Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Blackboard, Moodle, Favorite Online Teaching Tools, and Online Instructional Design

For four years I worked for an online, for-profit high school. There were many, many, many issues with this situation, for a variety of reasons, seen now in education- the tail wagging the dog, lack of institutional support, and a skewed sense of accountability, but not in the places that mattered and a real commitment to throwing teachers under the bus. Even a year later, the circumstances of me leaving makes me very sad for a whole slew of reasons. And more than a little angry.

However,  it gave me some great experience teaching wholly online. While there are issues with online only instruction, and certainly a lot of issues with for-profit schools, there were a couple of things they did right.

Before teaching we had to go through COLT (Certified Online Teacher Training). While a lot of it was about the logistics of navigating and teaching in Blackboard then Moodle, the biggest lesson was in how much online teaching differed from face to face teaching. We spent a lot of time on instructional design, something I never got from anywhere else. We also had eLCs (electronic learning communities, or online PLCs) where we met monthly to discuss a variety of matters all centered on improving student performance. A lot of this was lip service. BUT, there were some good best practices:
  • monthly, regular check ins and reflections on how students were doing, why, and what we could, and could not do
  • sharing about new things we'd tried that worked
  • sharing about new tech tools that worked well, reached students
  • shared Google Docs of materials we all had access to, could use

In my four years I worked with a team to design a course shell for English 9, revised a lot of English 11, and redesigned the AP Language course. I worked in both Blackboard and Moodle. And I think that we do a disservice to teachers, TAs, and most of all, students, when we do not teach or train new or inexperienced teachers to use these online platforms. You certainly do not need to use all the bells and whistles, but there's a right way and a wrong way to use LMS (Learning Management System).

The good news is, the wrong way easily becomes the right way because there are easy fixes, and all of them have to do with how you initially set up and present your course.

The very first thing to understand is that online instructional design is different from face to face.
Students have no reference when they enter Blackboard or Moodle, and may have no experience at all with LMS so the design has to be intuitive and do all the heavy lifting right from the start.

The presentation below is a quick walk through the simple steps to avoiding common issues.

Every summer I think of all the things I want to do different in the upcoming semester and year. I rethink past strategies, revise syllabi and course policies, and rethink approaches.

Whether or not you choose to use any of the below tools in your classroom as assignments, formative or summative, they are all great ways to model and present content in your courses. You can flip your classroom with some of these, present challenging information in interesting and engaging ways, or just use them for some fun.

I'm also a fan of using these for low stakes assignments, and as prep for larger assignments. I tend not to require them for use unless I've done a lot of modelling, and prep.  

I use a lot of these tools in my weekly announcements. I also use them in the header folders for each sequence/unit. All of these have free versions of them, and are easily embeddable into your courses (by clicking the embed html code button <> or you can link to some of them.

I'm teaching an Early English Survey in the fall, so I started to revisit a lot of my high school teaching materials, as I think I'm going to have to do a lot more front-loading and teaching content than I have with the composition courses. So I started to think of all the online programs I've used in the past to transmit content and help with larger concepts.
While this is not a complete list, these are my favorites that I use the most.
  • Wordle
    • You copy and paste text in and it uses an algorithm to present words that appear more often as bigger. I like to use it with poems, short stories, chapters. Great way to start a discussion with students about significance is of these uses. Also, they'll love the visual.
  • Blendspace
    • This is my all time favorite lesson planning tool. You can create blendspaces that are mini-lessons to ideas, stories, anything. Your created blendspace can be a collection of documents, links, images, anything you want. Students love it, and it's a great way to flip part of your classroom, or make lecture resources available.
  • Animoto 
    • free version is only 30 seconds, but creates videos from image files, lets you choose music. Great for introducing concepts and units.
  • Jing 
    • Free version of Camtasia. Short (5 minutes or less) screen capture videos. Great for walking students how to do things in your LMS or other programs.
  • Dipity
    • Online timeline that allows you to insert information, images, dates. Great for surveys.
  • Fakebook 
    • Students can create Fake Facebook profiles for famous people, literary characters, anyone.
  • Flipsnack
    • You upload image files, and it creates a flipbook. Great for introducing concepts, units, or difficult vocabulary
  • Fotobabble
    •  You upload a picture, you record a short message. It can be an explanation of the picture, a walk through the thought process of breaking it down, anything.
  • Glogster
    • Online posters. Great for brainstorming, organizing. Can include text, images, videos. 
  • Voki
    • Record short messages with funny avatars. I like to use them for assignment directions
  • SlideRocket
    • Another presentation tool, like SlideShare or PowerPoint
  • Smore
    • Create newsletters, flyers, semi-interactive so you can include links
  • Text 2 Mind Map
    • For students who are visual learners, this is great. I use it for lecture notes.
  • ACMI Storyboard generator
    • Good storyboard generator if you ever have students do this.
Just for fun. Like I said, I create weekly announcements in my courses. I try to always include an image, or gif, something fun, related to that week's material, and something to snag interest. The resources below are not for lesson planning, but are fun for announcements.
 So those are my top programs/resources I use, what are yours? Do you use anything to supplement your teaching? Do you link to these resources so students have access to them later?

If you're never tried these and/or are new to teaching, I challenge you to pick on and try it, see what the experience is, report back and share.


  1. Wow, this is quite a list of tools to use :-) This means to me you’re trying to do your best. Anyway I wondered what are your students’ expectation when it comes to the course appearance? Do you have such feedback?

  2. I ask for it specifically, and usually get that it's easy to navigate, if there are small issues, as part of check in surveys I talk to them about it and either change it or walk them through it. One comment this year on end of semester evals was that I was a master at Blackboard, and the best at using it they'd ever had.