The Library Outpost: Modules, Templates, and Outreach on Blackboard
Presented at Northeast Connect 2015 at Mercy College on November 13, 2015 with Helen Keier, also from John Jay College.
Slides (PDF, 3 MB)
(Please note that this page presents only my half of the presentation — it does not include Helen's valuable commentary on the topics I covered, nor her half of the talk about setting up a Blackboard template and teaching with modules.)
This is the entrance to John Jay College of Criminal Justice's main building, Haaren Hall:
They enter from 10th Avenue and then descend the stairs or escalators. As they descend, they are surrounded by the library: stacks to the right! Computer lab to the left! Reference desk straight ahead! The library — and the reference librarians — are immediately visible the second they enter the building.
This was an intentional design, implemented when the college gave the building a gut-renovation in 1986:
...What first strikes someone upon entering the building is the feeling of space created by the large atrium and the sight, on three sides, of the library behind glass walls. In designing the building, the administration pressed from the start for the library to be its focal point. [Then-president Gerald] Lynch said he was "tired of explaining that we were not the Police Academy, and we wanted to signal in that non-verbal, immediate way that we were a library-oriented institution — a college."
—From Educating for Justice by Gerald Markowitz (2008), p. 110; emphasis mine
Historically, libraries have been a key part of university architecture. Many campuses, like Columbia uptown, or NYU downtown, place libraries in the center of campus — a gem, a symbol, a central gathering place. A college as a "library-oriented institution."
Contrast that, then, with what a typical student may see upon logging into their Blackboard course:
What kind of institution does this strike you as? In this case, the instructor hasn't put much effort into customizing the course (a laborious task), and we are left with an empty course shell. The words on the screen — Tools, Content Collection, Tasks, Groups — are such LMSy words. It looks like a productivity app, not a college classroom.
This page does not look like it represents a "library-orientated institution."
Can you find the library? ...It's linked from the "tabs" at the top of the screen. This tab link was the first time Helen, our campus Blackboard administrator, collaborate with me to incorporate the library into the Blackboard template. But in the past month it's only gotten about 50 clicks, and half of those clicks were me.
It's not at all apparent that the library is accessible to online students, and in fact, we have had several students in John Jay's online programs contact the library to ask whether they could access library materials online. Despite strong efforts from the programs and from the library, online students were not getting the message that the library was theirs, too. On-campus students pass the library every time they enter the main building — but online students did not have the library in their periphery at all.
So the question is: How can the library be part of the architecture of online courses?
Working within the confines of Blackboard, we turned to modules, the building-blocks of course pages. Modules can be added to the course's homepage, such that a module is visible every time a student logs into the course. In the fall semester, we debuted seven modules:
Click to enlarge
Advantages of creating modules for your library:
- Make building blocks available for instructors to pick and choose from
- As easy to create as writing a blog post
- Updates to a module are reflected in every course that uses it (avoids link rot)
To start creating modules:
- you must have a Blackboard account
- get in touch with your campus's Blackboard administrator, who will make you a "Delegated module administrator"
- ask the admin to create as many blank modules as you think you'll need, plus an extra one as a "sandbox" to test things out
- fill in the module titles, descriptions (blurbs visible in the "module catalog" instructors see), and their content
To make the modules look nice, it helps if you are familiar with HTML/CSS. I did a lot of styling for the above modules.
Note that your campus may not allow scripting in the modules — that's why ours are static links and don't contain search boxes. But we're working to get dynamic code turned "on" for modules, though I don't think it's urgent and will make maintaining module code harder.
Challenges of maintaining modules:
- Updating links: now you must remember to change updated links on the library website and in modules!
- Assessment: Blackboard does not provide analytics regarding module usage. You'll have to rely on Google Analytics' referral links page and try to decode the URLs.
Editing a module in Blackboard: WSYIWYG interface in the background, HTML editing in the foreground
How we decided on module content:
- Mirror decisions made on our homepage (consistency!)
- Consult analytics (what's popular/useful? what's not?)
- Asking people (online instructors and students; instructional designers)
Design for anything engaging for an online course boils down to two rules: no walls of text, and no plain lists of links. We librarians want to be so helpful that we are often way too verbose! Leave the more complex stuff to the library website — you don't have to build a whole mirror world. Just a library outpost.
The library modules were available for many months but only used by a fraction of instructors who had heard my spiel or stumbled across them. This is because the library templates were essentially an opt-in system: the instructor must find the library's modules in the long list of other modules (alongside Scientific Calculator, John Jay Bookstore, etc.). So the next step was to include the modules in the...
Starting in Spring 2016, the library modules are included in the course "template" at John Jay. All courses by default will include a "Library Resources" page where the library's modules will live:
'Library Resources' link in every course's main contents (circled in yellow on the left). Click to view larger.
Now students in online courses will see "Library Resources" whenever they log into the course! The library is now a part of the course architecture. The next step is drawing instructors' attention to the page, in case they want to tweak their instructions regarding student research.
(Note that instructors can delete any modules or the whole page if they wish.)
I put together the Faculty Toolbox for Online Learning as an easy way to list out all the goodies the library offers to faculty who teach online. The modules, like embedded librarianship, are new services that require outreach and promotion. Here's my strategy:
- Presentations at Faculty Development Day, a campus tradition at the start of each semester; library sessions are usually pretty popular
- Mini-resource center online for the Pedagogy and Technology Training group, led by faculty passionate about online teaching
- Sitting on various committees about online learning (I'm no expert, but when the library is part of collaborative/administrative activities around online teaching/learning, it's useful for everyone — and ensures the library is adequately represented)
- Contacting faculty to offer embedded librarian service (currently a pilot project); getting to know how different faculty use Blackboard, and getting their feedback on modules I add (with their permission)
- Participation in the Library + Blackboard Integration Group, led by Nora Almeida and attended by many CUNY librarians and Blackboard admins
- Announcements to faculty from Blackboard Support Center (from Helen)
- Blackboard workshops (led by Helen and possibly with a cameo by me in the future)
Every campus is different, but getting involved in different circles is key for library outreach.
- Incorporate dynamic code (search boxes, jQuery effects)
- Explore news or workshops module that auto-updates (RSS feed?)
- Solicit feedback from instructors (informally in conversation)
- Investigate impact on student outcomes (easy access → better bibliographies?)
As I recall...
- Permissions: only the Delegated Module Administrator can control what's in the modules, unless another setting is enabled by the Blackboard Admin.
- Video tutorials, spotted in the Tutorials module: I collaborated with John Jay Online's instructional designers, who used Camtasia