Providing students with a consistent, predictable online experience will help reduce questions related to technology and course navigation. Taking some time to convert content to select web-based standards limits exposure to problematic file formats.
In the world of web-based content and applications, there are a myriad of options to choose. From the developer standpoint, content can be provided through various forms of multimedia. The more complex and proprietary the content is, the more risk there is in the user’s ability to access the content. From the user’s perspective, there are an assortment of browsers that can be run on a variety of platforms. Each combination has the potential to render content differently or not at all. To help minimize problems, instructors can take a two-step approach: 1) provide content using formats that are web-based standards and have the greatest potential to be rendered correctly across platforms; and 2) provide students with an opportunity to test the chosen formats early in the course.
Providing content that is cross-platform compatible is a challenge that is complicated by the frequent updates and upgrades of the various browsers. Just be aware! What works today can be broken by tomorrows browser update. Adding mobile devices to the mix complicates things further. The goal is to make the content accessible to students, not make all content accessible on ALL combinations of browsers and devices. Focus on the standards: MAC and PC running Safari, IE, Firefox or Chrome. If the content is readily available via a desktop computer, then it’s available to students. The inability to display content on a mobile device should not be considered a deal-killer. Having content available on a mobile device is a very nice perk, and a worthy goal. But at this point, it’s still a luxury.
In dealing with multimedia, choose a format and run with it – consistently. Viewing videos in a variety of formats such as mov, wmv, mp4, m4v, etc, will be frustrating and confusing for students. Choose one and use it for all videos. If needed, convert files to a single format. The best options is to use a cross-platform streaming solution. Within Blackboard Learn, that solution is Kaltura. The Kaltura application converts the movie files to format that can be played on any device. Kaltura also embeds the videos within the Blackboard Learn environment so they can be easily access by students within the normal progression of the course.
The same single-format strategy should be used for images, audio files and other multimedia formats as well. If you are posting images in a course, use png files throughout the courses. This provides consistency, manages the image size, and provides transparency to a graphic if desired. For audio files, mp3 is usually a good choice. There are others as well, but choose and use only one format.
For documents, live in the world of PDFs. The PDF format, a universally accepted format for web-based documents, should be the default for all documents and files whenever possible. The posting of Word, or PowerPoint files should only be done strategically with a teaching and/or learning goal in mind. If the same goal can be accomplished through a PDF format, then go with it.
Once you’ve created the consistency within the course, provide the students with an opportunity to test functionality. One approach is to create an activity within a Blackboard Learn course that will effectively allow the students to test all the technologies and formats that they will encounter in the course. Create a low-stakes or no-stakes quiz that incorporates a video, image, audio file, graphic, or any other multimedia format that is present in the course. Ask questions about these elements and have the students respond and submit the quiz. An activity such as this will reveal any issues students may have accessing content. These issues can then be very quickly addressed early in the semester. Perhaps having a syllabus quiz that accomplishes this task along with making sure students have read and understand the expectations of the course.
Providing students with consistent formats that are cross-platform and cross-browser compatible can reduce technological frustration. Having students test all file formats through a first week activity will help solve problems early and enable instructors and students alike to concentrate on teaching and learning.