Preparing to Teach Remotely (Part 4): Setting up the Website

Professor Nick James

In my last few blog posts I have been sharing the details of my preparation for remote teaching this semester. I thought carefully about my learning outcomes. I asked myself whether the assessment I will be administering in my subject is appropriate, rigorous and constructively aligned. I reflected on my learning activities, and what I will be doing with my students to help them to achieve the subject learning outcomes and complete the subject assessment tasks.

In the week leading up to my first online class, my focus has been upon my subject website and ensuring it will be ready to be made available to students. In this post I will share my views about this experience. I am mindful of the fact that some of my comments will be specific to Bond University or to its particular Learning Management System, Blackboard, but I hope there is enough here of general relevance.

For a generation of students that expects classroom learning and online learning to form a seamless whole, the subject website has shifted from being a helpful additional learning resource to the foundation of the student learning experience. If a subject website is designed well, it will guide the students along their learning journey and form the framework for all of their learning activities and assessment tasks. I have always put a lot of time and effort into building my subject websites, and now that my subject will be delivered entirely remotely, the subject site has become more important than ever. An additional challenge I faced in preparing for teaching this semester is the fact that all subject sites at Bond University have been moved to a new version of Backboard, called Blackboard ULTRA. I have had to build my new site from scratch, and teach myself how to use ULTRA. That experience has been an interesting one, with several challenges along the way.

The temptation at this point is to vent my frustration about the process of building a new site on a new platform, but I would prefer to remain upbeat and positive, so here are the things I like about ULTRA:

  1. I like how easy it is to edit content on the site. Click edit, change the text, click save. Done. No fiddling about with formatting or upload files.
  2. I have usually enjoyed being able to customise my sites in the past, with lots of colour and images. With the new version I am significantly constrained, and limited to a very simple, black and white ‘look and feel’. But this will ensure students have a more consistent experience from subject to subject, and to be honest it gives me one less thing to worry about.
  3. The standard list of student tools on the left seems to include the most important ones, and again the inability to customise gives me one less thing to worry about.
  4. I particularly like the ‘Attendance’ tool. It looks like a helpful way to easily keep a record of who shows up to the online classes.
  5. I like how the front page clearly shows my personal details and the date, time and location of the next important event in the subject.
  6. The horizontal menu at the top right of the page has some useful tools, including the subject Calendar which automatically includes all of my assessment due dates. I’ve added the days and times of my classes. Apparently the students’ Calendars aggregate their subject Calendars so they see all their class dates and times and all their assessment due dates in one place.

It was a steep learning curve but I’m now quite comfortable with most of the features on the site and – to be honest – I like it. I can see that the students are going to find it much easier to navigate than the old sites.

I decided to have only three folders on the front page: WELCOME, TOPICS and ASSESSMENT.

In my WELCOME folder I added:

  • A short welcome video. I usually have one professionally created but this time I recorded it myself using my phone, posted it to YouTube, and inserted the link.
  • A link to my Subject Outline.
  • A link to a page where they can purchase the prescribed textbook.

In my TOPICS folder I created 12 sub-folders, one for each of the 12 Topics in the subject. In each Topic sub-folder I added:

  • The PowerPoint presentation for the week’s lecture, just in case the streaming of the lecture is too slow and students can’t follow along as the slides change.
  • A document explaining what ‘independent study’ I want them to do after each lecture, including the readings.

In my ASSESSMENT folder I created four sub-folders, one for each item of assessment.

  • In the ‘Tutorial Preparation and Participation’ sub-folder I added a document explaining how students are expected to attempt the tutorial problems for each week, and I then created an Assessment – Essay task for each week’s tutorial questions. By specifying the due date for each task as the date of the relevant tutorial it inserted it into the subject Calendar. And the students can actually type their answers into the box on the website and submit it so I can check to make sure they have done it. I like that.
  •  In the ‘Online Test’ sub-folder I again created a document that explains the assessment task, and then I built 12 online tests, one for each Topic. The publisher of my prescribed textbook has provided very large banks of multiple choice questions (100 per chapter) that I have used to set up the online tests in such a way that each student will be given a different test with different questions. (A relatively tight time limit of 15 minutes to answer 5 questions should ensure the students prepare for the tests and don’t try to simply Google each of the answers.)
  • In the ‘Practice Problems’ folder I will add the instructions for the task and allow online submission. This will be done closer to the due date in Week 8.

·         In the ‘Final Exam’ folder I will upload the take home exam and allow online submission.

I have set up two forums in the ‘Discussions’ part of the site: one called ‘Topics’ where the students can ask content-related questions, and one called ‘Assessments’ where they can ask questions about the assessment. Neither are assessed.  I will use the ‘Announcements’ tool to post an announcement at the start of each week introducing the students to that week’s Topic and reminding them about assessment tasks. And to keep them interesting I’m planning on using the Parampara tool to create an interactive announcement each week.

And that’s my site. I have sent a message to the students telling them to meet me in the subject room (accessed via the left hand menu on the front page) at 2.00pm next Tuesday. I am ready to teach remotely!

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