Monday, October 7, 2013

Creating a Blackboard Course Website that Works

I mentioned in last week's blog post that I feel really good about my Blackboard websites.  I may be a quivering jello mold of uncertainty when it comes to a few of my other teaching-related skills and abilities, but I pride myself on setting up online courses that are highly navigable, unambiguous, and visually appealing.  It pays off, too: almost every semester, I get a good deal of positive feedback from students to that effect.

Being a digital native probably hasn't hurt; having been born on the border between generations X and Y, I've spent more than half my life on the Internet.  I have clear ideas about what makes a website attractive and easy to navigate.  Still, I don't think any major degree of experience with technology is required if you want to develop a solid but simple website with Blackboard.  It all boils down to one simple concept - economy - and this will apply to virtually all aspects of your website.  If you've been looking to give yours a makeover, let me break down a few issues I've encountered navigating some Blackboard course websites, and offer a few things to consider if you're looking to improve yours.


When I open a Blackboard course website and find more than ten buttons on the left side of the screen, I immediately feel overwhelmed... a feeling compounded by the fact some of the buttons usually have the same (or similar) names, and/or take you to the same location.  Why is this a problem?  Simply put, because a good website feels intuitive.  You and your students are accustomed to easily finding your way around a website.

Many times, I have logged into a new Blackboard course and found a list of links that largely resembles the one on the left.

What are your first impressions?  Does this list appear easy to navigate?  Would you be able to find what you're looking for if you had only, say, ten seconds to do so?  Is it visually appealing?

For me, the answer to all of these is "no."  This is a green screen of death.  There are two "Tools" buttons, two "Resources" buttons, and separate buttons for Course Information, Syllabus, and Calendar.  The buttons are in no particular order, and are not well differentiated from one another.

Fixing this involves two major considerations.  As always, the first is economy.  Think about how many buttons you absolutely need, and then find a way to eliminate one more!  Shoot for about eight total, combining items whenever possible.  I usually put quizzes, tests, and other assignments all under a single "Assignments" button and combine my syllabus and schedule into one button as well.

The other thing to consider is ordering.  For my part, I like to keep the buttons that are used every week ("Assignments", "Discussion Board", "PowerPoints") right next to one another.  The as-needed ones ("Grades", contact information, and "YC Support Resources") get grouped together too.  Alternately, you could alphabetize your buttons.

What you name and include under each of them isn't a major concern.  Prefer videos to PowerPoints?  Scrapped your discussion board in favor of VoiceThread?  Awesome.  Just use as few buttons as you can get away with, name them appropriately, and put them in an order that makes sense.

If you're afraid to actually delete buttons (it has backfired on me too), you can hide them by turning on edit mode, clicking the inverted chevron arrow next to the link and selecting "hide link".


I know it seems like a lot of work to go through and redo all of your announcements each semester, but it is work that must be done.  Sometimes I'll run down a list of announcements on a course website and find links pertaining to events that took place four or five years ago, and rarely do the links still work.  Alluding to "upcoming" presidential elections and court cases that were long ago settled, leaving outdated announcements on your front page, and/or not removing broken links tells the student that some of these resources don't matter, which puts them - not you - in the position of judging what's important to read.  That's BAD, because you want them to read everything.

But what about all those cool things you run across throughout the semester that seem so relevant?!  For my Human Sexuality class, I recently happened across private parts dye and could hardly wait to share.

I settle this in one of two ways, depending on the class.  Here's the first: every Monday, I always post a weekly announcement and include those types of interesting links in it.  If I run across something later in the week, I'll either send an e-mail to everyone, or I'll post a second announcement with the following disclaimer:

At the end of the semester, I take all of those mid-week announcements and incorporate them into my weekly Monday announcement for the next semester.  That keeps it nice and clean, and also gives me the opportunity to double-check all of my links and update all of my announcements.

The other way I've handled this is to include an "Additional Resources," "Suggested Resources," or "Funny Links" button. 


Incorporating images, videos, comics, and other non-text content on your website is not only good, it's pretty much essential.  With that in mind, consider trying to keep them together in one or two announcements (rather than posting dozens, each with one or two images/links), and if you use a banner, consider keeping it pretty small.  For my part, I like to be able to see the beginning of the course announcements immediately so that I can tell right away if there's something new.  My intro page for this semester's course looks something like this:

Think that image is a tad racy?  Check out chapter 11 of the book!  Whew!


When it comes to your themes and colors, once again, think economy.  Sticking to a single palate or theme gives your website a more pulled-together look.  Using too many different colors or themes can make it appear mismatched.  I usually like to use shades of blue, blue-gray, or blue-green, since blue is easy for the human eye to process.  In fact, the color blue has been used in various settings throughout the world to prevent crime and suicide, and is also the most popular color around the world (42% of Americans and an estimated 35-40% of people worldwide describe blue as their favorite color).  With those stats on my side, I can safely assume it will appeal to many of my students.  If you're skeptical about the impact of color - pseudoscience, much? - check out this SciFri clip.  In any case, it doesn't much matter which color palate you use as long as you are consistent.

Not sure how to add a banner or change your buttons?  Go to your class website, scroll down to the Control Panel menu on the left, select "Customization" and then "Teaching Style."  There is literally a button library.  It's so much fun to play with too!

I know for many instructors, this is all basic Blackboard stuff.  But if you're stuck in a rut and looking for some tips to get out, think about ways you might be able to economize your website and make it more visually appealing through simple changes like adjusting your ordering and colors.

Happy creating!


  1. Erin - Good post. I laughed out loud at the "too many buttons" paragraph. I've taken classes/MOOCs that have over 20 buttons - it IS overwhelming and really unnecessary to the success of the course. Actually, students would probably like 2-3 buttons at most.

    I moaned at the old announcements. You know, I used Blackboard for about three years before I learned that the announcements could be seen by students going back about that amount of time - I was horrified! It does take time to clean everything up each semester.

    I've also seen leopard-print buttons; buttons with a ghastly pattern (could not read a word on it); and buttons that are misspelled (really). They should be clean and match the overall scheme of your banner and the course itself.

    Thanks for this thoughtful information!

    1. Oh, good point about the leopard-print buttons! I have to wonder if that's just overzealous. ;)

  2. Thanks, Erin. I found some helpful stuff here! :)