Turnitin UK User Summit

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Attended the afternoon sessions of Turnitin’s UK user summit which focused on customer experience, with talks from colleagues at the University of Edinburgh, the University of East London, Newcastle University and the University of Huddersfield. It’s always cathartic to hear your colleagues sharing their tales of woe and horror which are so familiar in your own work, like the academics who insist on treating the originality score as sacrosanct when making a plagiarism decision, but more productively there were some really good ideas and pieces of best practice shared. One colleague was using Blackboard’s adaptive release function to hide the Turnitin assignment submission link until students had completed a ‘quiz’ which was simply making them acknowledge in writing that they work they were about to submit was all their own. A couple of people presented their research findings on what students wanted from feedback, such as in the attached photo which shows a clear preference for electronic feedback. Someone made a product development suggestion, splitting the release of the grade and feedback in Turnitin so that students have to engage with their feedback before they get their grade. But I think my personal highlight from the day was the very diplomatic description of difficult customers as those who have ‘higher than average expectations’.

Though I missed out on the morning session due to another commitment, I was able to get the gist from networking with colleagues in-between sessions. Improvements to the Feedback Studio including the ability to embed links, multiple file upload, a new user portal which will show the most recent cases raised by people at your institution, and the development I found most interesting, the ability to identify ghost written assignments. This is still quite away from being ready, but it’s an increasing problem and one Turnitin has in their sights. They couldn’t reveal too much about how this will work for obvious reasons, but the gist is that they will attempt to build up a profile of the writing style of individuals so that they can flag up papers which seem to be written differently.

The Twitter conversation from the summit is available from the TurnitinUKSummit hashtag, where you will see I won the Top Tweet! Yay me, but alas there were no prizes.

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.

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.

Quick Start Guides for Staff

In conversation with a colleague in Academic Development about how to target new starters and make them aware of all the fabulous tools and services we have to offer, we came up with the idea of having short, one-page ‘quick start’ guides for each of our core tools which would provide an introduction, explain what it was and how it could help, how to access and where to find more detailed information. I wrote the ones on Equella, Turnitin and ClassLive (Blackboard Collaborate) myself, and edited the others to a greater or lesser extent to make the style and content match across the range.

https://my.sunderland.ac.uk/display/sunspace/Quick+Start+Guides+for+Staff

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.

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.