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TEL Sonya Posts

Flexible Working

Summary of flexible working optionsA summary of Sunderland’s flexible working schemes

Attending some HR training today on the University’s new Flex Select work scheme, but which also covered flexible working in general. Flex Select is a new scheme that has been launched to – and everyone’s being very honest about this – save money in these hard Covid times, and is set to run for the next 12 months. The scheme is designed to enable staff to request more flexible working, such as reducing their hours, without having to go through the old, more formal flexible working policy which was drafted with flexible working legislation in mind. Given the workload of myself and the team, I doubt there will be anyone who can work fewer hours! But in pre-Covid times I did have one of my team move onto compressed hours, 37 over 4, which had to be managed carefully within the team.

Nevertheless, it’s good to be up to speed with these things, and I got a lot from the session. It’s good that the University is trying to change its culture a little. Of course practically the whole university was forced into a remote working when the lockdown began in March, and now with some people going back on a hybrid model, managers are being asked to have a ‘default yes’ position to requests under Flex Select, and to consider all requests with an open mind, considering other options where appropriate. I did not know, for example, that buying extra annual leave is often a better option than reducing hours because it doesn’t affect your pension and no contract changes are required.

Apart from Flex Select, I learned a lot more about the differences between our other various options, including buying annual leave, job sharing, career breaks, and phased retirement (popular with academics). I also learned, to the surprise of no-one, that flexible working is vastly more popular with women and people on lower salary bands. (Grumble, destroy the patriarchy.)

It’ll be interesting to see how many of these changes are kept, and how much of a cultural shift will be permanent when we get on top of the pandemic; a very big question a lot of people will be asking.

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Accessibility Shorts: Colour Contrast

This website with 'blurry vision' enabled in ChromeScreen capture of this blog in ‘Blurred Vision’ mode

Our accessibility webinar this week was really useful. They demonstrated the Color Contrast Checker I mentioned last time in more detail and showed how it can be used across applications and web content, and then explained a bit about the science behind contrasting colours and how the W3C derived the contrast ratios which we use.

Most strikingly impressive though was a demonstration of Chrome’s ‘Emulate Visual Deficiencies’ tool which is somewhat buried in their Developer Tools. I had to DuckDuckGo for a guide on how to find it, but you can just click this link. In the screenshot I’ve posted here you can see what my website looks like with ‘Blurred vision’ emulated, and the tool can also emulate various types of colour blindness.

Don’t forget that Chrome and Google are still evil and don’t care about your privacy though. Firefox also has a developer tool for accessibility called the Accessibility Inspector, it’s just not as striking and impressive as Chrome’s emulator. Hopefully they’ll steal the idea.

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Accessibility Shorts: Office Documents

Photo of a Microsoft Office BuildingMods are asleep, post actual Microsoft Offices. Photo by Matthew Manuel on Unsplash

The latest accessibility webinar from Little Forest on Microsoft Office documents was pretty useful, especially with regards to PowerPoint and Excel, and I picked up many tips.

Good practice commonality included filling in all of the properties for author, title, etc., adding alt text for images (of course), and using the Check Accessibility report which, to be fair, though I knew it existed, I haven’t used it a great deal, tucked away in the Review tab of the ribbon as it is. On tables we were advised to keep them as simple as possible, avoiding use of merging or splitting cells.

With regards to PowerPoint we were recommended to always use slides with a Title section and to manually check the reading order as it doesn’t always get this right automatically. A third party tool was demonstrated called Color Contrast Checker from The Paciello Group which does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s free for Windows and Mac OS, though I couldn’t tell if it was open source or not, and works with any application.

Finally on Excel, we were advised to always use the Table tool, rather than relying on the assumption that everyone can see the structure of Excel’s default layout. Stick to one table per worksheet, avoid blank rows and cells, and provide headings and names for each table and worksheet. A colleague asked a question about charts and they advised that these are hard to make accessible, so it’s best to provide a description explaining the data trends to complement any charts you use.

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New Student Induction Video and Getting Started

Student Induction to Canvas, by Me

I made this. I don’t get many opportunities for pure video creation / editing because we have a specialist in the team, so this was fun and a nice change of pace for me. I broke it up and did separate recordings for each area which I stitched together in iMovie, then uploaded to Panopto and added in the closed captions and bookmarks.

Related, I’ve also spent this week working on a new version of the Getting Started module which we have on Canvas and that all new students are automatically attached to. Updated content, some new pages on new systems we have and ways of working that have changed as a result of the pandemic, and new icons to match the look and feel of our new standard module template and other student induction materials we’ve been putting together.

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SharePoint Training

Preview of the new CELT site on SharePointScreenshot of the new internal CELT site on SharePoint

Had some training from our Web Team today on SharePoint which we’re now using to replace what previously passed for our intranet, My Sunderland, which was made with Atlassian’s Confluence. It wasn’t a bad system, just dated, and now that we’re moved the campus over to Office 365 everyone has been migrating over to SharePoint. SharePoint itself looks pretty straightforward to edit and update, and I’ll have the chance to do that over the next few weeks as I update the pages and content that I’m responsible for. I liked the style guide that they’re asking people to follow, and that they’re going to enforce review dates for content. Not a problem we’ve particularly had ourselves, but a lot of content in My Sunderland could be very out of date.

Attached screenshot is of the new CELT site as it currently appears, with content migrated straight from My Sunderland – those header icons will change, and underneath that there are sections for News and Events, which will be a much better way for us to share our staff development programme.

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COVID-19 Return to Campus Training

Optimism ClosedMood. Photo by Nick Bolton on Unsplash

Ooh, exciting times! I say exciting, but I think the correct emotion is apprehension. This was a short, self-paced eLearning package which the University has put together now that many staff will be returning to the office. The content was fine, largely about the measures they are taking to ensure social distancing is possible, especially in shared working environments such as labs. What troubled me about it was what was lacking, specifically the non-existence of anything pertaining to getting to and from campus.

This, like much of the material that has been circulating internally around the return to campus, has an unstated premise that people drive to work. I have seen many comms about parking arrangements, for example, not a single thing about public transport. There’s an argument to be made that the University isn’t responsible for its employees outside of the campus, its immediate area of control, but it would be a brave argument to make! I’ve fed this back to the Powers That Be, but nothing has come of it.

And since I’m veering wildly off-topic here I’m going to stick with it… this type of online learning which we are occasionally asked to complete always bothers me because I spend half my time spotting errors of formatting and bad design, and thinking about how we could have put this together better! But alas, we have our work cut out for us with academic content and support. Which despite all of this we’ll be continuing to deliver from home for the foreseeable future, barring special events.

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Accessibility Shorts: PDFs

An Actual AcrobatPhoto of an actual acrobat by Ameer Basheer on Unsplash

With the new legal requirements for public bodies to make their websites accessible coming into effect this month, we’ve been working with an external partner, Little Forest, on making enhancements to our website and VLE. They’ve started running a series of short webinars for us, each covering specific topics. This one, not the first but the first I’ve been able to attend, was on how to make PDFs more accessible. Specifically, by running documents through the ‘Make Accessible’ Action Wizard in Adobe Acrobat Pro DC (urgh, what a name…).

It was useful, it’s not a tool I knew about before today, but our academics don’t create PDFs in Acrobat, they use the ‘Save as PDF’ option in Word / PowerPoint. I asked the question about that, and was told that if the original Office document was itself accessible, then the PDF export would be as well, and that’s going to be the topic of a future webinar.

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Job Opportunities

Sign saying 'Now Hiring'Photo by Free To Use Sounds on Unsplash

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 emergency, my service are recruiting for an entire new team of instructional designers. 11 posts in all, five instructional designers, five graduate interns for content development, and one co-ordinator to run the new team. The jobs are fixed term for 6 months, and the closing date for applications is the May 7th. (Working remotely from home of course…)

For full details and to apply, please follow this link to our vacancies home page:
https://jobs.sunderland.ac.uk/vacancies.aspx?cat=927

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Honorlock Demonstration

Screenshot showing Honorlock features in Canvas
Screenshot showing Honorlock features in Canvas

Due to the ongoing apocalypse, we’ve been looking at software solutions for managing online proctoring, or invigilation as we should call it in the UK. Honorlock gave a live demo of their solution in Canvas last week, but I wasn’t able to attend so I caught the recording this morning. I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t do the job, but it left me with a lot of questions and concerns.

To begin with, all of the examples and demonstrations provided were based on the Canvas Quiz tool. They explicitly stated in the webinar that it only works with the classic Quiz tool, not Quizzes 2.0, but there was no mention of whether or not it could work with the Assignments tool. As our primary context for looking at this is around an essay assessment, that could be an issue for us. We could use the File Upload question type in a Quiz, but that doesn’t have Turnitin integration which we use for almost all written submissions.

But I was more concerned with some of the features of the service, many of which struck me as, charitably, overkill, but the word I really want to use is creepy. The two most egregious of these, to me, were the compulsion to install a browser plug-in which only works in Chrome, a privacy disaster of a browser which I would argue is unethical to compel students to use. The other was their ‘Search and Destroy’ feature which, if enabled, will allow the proctors at Honorlock to search the web for the questions in your exam and then take them down with DMCA notices. Furthermore, they will then create what they called ‘bait’ sites with your questions to entrap students.

Some of their other features just left me wondering how well they would actually work. Such as requiring students to take a 360 recording of their room, which is fine if you’re on a laptop, but I would struggle with my hefty 27 inch iMac… They also claim to be able to detect the use of mobile devices, but that wasn’t in the demo and I don’t know how well that works. Finally, recording students’ screens, which in the latest versions of MacOS at least, requires a security override and restarting the software in question.

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It’s the End of the World as We Know It

The World is Temporarily Closed - sign on a cinema called the World
Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

I came home today with an iMac and half of my office in the back of a car. Officially the University is talking about being shut down till after Easter, but I can’t see us being back for a couple of months. COVID-19 has hit home, and not just at work, I now have a friend who’s brother has it and is in a bad way. We live in scary times.

But, this is a work blog, so, work… I’m fortunate to have as secure a job as one can find these days, and educational institutions are arguably one of the best placed sectors of society able to work from a distance. We’ve been preparing for this possibility for the past couple of weeks, running daily workshops on the available tools to teach via online and distance learning, that means mostly Panopto and BigBlueButton in our case. I feel like my job has changed quite considerably. There’s a lot of new work we’re having to do very suddenly to get our systems and staff ready, and a lot of the things I had scheduled have had to be cancelled or indefinitely delayed. I’m also having to prepare for the possibility of finishing out the current round of teaching on the PG Cert online.

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