VLE Supplier Webinars

As our VLE replacement project comes to a conclusion, this session was designed to create some clean air between two very close suppliers by focusing on mobile usage and applications. We asked for live demonstrations of a number of scenarios such as instructors updating module content on tablets, and students reading and accessing content on their phones. Both suppliers gave strong demonstrations, but for everyone in the room who was scoring them there was a clear favourite. Which, of course, I’m not at liberty to divulge!

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.

Session 1: Induction and Academic Skills


This first session of Leading from the Middle provided us with background and context of the course, including how the course has been designed and developed from what has gone before and the experience the CaPE team have gained in providing leadership and change courses for private enterprise over the last few years. Also covered were academic skills and writing conventions, resources available from the Library and HR, and what is expected from us as students, particularly around assessment.

The course has a single, two part assessment which comprises a 5,000 word narrative report which demonstrates personal transformation throughout the course, built around a work-based project, and a separate portfolio of evidence, around 1,000 words, which backs up the narrative report and is mapped to the learning outcomes.

Given the reflective nature of the assessment, a large part of the session was devoted to reflective practice and introduced us to concepts including Dweck’s growth and fixed mindsets, and Kolb’s learning cycle. The image above shows Snook and Nohria’s ‘Knowing, Doing, Being’ model where ‘Knowing’ is your education and experience, ‘Doing’ is your skills and competencies, and ‘Being’, a commonly neglected area which describes your beliefs and values. Also discussed were some common management styles – the seagull, the mushroom and the plate spinner – and the place of middle managers which we identified as both the most difficult position to be in, having to keep different layers happy, but also possibly the most influential.

The specified aims of the programme, as quoted from the module guide, are:

  1. Personal development of students;
  2. Develop transformational leadership;
  3. Lead and manage change;
  4. Transfer learning into the workplace.

There are detailed learning outcomes broken down into knowledge and skills, but there is also a more concise summary in the module guide which is it also worth quoting:

  1. Increased confidence in undertaking management responsibilities;
  2. Self awareness of preferred leadership style and preferences when communicating with, and influencing others;
  3. Understanding leadership theory and the principles of leadership, particularly within an HE environment;
  4. How to work with your staff to create a high performing team;
  5. Be equipped with skills and knowledge to hold conversations with a purpose such as providing feedback and communicating during times of change.

With regards to the work-based project, some initial thoughts I have are the implementation of a call logging system for the team, something I’ve wanted from day one but which could be difficult for political reasons, as the university does actually have a system in place but it is just not suited to our needs and so doesn’t get used; something around making improvements in accessibility of the VLE and learning materials, something I am already involved with but it could be firmed up to become a proper project with definitive outcomes; or developing some bespoke learning materials for our Oculus Rift, something I would like to do but it would need an academic partner and have some real pedagogic benefit to warrant the development time that would be required. HR will be approaching line managers during January to discuss possibilities and scope as it is a desirable aim of the project to get some concrete benefit for the university out of it, though from the perspective of the course the outcome of the project is secondary to how it is managed and how we change and use what we are learning in the delivery of the project.

A very positive session on the whole, and I hope that the more I learn the more I will be able to resolve the tension I have between being a developer and wanting to make things and help people, and being a manager with a duty to lead my team and take responsibility for all of our work collectively.

Finally, as a piece of ‘fun homework’, we were asked to think of a song that describes our management style. I think I have failed in this exercise, but I do think that Stealers Wheel’s ‘Stuck in the Middle with You’ does a great job of describing the position of middle managers in general!

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.

Jisc OER Project Submissions

Jisc are soliciting for project submissions with regards to interactive learning resources. From their email:

Jisc is seeking to expand its offer to learners in the further education and skills sector. It is inviting project submissions for the creation of open-access learning resources aimed at apprentices funded by the Skills Funding Agency and based primarily in the workplace. Our invitation for interactive learning resources provides the perfect opportunity for the skills sector in England to move towards one of FELTAG’s recommendations for ‘blended learning’.

Consultation with practitioners, managers and students shows that teacher-generated learning content is widely used in the sector, but is not widely shared. By sharing open educational resources online, teachers can save preparation time, they can create bespoke learning content for their learners’ specific needs, and they can learn from their peers about how to integrate e-learning into their practice. Through the creation and sharing of high-quality learning content, teachers can also help raise the profile of their organisations.

Full details are available on their website: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/fundingopportunities.