Upgrading duo

On the evening of Friday the 29th of June, CIS staff will perform the annual upgrade of duo. Upgrading duo allows us to keep the system secure and up to date with the latest web browsers, as well as allowing us to apply a series of patches and introduce new features.

For fans of version numbers, we will be upgrading duo from Blackboard Learn 2017 Q2 cumulative update 5 (Release 3200.0.5-rel.6+3dd6b56) to Blackboard Learn 2018 Q2 cumulative update 1 (Release 3400.0.1-rel.90+b74efee).

This introduces a number of bug fixes, a couple of new features and one much requested improvement – full width display.

Full Width Display

As part of it’s adoption of responsive web design (sensible resizing and reformatting of content so that pages work well on laptops, desktops, tablets and mobiles) in 2016 Blackboard chose to implement a maximum screen width of 1300 pixels. If you displayed duo on a screen bigger than that, then grey bars were shown on either side. This is a common feature of many websites – you’ll see this behaviour on many WordPress blogs, the University website, etc. It makes the maths for calculating where things should go simpler, but it can make the text harder to read than it should. This was particularly apparent if you tried to display duo using one of the new high resolution projectors in a teaching room, or on a big monitor on your desk. It also makes tasks such as grading harder because much of your screen is effectively unused.

duo renders with grey bars at the left and right of the screen
The opening page as it appears pre-upgrade. Note the grey bars at the left and right.

The good news is that Blackboard have now done away with this and after this upgrade duo will resize to fit any screen size. Some extra intelligence has been applied to the display of the grade centre – if you are using a very wide screen, rather than just displaying the same number of columns, but making them really wide, duo will actually show more columns, which should mean less scrolling around.

The same page post upgrade – now duo is using the full screen

Course Availability

Every year we create new courses on duo for staff to use in the new academic year. If the module has been taught before, then the duo course is a copy of the old one. Staff need some time over the summer to update any content, alter the dates of deadlines, etc. and so these courses are automatically set as unavailable. This really means unavailable to students – staff can access them so they are able to make the required changes. Before they can be released to students, staff need to remember to change the course settings. Blackboard have added a handy padlock icon to show staff the status of the course and alter it with a single click:

This course is unavailable to students – red padlock icon displayed
This course is available to students – unlocked padlock icon displayed

Note the padlock is only shown on standard course module pages, (the one with What’s New, Tasks, etc. on it) so if you have changed the landing page of your duo course to point to the announcements tool or a standard content page then you won’t see it. Ah well, Blackboard giveth and they taketh away …

New Attendance Tool

For many years, Blackboard users have been asking for an Attendance tool. Well there is one now. It uses a special attendance column in the Grade Centre and allows you to mark a student’s attendance at a given event (e.g. a tutorial). This updates their percentage attendance score. Blackboard have plans to integrate this with webinar tools such as Blackboard Collaborate and other third party tools which could automatically update this same score.

Once you get your head round it, it works quite well, It is explained nicely in this video (if you can stomach the jangly background music).
Note the video refers to both versions of Blackboard – at Durham we are using “classic” Learn, not Ultra.

As ever, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with any member of the Learning Technologies Team.

Background Image by Milivoj Kuhar

Changes to the Assignment tool in duo

marking work at a desk

If you only ever use Turnitin assignments in duo (as a student or member of staff) then you can ignore this post. It refers to the built in Blackboard Assignment tool and specifically the part of this that is used to render the student’s work on screen and add comments. The grading and rubric functions are unaffected. These changes affect existing and new assignments.

Why was a change necessary?

The Assignment ToolThe Blackboard Assignment tool used a third party service crocodoc to provide the rendering and mark-up features. This tool was bought over by another company (Box) and they have announced the end of life for the old crocodoc tool on January the 15th 2018. As such Blackboard users have no choice but to move. In the duo upgrade carried out on the 6th of January we applied patches to allow us to switch from crocodoc to Box. This allows you to see but not edit old crocodoc annotations, and use the new Box tools on any unmarked work now or in the future.

What has changed?

The new tool supports more formats (now including video) but at present has fewer annotation options (though Box promise they are working with Blackboard to expand these). The Box tool adds the ability to Print annotations but removes the ability to download them. We expect to see pressure from users result in more improvements soon. This post from Blackboard documents every change.

Where can I get advice?

If you want to discuss the implications of these changes then don’t hesitate to get in touch with any member of the LTT via the IT Service Desk.

unsplash-logoAndrew Neel

Integrated Online Training

One feature we will be rolling out after the upgrade is an integration that facilitates a new approach to online training.

Before the Upgrade

At present many online training courses are hosted on duo (from topics as diverse as Fire Safety to Consent Matters) but it can be hard to find them and ensure that details of any activity on these courses is fed back to other University systems. This is especially important for training where there may be a legal requirement to show that people have received and completed appropriate training (e.g. the Fire Safety example). Depending on your role in duo and which portal modules you have chosen to display on your home page, you may see links such as these which all point at online training courses:

A sample of current portal modules displaying links to training courses on duo

Details of these online courses were only available in duo, meaning that not as many people knew about them as we would like. There are catalogue tools built into duo designed to help you search for courses, but they are not capable of the rich level of filtering by role/job that is needed for this task – e.g. determine what training a third year Biology student who also works in the College bar first of all needs to take, then which other courses are recommended and finally what other courses are available for them to take if they want. To be fair to Blackboard that is not a surprise – it is designed to be a learning management system not a dedicated training management system.

Immediately after the upgrade

After the 2017 duo upgrade in September, all these training-related portal modules are going to be moved to a new dedicated Training tab. This is an interim arrangement until the full integrated training system is rolled out (that requires some final testing of changes to both sides – to duo and the Training Course Booking System (TCBS).

A new (interim) Training tab
As a short term measure to ensure continued access, look for these modules on a new Training tab

There might be some items listed as online training that need moved to become normal courses – e.g. Special Department-wide sites on duo. Members of the LTT are working on that.


Longer term, the training tab will show a special training tab interface (optimised for mobile devices). When it is first opened it will show you a list of the online training courses that you are enrolled on as a student:

A list showing your online training courses enrolments.

As this list may get quite long there is an easy way to filter the results displayed – by typing into the Search box displayed immediately above the list.

The opened drawer – open and close it using the button at the top right

If you open the side panel at the right of the screen, you can access your current training record, showing every online and face-to-face training course that you have completed at the University (assuming it stores this fact in the TCBS). There is also a link to the TCBS allowing you to search for more courses – note that the catalogue will show online as well as face-to-face courses. These include direct links to automatically enrol you onto the duo course (more on that in a minute). Longer term we’d like this link to automatically sign you in, but that requires some recoding of the current TCBS authentication framework.

The button is only shown if it applies

If you teach on an online training course on duo (i.e. hold an Instructor/Leader role) then there is another button displayed that shows you a list of these courses separately, so it is clear which are training courses you need to complete as a student, and which are the ones that you are designing for others.

Back to duoClicking the home icon at the top left of the screen returns you to the normal duo tabs.

One of the best features of this new integration is that it supports the ability to create direct links to any online training course on duo. These can be accessed from

  • another course in duo (perhaps suggesting related courses which cover a topic in more detail)
  • the catalogue entry in the TCBS
  • a web page
  • an email

In each case they behave the same:

  1. When you click on the link you are taken to duo.
  2. If you are not currently logged in you will be asked to log in.
    login prompt
  3. If you are already enrolled on the course, then you are taken directly to it and can access the content without further ado.
  4. If you are not, then you see a page which invites you to join the course, displaying more information about it (so you are sure this is the link you meant to click on).
    Confirmation page
  5. If you choose to join the course, then you are added and can access the content straight away, without the need for any approval by the staff who wrote it.
  6. Some courses also support self-service removal – e.g. if you later decide that this is not the course for you, then you can remove yourself from it (though note anything you did on the course – including records of any training passed will be deleted).
    Opening the course

Scores showing that you have passed the online training will be fed from duo automatically to the TCBS (not instantly, but probably each night). This will mean that you (and appropriate line managers/supervisors) will be able to see your achievements from the training record in the TCBS.

We hope this will provide a simpler, more fluid training experience for staff and students.

Removing Social Spaces

All the spaces at Durham
It was accessed via My Blackboard

Around 2013, Blackboard introduced a feature called Social Spaces that was part of a suite of cloud tools. You probably haven’t heard about it, let alone used it. To access it you clicked the bottom icon in the list of tools displayed in the My Blackboard tool on duo (shown to the right).

It opened up a range of online spaces where you could share thoughts with others – possibly invitation only (e.g. a University society), across Durham, or even with Blackboard users across the globe. As part of the upgrade planning, we revisited Durham’s list of spaces (note any hidden spaces are not shown here):

All the spaces at Durham

When we looked into the contents of these spaces there was very little going on. This screenshot shows one of the more used sites – which is just a monologue from me a few years back:

A series of posts with no replies

Student feedback has been very clear = turn off features that are not needed, keep the interface simple. In light of that, consider it done – the Social Spaces feature will be turned off as part of the upgrade in September.

More about the 2017 upgrade