Blackboard courses for the new academic year (2021-22)

Shortly after the University’s central systems switch over to the new academic year, on August 1, new Blackboard courses will be created for the 2021-22 taught units. These will generally be a copy of the previous year’s course, where that exists, with the summative assessments and Grade Centres cleared ready for the coming year’s assessments. The copies will include the course template structures that were adopted last year by most schools, but the content will need refreshing and resetting for the new academic year. In particular, staff should make sure to remove any of the exam “packages” that were added for the summer assessment period, to avoid confusion.

Students across the University really liked the structure, clarity and consistency provided by the Blackboard course templates, and said how much these helped them with their studying. Carrying this structure forwards, with refreshed content, will help to continue this enhanced student experience of learning.

If you have any questions, please email digital-education@bristol.ac.uk.

Blackboard migration summer 2021

This summer, our Blackboard system will be migrated onto cloud servers. Blackboard will be performing this work, supported by IT Services and the Digital Education Office, between 9 pm on Friday 30 July and 9 am on Tuesday 3 August. Our Blackboard system will therefore be unavailable during this time, and we apologise for any inconvenience this will cause.

The cloud migration will move our Blackboard system from its current location on Blackboard’s servers in Amsterdam onto a ‘cloud’ infrastructure based in Frankfurt, provided by Amazon Web Services. This will allow our system to automatically scale to meet demand and will also enable us to receive bug fixes and upgrades regularly throughout the year, rather than having to wait for the summer upgrade. Consequently, you may occasionally see small changes to Blackboard during the academic year, but the DEO will test these before they go live and provide supporting materials and guidance in advance of any changes. Finally, the migration will also eliminate the need for any scheduled downtime in the future, as upgrades and fixes can be performed without taking our system down.

For further information, please see our project page for Blackboard developments or email digital-education@bristol.ac.uk.

Blackboard developments summer 2021

This summer, our Blackboard system will be developed in two significant ways: the software will be upgraded to the latest version, and the whole system will be migrated onto cloud servers. Blackboard will be performing this work, supported by IT Services and the Digital Education Office, between 9 pm on Friday 30 July and 9 am on Tuesday 3 August. Our Blackboard system will therefore be unavailable during this time, and we apologise for any inconvenience this will cause. The developments will bring several benefits, which are outlined below.

Software upgrade

The software upgrade will bring many incremental improvements and bug fixes, along with big changes to the Content Editor – the ‘text box’ tool that you see whenever you are creating or editing an item in Blackboard. These enhancements include better copy-and-paste from external sources, improved accessibility, easy text wrapping, and the ability to display computer code snippets.

Additionally, a new feature in Bb Annotate, the Content Library, will allow individual markers to have a bank of reusable comments for marking assignments in any of their Blackboard courses.

Cloud migration

The cloud migration will move our Blackboard system from its current location on Blackboard’s servers in Amsterdam onto a ‘cloud’ infrastructure. This will allow our system to automatically scale to meet demand and will also enable us to receive bug fixes and upgrades more quickly. Finally, it will eliminate the need for any scheduled downtime in the future, as upgrades and fixes can be performed without taking our system down.

For further information, please see our project page for Blackboard developments or email digital-education@bristol.ac.uk.

Blackboard upgrade 2021 downtime, Friday 30 July – Tuesday 3 August

Blackboard, supported by IT Services and the Digital Education Office, will be completing essential service maintenance and development on our Blackboard system between 9 pm on Friday 30 July and 9 am on Tuesday 3 August. Blackboard will therefore be unavailable during this time. We apologise for any inconvenience this will cause.

This essential work will upgrade the core Blackboard software and move it to a new, more robust system that will automatically scale to meet future demands and eliminate the need for any future scheduled downtime. More information can be found on our project page for Blackboard developments.

If you have any questions or concerns, please email digital-education@bristol.ac.uk.

Blackboard update

The Blackboard service disruption on May 24 had a major impact on many staff and students at the university. This post outlines some of the ongoing activity in response to that incident.

Blackboard has a range of ways to continuously monitor our system. Since the incident, they have been providing us with twice-daily performance updates. These have shown that our Blackboard system has been performing extremely well, with very high responsiveness and no notable issues. This matches with our ongoing monitoring, and indicates that the additional capacity we added to our Blackboard system before the assessment period began has been effective. An investigation by Blackboard has identified the root cause of the incident as a flaw in the underlying database, which has been reported to the database supplier, Oracle. Blackboard and the Digital Education Office have put measures in place to ensure that the issue cannot recur, and Blackboard’s monitoring reports have shown that these have been successful.

All scheduled exams since last Monday morning have run successfully. The DEO is collating data on exam activity daily to check that exams are being completed and is working closely with IT Services and the Exams Office to provide timely and consistent support to students.

Once again, please accept our apologies for the distress that this incident caused.

Recommended settings and backup plans for Blackboard test exams

In the light of the technical issues experienced on Monday, we would recommend that Blackboard tests in the 2021 Summer Exam period do not use ‘force completion’ and have ‘auto-submit’ turned off. Schools should also carefully consider whether the use of restricted time windows in which students are allowed to start an exam is necessary and should contact the Digital Education Office for further advice if they are planning to use these.  

Following this advice this will help ensure that students have time to complete an exam in the event of a technical failure.  

This is in addition to our existing advice that all assessments should have a backup plan for use in the event of a technical problem (for example, wait for the issue to resolve and proceed with the exam, reschedule the assessment, use an alternative format such as a downloadable copy of the exam). Students should always be advised in advance what the backup plan for their assessment will be. 

Blackboard notifications turned off

As a precautionary measure, while Blackboard are investigating the root cause of the incident yesterday morning, we have turned off notifications in Blackboard. These are alerts that normally appear on the Notifications Dashboard tab on the Blackboard Home page, or in optional modules in individual courses, reminding you about items (such as assignments, tests or marks) that are newly available.

Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience this causes.

Roles and processes for any issues arising during summer assessment

Should any significant issue arise with an assessment system during the summer assessment period, the following steps will be followed:

  1. Issue reported: DEO identifies Incident Lead (usually service lead) and collates initial data to assess if this is a major incident. DEO informs colleagues, eg DEO Helpdesk and other DEO staff (via internal Teams group) plus IT Services TLC team (via Teams).
  2. Initial investigation: DEO Incident Lead reviews available data and consults with internal/external Technical Service Manager to complete initial assessment of problem and its impact (rapid triage).
  3. Major incident confirmed: 
    1. Incident Lead informs Head of Digital Education (via Teams) and Exams Office (via Teams) and confirms major incident with IT Services to enable their Major Incident process.
    2. DEO posts to DEO blog using ‘service announcement’ category which then emails info to subscribers and updates feeds (eg Blackboard home page). This information is also used by IT Services to update their status page.
    3. Head of Digital Education updates senior team in Education and Student Experience.
  4. Major incident management: IT Services oversees communication to staff and students as part of its Major Incident process. The DEO and IT Services continue to update blog and status page until issue is resolved.

The DEO recommends that relevant school and faculty staff subscribe to the DEO blog and consult the IT Services status page. In the event of a major incident, the DEO blog will have live and detailed updates, while the IT Services status page will contain more high-level information. Both the blog and status page are available to students.

If a technical issue affecting a live assessment is reported directly to schools or faculties, they should check the DEO blog for updates first, as the issue may have already been reported to the DEO. If nothing has been posted on the blog, they should contact the DEO.

Preparation for summer assessment period

Significant work has been undertaken in preparation for the summer assessment period:

– by Professional Services

    • Assessment systems’ capacity has been increased to accommodate the higher number of assessments.
      • Questionmark has been upsized from 10th May to 15th June.
      • Blackboard capacity is being increased over the assessment period.
    • Clear communication routes and processes to manage major incidents have been put in place or reinforced.
    • Additional “just in time” support is available in the DEO and IT Services.
    • Where possible, standardised assessment areas and processes have been created to simplify support and improve the student experience, including:
      • Processes which may be needed in the event of major technical issues have been cleared from a policy and data security perspective (eg, do not email assessments, wait until the system is available and submit as usual).
      • improvements for students ( eg personalised exam times).

– by schools and faculties

  • Every exam should have a backup plan in place before the assessment (eg, use of a late submission point for Blackboard file upload exams).
  • Technical settings on exam assessments should be flexible enough to accommodate a short break in service (eg, by not setting MCQ-based exams to auto-submit).
  • Relevant central school and faculty staff should subscribe to the DEO blog.

For centrally supported exams the DEO has set up assessments with backups and appropriate technical settings. For locally supported assessment, schools should ensure that this work has been done and any relevant information communicated to students.