Canvas Network Training Course

In preparation for the Participatory Arts MOOC which I am helping to develop, and which is being hosted on Canvas Network, Instructure asked us to complete this training and preparatory MOOC which, as always happens with MOOCs, I started enthusiastically in early March but was quickly lost amongst the sea of deadlines and urgent jobs.

As the university has chosen Canvas for our new VLE also, this should have given me a head start, but as things panned out I’ve ended up completing all of my onsite Canvas training first. Nevertheless, completing the MOOC was still a valuable exercise as there are some differences with Canvas Network and it did cover pedagogic issues which are specific to MOOCs, such as the types of assessment used and how to stimulate student engagement week on week.

I also earned a couple of badges, Canvas Network Groupie and Canvas Network Rock Star. These were issued through Badgr, another open badge platform which doesn’t link or share my badges to my Mozilla Backpack. I really want to like open badges, I love the concept, but the different platforms need to work with each other; I want to be able to display and collate all of my badges in one place, but the only way I am able to do that is by posting them all on my own website, here, under the Badge tag. The situation screams of the XKCD cartoon Standards.

Canvas On-Boarding Webinars

Participated in a series of webinars delivered over three days which covered everything we needed to know to get started with our shiny new Canvas VLE.

The webinars were divided into three topics, admin, support and fundamentals. The admin session was an introduction to the administration of Canvas, something we haven’t really seen before, while the fundamentals sessions, the bulk of the training, covered pretty much every other aspect of the system. Together these sessions have given us a good grounding to get started with the deployment of Canvas, and will be followed up with more comprehensive onsite training in a few weeks.

Our contract with Instructure includes their Tier 1 support package which means that they will be taking all of the customer support queries from our staff and students. The support webinar was an introduction to this, covering how their systems and processes work, and how we will access their call logging system to pick up anything that can’t be resolved directly. Happily they are using JIRA, a system I know well.

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.

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!

Learn Moodle MOOC 2016


So I completed the Learn Moodle MOOC, got my badges and certificate, and learned a lot more about Moodle from an instructors point of view, having previously only used it as a student. It’s big. It’s monolithic. Reminded me very much of Blackboard in that it tries to do everything, be all things to all people, and in so doing it is perhaps over complicated and not as easy to use as I would have liked. I fear the staff development that may be required if we chose Moodle as our next VLE. On the other hand, it’s used by over 50% of HEIs in the UK so there’s a very good chance that many of our staff will have used it before, and the rest have probably used Blackboard so should find it easy enough to transition.

I liked the default text box editor initially, Atto, I loved it for the ‘Accessibility Checker’ feature, but as I used it more I found that it had similar problems to other VTBE’s – doing weird random things like inserting line breaks or additional space when they’re nothing there, in either visual or HTML edit modes. I also ran into a lot of niggly browser issues using a fairly default instance of Safari. The Learn Moodle mobile app was a little dated, but functioned very well, except for Big Blue Button integration which was lacking and which many of us on the course gripped about.

Other things I liked: the prompt / ability to assign a license when you upload a file; checkboxes to show metadata like size and filetype; the repositories look like they could do the job of replacing EQUELLA for us; ability to add files to a repository by emailing them to yourself; progress tick boxes for students; the ability to allow people to rate content items; the Glossary tool with highlighting function; and the very comprehensive reporting tools will be well received.

All in all, a good course, well worth doing, and there is no question that Moodle is a vast improvement over LearningStudio and would be welcomed by our academic community if it’s chosen in our VLE review.

The next presentation of Learn Moodle will begin on the 2nd of January 2017 if you missed out this time:

D2L Conference Call

Participated in a conference call with the learning technologies team at one of the few UK institutions using D2L’s Brightspace as their VLE. The video on our call wasn’t working so we didn’t get to see the system in action which was a disappointment, but we did run through a list of pre-prepared questions to assess their experience and gauge their thoughts about the system.

This included their VLE review process which led to the adoption of Brightspace, and subsequent migration from the in-house system they were using previously. Overall, their experience with the platform and it’s evolution has been largely positive, with the biggest criticism being reserved for the somewhat dated user interface. This, however, is due for a major upgrade this coming summer and the new version, Daylight, will bring in a fully responsive design. They were happy to endorse the product and the company to us and are of the opinion that they would stay with D2L if they were facing a review themselves.

ALT Annual Survey Results 2015

ALT has published the report and data from their second annual survey which can be dowloaded here. Interesting reading as they now have comparative data from last year’s survey so you can see the trends and changes.

No signs of the monolithic VLE going anywhere just yet, and interest in the field of data and learning analytics is continuing to grow. I was a little surprised to see open badges so far down the list, but as a colleague in another department said to me a few days ago, employers don’t know what they are or how to value them, and as a consequence students just aren’t interested.

Brightspace Webinar

Following on from our webinars and demonstrations of other VLE systems of late, I arranged for the team to gather round to watch a recorded webinar of Desire2Learn’s Brightspace platform, the final major commercial VLE provider for us to investigate. It had to be a recording as their live webinars all take place during unsociable hours, though they helpful record them all. Very unhelpfully they are using Adobe Connect which took over 15 minutes to get working today, spanning three different browsers, two attempts at installing the plug-in – admin account required, thank you very much! – before finally getting it going in Chrome this time. (I could rant about the appalling state of web conferencing software until the cows come home, then rant about it some more to them.)

The webinar I picked out as possibly the most useful for us, with none of us having any prior experience with Desire2Learn or Brightspace, was an overview and demonstration of their latest major release, Autumn 2015. Our collective option is that it looks very much like a version 2 of LearningStudio, which unfortunately sets off alarm bells for us. The ‘Learning Paths’ feature which was demonstrated allows instructors to restrict access to certain content until students have completed set criteria. This looks really nice but it is something even LearningStudio can do, and actually does pretty well, and I know that Blackboard Learn has had functionality like this for quite some time. Another nice looking feature was the ability for students to check off completed items and see a progress bar along the top of their course site. This is something that has actually been requested by our academics and would go down really well, I think it’s a great feature for students, but I do have questions about how well it works in a dynamic context when academics are adding and modifying content throughout the duration of the course. It all seems to point towards a course delivery model rather than a VLE. It seems to be a very US way of working, and it’s making me think that perhaps that’s the reason why Desire2Learn have yet to achieve any significant market penetration in the UK. LearningStudio is a course delivery platform, and our attempts to use it as a VLE have not been successful. We do not want to be repeating that mistake.

What we saw of the admin part of the system looks good, as did the virtual text box editor which I think was TinyMCE. There is also the ability to drag and drop files which are them displayed onscreen, inline with other content, similar to how Microsoft Office and PDF files can be added in LearningStudio, though with highly variable results. The demonstration also showed how to set up rules and alerts to monitor student engagement on a course and send automated alerts to them, a very nice feature. Desire2Learn does have a great reputation for learning analytics by all accounts.

We didn’t see any of the quiz or assignment tools, and there was no mention of plugins or LTI support which is crucial for us to use Turnitin. The presenter repeatedly emphasised the ease of use and flexibility of the system, but all we saw of this was the ability for users to manipulate modules (blocks of content) and instructors to customise the background and appearance of individual course sites, very routine and unimpressive stuff these days. The whole thing was lacking a bit of a wow factor. Though, as one of my colleagues pointed out, the fact that it sort of looks like a version 2 of LearningStudio could actually be a good thing, making the transition easier for our academics and students.

Blackboard Roadmap 2016


Ah! Blackboard, my old friend, it’s been a while. Since we’re officially in the market for a new VLE now, the team dipped into one of Blackboard’s roadmap webinars to see what’s new.

The first thing I noted was that the webinar was delivered using the classic version of Blackboard Collaborate, not Ultra, which I later learned is because Ultra is currently limited to 100 participants. They are working on upgrading this to 250, with 1,000 users under consideration for further in the future. This was the first time I had seen Ultra in any detail and it looks so much nicer and smoother than classic Collaborate. It’s entirely browser based, with no downloads or plugins required, which is great as this is still the major stumbling block for collaborative and conferencing tools. There are also still some features of classic that haven’t made it into Ultra yet, including Breakout Groups and Polling, though they are on the roadmap. For this reason most institutions are running with both version at the moment, a possible source of confusion.

Next up was the core product, Learn, which still looks very much like it did when I left Northumbria which was on 9.1 with Service Pack 14 at that time. Blackboard showed some screenshots of how it is going to evolve as they integrate the design language from Ultra (naughty screenshot above), which is also going to include significant improvements on responsive design in many areas. Under the hood they are upgrading the JDK to version 8 and introducing support for SQL Server 2014.

In spite of the efforts to improve Learn with responsive design, they are also still supporting and developing a number of iOS and Android mobile apps. The old Blackboard Mobile Learn app looks to have been abandoned now – no updates to the iOS version since September 2014 – but they are still supporting it for existing users. This has been superseded by the new Blackboard Student app, with a Blackboard Instructor app under development for staff. As a stopgap they have released Blackboard Grader for staff which allows you to grade and provide feedback on assignments.

Finally there was discussion of the various models of provision. Though self and managed hosting are still available, they are actively encouraging people to migrate to their new SaaS and continuous release model.