Using Blackboard to Augment Class Meetings

By Paula D. Gordon, Ph.D.

Revised March 10, 2005

The following article is based on a presentation to the workshop on Public Administration Online Education held March 14, 2003 at the American Society for Public Administration National Conference in Washington, D.C. The last part of the article is based on the slides that accompanied that presentation. The article does not focus on any specific subject matter and may be of interest to those involved in education and training efforts of any kind.

The article was posted previously in a slightly different form on the website of the Australian Flexible Learning Community on August 19, 2003.

Note: Blackboard ( is one of many online software platforms that can be used to network the learning environment and enhance learning and communication. An example of another online software platform is ICohere (

For the past several years, the courses that I have been teaching have been nearly paperless. All assignments are posted or submitted using Blackboard. This advantage is only one of many afforded by the use of Blackboard. To give the reader a better idea of how I have been using Blackboard and why I find it such a valuable tool, it may be helpful to provide some background concerning the approach that I take to teaching. This will entail saying something about my evolving philosophy of education.

Years ago the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education released a report in which they stated that the most asked question of instructors by university students was this: "Will this material be on the exam?" I do not use exams in the courses I teach. I require no rote learning. In fact, with the exception of oral presentations, I do not grade the "quantity or the quality" of what students say in class. I try to engage students in the learning process in other ways. These ways can be more edifying and can stimulate thinking and exchange. They can also spur ongoing interest and involvement in learning and expanding one's understanding and knowledge.

My first involvement with online education was teaching a course solely online for twelve students. Some of what I learned during that experience has literally transformed my approach to learning and the educational process.

During the fifteen weeks of the course, I experimented with different ways of communicating online, especially using the White Board feature of Blackboard. For instance, I invented a way to have all twelve students "talk at once". I formatted the slides on the White Board so that there were areas (designated by rectangles with student initials in the corner) where each student was to post. Each slide had at the top a question for the students to address. What I discovered from the use of this approach was that students, who would not normally have "talked" during a regular class, expressed themselves in extraordinary ways. Since there was no threat of their being evaluated on the basis of what they said, they posted their thoughts freely. I discovered that students, at least those in that first class, were unusually thoughtful and insightful and quick to pick up on new ideas and become engaged in discussion. To make a long story short, I discovered how important that thinking and expressing one's ideas was to the educational process. I discovered the significance of what John Dewey, the philosopher and educator, had once said concerning the relationship between communication and education: "All communication is educational."

Another major insight that I gleaned from this first online experience was that students working in small breakout groups (utilizing their own White Boards) could accomplish in ten to fifteen minutes what it would take students in a face-to-face class a half an hour or more to accomplish. I discovered this when I tasked the breakout groups to brainstorm ways of addressing some challenges. I asked them to designate a reporter and a facilitator and to have the reporter post a summary of the group's discussion and recommendations after their brief brainstorming session. This time, instead of twelve places for students to post on the White Board in the Virtual Classroom, there were only three, one for each small group. The quality of the recommendations was very high. The recommendations were both creative and thoughtful, even inspired. One possible explanation for this was provided me by a clinical psychologist who observed that because the group was interacting online, that personalities did not get in the way of a free wheeling brainstorming exchange.

While I have not had occasion to teach a course solely online again, I have used Blackboard increasingly to augment classroom teaching. One semester I was scheduled to teach two courses that each met several times a week. They were in different locations. The only way I could do this was to join one of the classes online and do so an hour after the class started. I decided to try an experiment and have them meet on their own on the Discussion Board during the first hour of the class. They were to post their assignments and discuss them during that hour. Each student is responsible for skim reading four or five assignments each week and posting a half page paper on one of these assignments. (Assignments are divvied up in small groups so that four or five different assignments are "covered" by each small group.) Remember, this was a class that I met with in person twice a week in addition to one evening a week online during half of the time that the class was scheduled to meet. I made quite an amazing discovery: the organizational culture of the class and the sense of comradery were obviously affected in a very positive way by mixing online exchanges with regular face-to-face class meetings. Students got to know each other faster and better and felt freer in their exchanges with one another than other classes in my experience. As a result, I have included in my regular classes requirements for the small groups in each of my classes to meet in real time on the Discussion Board or in one of the Virtual Chatrooms and engage in a discussion of the posted threads on the Discussion Board.

To place my use of Blackboard in context and to describe more fully how the use of Blackboard affects the class culture and openness to learning, it might be helpful if I outline more fully how I go about grading. This approach to grading has a great deal to do with the positive way that Blackboard can be used to augment class meetings.

~ The grade is 25% for going to classes or showing up online and posting. If there is 100% attendance, the student earns an A in this portion of the grade;

~ Another 25% is for skim reading four or five assignments, skim reading all postings on the Discussion Board, and posting a half page paper for each class and posting comments on at least one other posting each assignment cycle. Also included in this part of the grade is the submission of a 1 - 2 page final paper proposal. The only way a student gets less than an A is if they fail to meet the requirements or if their half page paper posting is substandard and they fail to revise it and make it passable. Then their paper receives a regular letter grade.

~ 50% of the grade is for a final paper. The length of this paper is limited to 2000 - 2500 words. All papers are to be posted on a designated thread on the Discussion Board. I encouraged students to give oral presentations to the class, but these are not graded and are not mandatory. All students are asked to read all of the posted final papers. The students have quite a bit of latitude in choosing their final paper topics and scoping their individual topics out. I try to meet with them in person for at least 20 - 30 minutes early in the course to try to help them settle on a topic or a set of possible topics. I also suggest numerous references that I think might be of interest to them. (I have them fill out information forms at the beginning of the class so I have some idea of their background, their work experience, the career goals, and their academic interests.) Then they write up a very brief proposal and list the likely references that they will use. I require that they use at least 3 - 4 references of the minimum of 8 references that use be references that they have been introduced to as a result of taking the class. The final paper grade is lowered if they fail to do that. (This is a safeguard from handing in a paper that was written for another class or taking something off the internet, etc.) Even though all students post their final papers on the Discussion Board, I communicate directly by e-mail with students whose papers are substandard or poorly written. I notify students of their grades on the final paper and the grade received in the course by direct e-mail.

I encourage students to write their final paper on a topic that is both pertinent to the course topic and to their interests, including, ideally, their career interests, I find that the student papers become an extraordinary additional learning resource for the entire class, since all the students are asked to skim read all of the papers even though the class is technically over.

I have found that this approach to teaching maximizes learning. By not requiring any rote learning and by creating a relatively risk free learning environment, I find that the students (once they get used this approach to teaching) really enjoy being able to discuss their ideas and enjoy the learning process. I have had many write really extraordinary final papers.

Some Ways of Using the Discussion Board
  • Real time use of the Discussion Board
  • Using the Discussion Board in asynchronous time meeting on the Discussion Board
  • The class or small groups can meet in real time on the Discussion Board.
  • Students can post to threads on topics that the instructor has already set up.
Meeting on the Discussion Board in Real Time
  • The effect can be similar to a roving cocktail party except you can talk as long as you want and move from one conversation and topic to another.
Effect on the Organizational Culture of the Class
  • Meeting in real time and exchanging ideas and analyses in a non-threatening environment can have the effect of changing the nature of the interpersonal relationships in the class.
  • Students can get to know each other better while engaging in free flowing discussions.
Effect on Learning Process

As John Dewey wrote in 1916: "All communication is educational. To be a recipient of communication is to have enlarged and exchanged experience." The more students discuss their thoughts and communicate with others, the greater the opportunity for them to test out new ideas, reconsider old ideas, raise questions, find answers, synthesize information and understanding in new ways, and arrive at new insights.

Some Possible Guidelines to Use
  • Everyone is asked to read all postings
  • Everyone is required to post on a minimum number of threads and/or a minimum number of times during the allotted time.
  • Students are encouraged to "listen" to what others are saying.
Additional Guidelines to Consider
  • No one is graded on the quantity or the quality of what they say. This can encourage risk-taking and exploration. In this way, students may be more apt to raise questions that are of real concern or test out new ideas.
  • Those posting must observe "net-iquette" and not engage in "flaming" or the use of inflammatory language or insults.
  • The instructor reserves the right to delete postings.
Additional Guidelines to Consider
  • The instructor may be present and partake in the exchange or not. Students understand that the instructor will read all postings and may comment or raise questions.
  • If the instructor's comments concerning the posting of a student are likely to embarrass a student, it can be best to communicate directly by e-mail or in person with the student rather than posting comments that everyone in the class is able to read.
Use of the Discussion Board in Asynchronous Time
  • The Discussion Board can be used in asynchronous time for the posting of assignment on designated threads and for commenting on the postings of others students.
Use of the Discussion Board in Asynchronous Time for the Posting and Discussing Assignments
  • Students post their half page paper in cut and paste form on a pre-designated thread.
  • In addition to posting a half page paper, all students are required to post their comments or questions on at least one other posting.
  • One approach is to have students post a half page paper on one of a selection of reading assignments each week.
  • Students are also required to skim read all the assigned readings as well as all the postings.
The Posting of Assignments
  • The way this can work is as follows: If there 20 students in the class, I break the class into small groups. If there are five assigned readings each week, I have the small groups divvy up the assignments so that each person in a small group writes a half page paper on a different assignment.
  • The half page paper can be a few sentences objectively describing the content of an assigned reading and a few sentences in which the student reflects or comments on what he or she has read. I also invite students to relate what they have read to their own experience.
Use of the Discussion Board in Asynchronous Time
  • This can be very similar in effect to real time use of the Discussion Board.
  • A major difference is that since it is not in real time, exchanges lack the same sense of immediacy, spontaneity, and also fun that they can have in real time.
  • Since there is no time factor, students may take more time to consider what they post and what their classmates have posted.
  • The instructor can comment and raise questions concerning each posting either online or via direct e-mail depending on the nature of the comments. I take care never to post public comments that could be embarrassing to a student. I try always to communicate directly with students whose work is in some way problematic.
  • The instructor might also ask to student to revise and repost the posting. This may be done for any of a number of reasons, including poor writing.
The Use of the Whiteboard and the Virtual Classrooms
  • With ten or twelve students, you can have all the students "talk at once" on the White Board.
  • With fifty, you can divide the class into small groups and have groups meet at the same time in different "rooms".
Having Twelve Students "Talk at Once" on the White Board
  • Post a question at the top of a White Board slide.
  • Below the question draw ten or twelve areas (large rectangles) and place the initials of each of the students in the corner of a rectangle (one set of initials to a rectangle). Then everyone can respond to the question at the same time and knows where to type.
  • A space can be left below each rectangle for the instructor to make brief comments.
  • Additional discussion can go on below the White Board in the regular typing area.
  • One draw back is that it is difficult to archive the White Board slides. While there are programs that will allow the archiving of the material posted on the White Board, the simplest (though labor intensive approach) is to copy over the content of the White Board into the archives (using the regular typing space at the bottom of the White Board).
  • You can also prepare the White Board slides ahead of time so that you are sure to engage all the students in the class. You can also prepare slides without a question at the top and then add the question as the discussion evolves.
  • I ask everyone to read all of the postings.
Breakout Rooms with White Boards
  • Blackboard enables you to have groups convene at the same time in different rooms.
  • I assign students to groups and have each group go to a designated "room". The groups are named and a list of students and their assigned group can be placed on a slide in the main classroom or on the announcement page.
  • Each group can be given a topic to discuss or a task or a problem to brainstorm.
  • Groups are given a specified amount of time to meet.
  • They then report back to the main virtual classroom at a specific time. Each group can be asked to have a reporter or representative post a summary of their group discussion, conclusions, recommendations, or solutions.
  • Here again, you can use pre-designated areas (rectangles) on the White Board for each of the groups.
  • The name of each group can be placed in the corner of one of the rectangles.
  • All of the groups can report at once and discussion can follow.
Using the White Board for Student Presentations
  • Students can also give live presentations using the White Board and comment on each other's presentations.

I hope that these ideas prove of interest and of value to those involved in the teaching of courses on any subject.


Dr. Paula D. Gordon is a writer, analyst, and consultant. She also serves as a member of the Practitioner Faculty of Johns Hopkins University. Her doctorate in Public Administration is from American University. Her dissertation on Public Administration in the Public Interest is online at Dr. Gordon's reports and published writing on homeland security efforts post-9/11 can be found at Her e-mail address is




Return to Paula Gordon's Homeland Security Page