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Course announcements using Python

This project will provide the Developer with sample code demonstrating how to perform the following actions, as they pertain to Blackboard Learn 9.1 Web Services:

This is not meant to be a Python tutorial. It will not teach you to write code in Python. It will, however, give a Developer familiar with Python the knowledge necessary to build a Web Services integration.


Term Definition
Python A powerful Web Development language
SUDS A Python module that facilitates the use of SOAP Web Services
WSDL Web Service Definition Language - and XML document describing the endpoints, methods, and attributes associated with a given Web Service


This help topic assumes the Developer:

Why Python and SUDS?

Python is a scripting language that is very powerful. It enables a Developer to perform complex operations in just a few lines of code. In addition, Python is a widely-used Web Development language, and there are many Client and Partner Developers using it today.

The SUDS Python module handles much of the complex SOAP processing for the Developer. This module takes two lines of code with a URL argument and dynamically creates all of the code necessary to interact with the Blackboard Learn Web Services.

Code Walkthrough

To build an integration with the Blackboard Web Services, regardless of the programming language of choice, can really be summed up in four steps:

  1. Initialize the Web Services using WS-Security
  2. Login as a Proxy Tool or Blackboard user
  3. Initialize any other services you may require
  4. Perform actions against those services.

Before a Web Application can perform these actions, it is important to understand the headers.


The most important piece of the Learn Web Service puzzle is the SOAP Header. The header is attached to every Web Service call, and documents what method is being called and authorizes that call against the WS-Security framework.

The format of the header is basically the same for every call. There is some dynamic identifiers that change from call-to-call, and of course differences in the method being called or the end-point address, but building this can really be handled with re-usable code.

Specifically for this tutorial using Python with the SUDS module, this code will be using the built-in tools to generate the XML.

The first step is to create the Soap Header XML. This is an example of what that header might look like:

              <wsse:Security xmlns:wsu=""
                   <wsse:UsernameToken xmlns:wsu=""
                      <wsu:Created>2015-02-18 22:22:17.361215</wsu:Created>
                  <wsu:Timestamp wsu:Id="Timestamp-98d2457d-b7bc-11e4-a804-14109fe5b7e1"/>

At first glance, it looks a bit daunting, but Python makes it pretty easy.

In this code, building the header XML is handled with two methods. The first is called createHeaders and takes an action, an endpoint, the username, and the password as arguments.

NOTE: This is not the Blackboard User login, but rather a specific login associated with WS-Security.

The first step is to add the action tag. This corresponds to the action argument passed to the createHeaders() method. The value of this tag should be set equal to the method this SOAP Envelope will be passed to. In the example above, this SOAP-ENV will be passed to the ContextWS.initialize() Web Service, so the action is set to ‘initialize’.

        wsa_action = Element('Action', ns=wsa_ns).setText(action)

The next tag we add is the MessageId. This is a unique identifier tied to this specific SOAP envelope. To generate this identifier, the sample code uses the built-in Python method uuid.uuid1().

        wsa_uuid = Element('MessageID', ns=wsa_ns).setText('uuid:' + str(uuid1()))

To add the ReplyTo and Address Tags, we must first build the address and then add it to the ReplyTo tag. This is done in a straight-forward manner.

        wsa_address = Element('Address', ns=wsa_ns).setText('')       wsa_replyTo = Element('ReplyTo', ns=wsa_ns).insert(wsa_address)

Adding the To tag is also straight-foward.

        wsa_to = Element('To', ns=wsa_ns).setText(url_header + endpoint)

Now we must add the WS-Security bits. This is the methodology that keeps each session secure. The following code adds the wsse:Security tag at the same level as the above elements.

        security = Element('Security', ns=wsse)
        security.set('SOAP-ENV:mustUnderstand', '1')

The contents of the Security headers is what allows a Web Service call to be authorized to take an action against the Learn API. It is imperative that this section is formatted correctly and includes the appropriate information.

NOTE: The rest of the Security headers must be included in a specific order. The Element.insert() method always inserts at the top of the list, so while the code creates the tags in the order it needs to be included, it actually inserts them in reverse order.

The first time the Web Services are called, the webapp must call ContextWS.initialize() and the WS-Security header must include the username ‘session’ and the password ‘nosession’. The result of this call will be a session ID. From that point forward, the WS-Security header will contain username ‘session’ and the password must be set to the session ID returned in the initialize call. This must be included in all Web Service calls.

In addition, the webapp must include a timestamp tag. In this sample, the Timestamp is left empty, but typically, it would include a created tag containing the date and time the web service call is initiated, as well as an expires tag, that contains the date and time the session should expire. If included, this time must be within 5 minutes of the time set on the Learn server, or the API call will fail. All times should be in UTC format.

SUDS does include a WS-Security module, but it is not flexible enough to allow this script to format things as needed, so the security headers are built dynamically

        usernametoken = Element('UsernameToken', ns=wsse)
        usernametoken.set('xmlns:wsu', '')
        usernametoken.set('wsu:Id', 'SecurityToken-' + str(uuid1()))
        uname = Element('Username', ns=wsse).setText(username)
        passwd = Element('Password', ns=wsse).setText(password)
        passwd.set('Type', '')
        nonce = Element('Nonce', ns=wsse).setText(str(generate_nonce(24)))
        created = Element('Created', ns=wsu).setText(str(datetime.utcnow()))
        timestamp = Element('Timestamp', ns=wsu)
        timestamp.set('wsu:Id','Timestamp-' + str(uuid1()))

The SOAP headers have now been created dynamically in just a few lines of re- usable code. The only thing left to do is to add the headers to our Web Service Client, by calling the SoapClient’s set_options() method. The headers are passed as the soapheaders option, and the default port is set to one of the available ports identified in the Web Service WSDL file provided by Blackboard. There are four ports, mapped to the version of SOAP and the protocol being used. This sample code assumes SOAP 1.2 and SSL.

Initialize the Web Services Using WS-Security

Thanks to the inclusion of SUDS and the introduction of re-usable code to handle the header generation, a web application really only needs four lines of code to make a service call.

        # returns [wsa_action, wsa_uuid, wsa_replyTo, wsa_to, security]
        headers = createHeaders('initialize', 'session', 'nosession', 'Context.WS')
        contextWS.set_options(soapheaders=headers, port='Context.WSSOAP12port_https')

The last thing to do is to call the method. The SUDS Python module does all the work for the application automatically. All the this Python script has to do is call the service method.

        sessionId = contextWS.service.initialize()

In just a handful lines of code, the application has authenticated against the Blackboard Learn Web Services and created a secure session.

From this point forward, the code will just use this same code pattern to call additional services and send and receive messages.

Login as a Proxy Tool or Blackboard User

The ContextWS.initialize() method returns the sessionID, as demonstrated in the previous section. The next step in the process is to login as either a Blackboard user or a Proxy Tool. In this sample code, the application logs in as the Administrator user on the Developer Virtual Machine.

        headers = createHeaders('login', 'session', sessionId, 'Context.WS')
        contextWS.set_options(soapheaders=headers, port='Context.WSSOAP12port_https')
        loggedIn = contextWS.service.login("administrator", "password", "bb", "blackboard", "", 3600)

One important thing to note is the in the createHeaders() call is two-fold: the action is set to ‘login’ to denote the new method call being made, and the password is no longer ‘nosession’. It is now set to sessionId, the return value from the initialize call.

If logging in as user, it is important to note that the Blackboard Learn Web Services only support RDBMS authentication. If the Learn system is configured to authenticate against an external services, such as Active Directory, LDAP, or CAS, the application should login as a Proxy Tool

Initialize Any Other Services Required

In this case, the application is pulling Course Announcements. As such, the AnnouncementWS service must be initialized.

        headers = createHeaders('initializeAnnouncementWS', 'session', sessionId, 'Announcement.WS')
        announcementWS.set_options(soapheaders=headers, port='Announcement.WSSOAP12port_https')
        annInit = announcementWS.service.initializeAnnouncementWS(False)

This application has now initialized the ContextWS and the AnnouncementWS SoapClients. These two Web Service end points can now be called successfully.

Perform Actions Against Those Services

For the purposes of this tutorial, the application must retrieve a list of courses for the logged in user, and then pull course announcements for each course. As has been the case throughout this tutorial, Python and SUDS combine to make this very simple.

First, the application needs the Course Memberships.

        headers = createHeaders('getMyMemberships', 'session', sessionId, 'Context.WS')
        contextWS.set_options(soapheaders=headers, port='Context.WSSOAP12port_https')
        myMemberships = contextWS.service.getMyMemberships()

The getMyMemberships() method returns a list containing Course and Organization IDs, in the form of the pk1. This is the value needed going forward, so the next step is to retrieve each pk1 and retrieve the announcements for that course.

        headers = createHeaders('getCourseAnnouncements', 'session', sessionId, 'Announcement.WS')
        announcementWS.set_options(soapheaders=headers, port='Announcement.WSSOAP12port_https')
        for membership in myMemberships:
             externalId = membership.externalId
             annFilter = announcementWS.factory.create('ns4:AnnouncementAttributeFilter')
             annFilter.filterType = '2'
             annFilter.startDate = '0'
             annFilter.userId = ""
             announcements = announcementWS.service.getCourseAnnouncements(str(externalId),annFilter)

The annFilter variable above looks a little different. The getCourseAnnouncements() method requires a Complex data type. The SUDS module provides a utility for creating that type called .factory, as listed in the sample code. Once it has been created, using it is as simple as

.<property = . The application has now looped through the course list and pulled back all announcements. These could be displayed in a new portal, added to a queue to be sent to an archive, or anything else one might require. The last step is to logout to invalidate the sessionId currently in use and prevent Cross-Site Scripting or Session hijacking. This will look familiar. ```python     headers = createHeaders( 'logout' , 'session' , sessionId)     contextWS.set_options(soapheaders=headers, port= 'Context.WSSOAP12port_https' )     loggedOut = contextWS.service.logout() ``` ### Conclusion All of the code snippets included in this document are included in a sample Python module available on [GitHub]( There is a README.html included that talks more specifically about building and running the code. Feel free to review the code and run it against a test or development Learn instance to see how it works.