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

bb_learn_ultra

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.

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.

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.

Adobe Captivate Prime Webinar

Attended a webinar demonstration of Adobe’s new LMS solution, Captivate Prime. Eventually. The webinar was delivered via Adobe Connect which required installation of a plugin on our meeting room computer, which then wouldn’t launch in Firefox. By the time we got it working through Internet Explorer (ugh) we were 5 minutes late. It’s not a good start when you’re trying to sell one product, using another of your products, which doesn’t work at all well. It’s also troubling me, writing about it with hindsight, that it actually wasn’t a demonstration, but a static presentation. That’s not an approach I approve of. If you want to sell people your cake, give them a taste!

Captivate Prime looks to be a fairly slick course delivery platform, and thus an LMS in a broad sense, but it falls a long way short of what I would expect an LMS / VLE to deliver. There are no tools for interaction for example, no chat tool, no discussion board, but some developments in this area are promised to be coming soon. There is also no LTI support, and no integration with Turnitin or student management information systems. In fairness, Adobe are not targeting education institutions at the moment, only the business market, and for that kind of thing where a traditional didactic pedagogy is appropriate, the dreaded compulsory fire safety training that organisations compel you to complete every few years for example, it looks like it would be a pretty good solution. The one part of the system which did impress me was the extensive reporting options for monitoring learners’ progress.

Speaking of course delivery platforms, another one I’ve had a look at lately is LearnDash, a comprehensive plugin for WordPress that turns it into an LMS with support for courses, quizzes, certification, forums, reporting, and many other things you would expect an LMS to provide. It reminded me a lot of FutureLearn, but actually more comprehensive, and much closer to being able to function as a fully-fledged VLE than Captivate Prime. Indeed, there is at least one UK FE institution, West Cheshire College, using it as their VLE to support around 2,000 students. You can read the case study on Jisc’s website here (PDF, 217 KB).

Academic Year Rollover

We are now in the final stages of preparatory work for the academic year rollover on the VLE, SunSpace. This has been a big job this year, and a difficult and somewhat stressful one for me. For the past three years at Sunderland, since we moved to LearningStudio, as part of the rollover we have copied content from the previous version of all module spaces to the new ones en masse, a process that was, compared to Blackboard, fast and effortless. However, it did have the problem of perpetuating bad practice and design. In an effort to improve the quality of module sites this year our Academic Board decided that instead of rolling over content the new sites for 2015/16 would be created from a template. Although they issued guidance on what that template should contain, exact details of how to implement this fell to me. Putting something together that made everyone ‘happy’ was not a joy.

The end result is, I think, a considerable improvement on the template that was used in previous years for new modules, but I would have liked to have done so much more with it. There are two distinct parts to the new template. First of all there are placeholder items for all of the items that Academic Board specified should be in the template and these contain information and guidance to help academics update them. Secondly there is a hugely expanded section for staff help, and a new section for student help that is almost as large. The design is very basic, deliberately so, as I didn’t want content that academics create to not match the set items that were pre-prepared, and realistically most will only use the basic functionality. However, there are some items in there that are designed to either help academics improve the visual appearance of their modules, such as some generic icons, and others that show-off what can be done in SunSpace such as a collapsable accordion menu and embedded content items including content from our streaming media server and external sources such as ThingLink.

One final thing we did was to turn off, by default, all of the tools which don’t work as they should for one reason or another. I was able to get consensus from the team on this one. They are all still there if people really want to use them, but we hope they won’t. In the staff help section there is a page dedicated to the various SunSpace tools where I have explained why these particular ones are turned off and advising people on what to use instead to achieve the same ends in a better way.

To support staff with the changes to the rollover process I have also arranged a training and publicity programme that includes emails, announcements, an article on the University’s blog, US Online, and a series of workshops supported by roaming sessions that will run over the next couple of weeks, to be repeated again at the start of September.

EQUELLA 6.4 Pre-Release Webinar

Attended a webinar which demonstrated new and improved features of EQUELLA 6.4 and provisional plans for the next major release, version 7. It was useful as we are a few versions behind. Some notable new things include the gallery view for items tagged as images or videos, additional options for administrators to control number of attachments allowed per item and, in the case of images, the ability to restrict the size of images (dimensions, not file size), new MIME type restrictions, and myriad improvements to the way search, sorting and filtering works.

Also demonstrated was the new ‘Push to LMS’ feature and improvements to LTI integrations making it easier to configure EQUELLA integration into Blackboard and Moodle. When we asked if these features were going to be developed for LearningStudio we were told that there were no plans for this due to lack of demand. I find it more than a touch worrying that one part of Pearson is providing better support for Pearson’s competitors than their own LMS platform. What are we to conclude about Pearson’s commitment to LearningStudio from this?

VLE Platform Survey From 2011

vle_platform_2011

A little while ago I posted a survey of VLE usage, and today I stumbled upon this survey result set from 2011:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0Au_thP0JDFvidHA4WGYwbFpUTmh4Z3RjSVQzQTViaGc&hl=en_US#gid=2

I don’t know much about the context of this, other than that it was created by Matt Lingard.

I consolidated the data from 'Pivot Table 2' and turned it into a helpful pie chart. Chamilo was a new one to me, but seems to be very popular in South America with some pockets of adoption in Belgium and France, in 2011 at least.

I’d like to see or conduct a similar survey to assess the situation now, but don’t really have any justification beyond curiosity. Maybe next time I’m involved in a VLE review.

The Future of the VLE

A colleague (thanks James) sent me this article on the The Post-LMS LMS which makes for an interesting read, but it made me curious to see if there was any hard data out there to support the speculation and I came across this analysis of relative market share of various VLEs up to 2013. Of note is the continuing rise of Moodle, Desire2Learn and the ‘Homegrown Systems’ category which includes the various MOOC platforms, and of particular interest to me was the realisation that eCollege was one of the first, but never seems to have taken off, although it is reassuring to see a little rise since Pearson’s acquisition and the quality of the platform has, according to my colleagues, noticeable improved in the past couple of years that we have been using it.