Case Study: Blackboard Course User Experience (UX) Re-design

This case study illustrates how UX Design can have an effect on the student experience. It is an example of how Blackboard can be used to more appropriately present re-purposed, pre-existing content, increasing usability and accessibility. There are also some examples of how Blackboard can be used as a communication conduit. This is not a case study about redesigning the learning activities in relation to use of a VLE.

This project was a partnership between Dr Amanda Russell Beattie, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations and Neil Cocklin, Senior Learning Technologist in the Technology-Enhanced Learning Team.

The following definitions are used in this case study.

  • Module – One specific unit of study within a programme.
  • Blackboard Course – The online area within Blackboard for a module.


LP1030 Concept and Methods of International Relations is a first year, core module, in the International Relations half program and full BSc in Politics and International Relations. Because of the half program, there are interdisciplinary students from combinations within the School of Languages and Socials Sciences (LSS) and Aston Business School (ABS).

The module was re-imagined in 2017 to incorporate not just International Relations content but also to teach students academic research skills. The assessments are wide-ranging and assess these skills to ensure students can manage a research project successfully to completion. In order to do this, partnerships were formed with centres across the university to deliver skills relating to research, the use of feedback, how to use the library, the learning development centre (note taking and how to read academic articles) and employability skills.

This year small group learning was also incorporated – seminars – so that students could further develop their critical thinking skills while enjoying the opportunity for smaller staff/student ratios.

The Problem

Students were broadly happy with the content and skills on offer, however, student evaluations revealed that more engagement with the Blackboard course would be welcome. In the academic year 2017/2018 Dr Beattie reached out to the Technology-Enhanced Learning (TEL) Team for help to make this happen.

What was done?

Neil Cocklin of the TEL Team reviewed the Blackboard course to evaluate the current structural design, tool use and content. The module is 60 credits, spanning two teaching periods, with 22 weeks of delivery. This meant that the Blackboard course already contained a substantial amount of content. Taking into consideration the redesigned study skills elements, meant there was an expectation of an even greater volume of content for the next iteration.

A number of specific recommendations were made:

  1. A full structural redesign of the Blackboard course to organise content with a temporal and topic methodology. The previous course had been organised by content type. Changing this methodology would make it easier for students to find related content. Instead of students being required to look in a number of different locations within the module to find content that related to a single topic or week.
  2. Creating a visual language for content. A number of simple visual cues that students would learn, to foster an intuitive understanding of page structures should be used. This would include a number of coloured boxes that signify specific content types, for example, “pre-lecture activities”, “pre-seminar activities” and “Important notes”. These should be used consistently throughout the module.
  3. Menu links to be visually and contextually grouped. The menu was somewhat jumbled with little order to the grouping. A number of UX design principles; Hicks Law, Law of Proximity and Law of Common Region should be applied. Where possible the number of links should be reduced, similar links should be placed close together, visual dividers used to group links and headings used where appropriate.
  4. Re-purposing the Word Document handbooks. The module contained two large word documents that contained much of the supporting and instructional information for the module. The content was extremely useful to students, however, being presented in this manner de-contextualised it from the other content presented in the Blackboard course. This information should be extracted, re-purposed and presented in the new structure, so as now to be accessible along with other similar content.
  5. Ensure content is “mobile first”. It was anticipated that students would be accessing the course on a mobile device and therefore content should be accessible on these devices to maximise the positive experience.
  6. Ensure content was accessible. Efforts should ensure that reasonable adjustment is made to all content so it is as accessible as possible, to be in line with the Equalities Act 2010.
Blackboard menu "before" example.
Blackboard menu "after" example.

The content was organised in a fashion that provided students with streamlined access to the information on the module. Week by week information on background reading and module preparation was accompanied by thinking questions and lecture slides. While the lectures are not captured Dr Beattie provided a weekly screencast summary of the content.

Media was also created to provide a greater depth of information on assessments. The assessment brief was presented with an accompanying rubric to help students self-assess their own work. Marking was not done solely by the module leader but by a team of academics who managed the seminars. The rubrics along with appropriate briefing assisted markers to grade consistently across all the seminar groups.

A final section on frequently asked questions was made. This section is organic and in a constant state of development, with questions sourced via the discussion board, email and face to face. This brought in elements of “students as co-producers” giving students a sense of ownership of their own learning. The end goal is a tool which can help students negotiate not just the module, but the student experience as a whole.

As the copyright of the video media lies with Dr Beattie, this gave us the option to use YouTube. All of the screencasts were uploaded and marked as unlisted. Youtube was used to take advantage and the auto-captioning feature which was used to make the content accessible to a more diverse range of students. Additionally, it ensured that the content could be viewed on any device. A larger font size was used to improve readability and text-based content semantically marked to indicate document/page structure.

The announcements tool was used as the primary form of asynchronous communication. Having one communication channel that is easy to access and is used in a consistent manner, adds to a more positive user experience.

Example page structure and layout with visual cues.

The Blackboard course was set up prior to the start of term and information released on a week by week basis. At the halfway point of the module, a questionnaire on the nature of the Blackboard facilities was given to students. This was developed by Neil Cocklin and distributed by Dr Beattie. The information it contained was used to inform further development of the Blackboard course structure and presentation.

What was the outcome?

82% (satisfied or very satisfied) with the content available.

75% (satisfied or very satisfied), 91% (Neither Satisfied or dissatisfied, satisfied or very satisfied) with finding the content they were looking for.

Module evaluation for this module was quite strong. Students rated the course between a 4/5 out of five.

The changes to the Blackboard experience appeared to be well received by students.


“Amanda approached this project with a very open mind towards making some significant and wide reaching changes to the way in which the Blackboard course had been designed. This allowed me to really get to grips with the project and for the partnership to make substantial improvements. Having a progressive attitude towards developing new skills gave Amanda the required tool kit for her to support herself moving forwards.”

Neil Cocklin, Senior Learning Technologist.

“Working alongside Neil to re-develop this first year module in Politics and International Relations has had two exceptionally positive outcomes. I was able to respond to student feedback asking for an online platform that complimented their wider student experience. In this way we were able to create a virtual space which enhanced their learning experience within the classroom. What is more I was able to develop my own online abilities, and acquired transferable skills that I was able to apply across all of the modules I run within the Department of Politics and International Relations.”