Creating Engaging Discussion Board Conversations

-By Mark Prestopnik, Assistant Director of Online Teaching and Learning

DiscussionBoard_MonitorInstructors new to teaching online courses and those seeking to build increasingly blended courses often wonder how they can leverage the discussion board as an effective tool to support student learning. Discussion boards have the potential to increase engagement, keep students connected to the content, help instructors to direct student focus, and deepen understanding of content through critical thinking. When used tactically, the discussion board can be an effective medium for idea exchange and a useful tool to support student learning.

Comparing Face-to-Face Discussion to Online Discussion

A common equivalency is often made between discussion forums in online courses and classroom discussions in face-to-face courses. While this comparison is generally accurate, there are levels of quality and value derived from online discussion forums, as are there levels of value and meaning derived from any activity in various learning modalities.

There is always the possibility of a dry and forced conversation in the physical classroom that does little to advance student learning. In the online environment, there can be equally disengaged discussion forum experiences, where students are simply asked to regurgitate what they’ve read. In other cases, the interaction (student to student and instructor to student) seems to only reach a level of faint praise of one another’s discussion posts. In these and other cases, the discussion board merely exists to serve perfunctory activity, where everyone goes through the motions without advancing learning in a meaningful way. Keep reading below to find suggestions for creating effective discussions, and to recognize pitfalls to avoid.


DiscussionBoard_MobileThe use of a variety of learning tools and activities in any course forms interesting student learning experiences that holds students attention, and helps them to think and demonstrate comprehension in a variety of ways. In this blog post the focus is exclusively on use of the discussion board. Its asynchronous nature affords students the ability to engage at their convenience, from any location and from nearly any device (computer, tablet or mobile). Students who may not be vocal in the classroom have equal footing with other students. No longer do students have the ability to hide in the back of the classroom. Each student’s level of participation is out in the open and they can be held accountable for their performance. The performance dashboard along with the discussion board’s grading capability provides metrics on level of participation that instructors can use to assess students.

Strategies for Creating Effective Online Discussions

Before we dive into strategies, it’s also important to realize that these strategies work for fully online courses and for blended learning in face-to-face courses. Here are a variety of strategies to consider:

  • Use the discussion board to flip your classroom. Doing so prepares students to engage in collaborative work during classroom sessions. Students can come to class with a baseline level of understanding in the topic after completing readings, viewing content and participating in asynchronous discussions. Thus, classroom time is much more productive with students prepared and ready to apply concepts. Here are some strategies to consider:
  • Give students a variety of questions to choose from. For example, have students respond to 2 out of 4 questions posted. This provides students with the ability to answer questions that resonate with them, while increasing diversity of discussion. Providing question options also provides students with the opportunity to participate and respond to questions that they didn’t answer initially.
  • Use videos, podcasts, or guest lectures as jumping off points for discussions. Introducing content in a variety of ways engages students at different levels.
  • Use interviews, concert reviews, and other physical experiences. Just because the form is written doesn’t always require the process to be. Require students to go out and do or experience something, and then come back to the discussion board to discuss.
  • DiscussionBoard_ThoughtBubblePose stimulating and thought provoking questions. Write questions in a way that requires students to reflect personally while also weaving in evidence from course materials and outside research. Resist the urge to spoon-feed your students. Make them more active participants in their own learning.
  • Use role playing activities, assign students as discussion leaders, or have students provide discussion forum recaps. Mix things up! Challenge your students to take a more prominent role in both their learning, as well as their classmates’ learning. Step aside and re-direct the students if they veer of course.
  • Learn who each student is, in both a learner/academic sense, as well a personal sense. This will allow you to best support each individual’s learning trajectory with follow-up and prodding type responses appropriate to their level of development and lived experiences. As the course progresses, don’t be ashamed to revisit introductory assignments, discussion posts and other get to know you activities in order to get a better contextualize their coursework. If you are not requiring such activities, add them! (Caveat: Some students may be less forthcoming with personal information than others. Don’t pressure students into revealing personal information unless they are comfortable doing so).

Pitfalls & How to Avoid Them

  • Refrain from asking questions where the answer can be easily looked up, and then parroted back. Save lower order comprehension questions for short checkup quizzes.
  • Avoid asking the same type of question each week (e.g. asking what about this week’s reading did you find interesting?). Avoid being repetitive and, as a result, boring your students.
  • Don’t over or under communicate. Establish consistent communication patterns so that you can engage with discussion posts without taking them over. There is a delicate balance to find, with the extremes being:
    • Waiting until the end of the week to respond to students. Your students are led to believe that you don’t read their posts, and thus what they write doesn’t matter much.
    • Responding to every student post. You dominate the discussion and crowd out your students from thinking through the content themselves. Let the conversation breathe a bit by allowing students the opportunity to engage with each other. Of course, each discussion is unique and will require a certain deftness by the instructor on when to chime in and redirect the conversation, and when to fall back and let students work through some complexity.

Best Practices

It’s essential that you provide clear and comprehensive instructions for your students on expectations concerning the discussion board. Students’ past experiences using discussion boards may vary greatly, as do the level of importance that their previous instructors placed upon them.

  • State in your syllabus exactly how you will be assessing students’ discussion board performance, and how you expect them to use the discussion board. Provide an online discussion rubric that identifies student performance levels and the corresponding grade that they will earn.
  • Emphasize that initial discussion responses must be posted by mid-week (set an actual date and time), in order to provide ample time for follow-up questions and student-student and student-instructor dialogue to take place during the second half of the week.
  • Be specific on how students should interact with their classmates. Provide a minimum number of replies and give students a sense of what replies should consist of.
  • Provide individual and class level feedback on discussion board performance within the first 2-3 weeks of the course. This is your opportunity to emphasize the value you place on online discussions, and to correct inconsistencies early on. Point students back to rubrics and other expectations in your feedback.

Integrating the above tips regarding discussion boards as part of a comprehensive learning strategy will put you well on your way to creating a valuable learning experience that engages your students.

We Want to Hear from You!

Have any great experiences for online discussions that have occurred in a course that you were a part of? Please share in the comments below!

Additional Resources for Duquesne Faculty

Links and resources for effective use the discussion board 

Samples of online discussion guidelines & rubrics (customize for your course)

Additional Resources for Everyone

See our previous post, “Earning an A+ in Online Feedback”, to learn more about how to leave effective feedback for your online students.



Nearpod: Engage and Assess Students in Real Time

-By Liz Henry, Educational Technology Instructional Designer

Do you use PowerPoint to deliver content to students? Have you ever wanted to get more out of your PowerPoint slides than just simply displaying the content on the screen? If so, Nearpod might be the tool you need to increase student engagement.

What is Nearpod?

nearpod-logoNearpod is a learning tool designed for faculty who are interested in creating and implementing interactive and engaging lessons, while assessing student knowledge. Nearpod’s audience response features provide faculty with opportunities to determine the knowledge level of each student by gaining quick and instant feedback. In addition to audience response features, Nearpod provides extra functionality for interaction through various activity tools and can be used both in the classroom and in the on-line learning environment. Students can use any laptop, tablet, or smartphone to respond to quizzes and polls, participate with drawing features, annotate over the instructor’s lesson for personal note taking, and more.

Benefits of Nearpod

By using Nearpod to present lessons, instructors enable all students to become active participants. Nearpod is an excellent tool for assessing all students, especially those who are less comfortable participating in front of the whole class. As students interact with the lesson, Nearpod tracks their individual responses, and offers faculty the option to obtain a report of student participation and responses.

Types of Nearpod Lessons

Nearpod allows instructors to present live lessons and student-paced lessons. Each type serves a different purpose when providing content to students. A live lesson would be utilized in the face-to-face classroom or during synchronous on-line sessions as it allows the instructor to navigate through the lesson. The pace of the lesson is determined by the faculty member, as students will only view content and activities when shared to their device by the instructor.

Unlike live lessons, student-paced lessons allow students to control how fast or slow they view the lesson. Student-paced lessons can be implemented as homework assignments or used for group work within a face-to-face course. Student-paced lessons are an excellent tool if you plan to implement the flipped classroom model, as faculty can present content through Nearpod and evaluate student understanding before the next face-to-face class meeting.

Creating a Nearpod Account

Nearpod has both free and fee-based options. Duquesne faculty who wish to use Nearpod should contact Educational Technology to request an account and have access to all of the features that the University has as an Enterprise user. Duquesne students or those outside of the University can sign up for a free account at Note that students only need to create an account if they wish to create their own Nearpod lessons. Students will not need to create an account to participate in faculty-created lessons.

Adding Content to Nearpod Presentations

Nearpod allows for a variety of content formats to be integrated into any lesson. The content types that can be utilized within Nearpod allow instructors to incorporate new elements of engagement. The types of content that can be added to Nearpod lessons include:

  • PowerPoints Presentations – Upload previously-created PowerPoint presentations to turn them into Nearpod slides.
  • Slides – Create new, customized slides within Nearpod.
  • Videos – Search YouTube or upload your own video.
  • Audio – Embed audio files into your lesson.
  • Slideshow – Add multiple images at once by searching Google Images or uploading your own image files.
  • Virtual Field Trips – Explore a destination from around the world through 360 cities.
  • Sway – Search a variety of interactive Sway presentations focusing on specific topics.
  • Nearpod 3D – Experience 3D objects created specifically for Nearpod.
  • PDF Viewer – Upload PDF files to include in your lesson.
  • Live Twitter Stream – Enter a Twitter username to embed that user’s Twitter feed.
  • Web Content – Add any website directly to a lesson.

Note that while all of the above features are available to Duquesne faculty who sign up for an account through Educational Technology, some are not currently available for users with free accounts.

Adding Assessment Activities to Nearpod Presentations

Nearpod’s assessment features assist in improving student engagement and gaging student understanding. These options allow faculty to incorporate various question types that can simply check for understanding or require students to utilize higher order thinking skills. The assessment tools available include:

  • Open Ended Questions – Add a question or writing prompt for students to answer directly from their computer or personal device.
  • Polls – Gage the students opinion by creating a poll question.
  • Quiz – Include a set of questions, which the students answer before, during, or after the lesson.
  • Draw It – Have students identify an image or draw a diagram.
  • Fill in the Blanks – Develop a question that requires the students to fill in the blanks of a sentence or paragraph.
  • Matching Pairs – Have students match images or text.
  • Homework – Student-paced sessions where students complete lessons on their own time outside of the face-to-face classroom.

Having Students Join a Nearpod Lesson

Students have multiple ways to join a Nearpod lesson. Students can join a lesson by going to from a PC, Mac, or Amazon Fire Tablet or by downloading the free Nearpod app to their Apple or Android device. Each launched Nearpod lesson is accompanied by a unique Join PIN. Each time a lesson is launched a new Join PIN is created. Without the unique Join PIN students will be unable to gain access into the lesson.  Once students access the lesson they will be prompted to enter their name. As their name will be connected to each response in the assessment report, entering their name is very important.

Nearpod Assessment Reports

An assessment report is available for instructor review after each lesson. Once all questions have been answered and the lesson has concluded the report will automatically generate. Each lesson report will give a detailed account of the students’ overall participation as well each assessment’s submitted responses. Faculty can download a PDF or CSV version of both the class session and individual student reports.

Learn More

Want to learn more about using Nearpod to create interactive lessons for your course? Visit our Training Page to sign up for a hands-on workshop where instructors can participate in a Nearpod lesson as students in addition to building their own lessons.

Increasing Student Interaction & Engagement with VoiceThread

-By Mark Prestopnik, Assistant Director of Online Teaching and Learning

voicethread-logoWhy Use VoiceThread?

Students often indicate that Blackboard course sites are too text heavy. Students and faculty remark that they wish there were alternative mediums available to develop concepts and interact with classmates aside from text based discussion forums.

One of our objectives as a teaching and learning unit is to counter this narrative and present faculty with a range of options to deliver content in a way that helps to better engage students and achieve desirable learning outcomes.

This summer, Duquesne instructors began using VoiceThread, an easy-to-use tool for creating dynamic learning experiences using voice, video, and media. Instructors are using VoiceThread for course introductions, unit lectures that students can respond to, as well as student voice and video projects.

How to Use VoiceThread

Here at Duquesne, VoiceThread can be added to any Blackboard site. It is an asynchrounous tool, so there is no need for everyone to log on at the same time. Instead, the instructor adds the initial media, which could be something as simple as an image (for example a cell structure in a biology course), a PowerPoint presentation, or a host of other options. Next, the instructor adds his or her comments through video or voice to begin the discussion. The instructor then makes the presentation available. Students view the content and add comments of their own using voice, video, or text. Conversations in VoiceThread allow instructors and students to showcase their personality and better connect with each other to develop a more cohesive community of learners to advance learning.

Not a Duquesne instructor? VoiceThread can be used outside of Blackboard. Simply sign up for a free account at

Ideas for Using VoiceThread

voicethread-megaphoneVoiceThread can be used in countless ways. Use it to replace a traditional, text-only discussion board, record a mini-lecture, or as a tool for class introductions. Students can also create their own presentations to share with classmates, or, with only the instructor. Threaded conversations, grade center integration, and comment moderation are just a few of the additional features that VoiceThread offers. Visit The VoiceThread Blog for more ideas.

Learn More

Want to learn more about integrating VoiceThread into your course here at Duquesne? Visit our Training Calendar to sign up for a hands-on workshop where instructors can practice using VoiceThread and brainstorm ways that the tool can be used to enhance student learning.

Duquesne faculty can also access VoiceThread resources by visiting the Blackboard Help tab and selecting Communication Tools.

We encourage you to dive right in and explore VoiceThread! This is a great way to enliven your course and make learning more engaging for your students.

DropThought for Lesson Based Feedback

-By Mark Prestopnik, Educational Technology Instructional Technologist

DropThoughtDuquesne University recently added DropThought to Blackboard. DropThought is a new tool that instructors can use within course sites to request confidential, lesson-based feedback from students.

The Value of Student Feedback

Everyone is familiar with the Student Evaluation Survey (SES), Duquesne’s official course evaluation instrument. The SES is intended for course level instructor feedback and is made available to students near the end of each course. DropThought, alternatively seeks quick feedback on a singular unit, module, assignment or quiz. This type of request for feedback, while it is still fresh in the minds of students, provides instructors with valuable information that can be used to improve course experiences in future weeks. Additionally, DropThought feedback can be used in conjunction with SES feedback to improve future course offerings, by revealing information within specific parts of the course that might not otherwise be gleaned from the broader SES. Duquesne’s Center for Teaching Excellence provides additional evidence of the benefits of early course evaluations.


The DropThought interface is user-friendly. Students are prompted to enter a thought (feedback in a textbox), and then to select an emoticon to represent their reaction. Choices range from a smiley face (satisfied) to a frowning face (dissatisfied). Providing anonymous feedback in this fashion is welcomed by students who are accustomed to communicating with friends using emoticons. Once you establish a pattern whereby students are asked for their “thoughts” regularly throughout the course, it will become part of the flow that students and instructors value and rely on to shape course experiences.

Effective for all Course Formats

DropThought feedback forms are effective for use in face-to-face, blended, and online courses. The instructor dashboard allows instructors to sign on to one location to access all student feedback in a convenient manner. The easy to use instructor dashboard allows instructors to communicate directly with a student who has left feedback, without revealing the student’s identity to the instructor. Instructors are also able to adjust their settings to allow automatic notifications to be sent to their email when a new student comment is provided.

Instructor Testimony

Duquesne Instructors have already experienced the value that DropThought offers. School of Education Instructor Darren Mariano remarked, “The ability to empower students to evaluate pieces of instruction immediately allowed me the opportunity to collect data quickly and adjust/adapt to the learning style and points of interest of the students. The data gleaned from DropThought ultimately informed and focused my strategies of instruction.”

Pause for Reflection

As you create future courses, you might wonder, how can I improve my course this time around? By pivoting back to your DropThought lesson based feedback, you’ll be able to use evidence to make finer improvements that you otherwise might miss when solely focusing on broader, course level feedback. As educators, and believers in lifelong learning and growth, it’s important to seek opportunities each time a course is taught to improve it. Take a few minutes to reflect on your current or past courses and consider some ways that you could improve individual units, lessons, quizzes and assessments that influence student learning. Some ideas may be flowing through your head already. DropThought will be an excellent tool to leverage to bring further ideas to light!

Learn More

Instructors who are interested in using DropThought should visit the sign up page:

View our Using DropThought tip sheet for suggestions on how to effectively use DropThought feedback forms in your course site!

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Online Teaching: A Learning Journey

-By Mark Prestopnik, Educational Technology Instructional Technologist

Teaching OnlineIn my decade at Duquesne University, online learning has been one consistent thing that I have been a part of. As a graduate student, I completed most of my courses online. After graduation, I supported instructors and learned the art of teaching online from faculty mentors such as Dr. Jim Wolford-Ulrich, Dr. Judith Boettcher, and a host of other online faculty pioneers. As the years went on, and I developed my understanding, I have had the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for a handful of courses, and then ultimately to co-instruct and create two courses built from scratch. In recent years, I have had the opportunity to work with faculty members who had never taught online before and were looking for direction in teaching adult and professional students online. I’d like to share some of the lessons that I’ve learned from my online learning and teaching journey that I think will be helpful to you as online and blended learning become more prevalent in higher education.

Getting Started: Thinking it Through

There are a number of instructional design models that you could consult as you begin your thinking. Expert instructional designers within Educational Technology are readily available to guide you and simplify the process for you, so it is best to not get bogged down in the finer details as you begin. Instead, start by working backwards. Determine exactly the key learning objectives to be targeted. From there, begin to consider resources that you might use to get students from introduction to mastery of the learning objectives. Do not get trapped by one singular approach. A benefit of teaching and learning is the variety of methods in both delivery of content and in assessment. As students prefer certain styles of learning, instructors undoubtedly find different styles of teaching that they prefer. Furthermore, based on topical content and module to module content, strategies may also shift in their applicability and effectiveness.

Start out Simple: Focus on Clarity

The first time an instructor teaches online, I like to encourage them to be creative, but also to have an implementation plan in mind, and to be realistic with what you can take on. Online learning leaves less room for clerical mistakes, such as ambiguous directions, incorrect dates, broken links, and other impediments which might be less burdensome as supplements to traditional classroom learning. In online learning, one must think of this as your communication to students, and focus on building a foundation of clarity, before reaching out into more bold endeavors and learning methodologies. You would be careful to not stand in front of a traditional classroom and deliver incorrect information or direction to students. In the same way, be clear, concise and careful in how you present information to your online students. Although email and discussion thread posts in our culture have become venues where a casual and informal tone is often taken, the role of the online instructor must be to elevate the discourse and keep the focus on the learning process. Modeling appropriate behavior for your students is achieved when you place high value on communication and strive to raise the level of conversation above that of an informal chat, to a highly engaged dialogue of ideas.

Engagement and Communication are Key

Department chairs and instructors have relayed to me that their Student Evaluation Surveys (SESs) have revealed that online students’ best experiences are those where their instructors were engaged, and became an active player in the student learning process. Students remember the instructors who helped them struggle through difficult concepts, challenged them to expand their thinking, and genuinely cared about the students’ overall level of comprehension and achievement. You might remark, these are the same values that are important for face-to-face instruction; that is completely true! There may be a temptation to find anonymity in an online course and let your learners find their own way through the content. In the online world, there’s a greater need for instructors to be proactive in that regard and work from the early stages to build connection with students. These factors also play into student retention, so your administrator and academic advisors will appreciate your efforts.

Finding Your Voice

Research indicates that students feel more connected and respond better when they hear their instructor’s voice each week. Do not be intimidated. This does not necessarily mean that you must provide a video or audio lecture each week, or hold synchronous sessions with your students each week. Your communication could be a quick recap of the previous week’s discussion, your highlighting of a key concept for the week, or a short introduction of the upcoming week. Regularly checking in with your students and showing presence is key to the learning process, yet does not need to be overly complex to be meaningful. The Educational Technology team provides regular trainings and consultations on the use of basic tools within Blackboard, as well as the newly acquired web conferencing tool GoToTraining and screen capture tool MyMediasite.

Set Clear Expectations

Be explicit with guidelines. If you expect students to “participate in an asynchronous discussion” each week, this means vastly different things from student to student. I encourage faculty to set guidelines for the number of posts, as well as how frequently students log in and participate in the discussion. On first blush, it might sound like too many rules, but trust me, this structure and expectations setting early on is in everyone’s best interest, and will avoid potential issues down the line, that will need to be addressed anyway.

Check with your administrator on the expectations regarding online synchronous participation. Some programs of study may require weekly real-time events, whereas others may ask instructors to make those events optional. In the latter case, office hours and project discussions are good reasons for meetings that will allow students to gain additional information and learning, while not punishing students who don’t participate. Further, all instructors are encouraged to record synchronous web conferencing events for later playback by students. This helps not only students who were unable to attend, but students who wish to review sessions for key points of information.

Teaching and Learning Online: The Path Forward

Online learning is a fun world that is different from face-to-face learning. In an age of efficiency seeking, and a desire for accessible information at your fingertips, online learning is incredibly attractive to consumers of education. Adult and professional students crave the convenience that it allows. Student athletes and deployed service members appreciate the ability to stay on schedule with their studies while other commitments take them away from campus. At the same time, students now expect an engaging online learning experience that is just as meaningful as if it were held in a classroom. The challenge is now upon us, as providers of high quality education, to continue to meet students’ expectations and provide them with the learning opportunities that they desire.

I encourage you to branch out and explore online learning. Talk with your colleagues and begin the conversation. Chances are, more people have taught or taken online courses than you may have imagined. What are your experiences in online teaching and learning? Educational Technology would like to hear from you. Leave us a comment below. We also encourage you to view our calendar for training opportunities, schedule a consultation to look at your course or discuss ideas you are considering, and also to join our Teaching with Technology group, where we explore and discuss trends in teaching. The exciting thing about the online teaching and learning frontier is that new applications are being produced constantly. The excited spirit you bring to the online environment is contagious, and your students notice. Learning can no doubt be intimidating, but as you know, it can be fun and rewarding at the same time. My learning journey continues as I engage in new projects and initiatives with Educational Technology. I hope to meet you along the way on yours!

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6 Tips to Avoid Frustration and Increase Efficiency in Blackboard

Frustrated Computer User-By Mark Prestopnik, Educational Technology Instructional Technologist

If you are an instructor who hates wasting time, or having to redo your work, then these tips are for you!

1. Compose your Content in a Text Editor then Paste it into Blackboard

Composing your content in your computer’s format-free basic text application (i.e. Notepad, TextEdit) and then coping and pasting it into Blackboard’s content (text) editor to format has many benefits. If a phone call or other distraction pulls you away from your computer, you guard against the chance that your web browser times out, and whoop, all your work is gone. This will also prevent any ugly formatting issues that might occur if you copy and paste from MS Word that take a lot of time to fix. Do your work, save locally to your computer, and then copy and paste and edit within the Blackboard text editor if necessary. It might seem like extra work initially, but this routine will save you time and stress in the long run.

Learn more about using  Blackboard’s Content Editor.

2. Add a Course Link as opposed to adding files in multiple places

If you post your course syllabus or any other file or content in multiple locations throughout your course site, that is inviting error. When you go to update the content, to make a slight clarification, change a date, etc., you now must update that content in several locations throughout your course site. Can you even remember everywhere you placed that content? Instead, add a Course Link from the Add Content dropdown menu while in any content area. When adding a course link, simply select the destination and click submit. You’ll avoid version control problems, and the time sink of having to update content in several places.

Learn more about Adding Course Links to Blackboard. (Note: you must login to your Duquesne Blackboard account to access)

3. Set Your Grade Center Up Early

Don’t wait until you need to begin grading assignments and when course pressures dictate your time. Set up your grade center early and align it with your grade point allocation as outlined in your syllabus. As you know, grades are very important to students, and they expect to easily be able to discern where they are at in the course by selecting “My Grades” from the course menu in your course site. A neatly setup grade center will allow you to focus on teaching and grading throughout the term, and avoid fielding grading questions that result from a messy or incorrectly setup grade center.

Learn more about the Blackboard Grade Center.

4. Use Announcements Often

Announcements are a great way to remind your students of what’s going on in the course. You might say, “I just email them”. Well, when adding an announcement in Blackboard you can check a box to “Email Announcement”. This allows you to preserve a historical record of your announcements and blast all your students via email at the same time.

Learn more about Blackboard Announcements.

5. Hide or delete unused content areas and folders

No one likes to stumble around aimlessly trying to find something. Make your course site easy for students to navigate so they can find what they are looking for. If it’s difficult for you to locate something in your course site, chances are it is difficult for your students as well. Be sure to delete empty folders and hide content items from last year’s course you are no longer using.

6. Get Student Feedback

In closing, don’t be afraid to ask your students for feedback on your Blackboard course site. Students have been in many courses and have seen a wide range of course sites. They will let you know where your site might need a few adjustments to help them in their learning.

Educational Technology is here to assist you with all of your Blackboard needs. If you have any questions regarding anything mentioned in this post, or would like assistance in optimizing your Blackboard course site, please contact us, or attend one of our upcoming training workshops!

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ThingLink – Transforming Images and Videos into Interactive Media

-By Ashley Canning, Educational Technology Instructional Designer

thinglink logo

As mentioned in one of our earlier posts, An Infographic on Infographics, 65% of people are visual learners. Because many of our students benefit from visual cues, providing them with images can help them to make connections to course content. But usually, images are simply static photos on a screen that provide no interaction. ThingLink changes everything!

What is ThingLink?

ThingLink is a free online tool that allows you to turn images and videos into interactive media by adding notes, videos, and links. ThingLink offers education accounts that also provide capabilities to create classroom channels and manage students.


ThingLink allows you to:

  • Upload images to annotate from your computer or the web.
  • Use the image editor to add tags containing comments, clickable links, videos, and other images.
  • Search YouTube for videos to embed into your image.
  • Import videos to annotate from the web.
  • Add tags containing comments and clickable links to your annotated videos.
  • Share your annotated images and videos via a link or embed code.

For detailed instructions on using all of these features, view the ThingLink tutorials described below.

Help with ThingLink

Viewing this short video from ThingLink, which walks you through the basics of creating and sharing interactive media, is a great place to start. ThingLink also provides tutorials on the basic features of creating an interactive image or video along with instructor tutorials, which focus more on managing students and creating classroom channels.

An Example ThingLink Creation

Cell Diagram
Click the image above to interact!

Click on the image to the right to be taken to an interactive cell diagram that I created as an example using ThingLink. Notice that I’ve included a YouTube video on ribosomes, a comment about mitochondria, a close-up image of a centrosome, and a link to more information on lysosomes.

How Can You Use It?

ThingLink can be used in a variety of ways. Like the example above, instructors can add detailed information to a diagram or other image by adding interactive links, videos, and more. On the flipside, instructors could provide a blank image to their students and have them use ThingLink to label it.

Interested in more ideas? ThingLink has their own Education Blog with a variety of ideas on using the tool in education.

Getting Started

If you are interested in using ThingLink, begin by visiting and signing up for a free teacher account. Then, start creating your own interactive media!

Once you start using ThingLink, let us know what you think by leaving us a comment!

Bradford, W.C. (2004). Reaching the Visual Learner: Teaching Property Through Art. The Law Teacher, 11. Retrieved from

Earning an A+ in Online Feedback

-By Ashley Canning, Educational Technology Instructional Designer

A+Receiving feedback is an important part of the student learning process. By providing students with constructive feedback, instructors give them the opportunity to reflect and build upon what they learned. Providing feedback also gives students an idea of where they stand in terms of meeting course objectives.

In the traditional classroom, feedback may consist of paper annotations, rubrics, and one-on-one meetings. But how does this translate into the online classroom?

Digital Markup Solutions

Digital markup solutions have replaced the traditional pen and paper when it comes to providing feedback in the online classroom. In the past, many instructors have relied upon using Microsoft Word’s markup tool to give feedback via comments and by correcting student text. As learning management systems (LMS) have evolved, they have included similar markup tools within their systems. Blackboard, for example, has an inline grading feature that allows instructors to add comments and markup text directly within Blackboard. This eliminates the need for downloading assignments and using outside tools to give students feedback.

Rubric Tools

A rubric is a great, free tool for setting clear expectations and providing informative feedback to students. There are many tools to help with creating new or digitizing existing rubrics.

RubiStar is a great tool to help with creating new rubrics. It provides customizable templates based upon subject or assignment type. After you’ve created your rubric, you can print or save it to your computer.

LMS’s like Blackboard now have rubric tools integrated within the system. The Blackboard rubrics tool allows instructors to create rubrics within Blackboard that can then be associated with assignments, provided to students, and easily used for grading.

Recording Feedback with Screen Capture Tools

While some students can learn a lot from written feedback, others get more out of verbal feedback. That’s where screen recording tools can help. These tools allow instructors to open student assignments on their computer, capture their screen as they scroll through or annotate the assignment, and record their voice as they offer verbal feedback.

Here at Duquesne, we offer MyMediasite as a screen recorder option. MyMediasite allows you to record your screen, upload it to a school server, and share it with students via a link. Screen-cast-o-matic is a great free alternative for others that don’t have access to MyMediasite.

Verbal Feedback Options

If you don’t have a need for sharing your screen but would still like to give verbal feedback, you still have options. Some LMS’s have voice recording tools integrated within them. At Duquesne, we have the Blackboard Collaborate Voice Board tool, which allows an instructor to record verbal feedback for the entire class or individual students. Those that don’t have this option are likely to have a voice recording tool integrated into their own computers. Using this software, instructors can record feedback and then post it within their own LMS or email it to their students.

Providing Live Feedback with Web Conferencing Tools

When possible, live feedback can greatly benefit students. Web conferencing tools offer a solution to traditional office hours by giving instructors and students the ability to meet online in real time. Such tools offer voice, webcam, and screen share capabilities. Using a web conferencing tool, students and instructors can pull up an assignment, share it, and talk through any questions or concerns. Duquesne offered tools like GoToMeeting are great for this use case.

There are free web conferencing options available for those that don’t have access to GoToMeeting. For more information on these options, check out this article from eLearning Industry. Note that since this article was written, some of the tools have switched from completely free to free trials. Keep this in mind when choosing a solution that works for you.

Things to Consider

One important thing to keep in mind is that, just like in the traditional classroom, constructive feedback is key. Things like “good job” or “work harder” are not good feedback. Effective feedback points out student strengths and weaknesses and provides students with the opportunity to build upon their knowledge. For tips on providing effective feedback, check out this article from Edutopia.

Another thing to consider when providing online feedback is the public nature of some online tools. When publishing student feedback online, remember to keep FERPA in mind. Never share student information publicly. Many tools offer the ability to set uploaded content to private so that the only way others can view it is by clicking on a specific URL. Pay close attention to these options. You wouldn’t want to make student feedback searchable so that others outside of you and the student could find it.

Want to Learn More?

If you want to learn more about providing meaningful feedback, check out our Assessing Diverse Learners and Blackboard Rubrics workshops. Keep an eye out for our May workshop schedule to see when these sessions will be offered next!

How do you provide online feedback to your students? Share your ideas by leaving a comment!


Pappas, C. (2013). 15 Free Web Conferencing Tools. eLearning Industry. Retrieved from

Stenger, M. (2014). 5 Research-Based Tips for Providing Students with Meaningful Feedback. Edutopia. Retrieved from

An Infographic on Infographics

-By Ashley Canning, Instructional Designer

An Infographic on Infographics

As I thought about this week’s blog post, I decided what better way to present information on infographics than by creating an infographic? For a graphical representation of the information presented below, click the image above to view my infographic on infographics.

What is an Infographic?

An infographic is a graphical representation of information and/or data that helps to present hard-to-grasp concepts in a way that is easy to understand. This post focuses on reasons to use infographics, various ways they can be used, as well as tools for creating them.

Why Use Infographics?

Have you ever remembered a piece of textual information by picturing an image that appeared along side the text you read? Infographics have a similar effect. When reading text, it’s easy to become distracted or suffer from information overload. Conveying the same information through infographics can help minimize these effects by simplifying difficult concepts and making data more meaningful. Studies have also demonstrated that viewing graphical representations of information decreases learning time and increases retention (think about our example of recalling information thanks to a corresponding image). Finally, according to experts, 65% of the population is made up of visual learners. By presenting information in a visual way we are able to engage our visual learners.

Ways to Use Infographics

Infographics can be used in a variety of ways. Since most tools include the ability to build graphs within the tool, it is no surprise that infographics are commonly used to display statistical data. You can also use an infographic to illustrate a timeline or describe a process, compare and contrast various topics, or create an informational poster.

While instructor-created infographics provide students with an opportunity to visualize concepts, students can also create infographics to demonstrate mastery of a topic.

Infographic Creation Tools

There are a variety of infographic creators available. While doing my research, I focused on three that I found to be some of the most user-friendly: Piktochart, Venngage, and All three tools offer free or fee-based options; provide the option to use templates; have the ability to create various graphs; include a variety of images and icons along with the ability to upload your own images; and allow you to download and share your finished product. All three also have their own blogs, which offer tips and ideas on using infographics. A few of the different features for each tool are described below.


I created the infographic above using one of my favorite infographic tools, Piktochart. In addition to its blog, Piktochart offers support and how-to instructions along with a guided tour, which is available at the click of a button inside of the infographic creation tool. Piktochart also offers a presentation mode feature, which turns your infographic into a slide show by presenting each block within your infographic as an individual slide. For an example of how this works, click the infographic image at the beginning of this post and select Presentation Mode.


Venngage is another of my favorite infographic tools. It offers support and how-to instructions and videos along with great tutorial templates. These templates walk you through basic tasks like adding, moving, and resizing objects in your infographic. Venngage also offers a pictogram creation tool, which lets you easily convey numbers through the use of icon groups. Like the others, Venngage also has its own blog. One downside of Venngage is that the free version only allows you to save five infographics at once.

As the name indicates, is another easy-to-use infographic creator. It offers an educational and how-to blog along with contextual tips available inside the infographic creation tool. It also allows you to edit and reuse public infographics. A relatively new feature to is group-sharing, which allows you to share infographics among group members.

Want to check out some other tools? Check out this Edudemic article on 10 Fun Tools to Easily Make Your Own Infographics.

Closing Thoughts and Tips

No matter which tool you use when creating infographics, always remember to examine your topic and think about the best way to present it (graphs, timeline, combination, etc.). Keep in mind the old adage “don’t use technology just for the sake of using technology.” The key is using an infographic to present a topic in a well-organized manner that sticks with the viewers. I also find that it helps to draw a rough layout of my infographic idea on paper before diving into one of the tools. If you’re struggling with a layout, check out the templates that each tool has to offer or look at others’ pictographs online to get some ideas.

Have you used infographics in the past? If so, share your experiences by leaving us a comment!


Bradford, W.C. (2004). Reaching the Visual Learner: Teaching Property Through Art. The Law Teacher, 11. Retrieved from

Kouyoumdjian, H. (2012). Learning Through Visuals Visual imagery in the classroom. Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Lepi, K. (2012). 10 Fun tools to Easily Make Your Own Infographics. Edudemic. Retrieved from

Ways to Teach Using Infographics. (2013). Educational Technology and Mobile Learning. Retrieved from