Handling Information

We place pretty high value on developing skills in information retrieval and handling frequently conflicting information in our curricula, but we’re not the best at it ourselves sometimes! My ‘mission’ over the past few months has been to reduce the duplication of effort in information we provide to our students. For example, our library operate an excellent reading list service and there is a convenient weblink to the reading list for each module. That reading list is frequently manually duplicated in module guides and in multiple lecture notes. Another example is deadlines for assessment. We produce assessment calendars for each year group with module, short title of assessment, mode of submission (electronic vs in person), date and time. But frequently that information is duplicated into module guides and elsewhere. The problem is that this means that everyone has to remember to go into multiple documents to update something if there is a minor change. I like information in one place so that it is easily updated and easily found by students.

I get a lot of email.  I struggle to sift through it but there are a few things I do automatically – I scan then ignore a great number of emails that come through generic mail lists. Of particular note are the announcement emails sent through Blackboard to update students. We send a lot of them! And that means that students receive a lot of them. If I assume that students get as many emails as I do, it is easy to see why they frequently don’t get the message.

I’ve been trying not to send as many whole class emails or announcements this year and I made a conscious decision at the start of the year to ask my students to communicate with me in different ways. Firstly I set up office hours because I’m not sure students always understand what an open door policy means, but also because it must be really frustrating trying to find academics who are naturally busy and not in all the time. So far few students have taken up the offer of office hours to come and ask questions. Secondly I decided to distribute all teaching materials through the blog function on Blackboard. I felt this would allow me to attach files (lecture notes, annotated lecture notes, problem sheets, exercises and answers)* and write brief comments and posts on the teaching material. I thought this would also let me embed videos, audio and other bits if I wanted to do pre-sessional activities. I also though it would provide a useful forum for students to ask questions about the course. Like most academics, I find that I can get the same question asked multiple times so I requested that questions be asked (via an anonymous comments feature) on the blog post so that everyone can see the answer. I’ll update on this in January when I have a whole semester of blog use to evaluate its effectiveness.

At this stage I have a few comments on Blackboard blogs, features that would make this type of use a lot easier.

1. The ability to alter post dates. This could be permitted through a setting in the options when setting up the blog. I appreciate that this is problematic if the blogs are being used for assessment but it would be convenient to be able to change posts to keep a course’s postings in a reasonable chronological order. I’m working around this by using placeholder posts [e.g. ‘summary of lecture will appear hear shortly’] when I need to upload more content.

2. The ability to schedule posts. My plan was to do a post per teaching session, attaching notes and including the information that would have gone in an announcement or email about what to bring to the session. After each session my plan was to post a summary of the key points of the session, any areas where more clarification was required, annotated lecture notes and exercise sheets as appropriate.  With the exception of the annotated notes and points of clarification, it would suit the way I work better to be able to write these in advance and have them appear. Actually, if I could schedule posts, I probably wouldn’t issue PDFs of annotated notes and would just leave the powerpoint download that can be obtained in the Camtasia produced screencast of the lecture. Scheduling would also be really useful generally.

3. Tagging, keywords, categories or something like it. It would be nice to tag posts with keywords to help students find information. Specific words like ‘exercise’, ‘answers’ and terms for the course ‘NMR’, ‘IR’ etc would make the blogs a lot easier to navigate.

4. A really quick way to see if comments have been made and get to the post to reply to them easily.

I like many of the features that I can access – I find the interface easy (not dissimilar to the other blogging or CMS platforms I use), I like the easy inclusion of audio clips, and the simple upload and attachment of files. And I like having one place to put everything – otherwise it is upload this file to that folder, another file to a different place, got to the announce feature or email to make a message…

*My lecture screencasts are not uploaded to the blog. They are put in the single Blackboard folder required for my teaching.


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