products available for developing screencasts, ranging from free downloadable programs (such as Jing or Screenr) with limited features, to fee-based products (such as Camtasia or ScreenFlow) offering a host of editing options such as zooming and text captioning.

Screencasts have been applied in a number of innovative ways in higher education including capturing lectures, conducting website tours, software and database training, demonstrating library functions, and providing feedback to students. Regarding feedback, students can benefit greatly as faculty can review portions of students’ submitted assignments on-screen, highlight specific areas of text, and give his or her audio feedback on the students’ assignments. Students can view the recorded feedback at their convenience and follow-up with questions via email or face-to-face.  Faculty can also assign students to develop their own screencast episodes for certain course activities.

Students can benefit from screencasts whether they are used for initial/follow-up instruction, as reference when needed, or for review for an upcoming exam.

The duration of screencasts can range from just a few minutes for limited instruction to an hour or longer for a captured lecture. Examples of screencasts can be viewed from the NIU Blackboard Tutorials website at: http://blackboardtutorials.niu.edu/category/view-all. Examples were created using Jing: http://www.jingproject.com

The Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center is offering two screencasting workshops during the Spring 2010 semester. "Quick and Simple Creation of Educational Tutorials" is offered on April 13, 2010. This hands-on workshop will introduce the free Jing screencasting tool and explore several practical applications for implementing simple educational tutorials in the classroom.  Faculty and staff can gain familiarity with the more advanced "Screencasting: Design, Development, and Delivery," offered on March 16, 2010. Visit the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center web site at http://www.niu.edu/facdev to register for these workshops.


Educause Learning Initiative. (n.d.).  7 Things You Should Know About Screencasting. Retrieved on February 17, 2010 from http://www.educause.edu/ELI/7ThingsYouShouldKnowAboutScree/156815

The Graduate Teaching Certificate

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The Graduate Teaching Certificate recognizes the participation of graduate teaching assistants (GA/RA/TAs) in the development programs offered by the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center. The certificate acknowledges these individuals’ commitment to effective teaching and can enhance their academic credentials. To qualify for this recognition, a graduate teaching assistant must have attended the full-day TA Orientation or one other daylong teaching effectiveness program made available to TAs and at least five (5) programs of shorter duration offered by Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center.

Encourage your graduate teaching assistants to apply for the certificate by printing and completing the application found on the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center website at http://www.niu.edu/facdev/ta/applications/gradteachcert.pdf and mailing it to the Center. Once we have processed the application, we will send the certificates to the teaching assistants’ department to acknowledge their commitment to effective teaching and present the certificates to them. If your TAs need a few more workshops to qualify for the certificate, encourage them to check the current schedule of TA programs on the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center website!

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