Joined the ALT South webinar on online learning materials and accessibility, in which Tharindu Liyanagunawardena, Chair of the Online Learning Research Centre at the University College of Estate Management, presented a case study of their experience in adapting online learning materials to improve accessibility for students. This was initially in response to students who were having difficulty with particular items within a MOOC, but the lessons learned were adapted and implemented in new templates which were subsequently shared across the institution.
There was some discussion about Blackboard Ally, a tool, or ‘revolutionary product’ according to Blackboard, which can validate the accessibility of learning materials and in many instances convert them into alternative formats such as audio, electronic Braille, and ePub. Ally is available for multiple VLEs, not just Blackboard Learn.
The webinar was also my first experience of Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. Well, it’s certainly an improvement as it no longer uses Java, unfortunately is uses Flash instead. I would hope that that is a stopgap measure in the transition to HTML5, but with Blackboard who knows. In keeping with the theme of the webinar, there was mention of a feature in Collaborate Ultra which allows an individual to enter live closed captions. That is a nice feature.
I’m finally allowed to say that Sunderland have recently chosen Canvas as our new VLE to replace the terminally ill LearningStudio. I’ve known for a while of course, but have been gagged until formalities were met and contracts signed. It’s a good decision, very forward looking; really exiting times ahead for us here.
I was having a look for their market share and I came across the latest report from EduTechnica that shows that Canvas have now overtaken Moodle to become the second most widely used LMS / VLE in the US market place, behind Blackboard which is holding on. When you look at the trends and that graph though, I can’t help but wonder how long it will be before those lines pass each other.
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.
Ah! Blackboard, my old friend, it’s been a while. Since we’re officially in the market for a new VLE now, the team dipped into one of Blackboard’s roadmap webinars to see what’s new.
The first thing I noted was that the webinar was delivered using the classic version of Blackboard Collaborate, not Ultra, which I later learned is because Ultra is currently limited to 100 participants. They are working on upgrading this to 250, with 1,000 users under consideration for further in the future. This was the first time I had seen Ultra in any detail and it looks so much nicer and smoother than classic Collaborate. It’s entirely browser based, with no downloads or plugins required, which is great as this is still the major stumbling block for collaborative and conferencing tools. There are also still some features of classic that haven’t made it into Ultra yet, including Breakout Groups and Polling, though they are on the roadmap. For this reason most institutions are running with both version at the moment, a possible source of confusion.
Next up was the core product, Learn, which still looks very much like it did when I left Northumbria which was on 9.1 with Service Pack 14 at that time. Blackboard showed some screenshots of how it is going to evolve as they integrate the design language from Ultra (naughty screenshot above), which is also going to include significant improvements on responsive design in many areas. Under the hood they are upgrading the JDK to version 8 and introducing support for SQL Server 2014.
In spite of the efforts to improve Learn with responsive design, they are also still supporting and developing a number of iOS and Android mobile apps. The old Blackboard Mobile Learn app looks to have been abandoned now – no updates to the iOS version since September 2014 – but they are still supporting it for existing users. This has been superseded by the new Blackboard Student app, with a Blackboard Instructor app under development for staff. As a stopgap they have released Blackboard Grader for staff which allows you to grade and provide feedback on assignments.
Finally there was discussion of the various models of provision. Though self and managed hosting are still available, they are actively encouraging people to migrate to their new SaaS and continuous release model.
Why, hello there old friend! It’s been a while has it not?
I’m working with an academic on developing a course which she wants to deliver as a MOOC and part of my role has been to find the right platform for her. We can’t easily do anything in the University’s VLE, and Sunderland has not yet partnered with any of the big MOOC providers such as FutureLearn, so I have been investigating two free options, OpenClass from Pearson and CourseSites from Blackboard.
OpenClass has the advantage of being from the same codebase as LearningStudio making it easy for our academics to use and it should provide a pretty smooth transition for students who complete the MOOC and go on to enrol on the next level at the University (the proposed model). OpenClass, however, is no longer under active development by Pearson and so it’s future is shaky.
CourseSites is provided by Blackboard on a similar model. It is freely available for anyone to use and they can have up to five courses running simultaneously with unlimited numbers of students. This is not an exaggeration: in less than a minute of setting up my account on CourseSites I hit this error! I suspect it was just a case of things taking a little while to be created in the background, but it made me laugh as my life at Northumbria was plagued by such errors. I haven’t seen one in nearly a year and within a minute of using Blackboard again I got one straight off the bat.
On a serious note though, it does go to show that all platforms have their problems and idiosyncrasies, and that there is no perfect solution. Easy to forget that sometimes.
UPDATE: I never even had time to post this before learning that Blackboard are in the process of migrating CourseSites to their new MOOC platform, Open Education. I haven’t signed up to this one yet as it would appear to be a little more formal and I would need to sign up the University as an institutional partner, something I need to run up the flagpole first. I can’t see it being much different though, Blackboard is Blackboard, and CourseSites will serve in the interim to start development.
In conversation with a colleague in Academic Development about how to target new starters and make them aware of all the fabulous tools and services we have to offer, we came up with the idea of having short, one-page ‘quick start’ guides for each of our core tools which would provide an introduction, explain what it was and how it could help, how to access and where to find more detailed information. I wrote the ones on Equella, Turnitin and ClassLive (Blackboard Collaborate) myself, and edited the others to a greater or lesser extent to make the style and content match across the range.
A little while ago I posted a survey of VLE usage, and today I stumbled upon this survey result set from 2011:
I don’t know much about the context of this, other than that it was created by Matt Lingard.
I consolidated the data from 'Pivot Table 2' and turned it into a helpful pie chart. Chamilo was a new one to me, but seems to be very popular in South America with some pockets of adoption in Belgium and France, in 2011 at least.
I’d like to see or conduct a similar survey to assess the situation now, but don’t really have any justification beyond curiosity. Maybe next time I’m involved in a VLE review.
A colleague (thanks James) sent me this article on the The Post-LMS LMS which makes for an interesting read, but it made me curious to see if there was any hard data out there to support the speculation and I came across this analysis of relative market share of various VLEs up to 2013. Of note is the continuing rise of Moodle, Desire2Learn and the ‘Homegrown Systems’ category which includes the various MOOC platforms, and of particular interest to me was the realisation that eCollege was one of the first, but never seems to have taken off, although it is reassuring to see a little rise since Pearson’s acquisition and the quality of the platform has, according to my colleagues, noticeable improved in the past couple of years that we have been using it.
As part of my handover arrangements I have had to write a set of instructions on how to compile the learning analytics report I have been responsible for. This document alone was such an extensive piece of work that it warranted a separate project in my handover to do list and took me pretty much an entire day. The resulting seven page, 3,000 word document covers how to update and complete the master spreadsheet, where to find all of the various measures in Google Analytics and Blackboard, and how to create the report on PebblePad usage, the most complex one as it involves database queries and I was handing over to someone with little experience of databases, so the instructions needed to be detailed and precise.
One of my first projects after being seconded to TEL Support was writing procedure notes for my colleagues on the Senior Helpline covering all of the customer support I provide for Blackboard, PebblePad and associated systems. When I was offered the position at the University of Sunderland only a little later this became a much bigger job. Thus to date I have now written or updated some 61 procedures, mostly for the Helpline, a 5,000 word handover document which covers everything else and for which TEL Support will be responsible going forward, compiled a small knowledgebase gathering together every piece of documentation I have on supporting PebblePad, delivered four training sessions to the Helpline, spent an entire afternoon training a willing and brave volunteer on everything to do with PebblePad, and finally delivered a whole day of training to members of the TEL Support team covering absolutely everything I could think of and the aforementioned handover document. And this is just the ‘official’ work, the amount of informal training I have given in the form of additional assistance to individual queries would total days.