The university is in the process of rolling out a new HR system, iTrent, from Midland HR. This was my training, as a manager, on how to access and use the new system to manage leave and absences, access and update personal information, process expenses and claims forms, and run various reports.
Proud to have been able to help my colleague, Drew Dalton, with the creation of a new Positive Allies Charter Mark which is designed for organisations to show that they are HIV friendly. This was a huge project, and my part was to convert Drew’s lecture on the subject into a stand-alone online training module.
As is typically the case when I decide to show off something on my blog, I’m proud of my work, and it’s probably the best thing I’ve made yet. That said, there’s nothing radically new or different about this one, it’s just very polished, although I did finally update my Storyline template to match the university’s new blue branding.
The Charter Mark will be officially launched on the 23rd of February at the university’s London Campus – full details and tickets are available from Eventbrite – but the website is live now at https://sunderland.ac.uk/positiveallies. Click on the link ‘Positive Allies online training’ to see my handiwork.
I was invited along to this event today to contribute to the continuing development of our medical programmes, specifically with regards to the integrations between various systems. Representatives were there from VEO and SMOTS, who provide systems for video based observation. They gave us updates on their services – VEO have been developing integrations for ePortfolio systems and a bespoke VLE used by one of their clients, and SMOTS can now take any video input as a feed. We will shortly be acquiring an ambulance outfitted with cameras and SMOTS integration to add to our range of training environments.
To provide students with the best possible experience we want to be able to give them a single point of access for all of our systems, including something new, possible just a web form, for booking the various rooms and equipment which are available to them for practice. That place will be the VLE, Canvas. The representative from VEO couldn’t say how the integrations they have been working on have been developed, but knowing the company and having met someone from their development team previously, I would be surprised if this wasn’t an LTI. And if it is an LTI, then integrating into Canvas should be pretty straightforward. It’s another case of having the right tool for the job, choosing Canvas the best decision the University could have made. This wouldn’t even have been a possibility with LearningStudio.
Their quiz tool is Respondus 4, which was described as a legacy product, and it did look old. It was demonstrated running on a Windows 7 machine which is sufficiently old now that when I see Windows 7 I wonder why, does it not work on 10? Despite that, Respondus integrates with a number of VLEs and mirrors the available quiz questions types and settings which are available there. Importing and exporting from text files and Word documents was demonstrated and it seemed to work pretty well, though questions and answers have to be in exactly the right format to be recognised. I’m not sure why we would use this over using the quiz tool directly in Canvas though, and it doesn’t give us something that can replace the EDPAC system.
That comes instead from their LockDown Browser product, the one we were interested in. This allows you to set quizzes that can only be taken through LockDown Browser, a stripped down web browser which only allows access to the VLE and once the quiz begins blocks students from opening any other applications or webpages. I was a little concerned about accessibility as it relies on user’s own screen reading software and blocks certain keyboard shortcuts. Nevertheless, it seems to be popular in UK HE so it can’t be too bad.
And then there was the weird one, Monitor, which they tried to sell alongside LockDown Browser. Monitor is designed to be used for remote invigilation, and does so by recording from students’ webcams. On starting up Monitor students have to take a photo and show their university ID for verification purposes, and then Monitor will record them through the duration of the quiz and flag up any ‘unusual’ practices if detected, e.g. going away from the computer or someone else coming into the picture, which then have to be reviewed by a tutor. Recordings are stored online for up to five years on Amazon’s web services. I didn’t quite get a clear answer on whether or not they have access to a data centre in the UK / EU. Is it just me or does this all sound a bit creepy? I also didn’t get a clear answer on whether or not any UK / EU customers were using Monitor. They bundle 200 free licenses of Monitor with LockDown Browser, so there was a fudged ‘yes’, leaving open the possibility that although institutions have Monitor they aren’t using it. Bizarrely they have a completely different pricing model for LockDown Browser and Monitor, and then there are the technical problems. All of the webcam recording and playback functionality uses Flash which Adobe are finally killing in 2020. I asked about their plans on migrating to another solution and they couldn’t answer that either, saying it was all down to Amazon.
We’ll never get Monitor. I can’t imagine any UK university using it. We may get LockDown Browser. The third system demonstration we’ve had as part of this project is Speedwell, but I missed that one as I had another meeting. Other solutions are also under investigation.
We’re looking at options for a secure eAssessment system that would be able to replace our archaic EDPAC forms, and ExamSoft were the first company to provide a demonstration and discussion for us this morning. For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, EDPAC forms are the old pink sheets that you complete by penciling in a cross in the correct answer box (and it does have to be a pencil of the correct weight too!) Those forms are then scanned by a machine we dub the bacon slicer and then we spend hours correcting all the mistakes and typing the comments manually. Everything about it is awful, and we’ve wanted to get rid for years, but there are pockets of use where people are wedded to this system and won’t switch to using MCQs in the VLE. So it is for them that we are looking for a new solution.
ExamSoft’s big selling point is that it can be used on student’s own devices, computers or iPads, which their software can completely lock down for the duration of the exam. This means that we could still get hundreds of students in one secure location all taking the same exam at the same time, one of the arguments in favour of EDPAC. Otherwise, ExamSoft is a fairly standard MCQ system. Questions can be tagged according to the subject or taxonomy of your choice, it can export and import from most other similar systems, integrates with Canvas, etc. I was a little concerned about what seemed to be the limited number of question types – I didn’t see drop-down or calculated questions for example – and I have doubts about how successful it could be as a bring-your-own-device solution for us.
It’s one thing for students to willingly have and use their personal devices to complement their studies, but if we as an institution require them to provide their own kit in order to take exams we’re opening up issues of responsibility as well as imposing an additional financial burden. If someone is bringing in their laptop and it is broken or stolen on the way for example, is that on us? Our insurance? Then there is the issue of technical support, both with the ExamSoft software itself, and logistical considerations such as ensuring that we have sufficient power sockets for the inevitable dead batteries (we don’t) and that our wireless network is robust enough to handle hundreds of simultaneous connections in a small area (it isn’t). Providing our own equipment via something like a laptop safe could offer a solution to some of these problems.
Happy New Year everyone!
Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, and that I’m back at work properly, it’s time to engage with the idiotic announcements made by our government concerning HE over the Christmas break.
First up, Jo Johnson made an announcement on Boxing Day stating that the new Office for Students could fine universities if their students’ unions are deemed to be no-platforming speakers. (Guardian) My instincts are, actually, broadly in alignment. I think universities should be places where anything and everything is open for discussion, and that students should be exposed to new ideas that challenge their existing thoughts and beliefs. I’ve always been particularly sympathetic to Mill’s ‘dead dogma’ argument on why freedom of thought and expression must be allowed, that if beliefs are not subject to challenge and defence, then the reasoning for the belief is lost and they come to be held as dead dogmas. (SEP) But that’s not quite what Jo Johnson is saying, and his statement is both malicious and his argument unsound.
It’s malicious because Johnson is proposing that universities are fined, but it is students’ unions, and particularly the National Union of Students, that have a policy of no-platforming particular organisations and individuals at their events. In so doing Johnson is forcing a particular opinion held by government onto universities, and threatening them with financial consequences if they in turn do not impose and police this policy on their students’ unions. But students’ unions and the NUS are independent organisations, democratically ran by students according to their own rules and regulations. Neither government or universities have, and nor should they have, any say on the policies of those independent bodies. Free speech and the challenging of beliefs is in no danger in universities, but it happens where is should – in the classroom where controversial arguments can be introduced in a safe and responsible manner.
It’s unsound because there is an unstated premise in his argument to the effect that there is either no harm in free speech, or that no-platforming is more harmful than allowing unfettered free speech, and this is not true. This takes us back to Mill, who argued that the only legitimate limit to freedom of expression was the likelihood of causing harm to someone. The example he gives in On Liberty is the difference between saying that corn dealers are responsible for starving the poor in a printed publication, and saying it to an angry mob outside the house of a corn dealer as an act of incitement. There are limits on free speech, there must be for civil society to function properly. The more contemporary example is that you can’t walk into a crowded movie theatre and shout ‘bomb!’. The question is, as it has always been, to define those limits.
Our understanding of what constitutes harm has advanced since Mill wrote On Liberty in 1859, and even if no-one is physically harmed in a stampede of people exiting the movie theatre, I think it is uncontentious to suggest that the fear, panic and distress caused to those people is unacceptable and reasonable steps should be taken to prevent such an incident from happening. This is what students’ unions are doing when they take the decision to refuse a platform for problematic figures, such as the misogynist no-platformed by Manchester’s Students Union who has a well-documented record of using such platforms to mock and degrade specific individuals as well as entire communities.
Speaking of odious individuals, the government on Monday announced the appointment of Toby Young to the board of the Office for Students, a man utterly unqualified and unsuitable for such a role. Young’s only experience in HE was as a teaching assistant while studying for a doctorate which he didn’t complete. At most this would have entailed a few hours teaching a week. His vociferous advocacy of the government’s free school policy ended in humiliation in 2016 when he resigned as CEO of the free school he helped to establish stating that he ‘hadn’t grasped how difficult it is to do better, and to bring about system-wide improvement.’ (Independent)
That he is wholly unsuited to the post is rooted principally in the very clear and unequivocal statements he has made against inclusivity and the widening participation agenda, part of government policy since the early naughties, and which he himself benefited from, gaining entry to Oxford with sub-standard BBC grades thanks to an access programme for children educated in comprehensive schools. He’s called students from working class background ‘stains’, decried the inclusion of wheelchair ramps for accessible access, and written dozens of Tweets that are homophobic, misogynistic, or just plain vile. He’s deleted most of those now, but you can’t erase history. Business Insider has helpfully archives some of his worst. Aren’t screenshots wonderful? Almost as wonderful as Kathy Burke who was more succinct than I have been:
I’m not sure how effective these things are, but there is a petition for his appointment to be revoked on Change.org, and you could write to your local MP asking them to raise the issue in Parliament.
Attended a webinar for a demonstration of the new version of Analytics currently being developed for Canvas. The new version will bring a new look and make it easier for staff to get an overview of student performance in their modules and how it compares with other students. This is still in the early stages of development and the webinar was also to gain my feedback. What I think is missing from the demonstrated design is the ability to view and compare a student’s performance across different assignments in the same module, which was noted and should be fairly easy to implement, and across different modules in the same programme, much more difficult due to the way different institutions manage the relationship between programme and module spaces. With that in mind I have a follow up call next week to discuss how we would like to see this work, which is part of a broader consultation Instructure is having with the UK HE sector to better meet our needs in this area.
Some very interesting and productive conversations this afternoon about my future. Last year, as part of the PG Cert AP, I taught on some sessions of the technology module, EDPM08, for experience. This year, responsibility for teaching of this module will come under full responsibility of the CELT, my team, so I’m going to be doing a lot more with it – teaching all of the sessions and acting as the de facto module leader. I won’t officially be the module leader as I don’t have experience of this, and there is a certain amount of paperwork and process which I’m not familiar with. So for this year the official module leader will be the programme leader, but they will be teaching me everything I need to know so that I can take over full responsibility next year. Exciting!
I also had a discussion about what I’m going to do next for my own professional development. Since confirmation that I passed the PG Cert AP a few weeks ago I actually stopped being a student for the first time in a decade. It’s a tad disconcerting. (Shh! Don’t tell the NUS, I still have 18 months left on my card!) The next logical step for me, in my mind, is Senior Fellow of the HEA, and based on the conversation I’m now happy and confident that I would be able to get this.
Watched a webinar recording explaining how the new(ish) Blueprint Courses tool works in Canvas. This is the tool that allows a kind of parent – child relationship between courses which gives you the ability to add and update content in the parent course and push it into any children. Potentially very useful to us here as Sunderland has multiple instances of courses for our various campuses and partner institutes.
Blueprint Courses was released just before we went live with Canvas in June, but not in time for us to test and integrate into our deployment plans. Instead, we created a ‘Master’ occurrence of every module with no student enrolments which gave staff a space to create the generic content which can then be copied into each live occurrence, but it’s a manual process. Blueprint Courses could give us a more elegant solution, or it could be used by us to control and deploy the university module template. Can it be used for both though, a Blueprint course deployed into another Blueprint course? That would allow us to use the tool for both purposes. Something to experiment with.
Came home late last night after a lovely day out to find my certificate in the post. I am now the happy holder of a Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice, having passed the core module ‘Introduction to Academic Practice’ and the optional module ‘Assessment and Feedback for Learning’. I’ve known for a little while, but now it’s official. The programme was just pass or fail, but there were indicative marks given out for the core module so I know it was a good pass, in the ‘upper second’ region. Not quite as good as my other PG Cert, Leading from the Middle, where my final assignment got a clear first, but I enjoyed this programme a great deal and got a lot out of it. Definitely more where I want my career to go.