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Education Commons at OISE

Knowledge Building Blocks

for Blackboard

Faculty Lead

Elizabeth Smyth – Associate Professor, Curriculum Teaching & Learning, OISE/UT

Team Members

Laurie Harrison - Director, Academic Technology – Education Commons, OISE/UT
Avi Hyman - Director, Academic Technology – Faculty of Medicine
Chris Teplovs – Chief Learning Systems Architect, Institute for Knowledge Innovation and Technology, OISE/UT

Project Goal

The goal of this project is to extend the Blackboard Learning System to support knowledge building as a learning strategy, including the integrated development of learning objects, simulations or other rich media learning resources.


Blackboard provides a range of course management, content delivery and communication tools. However, it does not fully address the needs of faculty members who use knowledge building strategies as a vehicle for engagement of students in higher order thinking.

OISE/UT faculty and students have longstanding experience and widespread commitment to using knowledge building strategies in teaching and learning, supported historically through the provision of the Knowledge Forum suite of tools developed at OISE/UT. An extension to the Blackboard tool set is seen as a prerequisite for attracting many OISE/UT faculty to the University’s new enterprise LMS.  Faculty in other divisions and most recently the Faculty of Medicine, have also expressed a desire to access knowledge building tools. A solution employing the standards of the Blackboard Building Blocks system provides a relatively low overhead means to accommodate these needs to access knowledge building capacity, including discourse-based learning activities and rich media object integration.


The Blackboard open architecture model and Building Block developer APIs provides the tool to fill this gap. Using either a java-based or Flash-based API, this approach allows for development of a customized application that can be fully integrated with the standard user interface, appearing seamlessly alongside the “out-of-the-box” suite of tools. In addition, developing this tool as a building block rather than standalone application will result in integration with other campus enterprise systems. Rather than providing a secondary system, duplicating identity framework, authorization, authentication and content delivery methods, a knowledge building extension to the Blackboard system would reduce the number of application logins, redundant features and variation in user interface which a combined use of systems would entail.


This project is to design and construct a customized Blackboard Building Block application to integrate a variety of course functions related to collaborative knowledge building. This will be achieved by leveraging available Blackboard APIs and specifications to build and launch an application on top of the core platform, creating extended functionality for the existing Blackboard system. Through innovation developed by the institution, University of Toronto will be able to provide a more flexible LMS that will be better able to meet the needs of all faculty and students. Collaboration among OISE/UT’s Education Commons, The Institute for Knowledge Innovation and Technology (IKIT), and the Division of Academic Computing in the Faculty of Medicine (DAcC) will ensure that development is pedagogically-focused, robust and designed for a range of users.

1. Knowledge Building Block

In courses where deep learning and complex construction of knowledge as a shared activity between students is necessary, a knowledge building tool can present a more appropriate model and vehicle for learning. Based on a constructivist approach, knowledge building holds the potential to support students in the creation and improvement of ideas. Students can begin by sharing knowledge, information and observations. Possible features to extend this process include the capability to organize content according to different themes or topic areas, contribute to discussion with new ideas, build-on to an existing discussion and link laterally to other related discussion drawing these contributions into meaningful learning processes.

2. Multimedia Object Integration

Text-based representations of knowledge represent only a subset of the wide variety of media that are necessary for knowledge building to occur.  Diagrams, pictures, photographs, video, and simulations are important vehicles that support the learning process.  These technologies are becoming more widely used and alternative literacies (such as graphical literacy) are also being enhanced.  However, what is often missing is the tight integration of artifacts produced using these alternative media with the academic discourse that is the lifeblood of higher education.  Among the most compelling examples of the power with which these media can be integrated with knowledge building environments comes from the work of Prof. Leila Lax in the Faculty of Medicine who has used such integrative approaches in her teaching of Biomedical Communication.

Project Benefit

The resulting application will provide an enhancement to the Blackboard system that will result in:

  • A pedagogically grounded tool that will allow faculty to engage students more deeply in online learning activities

  • Provision of a more flexible online learning environment that can be tailored to the particular needs of a faculty, division or program encouraging broader adoption of institutional systems

  • Leveraging divisional capacity and expertise in production of Blackboard Building Block applications through integration with institutional enterprise systems.

Currently over 30 faculty members at OISE/UT use Knowledge Forum in their teaching, and over 100 KF databases are active each semester.  The benefits of this project will extend to their many students.  The availability of Knowledge Building Blocks will have analogous relative impact across campus