Introduction to British Sign Language

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Ah, some proper CPD! An intense three hour introduction to deaf awareness and British sign language taught by Robin Herdman with the aid of two interpreters, and a welcome change from the usual half hour webinar with a salesperson which I seem to have done a lot of lately.

The awareness aspect alone was packed. Important snippets I hastily noted are that BSL is the 4th officially recognised language in the UK, that it is used by 125,000 adults in the UK, though there are 11 million deaf or hard of hearing people in the country, that it has a different grammar from English, that it differs significantly from American sign language which is partially derived from French sign language, that BSL has regional dialects, particularly with numbers and colours, that evidence of the use of sign language in the UK can be traced as far back as 650 CE, and that deaf teachers and interpreters are in increasingly short supply, which has consequent effects on deaf people being able to access education, health and social care.

From the practical side of the session I learned that lip reading is very ineffective, with only around a 30% comprehension rate, the remaining 70% being guess work from context. Therefore BSL is much preferred. I learned the importance of facial expressions and non-manual features, a number of phrases for basic communication, and, in theory, the alphabet. There are some nice hooks in the alphabet which gives me hope that I’ll remember most of it a few months down the line, such as the vowels which correspond to each finger – ‘a’ being your thumb and ‘u’ your pinky – and the ‘s’, ‘n’, and ‘y’ from my name.

Panopto Demonstration

Joined a web meeting in which a representative from Panopto demonstrated their lecture capture system as this is another area of interest for us currently. I already have some experience with Panopto from a pilot programme at Northumbria University a few years ago.

Using pretty much any standard webcam, Panopto can record lectures or workshops and the recording can be combined with a presentation in a web-based video editor. It can also be used for recording someone in front of their computer, much like the tool in the content editor of Canvas. Videos are stored on a private YouTube style repository which could potentially replace our existing media library, and video feeds can be live casted which is also something we use our media library for. One feature I don’t recall from my prior experience is the ability for students to add their own notes at specific time stamps which I like the idea of, and there is what was claimed to be a universal search function for any word or phrase spoken or shown on screen. I wonder if that has been tested with the unique range of accents we have in these parts.

ALT Accessibility Webinar

Joined the ALT South webinar on online learning materials and accessibility, in which Tharindu Liyanagunawardena, Chair of the Online Learning Research Centre‚Äč 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.

Paramedic Innovation Event

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.

Respondus Demonstration

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Following ExamSoft last week, today it was Respondus who gave us a demonstration of their software.

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.

ExamSoft Demonstration

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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.

Analytics 2 Webinar and Consultation

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.

Blueprint Courses Webinar

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.

CMALT Webinar for New Assessors

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Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have experienced the pleasure of my little rant as technology utterly failed me for this webinar, but I was at least able to get the recording working a little while later. (I will not be defeated by Java!) It was a very enlightening session on the process and practicalities of assessing the portfolios of CMALT candidates. I’ve actually already done my first one for a portfolio review a few weeks ago, so this was timely, and I have as a result of this webinar now signed up to become an assessor of regular portfolios too.

Unrelated, but ALT have also recently released digital badges for use in portfolios, email signatures, etc. Not actual accredited digital badges with metadata, just nice image files.