Blackboard Teaching & Learning Conference 2018

This spring, the E-learning Team let Lee and Dev jet off to sunny Manchester to attend the TFL Europe 2018 Blackboard Conference.

Hosted at the prestigious Manchester University, the conference kicked off with the 2 day DevCon on Monday 9th April with the 3 day event starting on the Tuesday. Over the  the five days, a busy schedule of talks, workshops and events was arranged for the avid attendees from across the globe.

The city of Manchester itself was a joy to visit and a great place to host the conference. Manchester University was a short walk from the city centre and the conference was well facilitated thanks to TLC and the use of the extremely useful AttendeeHub App, which let you organise your schedule really easily.

In addition to the conference, Imperial’s representatives  also intended to visit as many Manchester pubs as possible that were listed in the Good Beer Guide and naturally sample the products that they had to offer. Cheers!

Welcome to DevCon

Manchester UniFirst up DevCon, the morning introduction discussed the development of the Developer Portal for Blackboard and the progress that it has made with the interest accumulating.

In 2017 there have been 1323 new developers registered for the developer community, of a grand total of 2133.

55 Production groups have delivered 62 application, 50% are in Education, 26% in Businesses and 24% in Open Innovation Initiative.

In 2017, the community was receiving requests for up to 10 new developers registering a day.

The Blackboard REST and LTI Developer Amazon Machine Image (“AMI”) is an image of a Blackboard Learn server available in the Amazon Marketplace.

Allowing users to create a standalone copy of Blackboard, to build applications using REST APIs/LTI’s to integrate with different versions of their standalone BB Learn.


It was only a week or two ago that I was registered to the Developer Portal to gain access to REST API, this session explores the Blackboard Developer Portal in more depth, giving a brief overview of the REST API integrations that can be used. Information on how to register users, manage applications, managing groups and an understanding Rate Limits is discussed.

This session on the REST API offers the opportunity to discover how to make requests to obtain a range of information. Eg. Course/user/roles/content all readily available. This could be used to create a web application offering a solution to some of the requests we receive via ServiceNow. An option would be to create an application that would allow users to create thier own courses.

LTI Advantage

As the Building Blocks have been the primary integration framework for learn, they are not best suited for SaaS and Ultra. SOAP Web Services have provided a limited set of integration points for Learn Hosted environments or SaaS and are not suitable for Ultra.

In 2016 Blackboard Learn moved to REST APi’s for integrating with all products, Learn Collaborate etc. This has been beneficial when working with IMS LTI specification, which when used in conjunction with REST API provides a deeper experience than LTI alone

Integration Migration

There are 3 integration frameworks for Blackboard, SaaS, Ultra and Learn. These can be delivered in a Self-Hosted environment or a Managed-Hosted environment.

For optimal integration of Building Blocks, SOAP Web Services and REST API all must be considered.

  • Building Blocks : no longer supported on Ultra / Saas
  • Web Services SOAP no longer supported on
  • REST API : Suitable for both delivery models and UX


Building Blocks are problematic, as they require a server restart when installing or updating, which can impact system downtime. They require a controlled technique for improving the existing code to run on Saas and are not client installable on Sass, they also require Java programming expertise and are not compatible with Ultra.

SOAP is dead to Blackboard, they currently present performance issues in large scale applications and often suffer from ‘session sickness’. SOAP is not compatible with Ultra and at some time later this year will start to be decommissioned.

REST is now and the future…
REST is the integration model for all BB products from now on, applications run externally to LEARN. The application may be developed in any language supporting HTTPS (PHP, NodeJS, Java, JavaScript), using the same system resources as HTTPS requests via the browser and it is compatible across all Learn platforms.

LTI plus REST enables access to data not supported by LTI, it enables a deeper integration without the need for supporting SSO in your application and is compatible across all Learn platforms and user experiences.

How to Work Best with Blackboard Support

Presented by Andy Hulme.

Andy informed the group what the best steps to take are, when dealing with a Blackboard issue. He provides an example and takes us through each step that is necessary to resolve the issue quickly.

Logging Support Tickets

Example 1. We have an error in assignments. Please access and fix

Do not just provide user admin and password.

Timeline the problem and provide threaddumps while the problem is occurring if possible.

Take SQL Performance reports

Install new relic

Try and replicate the erorr so we can instruct BB support

Clear and easy to follow steps with a screen capture where possible

  • include the setup as well as the action that causes an error or question
  • include the full stack trace from the error
  • check the bb-servies.log or stdout-log file
  • check the app server you are using with /webapps/portal/healthCheck

Functioning as Designed

If support says a function is (Function as Design) FAD and you disagree.

Re-open the case

Escalate via the support channels

Help us understand this more so we can push for this is to be redesigned

Got the ideas exchange and post your view. Tag Andy within the ticket, or email him directly.

Collaborate API

Grade Traffic Controller is a middleware tool that sits between the Student Record System and Blackboard Learn.

Efficiency Gains Improve Quality Academic Staff


Reduced admin workload


Better Reporting


Powerful workflow


Duplication of effort


Marks handled securely


Improve Quality


Time Saving Reduced error rate


Clarity of marking


Secure transfer of grades


Work Backed up



Developer Roadmap

To end the DevCon 2018, Mark O’Neil (Senior Product Manager) highlights the API and future enhancements. As we start to create more self- service applications at Imperial College London, it has an interesting end to the conference.

2018 (by the end of the year)


Content Download


User Calendar


Memberships with optional User Data


Course Copy with Ignore Membership option


Course Calendar


Observer Management


Original Assignments and Attempts






Search Object Modified


Grade Weight Formulas


Batch Requests


Course announcements


Hierarchy/Activity Stream/Notifications/Logs


Institution Calendar Localization and accessibility data


Much of the conference was understandably dedicated to SaaS, with a lot of Blackboard customers considering moving over to the SaaS service in the future. SaaS offers Blackboard Learn delivered via the cloud, with the option to enable the new features that Blackboard Ultra boasts, as well as many improvements to maintenance, updates and service.

With SaaS, Ultra can be used for either navigation (with courses staying as they are in BB Learn) or changing completely and using Ultra for both navigation and courses. The Activity Stream is a major selling point and does indeed look impressive:Activity Stream

The system hasn’t been without its teething problems however, with the functionality of the building blocks quoted as being “not quite there yet”. We shall watch this space.




Malcolm Murray from Durham University gave an excellent and insightful presentation on using Gamification in Blackboard.

He presented many innovative ideas that he had incorporated into his courses, including:

  • Padlocks – Used to tease users to progress through the course and “un-lock” content
  • Progress bars – Users can gauge how far they are into the course and how long completion will take
  • Scoreboard – Display grades and attainments in the course visibly so that users can reflect on their achievements

The presentation went on to highlight the benefits of individual targeting, which helps with retention. Techniques included mentioning them by name and awarding badges. These helped to show a clear representation of how the user is progressing in the course.

More information can be found here:

How do students use BB

Imperial’s very own star Learning Technologist, Katie Stripe, gave an excellent presentation about measuring engagement with students at the National Heart and Lung Institute.

The key topics she discussed included:

  • How the different approaches to building content have an impact on student outcome and that these are varied as people learn in different ways.
  • That students know what they want in terms of course design but they do not know what is good for them. Students will take the path of least resistance.
  • Course creators should explain their decisions around why the course is structured in a specific way, to the student taking the course. The use of signposting and transparency is important.

And finally:

  • That students are entitled to the best content! Raising the concept that “If you put garbage in – you get garbage out!”

Best Pub Award

Of the pubs visited, the most highly recommend is the City Arms with The Briton’s Protection coming a close second. Both are lively pubs with well-kept beer. The City Arms served an excellent pint of mild, which turned out to be the perfect aperitif to pie, chips and gravy.

City Arms Food

In The Briton’s Protection, Lee met a man whose aim was to visit every Weatherspoons pub in existence. He was fairly drunk and quite close to completion of his epic task.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *