Skype for Business

Attended a one hour training session as the university is currently rolling out Skype for Business across the campus. It’s good, it’s fine; it looks like a combination of Skype, which I like, and the old Microsoft Communicator, which I liked. Possibly the most useful things about it are under the hood, the ability to support up to 250 simultaneous participants which is a significant improvement on regular Skype, and Outlook integration, though Communicator had that. I like that people don’t need Skype or Skype for Business to participate in a call thanks to a web based version.

I was there largely to see if it could replace our VLE’s collaboration tool, ClassLive Pro, which is a rebranded old version of Blackboard Collaborate, reliant on Java and a complete pain to get working because Pearson won’t update to newer versions, and I think it probably can. The core functionality is all there, it just needs testing in a real world situation which a tame academic is going to do for us and feedback.

Turnitin UK User Summit


Attended the afternoon sessions of Turnitin’s UK user summit which focused on customer experience, with talks from colleagues at the University of Edinburgh, the University of East London, Newcastle University and the University of Huddersfield. It’s always cathartic to hear your colleagues sharing their tales of woe and horror which are so familiar in your own work, like the academics who insist on treating the originality score as sacrosanct when making a plagiarism decision, but more productively there were some really good ideas and pieces of best practice shared. One colleague was using Blackboard’s adaptive release function to hide the Turnitin assignment submission link until students had completed a ‘quiz’ which was simply making them acknowledge in writing that they work they were about to submit was all their own. A couple of people presented their research findings on what students wanted from feedback, such as in the attached photo which shows a clear preference for electronic feedback. Someone made a product development suggestion, splitting the release of the grade and feedback in Turnitin so that students have to engage with their feedback before they get their grade. But I think my personal highlight from the day was the very diplomatic description of difficult customers as those who have ‘higher than average expectations’.

Though I missed out on the morning session due to another commitment, I was able to get the gist from networking with colleagues in-between sessions. Improvements to the Feedback Studio including the ability to embed links, multiple file upload, a new user portal which will show the most recent cases raised by people at your institution, and the development I found most interesting, the ability to identify ghost written assignments. This is still quite away from being ready, but it’s an increasing problem and one Turnitin has in their sights. They couldn’t reveal too much about how this will work for obvious reasons, but the gist is that they will attempt to build up a profile of the writing style of individuals so that they can flag up papers which seem to be written differently.

The Twitter conversation from the summit is available from the TurnitinUKSummit hashtag, where you will see I won the Top Tweet! Yay me, but alas there were no prizes.

Session 12: Creativity and Entrepreneurial Learning


Ah, the return of Lego Serious Play! But first we had a warm-up exercise to think of as many new and innovative ways to monetise a ton of ball bearings which we had acquired at low cost, selling them to manufactures of pachinko machines or using them in fashion for example. This was designed to set the theme for the day, developing a creative and problem solving mindset.

Lego Serious Play was introduced as a way of transferring an internal mental map or concept into an external physical form that can be shared, examined and discussed to get other people’s opinions and therefore help you to reach greater clarity. Also emphasised were the importance of the act of building without giving it too much prior thought, using metaphor to tell your story, and questioning the model and story during the discussion phase rather than the person directly.

The first model we were asked to build was an individual one in three parts, the first part showing your superpower, the second showing a secondary, under-utilised superpower, and the third the barrier or barriers that stop you from using it. My model, shown in the photo above, shows my superpower of diligence and attention to detail (somehow) being used to lead my team across a sea of troubled waters to success, as represented by the shining tower and gold bar; the second part, my underused power, is technical ability which I don’t get to use as much now; and the third part, I don’t want to say too much about what it means as I had something very specific in mind, is meant to be the evil Tower of Sauron looking over everything with a broken heap that needs fixing at the base.

There followed a discussion on the difference between working in your business and working on your business, designed to show that as a leader your resources are best placed by developing and empowering your team so that you can focus on forward thinking and strategy. This was evidenced by case studies and research summaries showing that team based start-ups and organisations with team based structures tend to be more successful as they can call on a greater variety of talent and networks.

The second exercise with Lego was a team build where we had to construct a model to demonstrate how we were going to reduce the environmental impact of a large multi-national corporation. Each team then had to pitch their idea to a stand-in company board. My team’s model demonstrated a recycling bank which scanned a code on empty packaging and gave a credit back to the customer which they could choose to keep or donate to an environmental cause. At the top of the bank was a live read out of the corporation’s carbon footprint which should be showing a decrease as each item is recycled. We won.

Finally the day ended with a discussion about the factors that can enable or hinder creative thinking. Enablers include time, space, rewards, having an open mindset, a supportive organisational culture, clear goals, and a committed leadership who can motivate their staff. Factors that can hinder include the anchoring trap (over-relying on your first thoughts), giving the status quo an advantage over any options for change, the sunk cost fallacy (committing yourself to a course of action that is already under way, even if there is evidence that it isn’t working), confirmation bias (looking only for evidence that supports your conclusions or point of view), and finally the incomplete information trap – jumping to conclusions based on limited data.

Never Split the Difference

Attended a webinar given by Chris Voss, a former FBI hostage negotiator, delivered in partnership with Mind Gym. Based on experience, psychology and evidence of what works, Chris argues that it is a mistake to try and get people to say ‘yes’ in a negotiation, that people fear saying ‘yes’ or become defensive in fear that they will be trapped into committing to something they don’t really want – a bigger ‘yes’ somewhere down the line.

Instead, the goal should be to get people to say ‘that’s right’, having correctly summarised how they feel about the situation or facts in question. In so doing you are forming an emotional bond which demonstrates empathy and incites a small epiphany in the person you are negotiating with. This is different from a ‘you’re right’ response which is often counterfeit like ‘yes’, or which indicates that the person just wants to end the conversation or get out of the negotiation without really agreeing.

In the question and answer session that followed Chris said that the most important skill in getting a ‘that’s right’ response is summarising, combining the skills of identifying and labelling what the other person is saying, and paraphrasing the key points and facts.

When asked about what to do when someone gives a ‘no’ answer Chris said that this wasn’t necessarily bad, that it just means that you have mis-labelled something and that the person will typically follow a ‘no’ by correcting you or giving you more information.

Finally Chris gave some general negotiating advice from his experience. Always let the other person start the discussion if you can, don’t be afraid to use silence as it entices the other person into giving more information and, as most people feel out of control when not talking, tactical use of such pauses can give you an advantage, and finally if negotiating via email try to keep each email to a single point and end emails with something positive as that is what will stay with people.

A recording of the webinar and the slides are available on Mind Gym’s website here.

Appraisee Online Training Module


Freshly rolled out, our HR’s new online appraisee training module that I created for them in Storyline. We’re developing a good relationship with HR and more work of this kind is on the cards. Storyline is also picking up throughout the university, though Faculties are tending to purchase their own copies for one or two interested people to do the development themselves. The next big one I should be working on after we get through the new semester busy period is for HIV awareness.

Interface Symposium: Arts, Participation and Higher Education


Attended a symposium for people working in participatory arts, organised by the university with attendees from ArtWorks-U, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, ArtWorks Alliance and many independent artists. It was an enlightening day and I met lots of interesting people, with discussions around challenges facing the arts and how participatory practice can interface with university research, and presentations on current good practice and reflections on the Asunder Project.

However, the main reason for my attendance was that I was facilitating one of the afternoon sessions: ‘New approaches to teaching resources’, a live demonstration of some of the content which is being developed in collaboration between the department and WaLTS for the ArtWorks MOOC. The MOOC platform will not be ready for some time yet, so what was demonstrated was a sample unit which I build out on SunSpace. This included a number of videos produced ourselves, some video and written case studies for discussion, a main presentation which I converted to Storyline, a couple of Google forms to get gather participant’s experience and reflections on the mini MOOC and a short sample assignment asking people to give their definition of participatory arts.

After some issues getting people logged on with the guest accounts, it went pretty smoothly. I deliberately kept the structure simple and the use of tools to a minimum to eliminate the need to give any kind of training on how to use SunSpace, and feedback was generally positive and useful.

What’s Wrong With Badges?

Having been issued with a couple of badges for completing the Learn Moodle MOOC, I was a bit confused when I logged into my Mozilla Backpack and found it a little light. I searched through my blog and sure enough I found my badge collection for the ocTEL course in 2014 was missing.

Took a little sleuthing to work out what’s going wrong. My Mozilla Backpack / Persona account was created with my old Northumbria email address, and later I added the Sunderland address. Some of my badges are associated with one email address, the rest with the other.

After working this out it did come back to me that when I moved to Sunderland I tried to change the email address associated with my account and when I did all my badges disappeared. They are permanently associated with my Northumbria account, and I don’t seem to have any way to change this. I got lucky back then in that my Northumbria account hadn’t been deleted yet and I was able to get access back for a day to retrieve my Persona account. If anything happens to my Persona account now and I need to reset the password, I don’t think I can. Nor do I seem to be able to move the badges associated with my Northumbria email address to my Sunderland one. And if when I log in to Persona I select the Northumbria email address I can’t even see the badges associated with the Sunderland one, or vice versa. What a complete and utter mess. The point of the Backpack was to have all of your badges in one place, and it fails. The only single authoritative list of all my badges anywhere online is this blog which is manually maintained. The point of Persona is… well… frankly I don’t know. I think Mozilla were trying to replace the username / password paradigm but it seems to have gained zero traction outside of Mozilla’s ecosystem and I wouldn’t trust it for a second given the dire state of my account. Or accounts, as it may be.

UPDATE: After writing this I actually did some research and discovered that Mozilla are shutting down Persona as it has failed in their objectives. No idea what’s going to happen to my Backpack or how I will log in after November. Maybe a change to some other authentication method will let me sort this all out.

Learn Moodle MOOC 2016


So I completed the Learn Moodle MOOC, got my badges and certificate, and learned a lot more about Moodle from an instructors point of view, having previously only used it as a student. It’s big. It’s monolithic. Reminded me very much of Blackboard in that it tries to do everything, be all things to all people, and in so doing it is perhaps over complicated and not as easy to use as I would have liked. I fear the staff development that may be required if we chose Moodle as our next VLE. On the other hand, it’s used by over 50% of HEIs in the UK so there’s a very good chance that many of our staff will have used it before, and the rest have probably used Blackboard so should find it easy enough to transition.

I liked the default text box editor initially, Atto, I loved it for the ‘Accessibility Checker’ feature, but as I used it more I found that it had similar problems to other VTBE’s – doing weird random things like inserting line breaks or additional space when they’re nothing there, in either visual or HTML edit modes. I also ran into a lot of niggly browser issues using a fairly default instance of Safari. The Learn Moodle mobile app was a little dated, but functioned very well, except for Big Blue Button integration which was lacking and which many of us on the course gripped about.

Other things I liked: the prompt / ability to assign a license when you upload a file; checkboxes to show metadata like size and filetype; the repositories look like they could do the job of replacing EQUELLA for us; ability to add files to a repository by emailing them to yourself; progress tick boxes for students; the ability to allow people to rate content items; the Glossary tool with highlighting function; and the very comprehensive reporting tools will be well received.

All in all, a good course, well worth doing, and there is no question that Moodle is a vast improvement over LearningStudio and would be welcomed by our academic community if it’s chosen in our VLE review.

The next presentation of Learn Moodle will begin on the 2nd of January 2017 if you missed out this time: