One of Blackboard’s strengths is the variety of tools it has that allow students to express themselves in writing. I’ve divided these tools into two camps, Individual and Social. Tools in the Individual camp are designed for writing projects that only the student and the teacher see; tools in the Social camp are designed to engage the class as a whole or students in groups.
A Blackboard Assignment stores all the information from when the student submits his or her project through the assignment portal. The assignment portal links that information directly to a column in the grade center. Each submission is called an attempt, and any assignment can be programmed to allow multiple attempts or only one, but only one of the attempts is meant to be graded for any one assignment. The emphasis of the assignment tool is on product, by which I mean that, generally, students are graded on the quality and polish of the finished product they submit. By design, this differentiates Assignments from Journals. Journals are primarily used for student work that may be less polished and more personal/exploratory.
A Blackboard Journal is a space for an individual student to write down his or her thoughts in a lower-stakes environment, with the understanding that the thoughts are accessible (and sometimes assessed) by the teacher. A single journal can have any number of entries, and those entries won’t each be tied to their own columns in the grade center. The journal as a whole can be linked to a column in the grade center, but all the entries within it are intended to be assessed cumulatively. Considering the tool’s name, this makes intuitive sense. A journal is made up of journal entries; some may be shorter than others, some more or less thoughtful, but as a whole the entries may amount to something truly interesting (or truly otherwise). This is the primary difference between a Journal and an Assignment. In an Assignment the student’s entire project is contained within a single, polished submission.
Discussion Boards give students informal spaces in which to explore their ideas about the subject as a group. Unlike Assignments, where the object is to submit polished work, Discussion Boards are designed to allow lower-stakes sharing. Concern about formalisms such as correctly formatted citations, spelling and even correctness are less important in discussion boards, where students may be given an opportunity to wander with some or all the constraints of assessment removed. Discussion boards are where happy accidents happen. This makes them a bit like Journals, but unlike the journal tool the process is collaborative/competitive.
Fundamentally, wikis are designed to allow users to work and rework shared content to bring it ever closer to an agreed-upon sense of completion. This necessitates two spaces within each wiki: One for back-channel communication about what is happening to the shared content, a sort of planning space, and the space containing the shared content itself. Unlike Discussion Boards, Wikis are designed to produce finished work (however the back-channel collaboration is also very useful for assessment). Unlike Assignments, that work is produced collaboratively.
The blackboard Wiki space allows teachers to monitor the communication between students who are refining that wiki’s content and track the changes to the content itself. As with all wikis, Blackboard stores all changes made as well as the author(s) of those changes. Wikis are a great tool for group work that is meant to culminate into a final product.
Blogs inside Blackboard behave just like blogs outside of Blackboard—by allowing users to publish “posts” to an audience of subscribers. In Blackboard’s case, though, the list of potential subscribers is limited to the users within the course itself. So Blackboard blogs are functional, but their functionality is ironic. Blogs in the “real world” allow anyone to publish their thoughts to a global medium, the web, from which they can speak, potentially, to the world. Blogs within Blackboard do not provide this functionality.
Still, the Blog tool in Blackboard is useful for how it functions as a kind of open journal, even if that openness extends only to the periphery of the course. Like the Journal, a blog is generally assessed as an accumulation of all the posts that make it up, with the added functionality of social engagement. Perhaps there are assignments where you want your students reading what each other is writing without the emphasis on discussion engendered within the Discussion Board.