New Team Activity Reports

lts_activity_report

The old customer support and Google Analytics reports that I have been doing for the past year, and in some form for many years now, were good as far as they went but didn’t encompass all of the other work that we do, the services that we provide and the systems we support. In an effort to provide something that goes a little wider I have created this new style of report which picks out the highlights of the two old reports and adds in what measures are available from our other systems. I actually did most of this work a few months ago, but it took time to be approved. With agreement from the big boss I am also now publishing this report publicly on our website.

Part of what prompted this was my new found liking of Piktochart and the desire to turn my reports into more of an infographic, but in the end I stuck with Excel as there were a number of charts with data that I found I was just going to end up having to screenshot and import into Piktochart, which kind of defeated the point.

Summer Graduation Ceremonies

graduation_videos

We had our summer graduation ceremonies a couple of weeks ago which we in Web and Learning Technology Services live streamed. The live streaming service is something that we developed in-house at the back end of last year and was first piloted at the winter graduation ceremonies in December. The system was put together by members of the Web Team, who did all the back-end work, and the AV specialist in Learning Technology who arranged the hardware and helped to get the integration with our streaming media server working.

As well as being streamed live the cameras also record to their memory cards for us to edit and post to the media server after the event. This is normally done by our AV guy, but, immediately following graduation week, he went off work for nearly a month to get married. The priorities of some people, eh? So I volunteered to do the editing and uploading. A bit of a mundane task, but I actually enjoyed watching the little bits of the ceremonies I did and I got to get some hands-on experience with Adobe Premiere Pro. To date all of the movie editing I have done has been in iMovie, basically because I am a Mac user and it’s just there, and it has always done what I needed of it. It wasn’t good enough for this job however, as I wanted to manually specify the file format, the size and the bit rate used for encoding for compatibility with Helix and to control file sizes, features that Apple has simplified out of existence in the latest versions of iMovie. I almost wrote ‘inexplicably’ there to describe Apple’s foolishness, but the reason is perfectly clear, to make it easy for end users. There is no getting away from the complexity of export options in Premiere, but sometimes you need that complexity and Apple don’t seem to be interested in that segment anymore. It’s not just iMovie, they haven’t been getting the balance right between ease of use and power features in their software for a number of years now and I don’t see that trend getting better.

But I digress. As well as trimming the videos I also had to flatten the audio to make them mono as the left sound channel picked up almost nothing for some reason. I don’t know if this is something I can do in iMovie, I’ve never had the need before, but it was simple to do in Premiere. All of the recordings are now available here and you can see more videos and photos by following the Twitter hashtag #hawaythegrads.

In a separate query, while I was busy doing this work I picked up a job for a customer who wanted a colleague at a partner institution in Malaysia to share some recorded lectures with them and of course I recommended the streaming server as the best tool for the job. Normally we would get people in to the office to give them a quick run-through of how the system works, but Malaysia is a long way to travel, so I ended up having to put together a short help guide on how to do this as we didn’t have any documentation.

Sunderland After a Month

Well, I have now worked for the University of Sunderland for a month so I think it is a good time to step back a moment and reflect on how I’m finding it and what I think of all the systems and services which are new, or not so new to me.

Culture

The most striking difference for me is the culture which is open and receptive to ideas, thoughts and opinions. I think I, and the team are very fortunate to be based in the same building as the service director as she is very approachable about all issues, trivial and major, and that is something which I haven’t experienced for a long time. Everyone at the University seems to be happy. Even the unhappy people are still pretty happy, their unhappiness compartmentalised, and this is reflected in, if I recall from my induction correctly, a 96% satisfaction rate in the latest staff survey. There is a great deal of trust and respect, everyone seems to have their heads down doing good work, and I find that there is a genuine desire to keep students at the heart of everything we do, even if it means creating extra work for ourselves. The two campuses in Sunderland are both excellent, very smart and professional. The London campus also looks good and I hope to get the chance to pop down there at some point.

Pearson Learning Studio (SunSpace)

The big one. The VLE. All over IT you see a dichotomy, two big players doing similar things or selling similar products but coming from different cultures – Linux and Windows, Apple and Microsoft, iOS and Android – around which are clustered a number of others either trying to break in, offering a niche or which are fallen stars. The VLE market is no different, and so we have Blackboard and Moodle. When Sunderland reviewed their VLE provider a couple of years ago they, however, took the brave decision to go with something different and chose Pearson Learning Studio, formerly eCollege and branded internally as SunSpace.

Learning Studio is provided as a software-as-a-service model; at Northumbria we self-hosted Blackboard so it is a completely new experience for me. The plus side to that is that we are largely unaffected by the performance problems which plagued Blackboard and which on occasion drove me to the edge of sanity, but of course Learning Studio has it’s own issues. The core functionality is pretty good, but there are a lot of features which I am used to and which I think are reasonably standard that are simply missing. Customisation is also very limited because every institution which uses Learning Studio is using the same Learning Studio, so for example we once asked for a default setting to be changed which was done, but the next day it had been reverted because other universities didn’t want it that way and I guess they had more clout. Using it as an administrator or academic can be a little clunky at times due to some questionable UI design, but for the most part, and for students, it is not bad at all. Overall, and from my perspective, it’s a definite improvement.

Equella (Solar)

Another Pearson product which we purchased alongside Learning Studio, Equella is a content repository which links into Learning Studio fairly seamlessly. I like Equella too for the most part, it is a very polished nice looking application and unlike Learning Studio it is self-hosted which gives us complete control of the application and content. That, of course, has its drawbacks too and our installation can be frustratingly slow at times which makes me wonder if it needs some optimisation or improved hardware. Something for my to-do list.

Also like Learning Studio there are some usability issues. After you have finished contributing a new item the ‘Save’ button is the wrong place, in the top-right, instead of being on the bottom-right where the next button has been on the previous screens. When contributing an item there are three screens of information to be completed, but the second two screens – Classification and Format – would seem to be redundant as the information you can enter there doesn’t seem to be used anywhere. There is no advanced search functionality, for example, which would allow someone to search for only files tagged as a specific type or format. What is worse is that none of the fields on these two screens are required, but you cannot skip them and just press ‘Save’ after entering information on the first screen, you are forced to skip through them. I still have to work through the Equella training materials in detail though, so perhaps these are mysteries that will resolve themselves.

It doesn’t seem to be being used a lot at the present time which is a shame, as it makes it very easy to add complex items into Learning Studio such as the package files produced by Storyline. It is also great for any materials which you want on multiple locations, help guides to go into Learning Studio and on the website for example, as you can then just update the material in Equella and the content in the module and on the website is updated to the latest version automatically. Like the Content Collection system in Blackboard, but much more versatile as it is not tied into the VLE alone.

JIRA and Confluence

These systems were nice surprises. JIRA is a project management and service desk application which I am loving, and Confluence is a wiki solution which we are using to host our intranet and a team knowledge base. Both products are from Atlassian – https://www.atlassian.com/ – and integrate seamlessly with each other.

Others

There are lots of other applications we are using which I have had demonstrations off but not yet had the chance to evaluate in any great detail. Mahara is our ePortfolio solution, Helix Media Library is being used to run our streaming media server which is an application I have known about by good reputation for some time, and our public website is powered by TERMINALFOUR. There are a few old faces here too, SITS is chugging along in the background powering all the student data, Turnitin is available as an assignment option and even good old Blackboard Collaborate is available within SunSpace under the pseudonym of ClassLive.