Canvas UK User Group

Attended the Canvas UK User Group in Birmingham representing the University of Sunderland for the first time. I’m told that when this group started a few years ago it was half a dozen people around a table, now it’s a room of 30 from institutions all of the country. Very useful for networking and getting tips and tricks from established users – little things like the fact that you can open up content pages to allow anyone to edit them, effectively turning them into wikis, and learning about the kinds of problems other users have had, for example that notifications can’t be customised on a per course basis. An institution that migrated to Canvas a couple of years ago had a lot of complaints about that from staff, but I don’t think it will be an issue for us as we’re moving from a VLE that had no notifications system at all, so it’s an enhancement request for us rather than a loss of functionality.

By far the most useful part of the day was the access we had to technical people from Instructure and the roadmap and plans they shared with us. I knew that Crocodoc was due for replacement for example, but I didn’t realise it was happening quite so soon (next week!) and I saw the replacement tool for the first time. Looking forward to Quizzes 2, Blueprint courses and the changing functionality around muting assignments. A little disappointed to learn that the quick marks functionality from Turnitin’s Grademark isn’t going to be implemented in Speedgrader, as we’ve already had academics raising that with us. Also noted an interesting looking screenshot in the roadmap which showed Mahara loading within Canvas, similar to how the Turnitin LTI displays. We would love to have that kind of deep integration, but there were mixed messages about Mahara, with some people reporting that the latest version of the integration was still broken. The slide was in the roadmap though, so hopefully something that we can look forward.

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.

Mahara Upgrade

I feel like I don’t post as much as I used to, and part of the reason why is because a lot of my work is now either collaborative or of a project management nature. The new version of Mahara is a case in point. The old version was 1.4, a three year old release, and hadn’t been updated since. A project to upgrade or install a new version had begun before I started which became one for me to push through. The new version, set up as a completely new system because the database on the old one was Postgres and we couldn’t easily migrate it to MySQL, is now available thanks to a team effort from many people in WaLTS and IT Services. Now there is just the small matter of manually exporting 8,000 user accounts to the new one. That’ll keep us busy for a while.

Another good piece of work I have been involved in is the imminent deployment of a new integration of Turnitin, another stalled project which I had picked up, which included writing a fairly comprehensive report for our service director who had her doubts. We just need to do some final quality assurance testing on this and write some new help guides for staff and students and then it will be good to release.

You’re Hired

An interesting first for me today, I hired someone. We had an intern vacancy in the team for the next six months to assist with customer support during our busy period and then to help with the upgrades to Mahara and Equella. This was all approved and most of the paperwork done some time ago, before I was even in post, but the final tasks were assigned to me which included liaising with the Intern Factory, advertising, selection and defining the interview questions and procedures.

I had a crash course on recruitment and selection on Thursday in time for the interviews on Friday afternoon. We interviewed three people, all of whom could have done the job, but one who had just a bit more experience and gave a slightly better interview, so I feel really sorry for the other two.

This will also be my first official experience with line managing someone, as opposed to just supervising, though I was responsible for an agency worker we had in for three weeks last month for a specific task.

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.

Hello Sunderland

First day in the new job, very exciting. Lots of new challenges and technologies. As well as the things I was prepared for like Pearson Learning Studio and Mahara, there are so many things I didn’t know I wouldn’t know, JIRA and Confluence for example, and multiple instances for different purposes just to make things more confusing! To be honest, I was feeling pretty overwhelmed at times, but summer is the best time to join a university when things are relatively quiet; I have time to learn and prepare for the September madness.