Organize Your Course
Give your Portal Course a Makeover!
Tips & Tricks for Organizing your Portal Course
This guide will provide you with a variety of tips and tricks to help you get the most out of the Portal. Its purpose is to help you think about new ways to organize your course content and materials, resulting in a clean, easy-to-navigate course site that is also engaging for students.
The recommendations outlined here reflect best practices for online learning design, grounded in effective pedagogy as well as sound usability principles. Where possible, additional reading and references have been provided.
If you are new to the University of Toronto Portal or to Blackboard, please begin at the Introduction. If you have taught using the UofT Portal before, please see the Table of Contents below for your topic of interest.
Table of Contents
What is a Portal Course?
Blackboard is UofT's institutionally supported learning management system (LMS) and Student Portal. Blackboard is integrated with ROSI (UofT’s student information system) and provides the University of Toronto community with an advanced content system, a variety of student communication tools, as well as course administration features.
What are the benefits of setting up a Portal Course?
The Portal is the primary online location for the University's courses, whether they are taught face-to-face, partially online or fully online. Setting up your course in the Portal allows students to access course materials and resources from one central place. It also allows students to easily communicate with course staff and with each other, both in real-time and asynchronously. Using the Portal also presents many benefits to instructors, such as providing access to class lists, grade management and online assignment submission.
What is considered an appropriate course setup in my Academic Division?
It is important to know and understand your department's and program's norms around setting up courses online. We recommend you consult with your Departmental Chair on various policies and guidelines that may affect your course set-up, including:
- expectations for participation and attendance
- deadlines for assignment submissions
- submission methods (e.g. in person or electronically through the Portal, with or without the use of Turnitin.com)
- extensions or penalties for late work
- response times for instructor-student communication
- academic integrity / plagiarism
How do I access the Portal?
Designing Mobile-Friendly Content
You can review Blackboard's Best Practices for Mobile-Friendly Courses for help with designing your course with mobile in mind. When creating your course content, it is recommended to keep in mind the content types supported by the Bb Student app.
Before embarking on your course makeover, consider the following steps:
Refer to your course syllabus. As you read through it, highlight any references to the following categories.
- Goals of the course, pre-requisites and recommended courses or background knowledge;
- Instructor and course staff contact information;
- Important dates;
- Assignments, grading and assessment criteria;
- Readings and where to acquire them;
- Additional resources and supports.
It is important to think about the various pieces that comprise your course and how to best present them in an online environment.
Brainstorm the different ways the information can be presented in the course. Does it information require its own menu, or is it part of a larger set of information? Is there any content posted on a separate website to which you can link? If assignments are being submitted online, will assessment criteria accompany the assignment description? Are you interested in using software to help assess for plagiarism? Where can you clearly communicate to students the work required in the course, including due dates and other important dates?
Map out where each piece of information will sit in the Portal. You can do this using pen and paper, in document processing software such as Word, or via an online drawing/concept mapping tool. If you have already decided which tools you will be using, such as a Discussion Board or Turnitin, include those as well.
See the rest of this guide for tips and tricks on how to best lay out your course content through customization, decluttering and overall organization of course materials.
The Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation has an Instructor Toolkit that contains resources on online course design and development. It is of utmost importance to ensure that we reach all students, and as such the accessibility section of the toolkit is particularly relevant to online course and instructional design. Please review these Accessibility Guidelines to improve the accessibility of course content published within your Portal course.
If you would like to dig deeper into course design best practices, please consult the Online Course Design Guidelines on the Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation website.
Purpose: To enhance the appearance of your course and to make it easier for students to find crucial information.
By default, the landing page (entry point) for your course is the Home Page. However, you can change the course entry point to almost any of the items on your course menu.
Consider setting your Announcements page as the landing page. This helps to ensure that students are informed of major course news by making it the first page they see when they access the course. Alternatively, you can choose another page that has crucial course information, such as a course menu with instructions on navigating the course site.
You can add a banner image to appear at the top of the course entry point. The banner image is automatically centered.
To do this, go to Control Panel > Customization > Teaching Style. Scroll down to Select Banner and click on Browse My Computer to locate an image file on your computer. You can't use images stored in the Content Collection or Course Files. However, a copy is stored there with each new upload.
A recommended size for banners is approximately 480 by 80 pixels. When you choose a banner image, keep in mind that users can resize their browser windows, expand and collapse the course menu, and use monitors of varying sizes and screen resolutions. After you upload a banner, view it under those conditions to be sure that it appears as intended.
Accessibility Guidelines (Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation)
Purpose: To improve course site usability by reducing the amount of time it takes to find information; to tailor menu in order to meet your teaching and learning needs.
Create a menu item titled "Navigating this Course” or "Start Here." In this menu, add a new item containing a description of the various tools and content students should expect to interact with or use throughout the course. Clearly communicating these expectations will reduce time looking for course materials as well as inquiries to course staff.
See sample text for a"Navigating this Course" menu.
You can bold course menus to draw students' attention to important information.
To do this, add your Content Area. When naming it, add the HTML code <b> before the title, and the code </b> after the title.
For example, to bold "Start Here!" name it <b> Start Here! </b>.
Add a divider to space out menu items or sets of items. For example, you may want to keep content areas separate from tools, or have a section for assignments that is visually distinct from the other menu items.
To do this, click on the on the Course Menu plus sign (+) and select Divider. Then, move the divider to the desired location in the menu.
If you have multiple assignments, or multiple course materials, it is recommended you store them under separate content areas. The reason for this is that assignments can get buried in a long list of links and files, creating a barrier to assignment submission.
Content can still be organized on a week to week basis, but grouped under two separate menus - one for what you would like students to read (course materials such as syllabus and weekly readings) vs. one for what you would like students to do (assessments such as tests, surveys and assignment submissions).
As you build your course, you may have content that you would like to share only with Course Staff, such as TAs and Graders. This may be content such as grading guidelines, team meeting notes and content that is draft form.
One convenient way to make these files and notes available is to place them in a hidden menu item. Hidden menu items are not available to students, however can be easily accessed by Course Staff without the need to access a separate file-sharing or information-sharing space.
To hide a menu item, simply hover over the downward arrow next to the item, click on it and select Hide Link.
To start off, you may want to share this training resource for Instructors and TAs on Developing Effective Course & Tutorial Learning Outcomes, in your hidden menu.
The Portal Help website contains helpful information for students, such as how to submit assignments and contribute to discussion boards. It is highly recommended you add a link to Portal Help in your course menu, directing students to Portal information and instructions that will help them succeed in your course.
To do this, see Add External Link. When prompted for the external link, type: http://portalinfo.utoronto.ca/content/information-students
Instructors can contact their Liaison Librarians at the University of Toronto Libraries for customization of the default Library Resources menu. A customized feed will display discipline-specific and course-specific library resources in your Portal course.
Providing customized content for students can result in better quality research, and will also help redirect research skills questions to librarians and library support staff. Consider coupling this with an in-class, Librarian-led information literacy session for maximum results.
Now that you have laid out and organized your menu, the last step is to declutter it! Deleting or hiding pages and tools that are not being used is also part of effective online course design. The removal of extraneous information reduces the number of student inquiries and helps to clearly communicate to students what you expect them to read and do in your course.
Which tools and content areas should you declutter?
- If you have changed the landing page of your course, you can delete or hide the Home menu item.
- If you have added your syllabus under another menu item such as Course Materials, you can delete or hide the Syllabus menu item.
- It is recommended that you hide the Course Tools menu item, as seeing the full suite of tools offered by the Portal can lead to confusion for students around coursework and assignments.
To hide a menu item, simply hover over the downward arrow next to the item, click on it and select Hide Link.
To delete a menu item, hover over the same downward arrow, click on it and select Delete. You will be asked to confirm the deletion.
- Burke, J. & Tumbleson, B. (2016). LMS embedded librarianship and the educational role of librarians. Library Technology Reports, 52(2).
- Harley, A. (2016). Visual Indicators to Differentiate Items in a List. Retrieved from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/visual-indicators-differentiators.
Purpose: To improve the experience of navigating through course content, and to facilitate learning for all students by offering content in a variety of modalities.
There are 3 primary ways in which you can direct students to course readings:
1. List readings in your course syllabus, via permalinks
2. Upload readings to a content area
3. Arrange for a Librarian to list your readings in the Course Reserves module
Permalinks, also known as stable, durable, or permanent links, are web links that don't change or expire after you leave a resource on the library website or journal database. By adding permalinks to your syllabus, you allows your students to directly access an article or library record from the syllabus, eliminating the search step on the library website.
Another option is to upload readings directly to a content area. This can be done via the Create Item menu option in the content area. There are important copyright considerations to keep in mind when using this method. Instructors may wish to consult the Copyright Resources page, in particular the FAQs and the University of Toronto Fair Dealing Guidelines.
A more convenient option is to arrange for a Librarian to list your readings in the Portal's Course Reserves module. This enables students to access readings from the Portal while respecting Canadian copyright provisions and existing U of T licensing agreements. The tool creates a single list of all assigned course materials so students can easily access articles, books, web links, and media resources in one place. Please see the Course Reserves and Syllabus Service page for more information.
You may wish to have a separate section in the course menu that refers students to additional resources. This section would include multimodal resources that offer value beyond the main content of the course. For example:
- Recommended reading and additional references, reiterating course concepts or providing alternative viewpoints
- Where to search: start with the University of Toronto Libraries' Research Guides page
- Image collections illustrating course concepts, and videos that foster debate, provide instructions or summaries
- Where to search: try a Creative Commons image or video search
- Social media posts from sites such as Twitter and personal blogs
You can use multimedia in the ways outlined above, and also to post welcome messages or as feedback on student assessments. In addition to having students engage with content via multimedia resources, you may also wish to use video to communicate and help foster engagement with students and among students.
- Lecture Capture software
- How to make instructional videos (Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation)
- Dunlap, J.C. & Lowenthal, P.R. (2009). Tweeting the Night Away: Using Twitter to Enhance Social Presence. Journal of Information Systems Education, Vol. 20(2), 129-135
- Ice, P., Curtis, R., Phillips, P. & Wells, J. (2007). Using Asynchronous Audio Feedback to Enhance Teaching Presence and Students’ Sense of Community. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11(2), 3-25.
- Shank, J. D. (2014). Interactive open educational resources: A guide to finding, choosing, and using what's out there to transform college teaching (1st ed. ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Purpose: To effectively set up assignments while clearly communicating coursework expectations to students.
A Rubric is a tool that lists evaluation criteria for an assignment. Rubrics can help instructors and TAs explain their evaluations to students and can be viewed as a grading widget in Blogs, Journals, Wikis, and Discussion Boards. Rubrics also ensure that grading is fair and efficient, and increases consistency in marking and overall fairness.
To learn more, see Creating a Rubric. Please note that rubrics can also be added as instructions or attachments in the assignment description.
To create effective rubrics, ensure that you are mapping learning outcomes to your assignment design. The Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation has developed a comprehensive, online learning module on Developing Course and Tutorial Learning Outcomes that will help you not only conceptualize your course better, but create a more effective rubric.
When creating assignments in the Portal, ensure that you provide clear instructions on how to complete the assignment. In addition to using rubrics (see above), you can enter instructions in the Instructions field, and/or Attach a File containing instructions.
You can also select the number of attempts (single attempt, unlimited or multiple). It is recommended that you allow for multiple attempts when setting up assignments, as students may make trivial errors during the upload process, inadvertently preventing further submissions. This gives students some leeway for technical issues and mistakes, and takes the instructor out of the assignment submission process by ensuring students can resolve minor issues in their own.
During grading, note that the Portal lists student's multiple assignment attempts in the order in which they were submitted. See View Submitted Assignment Files for more information.
Turnitin, an electronic resource that assists in the deterrence of plagiarism, has been integrated in the Portal. Before using Turnitin, ensure that you have read Turnitin's Conditions of Use by visiting the Turnitin in the Learning Portal page. Here you can learn how to Create a Turnitin Assignment and Review a Turnitin Assignment Submission.
It may also be helpful to understand what students experience when submitting to a Turnitin assignment by reading the instructions on Submitting to a Turnitin Assignment. When communicating with students about Turnitin assignment expectations, ensure that student instructions are included along with the general assignment instructions.
Please note that, when resubmissions are enabled, Originality Reports for the second or subsequent submissions will take up to 24 hours to generate.
For more information on Originality Reports, please see Understanding Turnitin and the Originality Report (PDF). In addition, you may wish to view the video below for step-by-step instructions on creating a Turnitin assignment.
- Assessment of Student Learning (Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation)
- Developing Learning Outcomes (Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation)
- Barkley, E. F. (2016). In Major C. H. (Ed.), Learning assessment techniques: A handbook for college faculty (1st edition. ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Purpose: To optimize courses for student engagement through the effective use of Portal tools.
Sending an Announcement is one of the recommended course tasks for instructors who have just made their course available (see more tasks at Course Tasks - Before the First Class).
Announcements allow you to communicate with all members of your course at once. For example, you may post an announcement in order to share information about changes to course meetings, times or locations, inform students that new materials are available, or send out reminders about course work.
Announcements are permanently displayed to users on the Announcements page, which you can set to be your course entry point, or landing page.
Once a course is made available, students using a Blackboard Mobile App will be notified. This will happen even if no content has been added. As a result, it is good practice to have an announcement ready for students, either as a welcome message or presenting some information about the course. If the course has no other content, having an announcement to read can make students feel less anxious while the instructor works to populate content. If the course does have content, it can give students a place to start or some direction, such as instructions on navigating the course.
See Post Announcements for instructions.
The Discussion Board is one of the most commonly used Portal tools. It is often used to share course information to students, and to share readings and documents. However, it is also a central hub of communication among all course participants. As such, it is important to consider the optimal setup of the Discussion Board to ensure that all are able to contribute, respond to and engage with the content that is being shared.
There are two Discussion Board setup settings that can be leveraged to promote engagement and discussion:
- Forum Availability:
By default, a Discussion Board forum is available and students are able to access it right away. However, by setting this to No, students will need to make a contribution before reading what others have contributed. The advantage of doing this is that students must formulate a well-thought contribution that is a reflection of their thoughts and ideas, without being influenced by what others have written. While not suitable to every discussion, this option should be considered according to the goals of the course and the activity.
- Forum Settings – Subscribe:
The Subscribe feature allows all participants (including instructors) to opt-in to receiving email notifications of new posts. This can be set to Forum or Thread, which will result in a Subscribe button appearing either at the Forum level or the Thread level. In addition, subscriptions can include links to the post or the post text. Including a link to the post is recommended when trying to generate more discussion, as the recipient of the message must re-enter the course to see and engage with the post. Again, while not suitable for every course or activity, this feature can have a positive effect by generating more discussion via the email prompt.
Note: Students should not reply to email messages regarding new post or reply notifications from the Discussion Board. To create a new post in a Forum or reply to a Thread, they must access the Discussion Board within the course.
For instructions, see Add a Discussion Forum.
While many online course interactions are text-based, providing additional multimedia resources, such as video resources, can benefit students by having them engage with course content in new or innovative ways. Video can also be used to foster engagement among students, as well as engagement between teachers and students, in ways that support the building of an online community.
For example, the Discussion Board can be leveraged as a place to connect students to each other's video messages. Activities that are conducive to video communication include introductions, content summaries, oral position papers, and the giving of feedback or peer reviews. In the Discussion Board, the Content Editor allows for video to content to be added via the following tools:
To capture the video, you can use a webcam, built-in camera or other recording device. One option is to use Lecture Capture software to record the user and/or the user's desktop when making a video. Content can then be uploaded to the University of Toronto's media storage and streaming service, myMedia. For instructions please see the Lecture Capture software page, as well as the video below which demonstrates one of the many potential uses of the software.
- CoI Model (from Community of Inquiry website). Retrieved from https://coi.athabascau.ca/coi-model.
- Conrad, R.-M., & Donaldson, J. A. (2011). Engaging the online learner: Activities and resources for creative instruction. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Song, L., & McNary, S. (2011). Understanding Students’ Online Interaction: Analysis of Discussion Board Postings. Journal of Interactive Online Learning.
- Swan, K., & Shih, L. F. (2005). On the nature and development of social presence in online course discussions. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 9(3), 115+.
- Zydney, J. M., deNoyelles, A., & Kyeong-Ju Seo, K. (2012). Creating a community of inquiry in online environments: An exploratory study on the effect of a protocol on interactions within asynchronous discussions. Computers & Education, 58(1), 77–87.
Purpose: To communicate to students that you care about their academic success and well-being, as well as to enhance the instructor's online presence.
The Contacts menu item appears by default in the Portal. You can edit the content on this page to display important information about the instructor and other key people associated with the course. You may wish to include information such as office hours and location, phone number, and email address. Adding a photograph or a link to a web site, such as your research profile or Twitter page, can also help to increase instructor presence online.
Think of the Contacts section as a biography or profile, where you provide information on research and personal interests. This will also give your students a glimpse into your academic and professional life, goals and aspirations as an instructor.
For instructions, see Add Contact Information for Course Staff.
Students often look to instructors and other course staff for academic advice and personal support. The University of Toronto provides a variety of resources, online and in-person, to students seeking counselling on these topics. You can view a list of recommended Learner Supports to determine which best suit your students. In addition, you may wish to include a link to the Online Learning Strategies guide "Learning to Learn Online," which addresses the technical requirements of the online environment, as well as student preparedness for online learning.
To include these in your course, you can Add External Links to individual websites from the main course menu. You can also Add a Content Area, and then Create an Item, in which you can provide a list of links.
You may also wish to Create an Item named Glossary, containing terminology that is relevant to the course or field.
- Supporting Students (Teaching Assistants' Training Program)
Quick Reference Guide: A two page reference guide on common tasks within the Portal, produced by CTSI.
Getting Started Booklet: An in depth guide on building your Portal course, produced by CTSI.
Getting Started Handout: A quick guide on building your Portal course, produced by OISE.