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.

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.

Turnitin LTI and Case Studies

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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.

Hello Old Friend

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Why, hello there old friend! It’s been a while has it not?

I’m working with an academic on developing a course which she wants to deliver as a MOOC and part of my role has been to find the right platform for her. We can’t easily do anything in the University’s VLE, and Sunderland has not yet partnered with any of the big MOOC providers such as FutureLearn, so I have been investigating two free options, OpenClass from Pearson and CourseSites from Blackboard.

OpenClass has the advantage of being from the same codebase as LearningStudio making it easy for our academics to use and it should provide a pretty smooth transition for students who complete the MOOC and go on to enrol on the next level at the University (the proposed model). OpenClass, however, is no longer under active development by Pearson and so it’s future is shaky.

CourseSites is provided by Blackboard on a similar model. It is freely available for anyone to use and they can have up to five courses running simultaneously with unlimited numbers of students. This is not an exaggeration: in less than a minute of setting up my account on CourseSites I hit this error! I suspect it was just a case of things taking a little while to be created in the background, but it made me laugh as my life at Northumbria was plagued by such errors. I haven’t seen one in nearly a year and within a minute of using Blackboard again I got one straight off the bat.

On a serious note though, it does go to show that all platforms have their problems and idiosyncrasies, and that there is no perfect solution. Easy to forget that sometimes.

UPDATE: I never even had time to post this before learning that Blackboard are in the process of migrating CourseSites to their new MOOC platform, Open Education. I haven’t signed up to this one yet as it would appear to be a little more formal and I would need to sign up the University as an institutional partner, something I need to run up the flagpole first. I can’t see it being much different though, Blackboard is Blackboard, and CourseSites will serve in the interim to start development.

Course Dashboard Demonstration

I watched the recording of the Pearson webinar which demonstrated the new Course Dashboard this morning, the imminent replacement of the Social Learning Module Home page. I would like to say that I was excited and impressed, but the truth is that it has filled me with trepidation. I understand that the Social Learning Module Home (SLMH from now on as that is far too long a name for anything) was problematic when it was first rolled out, but I have fortunately missed that and most courses at Sunderland are, in my anecdotal experience, using SLMH in preference to the classic course home page (which looks very dated and basic now), and it works well and looks reasonably nice.

This new version however, seems like a step back. It’s blocky, it’s not a responsive design so who knows how well it’s going to look across resolutions, the widgets seem to be using iframes which is something that the SLMH uses in places with disastrous results on mobile devices, and the person who gave the webinar could not tell us what the results of their mobile testing were. A big point they are selling the new dashboard on is the ability to customise it, but I have learned from the webinar today that this is rather disingenuous, as it can only be customised from the Admin Pages for the entire institution (or possibly node / term level, but that’s not much better), so there is no user customisation which is what I expected from their marketing and what has been available in Blackboard for many years now. The Course Checklist feature is also no where to be found. This is a really nice little tool which lets students see the whole schedule of the course at a glance, but it is only available on the classic course home. When I have queried why it was not available in SLMH I was told that it was a bug and to wait for the new dashboard, and now today I’ve found out that this is not the case, that the feature is gone and that the best I can hope for is that similar functionality might be implemented in a calendar view at some unknown time in the future. The interface of the new dashboard is not customisable either. The colour scheme (blue, white and grey), like the new Threaded Discussion tool, cannot be changed to match Sunderland’s branding, and other attributes like the font and font-weight are also fixed. Very disappointing.

Of course, being a software-as-a-service solution we will have no choice but to implement the new dashboard at some point, and probably sooner rather than later in spite of my reservations as there is no development being done on either of the older course homes which means no bug fixes. I can only hope that many of these issues are ironed out before general release, as my thoughts were echoed by participants on the chat many of whom are, or will be piloting the new dashboard.

The attached screenshots show the Classic course home, basic and dated, but it does have the oh-so-useful Module Checklist; and the much better SLMH which includes the Chat and recent activity widget and an Upcoming widget. I haven’t included a screenshot of the new version as the only place I have seen it to date is in these private webinars.

Pearson PAB (Product Advisory Board) Webinar

Watched a recording of Pearson’s PAB webinar which was held in lieu of the conference in Denver, where they demonstrated many new features which have either been made live recently or are due for release over the coming year. Highlights were the new look Threaded Discussions tool which is being rolled out piecemeal now, the new course dashboard which is going to replace Social Learning Module Home (here’s hoping for a catchier name this time round), the Android app, and the long overdue notifications centre – something which our students are clamouring for. Also tucked away, but of particular interest to me, is the new ‘External Tool’ menu item type which should make it easier for academics to deploy the new version of Turnitin we have been working on, which uses the standard LTI from Turnitin instead of the Dropbox integration which Pearson developed but that doesn’t work terribly well.

Google Analytics on SunSpace

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One of my little areas of expertise at Northumbria was providing analytics data and reports on Blackboard usage and it’s something which was missing here at Sunderland, for the VLE at least. Unfortunately the way Learning Studio works it has not been possible to implement Google Analytics tracking code system wide, but I’m not easily deterred! I found a way to embed the code into an announcement on the landing page so that we can at least get client side data: numbers, technology, location and mobile use which is all useful in informing development.

If the report looks a little familiar, well, that’s just because great cooks bake nice cakes no matter what kitchen they’re in!