Learning to love Blackboard? Moving the MSc in Epidemiology online during the pandemic

Penny Whiting and Kaitlin Wade met the challenge of moving their MSc programme online during the pandemic. By exploring guides and experimenting with the tools available, as well as attending the BILT Digital Design course, they successfully moved their programmes online using Blackboard, Xerte, Padlet, Mentimeter, YouTube and VideoScribe. Student feedback has been positive, and the team will keep much of what they developed. Kaitlin describes the design process as fun, and Penny went from disliking Blackboard to loving it!

Tools: Blackboard, Xerte, Padlet, Mentimeter, YouTube and VideoScribe

Full story

When COVID struck in March 2020, Penny Whiting and Kaitlin Wade (Director and Co-director of the MSc in Epidemiology) initially pivoted to synchronous teaching via Collaborate, delivering the existing timetable. When planning for September 2021, they wanted to create a more professional online presence and to implement what they had learned from online teaching. Realising that students (and staff) found online learning much more tiring, Penny and Kaitlin reduced the number and duration of live sessions. They redesigned their courses for students not able to attend on campus. Getting it right entailed making the best use of the technology and modes of teaching (synchronous and asynchronous) to provide both structure and opportunities for dialogue.

Photo of Penny Whiting
Penny Whiting
Photo of Kaitlin Wade
Kaitlin Wade

Penny and Kaitlin started by exploring the tools available – see for example, the DEO tools page. They took time and effort to understand what was available to them and how each tool could be used. Attendance at the Digital Design course helped confirm their approaches, for example, the Blackboard template design they were already developing. You can still access the self-study version of the Digital Design course.

A key element was a redesigned Blackboard template for the units on the programme, including a welcome page with banner and a common structure of folders for weekly activities. You can see before and after screenshots in the images below (drag the bar to compare).

Unit welcome page, before and after – drag the slider to compare the before and after images

In the comparison below, you can see the original landing page in Blackboard was the announcements page. A new Welcome page added for September 2021, providing orientation for information about the course. The redesigned left-hand menu provides access to a weekly breakdown of the teaching. A banner adds visual context for the students.

Content and activity pages

In the comparison below, you can see a before and after of the RCT Blackboard materials. The teaching weeks each have colourful and informative timetables, lots of icons, videos and more.

The learning combines synchronous and asynchronous activity, including group work. Padlet provides opportunities to ask questions between classes. The teaching team created asynchronous materials in Xerte and VideoScribe (see separate case studies). Live sessions through Blackboard Collaborate included Mentimeter polls. Recordings of the sessions provide flexibility for learners if they can’t make the session.


Kaitlin and Penny enjoyed exploring and using the technology, Kaitlin saying it was actually fun, and Penny went as far as saying she went from strongly disliking Blackboard to loving it. The teaching team bought into the approach, with offers of help from Penny and Kaitlin where needed.

  • Student feedback was extremely positive.
  • It is hard to compare results with previous years. We are only in our second year, so COVID disrupted both years of the course. The range of marks was across the spectrum, with some very high marks. Whilst one or two struggled, the majority performed well.
  • The team plan to keep much of the structure, tools and materials the same with the return to in-person teaching.
  • Like many who have changed their teaching during the pandemic, the team plan to continue many of the approaches and reuse much of the material alongside the face to face teaching.
  • While most of the learners were full time, one or two had the additional pressure of clinical work alongside the course and others had caring responsibilities. The flexible elements of the course helped.
  • Encouraging participation was the major challenge. It was the same people who contributed regularly.
  • Padlet Q&A boards interaction varied – some boards had a good deal of use, others less than hoped.
  • The principle things students missed out on were the social aspects of learning. The chance to return to in-person activity will be welcome for this reason.
  • One change next year will be to bring students together to engage in some of the asynchronous activities. The aim – for students to be able talk through the learning together. There is also a plan for tutors to be available in the room to answer questions and provide support as students work through the material.


  • Take time to get to know the tools and see what they can do.
  • Experiment!
  • Make use of the various support and training available.