Canvas and VLE Market Share

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.

What Makes a Good Project Manager?

Attended a session delivered by David Bewick, a project manager at Nissan and the University Liaison Officer for the UK chapter of the PMI, the Project Management Institute.

David started by discussing the role and background of the PMI and presenting their definition of a project as “… a temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.” He then moved on to talk about the composition of project teams, the role of the leader, and factors affecting project success, of which he said communication was by far the most important.

The session was fine as far as these things go, but it was pitched primarily at students starting their careers in industry and I don’t feel like I learned anything new. There was some brief discussion at the end about differences between traditional project management and new methodologies such as Agile which David largely dismissed as being best suited for IT. On the Scrum Master training I completed last year much was made of how Agile and Scrum can be applied to any context. I think there is an element of proselytising which comes from people who have made their careers in particular specialisms.

Personally, and perhaps because I work in IT (I do at least try to be conscious of my own cognitive biases), I am much more of a fan of Agile and Scrum because I have seen too many traditional projects which have, not failed, in their own terms, but delivered very sub-par solutions. Take the Pearson LearningStudio Course app for example. Without any inside information (Pearson are incredibly secretive about absolutely everything) I would infer that this is the result of a project, and a successful one too, as it has delivered a unique product with a particular feature set to a specific time. The problem is that those features are pathetic, and the app is an embarrassment. No course content can be viewed through the app, there is only a limited of tools which can be accessed, and only one, Threaded Discussions, has been fully implemented. It is so bad that when it was released to us one of the features listed was ‘the ability to sign out’. The app was last updated on the 2nd of July 2015 and is currently on version 1.0.1. Why? I believe because the project to deliver the app was completed. And that was that, mission accomplished. One of the principles of Scrum however, and a concept that I love, is that you don’t have projects, only products which are subject to continuous development and improvement.

RIP LearningStudio

Well, it’s official. Not University of Sunderland official, but officially official none-the-less. Pearson, the supplier of our VLE, SunSpace, have publicly stated on the home page of OpenClass that they are withdrawing from the VLE / LMS market. More details and background are available on the excellent e-Literate blog.

I have, as you might expect, known for some time but have been sworn to secrecy. And I have suspected that this was coming for a long time, since not long after I started working at Sunderland to be honest, given the level and quality of support we have received from Pearson. Now that the cat is out of the bag I feel like I can be completely honest. LearningStudio will not be missed. By us, or I suspect by anyone. It is a dreadful system. Perhaps it was good at some point, but it feels like development of it stopped quite a long time ago, and it is riddled with horrible bugs, issues and ‘beta’ features that have been abandoned in a half-working state.

Needless to say, the starting pistol on a VLE replacement project has already been fired.

Canvas Demonstration

Had a live demonstration of Instructure’s Canvas from an old Northumbria colleague, who is now at the University of Hull where they have just rolled out Canvas as their new VLE. It looks like a different generation system compared with what we’re using at Sunderland at the moment, LearningStudio, and the technical and customer support Hull has received has been second to none. For example, they are using PebblePad as their ePortfolio solution and Instructure built an LTI integration to link the two systems within days, free of charge. Other available integrations are extensive, and includes Mahara and Turnitin. The ‘Commons’ feature looks very nice, it allows people to easily import and publish courses from a central Canvas repository – it could be a good way to finally get some traction on OER use.

Other nice features include a central ‘Files’ area that allows content to be reused across different course sites; the ability to publish calendars to Google Calendar, Exchange and other calendar services; an online marking system provided by Crocodoc (which Blackboard added a couple of years ago); a fully functional student view mode; the ability to record audio and video from anywhere that uses the virtual text-box editor; a quiz tool with 12 questions types, including an equation editor; and a user masquerade function which works as well as Mahara’s.

There are some issues with it as well, of course. There is currently no SITS integration which is going to cause them problems if they want to gain some serious market penetration in the UK, but I am told they are working on this with Tribal. There is also no built-in conferencing or whiteboard tool, but there are integrations available for BigBlueButton and, I believe, Blackboard Collaborate which is what we currently use through LearningStudio. Mobile access was disappointing, as they have taken an apps approach rather than responsive design. There are three different apps available for iOS and Android devices which serve different functions, one of which is for audience response, which is nice. Support for SCORM and Storyline is a potential issue as they have had problems with it at Hull that we would need to investigate further. There is no integration for Medial (Helix) at the moment, though Medial do seem to be gauging the market in preparation for working on one. Finally there is cost, which, for obvious reasons I can’t say too much about. But it is more than LearningStudio. A lot more.

Overall the demonstration and discussion was a very positive experience. Hull are the latest UK institution to adopt Canvas, joining five others, so Intructure are gaining some traction here. In the US they’re storming the market! Check out the latest market share report from Edutechnica.

Zapier Experimentation

Following on from our earlier demonstration, Pearson have now set-up and released the first LearningStudio to Zapier integration for us to experiment with, a new course announcement trigger. I volunteered to run through the set up instructions provided and test. While it works well enough from a technical point of view, set-up is far from straight forward and it needs a lot of work before it could be rolled out to end users.

The Zapier side of things is fine, but to get the LearningStudio integration working you need to provide a course ID and that’s going to be a problem because it is not the University’s course ID, but a long sequential number generated by the platform, like a primary key, which you have to grab from the URL of the course home page. That’s do-able with good, clear instructions, but the second problem is that you need to authenticate with a username and password which, again, is not the University’s Active Directory account, but an internal password held in LearningStudio which is normally overridden by single sign-on. So, that means that anyone who wants to use LearningStudio integrations on Zapier would need to contact the team and have us reset their internal password and give it to them (heavy admin burden), or we need to find a way to get single sign-on working within Zapier’s authentication (technical challenge which may not be possible).

There are other issues. I don’t mean to be negative, what Zapier does is very useful and has a great deal of potential, but I think it is the wrong platform when compared with its principal rival, If This Then That. But that’s a moot point because Pearson have made the choice for us on the grounds that Zapier supports more enterprise integrations. I found this great blog post comparing the two platforms. If we, in higher education rather than a corporate environment, want to get students to engage with this, IFTTT’s greater support for web and social media integrations makes it the better platform in my opinion. The blog post is from 2014 though, and Zapier has improved. Support for WordPress has been added, with Blogger and Android listed as coming soon, but it’s still missing other popular services such as Flickr and Facebook Groups, and there is no indication of iOS support being forthcoming.

Licensing is also going to be an issue with Zapier. The free account limits you to 5 Zaps and 100 events per month. I used two of my Zaps just to test course announcements being pushed to email and OneNote, for just one course site.

Where’ve You Been?

I say, it’s been a little quiet on here over the past few months, hasn’t it? It has been a frightfully busy time for me! At work the start of the new academic year brought with it the usual amount of chaos and mayhem, and outside of work I have been moving home while desperately trying to do something, anything, with my dissertation! I’ve just popped in some posts about things I’ve done recently, but there has been plenty more I could have written about.

Clearning was, alas, a bit of a bust in the end. The core team were just so good, and so efficient that they left me with very little to do, and so I ended up just spending the afternoon doing general enquiry chats. Still, it was a nice break and I’m good to go next year.

I did some good work for the newly rebranded School of Law using Storyline to record some introductory videos to smarten up some of their programme spaces, and got access to a professional recording studio to record voiceover for the Anti-Bribery Act training module I have been building, a project which is now back in the hands of our Legal and Governance department for approval. They initialled asked for this to be ready for October. 2014. It’s still ongoing.

In early September we, as a team, were able to elbow our way into a number of faculty and department conferences to provide a crash course on changes to SunSpace, i.e. the new template and the Turnitin LTI, which was extremely successful. In one session we probably hit more people than all of the Technology Bytes sessions we ran last year. Those aren’t happening again this year; instead of planned sessions we are holding generic drop-in surgeries with colleagues in Academic Development in the hope that those will be better attended. Other teaching I have delivered has included some sessions to front-line Library staff on new things in SunSpace and, just a couple of weeks ago, some sessions to students on creating posters in PowerPoint to display their research proposals at a showcase event taking place in early December.

Also at the start of the new year the University went live with a new electronic attendance monitoring system that required all students to be issued with a new ID card, a mammoth operation for which I volunteered a few shifts.

At the beginning of October we had a conference call with colleagues at Texas Christian University, something we have to do because we are the only university in the UK trying to use LearningStudio as a VLE, only to discover that they are now well along the road in migrating to a new VLE and ending their relationship with Pearson. I probably shouldn’t say any more on this topic, but I can slip in a cheeky link to this article and let you read between the lines about what it means…

End of October was appraisal season and as well as my own I was invited to sit in and contribute to the team’s appraisals as per last year. Any moment now I will start on my middle-managers training course, which was supposed to happen this year, but it has been completely re-written and is now a fully accredited PG Cert which works out really well for me. Also approved in principle is my doing the PG Cert in Education next year.

Finally, last week I attended a consultation event from our VC where she discussed the plans and the direction of travel she wants to set for the next five years and her thoughts on the recently published Green Paper. One of her big themes or ideas was on cultivating an ongoing relationship with students after graduation to keep their skills current.

Zapier Demonstration

Had a demonstration of Zapier today from a Pearson rep from their developers network. Zapier is a service that allows web services from different platforms to talk to each other, but in a very simple visual manner – no programming skills required. So, for example, you could set a new direct message alert from Twitter (the trigger) to send you an email to your Gmail account (the action). Triggers and actions can be chained together to create complex sets of actions. You could add a second part to my example which adds an entry to a Google Sheets spreadsheet from the Twitter DM as well for example. The possibilities are huge, and every modern web service you can probably think of is available on Zapier.

If this sounds like If This Then That that’s because it is pretty much the same, though Zapier claims to have more integrations available. Why Zapier then? Because Pearson have chosen Zapier to experiment with by linking up the web services which are available from LearningStudio to Zapier. You won’t find that advertised on Zapier though, as they are set to private at the moment, but we will be able to use them and can send them on to others. We could, for example, create a ‘Zap’ that sends an email whenever a new announcement is posted in a course site. We’re still waiting for full details of what the 17 triggers are, and there are no actions, so unfortunately this is going to be a one way thing; no possibility of setting a Facebook post to be pushed into a discussion board thread for example.

Enterprise Reporting

After our regular conference call with Pearson the team had an informal training session from a member of their Enterprise Reporting team. This came out of a problem I had a couple of weeks ago when I ran a simple report to list all units and items within a given module space and only got four results from a course which had six units and a couple of dozen items. We discovered that the items that were returned were the gradable items, even though the option to select only gradable items was not selected. So the question was why it wasn’t working as expected and returning all results. I don’t have a detailed explanation, but I did learn that there is what I would describe as a ‘quirk’ with Enterprise Reporting that means it only likes reports that include a measurement of some kind. Adding ‘Activity Minutes’ to my problem report resolved the issue.

We got some other good things out of the training too. A greater understanding of how nodes work and how they relate to courses and students, and with that a realisation that we cannot rely on these to get reports on what we want, which is which faculty or department a student belongs to, but we do now have a plan to use one of the extended user property fields as a custom field that will serve this purpose for us. And finally we got a data dictionary which will be extremely useful.

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.

Turnitin LTI and Case Studies


One of the big projects I picked up last year when I started at Sunderland was the team’s development of a new way of accessing Turnitin through SunSpace. Following the successful implementation of the LTI earlier this year I wrote a case study about our experience which has now been published to our website.

This is the first of what I hope will be many case studies sharing our experience for the benefit of others and publicising the good work we do.