Brightspace Webinar

Following on from our webinars and demonstrations of other VLE systems of late, I arranged for the team to gather round to watch a recorded webinar of Desire2Learn’s Brightspace platform, the final major commercial VLE provider for us to investigate. It had to be a recording as their live webinars all take place during unsociable hours, though they helpful record them all. Very unhelpfully they are using Adobe Connect which took over 15 minutes to get working today, spanning three different browsers, two attempts at installing the plug-in – admin account required, thank you very much! – before finally getting it going in Chrome this time. (I could rant about the appalling state of web conferencing software until the cows come home, then rant about it some more to them.)

The webinar I picked out as possibly the most useful for us, with none of us having any prior experience with Desire2Learn or Brightspace, was an overview and demonstration of their latest major release, Autumn 2015. Our collective option is that it looks very much like a version 2 of LearningStudio, which unfortunately sets off alarm bells for us. The ‘Learning Paths’ feature which was demonstrated allows instructors to restrict access to certain content until students have completed set criteria. This looks really nice but it is something even LearningStudio can do, and actually does pretty well, and I know that Blackboard Learn has had functionality like this for quite some time. Another nice looking feature was the ability for students to check off completed items and see a progress bar along the top of their course site. This is something that has actually been requested by our academics and would go down really well, I think it’s a great feature for students, but I do have questions about how well it works in a dynamic context when academics are adding and modifying content throughout the duration of the course. It all seems to point towards a course delivery model rather than a VLE. It seems to be a very US way of working, and it’s making me think that perhaps that’s the reason why Desire2Learn have yet to achieve any significant market penetration in the UK. LearningStudio is a course delivery platform, and our attempts to use it as a VLE have not been successful. We do not want to be repeating that mistake.

What we saw of the admin part of the system looks good, as did the virtual text box editor which I think was TinyMCE. There is also the ability to drag and drop files which are them displayed onscreen, inline with other content, similar to how Microsoft Office and PDF files can be added in LearningStudio, though with highly variable results. The demonstration also showed how to set up rules and alerts to monitor student engagement on a course and send automated alerts to them, a very nice feature. Desire2Learn does have a great reputation for learning analytics by all accounts.

We didn’t see any of the quiz or assignment tools, and there was no mention of plugins or LTI support which is crucial for us to use Turnitin. The presenter repeatedly emphasised the ease of use and flexibility of the system, but all we saw of this was the ability for users to manipulate modules (blocks of content) and instructors to customise the background and appearance of individual course sites, very routine and unimpressive stuff these days. The whole thing was lacking a bit of a wow factor. Though, as one of my colleagues pointed out, the fact that it sort of looks like a version 2 of LearningStudio could actually be a good thing, making the transition easier for our academics and students.

Leading from the Middle

At my appraisal last year it was suggested that I attend the University’s second line manager’s development course. This was delayed by a year because the course was under redevelopment by HR in conjunction with our Business School’s Corporate and Professional Education (CaPE) team. The new course, now branded as ‘Leading from the Middle’, is a fully accredited post-graduate module resulting in a Postgraduate Certificate in Leadership and Change upon successful completion. I don’t have a lot of information at the moment but I suspect that assessment will involve a portfolio of evidence, and in any case I’ll want to blog about the course as it develops, so I have created a new page specifically to collect these posts together using the ‘LFTM’ tag. The taught sessions on the course are as follows:

  • Induction and Academic Skills
  • Knowing Yourself, To Lead Others
  • Strategic Leadership and Culture and Context (2 parts)
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Coaching at Work (3 parts)
  • Understanding Finance
  • Collaborative Conversations
  • Creativity and Entrepreneurial Learning
  • Leading Change and Transition
  • Leading High Performing Teams
  • Leading Equality and Diversity

Preparing to Teach


This was an extremely dense two day course which “introduced key concepts, tools and issues which are important to teachers in higher education” (from the welcome document). The primary target audience for the course, which is delivered by our Academic Development Unit regularly, was PGR students who are starting to do some teaching as part of their work, but who may not have had any formal teacher training yet.

One of the course objectives was for itself to deploy some of the techniques under discussion, and the first such example of this was a ‘signature search’ icebreaker exercise, something which was completely new to me and most of the others there. This was followed by a reflection on the purposes on HE which employed the snowballing technique (more than learning, we concluded, also to develop students, at least potentially, into researchers and citizens who contribute to the advancement of society), how students learn in HE, techniques for reflective practice (including models of reflective practice from Schön, Gibbs and Rolfe, of which most of us preferred Rolfe’s model), key pedagogies (including scaffolding, repetition, cognitive load and chunking), planning your teaching (which included advice on how to plan, the difference between planning for a programme, session or individual learning activity, and a broadly applicable session template), and finally assessment and feedback strategies, e.g. how to select the appropriate assessment strategy for a given activity. The photograph is of the results of an exercise to complete a guidance and feedback loop based on Hounsell’s model. A joint exercise, my partner kept the original, hence my photo, which also explains why you can read the handwriting!

This was an extremely useful course for me which will help inform my development and, I hope, the quality of the sessions I deliver as I transition from a trainer, as I have previously characterised myself, to a teacher. An immediate impact will be on the fact that I will, from now, create proper sessions plans which go into a lot more detail than the notes I have previously prepared and which will include more thought on contingency measures and alternative activities which can be deployed depending on the nature of the group on the day. Some other things which will have an impact are that I now have an increased awareness of attention spans and the need to change activities at appropriate intervals to keep people awake, and the benefit of embedding informal assessment throughout a session to reinforce learning.

There were also some parts of the course which were not immediately applicable to my work and exercises which were harder for me to complete as they had in mind people delivering entire modules and programmes, not something I do at the moment, but I’m sure it will come in useful in the future as I look forwards to doing a PGCert in learning and teaching. That’s not going to be this year due to prior commitments, but possibly the presentation starting in September 2016.

I would have liked to have seen TEL being used to greater effect on the course. From a technological standpoint the course was a very tradition ‘PowerPoint plus handouts’ model which left plenty of room for improvement. I believe a small forest in South America must have been destroyed to furnish us with the enormous amounts of paperwork we were given; many of us, myself included, requested digital copies of the materials but there hasn’t been any follow-up on this yet, perhaps it is too soon. A lot of the paperwork was forms which we had to complete, the templates for the reflective feedback models for example, how much better to have delivered these via Mahara? Ideally in advance and that way we would also have had time to consider questions and points for discussion in order to get more out of the course (the flipped classroom approach). I work with Academic Development quite closely on a number of areas so I will have plenty of opportunity to feed this back to them.

Course Dashboard Demonstration

I watched the recording of the Pearson webinar which demonstrated the new Course Dashboard this morning, the imminent replacement of the Social Learning Module Home page. I would like to say that I was excited and impressed, but the truth is that it has filled me with trepidation. I understand that the Social Learning Module Home (SLMH from now on as that is far too long a name for anything) was problematic when it was first rolled out, but I have fortunately missed that and most courses at Sunderland are, in my anecdotal experience, using SLMH in preference to the classic course home page (which looks very dated and basic now), and it works well and looks reasonably nice.

This new version however, seems like a step back. It’s blocky, it’s not a responsive design so who knows how well it’s going to look across resolutions, the widgets seem to be using iframes which is something that the SLMH uses in places with disastrous results on mobile devices, and the person who gave the webinar could not tell us what the results of their mobile testing were. A big point they are selling the new dashboard on is the ability to customise it, but I have learned from the webinar today that this is rather disingenuous, as it can only be customised from the Admin Pages for the entire institution (or possibly node / term level, but that’s not much better), so there is no user customisation which is what I expected from their marketing and what has been available in Blackboard for many years now. The Course Checklist feature is also no where to be found. This is a really nice little tool which lets students see the whole schedule of the course at a glance, but it is only available on the classic course home. When I have queried why it was not available in SLMH I was told that it was a bug and to wait for the new dashboard, and now today I’ve found out that this is not the case, that the feature is gone and that the best I can hope for is that similar functionality might be implemented in a calendar view at some unknown time in the future. The interface of the new dashboard is not customisable either. The colour scheme (blue, white and grey), like the new Threaded Discussion tool, cannot be changed to match Sunderland’s branding, and other attributes like the font and font-weight are also fixed. Very disappointing.

Of course, being a software-as-a-service solution we will have no choice but to implement the new dashboard at some point, and probably sooner rather than later in spite of my reservations as there is no development being done on either of the older course homes which means no bug fixes. I can only hope that many of these issues are ironed out before general release, as my thoughts were echoed by participants on the chat many of whom are, or will be piloting the new dashboard.

The attached screenshots show the Classic course home, basic and dated, but it does have the oh-so-useful Module Checklist; and the much better SLMH which includes the Chat and recent activity widget and an Upcoming widget. I haven’t included a screenshot of the new version as the only place I have seen it to date is in these private webinars.

Jisc Legal Copyright Course

I’ll quote the blurb from Jisc’s email:

Jisc Legal now provides a ‘need to know’ online training course in copyright law – designed to bring academic staff and those supporting academic staff up to speed on legally using other people’s materials in teaching and learning.

It is a standalone learning module which takes about an hour to complete and consists of some video, some audio segments, some animations and some text pages. The course is free to use and is available to HE institutions in the UK to train staff on how to use other people’s work in their own lecturing resources and academic work.

To register or find out more about the short practical online course please visit –

Looks like another great free resource from Jisc.