Blackboard: October 2019 compared with October 2018

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Blackboard is at the heart of the University of Southampton’s online learning and teaching.   October is one of the busiest months for the University and Blackboard is no different.  Traditionally, we see peaks in usage and support tickets at this time of year.

The iSolutions Managed Learning Environment team look at how various statistics and trends related to usage and support compare between October 2018 and October 2019.

The data sources used are Google Analytics and our IT Service Management tool.

Three trends…

Comparing Blackboard usage in October 2019 with October 2018 there are three main trends…

Trend 1: Blackboard usage has increased by 8.67%.

When you log in and use Blackboard and then either log out or time out this counts as a “session”.  October 2019 saw 63,725 more Blackboard sessions than in October 2018, an increase of 8.67%.

Graph showing Blackboard sessions over time
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Trend 2: Support Ticket Volume is lower by 12%.

Despite the increase in usage the number of support tickets raised at ServiceLine for Blackboard is 12% lower.

Graph comparing support ticket volumes, showing a 12% reduction.
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Trend 3: Usage of our “elearn” support site is 76% higher.

Our elearn.southampton.ac.uk support site had significantly more content viewed in October 2019 than October 2018.  An additional 22,489 help pages  were viewed in October 2019 compared to the previous year.

Graph: elearn page views over time
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Sounds great!  How do these three insights relate to each other?

Good question.  Let’s look at those three points and consider how they relate to each other.

Blackboard usage increase

Benefiting from the responsive theme.

When we upgraded Blackboard this summer we introduced a new and refreshed responsive theme.  This means Blackboard works better when you use a tablet or smart phone to access Blackboard. 

Looking at the data below we can see that 88% of the increase in the number of sessions was on mobile devices.

Sessions by device category

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Benefiting from a faster service.

As part of our summer Blackboard upgrade this year, we were able to identify a number of changes to make using Blackboard faster.  Google Analytics gives us an indication of speed by telling us the average time that it takes for a web page to load on your computer.

The average worldwide page load time of our Blackboard service worldwide was 20% faster in October 2019 at 1.43 seconds compared with October 2018.  

Average page load time of Blackboard
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When you used Blackboard on the University network in October 2019 you would have experienced a 7% speed increase to the average page load time from 1.03 seconds to 0.96 seconds.  

Graph showing average page load time for Blackboard when using a device on the Southampton University network
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A faster and more responsive Blackboard service invites more usage.  Couple this with the excellent teaching and learning resources uploaded to support University modules and the fantastic new Faculty Hubs hosted on Blackboard and you can see why usage would increase.

But when usage increases should we not see more demand for support such as Incidents and Service Requests raised to ServiceLine?  

Continuous improvement in Blackboard aimed at reducing support calls and improving the service

We made it easier for staff to make their Blackboard course available.

A frequent query at the start of the academic year is from staff who do not know how to make their course available for students to access. 

When we upgraded Blackboard we added a prompt, which when the course is unavailable, reminds instructors of this and adds a button to show them what they need to do to make their course available to students.  Inline relevant links nudge instructors to further guides that staff will find useful at the start of an academic year such, as our top tips, rollover guide, and information on customising the look and feel of a course.  The video below demonstrates this addition.

We added “Yellow Boxes” that provide instant and relevant help when using Blackboard.

There are more than 400 step by step guides for using Blackboard on elearn.soton.ac.uk. To help you make the most of these we are adding contextual “Yellow Boxes” that appear within Blackboard and direct users to relevant guides when performing certain actions.  

Animation showing example Yellow Boxes
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These ensure that our users can find the relevant guide when it is most useful.

We made finding essential tools more efficient for staff.

We received feedback that some important tools that are only used at the start of semester are difficult to find.  So we made the Rollover (Course Copy) and Photos links easier to find at the top of the control panel.

Improved Control Panel
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Speaking of rollover we also made the rollover process easier by adding a button to select the University’s recommended options.

A Yellow box that assists with the rollover process
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We added a floating box for students that appears within Blackboard courses.

Students who view a Blackboard course will find a floating box appears toward the bottom right which has direct links to our Blackboard help guides for students and to a guide on reporting issues.

A floating box appears within courses to help students.
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This ensures that if students experience a problem whilst using Blackboard that they can quickly find the answer on our help pages or report a fault to ServiceLine.

We updated our Top Tips for Staff and Getting Started for students pages.

We use our “Top Tips for a Successful Start to the New Academic Year” page to provide staff with answers to their most common questions at this time of year, as well as highlighting new features and changes from which they may benefit.

Likewise our “Getting Started with Blackboard for Students” covers the kind of information most useful for students when they start using Blackboard.  

We fully revised and updated the content on these pages.  This ensured that when staff or students viewed the pages they had access to the most up to date, relevant, and useful information that would assist them with using Blackboard, particularly at this time of year.

How do we know the above improvements had an impact?

Usage of elearn.soton and changes to ticket patterns

elearn.soton page views that originated from Blackboard.

Google Analytics tells us from which web site a visitor followed a link to reach elearn.soton.ac.uk. Using this information we are able to understand how many page views of elearn.soton originated from a link on blackboard.

The table below shows from which online sources users reached elearn.soton.  We can see that in October 2019 elearn.soton experienced a 2284% increase in page views that originated from Blackboard compared with the same period last year.  

This increase correlates with the yellow boxes and extra links we added within Blackboard that direct users to relevant help and assistance on elearn.soton.

Referral Source  Page Views Change % Change
Total 51914 +22489 +76.43%
Direct 21578 +6865 +46.66%
UoS Blackboard 16120 +15,444 +2284.62%
Google 11873 -786 -6.21%
Edhare 621 +474 +322.45%
Bing 602 +89 +17.35%
soton.ac.uk 297 +297 +∞

The table also shows a general increase in page views compared with the previous year.  Some 22,489 more pages of content on elearn.soton were viewed in October 2019 compared with October 2018.  This is partly accounted for through our extensive communications exercise for the start of term where the communication channels were Sussed News, twitter, the Blackboard-users mailing list and the faculty hubs among others.

elearn.southampton

The elearn.southampton.ac.uk web site is an excellent resource for supporting University of Southampton elearning resources.

The site has international reach. elearn.southampton has been used by 1,399 academic institutions from 32 countries, including 368 from the UK.

More than half of the total tickets answered by the MLE team were resolved by using a link to an elearn page.

Location of users who viewed pages on elearn.soton
Location of users who viewed pages on elearn.soton between October 2018 and October 2019. Select image to enlarge.

Tickets regarding certain specific issues, for which we have put in place improvements, are lower.

The table below shows the “action code” we used to classify a Blackboard ticket raised in October 2019 and the difference to October 2018.

Blackboard Ticket Action Code % Difference to October 2018
Browser issue +183%
How do I… +36%
Banner – other 0%
Other – General -13%
Banner – student enrolment issue -23%
Batch enrol -30%
Banner – instructor enrolment issue -31%
Arbitrary course request -33%
Email -50%
SOHS student not in Banner -50%
Course unavailable -60%
Other Account Issue -65%
Issue with content held outside of Blackboard -75%
Mobile Learn -100%
Total -12%

Reduced Tickets.

While the majority of action codes show a reduction a particular highlight is the 60% reduction in the number of tickets raised about a Blackboard course being unavailable.  The introduction of the on-screen prompt and “show me” button for courses that are unavailable can be seen to be validated through this significant contraction.

Our colleagues in SAA have done a lot of work to improve the quality of instructor data in Banner.  We saw a 31% reduction in tickets raised by staff who cannot see their Blackboard courses because they have not been listed as teaching the module in Banner.

Increased Tickets: How do i…

Not all tickets are necessarily a sign of a poor system.  With each Blackboard upgrade more functionality is added.  As time passes teaching staff wish to extend their use and knowledge of Blackboard to include tools they may not have used before.  We believe the increase in tickets asking “How do i” is a positive indicator.

Increased Tickets: Browser issues.

With the upgrade to Blackboard this year, Internet Explorer (IE) was no longer supported.  Despite our communications on this we received an increase in tickets relating to browser issues, predominantly raised by those who were using IE. 

In September we introduced a pop up message that appears when you use Internet Explorer and log into Blackboard that provides an extra reminder that IE is not supported.

The issue surfaced a number of staff who had out of date builds on their University computers. We were able to alert our colleagues in the Incident Response Team to provide a rebuild of such machines to Windows 10.  Despite the temporary inconvenience to staff, this represents an overall improvement (through using a modern browser and upgraded to Windows 10) to their experience.

Internet Explorer usage in October 2019 was far lower compared with last year.  Far more users employ modern and secure web browsers.

Blackboard sessions by browser
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More tickets resolved at the iSolutions “first line”.

When you raise a Blackboard ticket, whether it’s by ‘phoning or emailing ServiceLine or using ServiceLine Online, your ticket will first be reviewed by our colleagues on the Service Desk. If they can answer the question themselves you get your answer faster. If they cannot, ServiceLine send the ticket to us in the Managed Learning Environment Team. While we are one of the fastest “resolver groups” in iSolutions we still want our customers and users to receive support as quickly as possible when they need it.

To this end, we ran several workshops over the summer for ServiceLine where we reviewed the most common reasons a ticket relating to Blackboard would be raised and trainined our ServiceLine colleagues in how they can resolve some issues at the “first line”. The graph below demonstrates that there has been a 65% improvement in the number of tickets resolved at the “first line”.

Blackboard Tickets by resolving group

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In Conclusion...

We are very pleased to see that compared with October 2018 in October 2019 there was:

  • an increase in the usage of Blackboard at Southampton by 8.67%.
    • 88% of the above increase (42,797 additional sessions) was on mobile devices.
  • a reduction in the volume of support requests by 12%.
    • this included a 65% improvement in the number of tickets resolved at the “first line”.
    • improvements we made to ease Blackboard interface friction resulted in a 60% reduction in tickets related to a Blackboard course being unavailable to students.
  • an increase in the usage of our elearn.soton website by 76%.
    • 22,489 more pages were viewed in October 2019 than in October 2018.
    • 16,120 of those page views (71% of the above increase) originated from clicking a link in Blackboard, for example from the Yellow Boxes we added that provide instant contextual help to staff and students whilst using certain Blackboard features.

The student and staff experience benefits significantly when we make using the VLE more harmonious and remove interface dissonance. Changes we have made enable a faster and more inviting online learning environment that benefits the education life-cycle at the University of Southampton.

There is always more we can do and we value the feedback that we receive from staff and students.  You can get in touch with us by raising a ticket via ServiceLine or chatting with us on our handle @uos_mle.

Further achievements

We’re proud of the work we have done relating to Blackboard so far in 2019

Here are some highlights from 2019 to date:

  • we further developed our communications practices and created a number of videos that introduced important aspects of the 2019 Blackboard upgrade to staff and students.  These videos were viewed more than 5000 times.
  • we produced the first (and so far only) accessibility statement for a University of Southampton service and led the international Blackboard community in collaborating on the practices required to fulfil the new accessibility regulations.
  • we were the first University to integrate the ATbar with Blackboard. We then shared the code with the Blackboard community so that other institutions could benefit from this excellent tool.
  • we introduced a new and responsive user interface (theme) to our Blackboard environment which is aligned with the University brand as well as complying with WCAG 2.1 colour contrast rules.
    • the customisation amounted to more than 2000 lines of additional Cascading Style Sheet code not only to apply the institutional brand but also to make many improvements to functionality, look and feel, and accessibility.
  • we shared our knowledge and expertise for customising the Blackboard responsive theme at the yearly Blackboard European Teaching and Learning conference in partnership with elearning media.
  • we collaborated with the Blackboard international community on identifying and resolving issues with the Blackboard responsive theme and shared our innovations and developments.
  • we assisted the Faculty Hubs team by providing consultancy on the design and structure of the hubs and developing integrations to automatically enrol the students to their relevant hubs.  This included a special configuration to place joint honours students whose programmes run across two faculties onto the hubs for both faculties with which they were studying.
  • we worked through a number of requests made by the Faculty of Humanities to improve Blackboard.  These then benefited the whole University.  We are excited to continue progressing through these requests – a number of more complex requests remain outstanding and we hope to start working on those in the New Year.
  • we project managed and led the full 2019 Blackboard Upgrade
    • this included the raising and agreeing 140 project tasks within iSolutions
    • we led nine upgrade workshops where we upgraded Blackboard development and preproduction environments and refined our techniques and practices to be sure that when we did the live upgrade we could take the shortest time possible with the most reliable outcome.
    • we co-ordinated help and advice for upgrades in the international Blackboard community , continuing the leadership we have shown on this topic since 2016, 2017, 2018, for which we are well-known.
  • we worked together with a number of operations and development teams in iSolutions to introduce a new practice for load testing, based on industry best practice.
    • We used Lean Six Sigma techniques to produce the baseline parameters we were targeting.
    • The project team automated a large amount of the measurement activities which were cumbersome and onerous to set up manually.
    • The team developed new load test measurement dashboards using Grafana.
    • We created a workshop style collaborative load testing exercise using a tiger team made up of key stakeholders from each iSolutions team involved in the exercise.
    • We produced a programme of project tasks that break the load and stress testing exercise into manageable chunks that can be used by project managers on other projects.
    • Following introducing the actions recommended as an outcome of the load testing exercise Blackboard page load speed has improved and there have been no outages caused by high load.
  • we led a Disaster Recovery exercise for Blackboard, completing in the fastest time so far.
  • we ran continuous improvement exercises throughout our upgrade project to make the upgrade process faster, smoother, and more reliable.
    • This builds upon the work we have done in the last four upgrades we have performed whilst MLE have project managed the upgrades.
  • we analysed disk capacity usage for Blackboard and procured and installed an additional two terabytes of storage for Blackboard.
  • we are heavily involved with a business case to migrate Blackboard to the cloud.  Doing so would give us more time to develop and improve Blackboard, rather than running resource intensive upgrade projects.