Academic Year Rollover

We are now in the final stages of preparatory work for the academic year rollover on the VLE, SunSpace. This has been a big job this year, and a difficult and somewhat stressful one for me. For the past three years at Sunderland, since we moved to LearningStudio, as part of the rollover we have copied content from the previous version of all module spaces to the new ones en masse, a process that was, compared to Blackboard, fast and effortless. However, it did have the problem of perpetuating bad practice and design. In an effort to improve the quality of module sites this year our Academic Board decided that instead of rolling over content the new sites for 2015/16 would be created from a template. Although they issued guidance on what that template should contain, exact details of how to implement this fell to me. Putting something together that made everyone ‘happy’ was not a joy.

The end result is, I think, a considerable improvement on the template that was used in previous years for new modules, but I would have liked to have done so much more with it. There are two distinct parts to the new template. First of all there are placeholder items for all of the items that Academic Board specified should be in the template and these contain information and guidance to help academics update them. Secondly there is a hugely expanded section for staff help, and a new section for student help that is almost as large. The design is very basic, deliberately so, as I didn’t want content that academics create to not match the set items that were pre-prepared, and realistically most will only use the basic functionality. However, there are some items in there that are designed to either help academics improve the visual appearance of their modules, such as some generic icons, and others that show-off what can be done in SunSpace such as a collapsable accordion menu and embedded content items including content from our streaming media server and external sources such as ThingLink.

One final thing we did was to turn off, by default, all of the tools which don’t work as they should for one reason or another. I was able to get consensus from the team on this one. They are all still there if people really want to use them, but we hope they won’t. In the staff help section there is a page dedicated to the various SunSpace tools where I have explained why these particular ones are turned off and advising people on what to use instead to achieve the same ends in a better way.

To support staff with the changes to the rollover process I have also arranged a training and publicity programme that includes emails, announcements, an article on the University’s blog, US Online, and a series of workshops supported by roaming sessions that will run over the next couple of weeks, to be repeated again at the start of September.

New Help Guide Interface – Simple Menu

Our Blackboard help guides have always been hosted on their own little mini-website hosted in a Blackboard organisation, but set to public availability. You can see them here: http://northumbria.ac.uk/elphelp for the student guides, and here: http://northumbria.ac.uk/elphelp for the staff guides. These were created a couple of years ago by the awesome Chris, but with his departure from LTech last year I was tasked with updating or replacing these websites to bring them into line with the university’s new colour scheme and style. I took the originals as a starting point but pared them back to just the essentials (there were lots of extraneous files and code), implemented the new branding, and took the opportunity to make a few improvements.

One of the best improvements I have made is the implementation of media queries in the CSS to automatically adjust the height of the iframe to best match the user’s screen resolution. I did get to a point where I was able to automatically adjust its size to 100%, it worked a treat in Firefox and I was really pleased, until I tested in other browsers and got tiny little windows. I hate iframes. If I had more time I would have created something completely new and truly responsive, but I had to get this done quickly as the eSAF help guides were ready to go live and we have so much other work to do with the upgrade.

Another improvement I have been able to make is to implement Google Analytics tracking code across all of the guides. Previously this was only on the home, or landing page. What I have been able to do this time around is to separate out the tracking code into it’s own javascript file which each one of the help guide pages calls, so that the code only needs to be inserted into the one place.

The eSAF guides have all now been transferred into this template – http://elp.northumbria.ac.uk/bbcswebdav/orgs/ORG1/help-esaf/index.html* – and the Analytics works as I had hoped allowing us to track which guides are being most read. The template can easily be applied to the student guides now, but the content of those all needs to be revised for Service Pack 16, or ‘April Release’, or whatever Blackboard decide the new naming scheme will be, and that will be a massive task.

Still on my to-do list is getting the nested menu working which will be required for the staff guides.

* I know what you’re thinking, and yup we could use a short URL for this one too.