For the Bribery Act training module that I have been developing for our Legal, Governance and Business Assurance department, I was asked to find a solution whereby persons identified as being at high risk could prove that they had taken and passed the module. The module, which includes a presentation followed by a quiz, has been built in Storyline as they wanted something that could standalone and would look very slick.
We discussed the possibility of hosting the module in SunSpace and rewriting the quiz using SunSpace’s native Exam tool, but ruled this out as it adds unnecessary complexity and would result in an inferior experience for people taking the module.
We finally agreed that simply instructing the high risk individuals to save the results slide produced at the end of the quiz and emailing it back to Business Assurance would suffice. That’s fine as far as it goes, but actually introduces a lot of complexity and possibility for human error. People would have to either take a screenshot of the slide, different on every operating system, or save / print the slide as a PDF, different in every browser. I wanted a simple solution, a single button that all you had to do was click.
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.
Part 2 on the themes of strategic leadership, and culture and context started with a group discussion on the exercise to seek feedback on ourselves as leaders, for which I used the Johari adjective list as previously discussed, and then a return to values. This time we discussed the importance of expressing your values and not leaving any gap between your values and your actions, as part of being a good leader means being seen to be living the values you extol.
Something else we revisited and discussed in more detail was leadership types and the role of middle managers. On leadership types, the focus this time was on the dangers of dysfunctional leaders and how that can come about from the ‘loneliness of command’, having doubts about what to do, and an inability to discuss fears and doubts with others. On the flip side was what works – sharing leadership, distributing responsibilities and collaboration across organisational and professional boundaries.
On the value of the middle manager role we talked about how this has changed over time as the increased use of computing and automation has taken over traditional ‘managing’ style tasks such as monitoring workload, becoming instead about coaching and leading your team, having the ability to move between layers and boundaries within and even outside of your organisation, and in tying together strategic objectives with operational issues. I enjoyed this discussion as I came to realise, as others were talking about problems they have had with their teams, that I am lucky to have such a well-established and functional team who know what they are doing and always deliver very high quality customer service. Something else that came out of this discussion was some research about the value, or lack thereof, of traditional performance reviews which people find demotivating due to their backwards looking nature. What does work is putting the focus on coaching and looking forward to what is to be achieved over the next review period. This is something I want to keep in mind when the next appraisal cycle comes around.
The final part of the morning session was on the power of using influence rather than command to achieve your objectives, particularly the Cohen-Bradford Influence Model which argues for the use of reciprocity to gain influence with others, and that this is more sustainable and works better than when tasks are completed by commanding.
Our afternoon session began with an introduction to the concept of stakeholder management, a methodology designed to help ensure the success of projects by getting you to think about who the stakeholders are at the start, how to categorise and prioritise them, the influence they can have on the success of your project, and how to tailor your communications with them based on where they fall in your stakeholder analysis. The technique that was introduced to us was the power / interest grid of prioritisation, a simple chart that places stakeholders in one of four quadrants which shows whether you need just to monitor them, if they have low interest and low power, keep them informed in more detail, if they have high interest but low power, keep them satisfied if they have low interest but high power, and finally manage them closely if they have both high interest and high power.
As an exercise to put this into practice we were asked to create a stakeholder grid for a project we are currently involved with or which is on the horizon. I chose a VLE review, and the three images attached to this post show the grid I produced at different stages. The first is the shockingly poor finger painting I drew on my tablet during the session, the second is a polished version of this with one or two additions, and the third is the one I developed a few days later when I had the time to give it some more detailed thought. An additional detail shown in the second two grids is a categorisation of stakeholder using different colours; green for those who are likely to be advocates, blue for supporters, orange for possible critics and red for anyone who may have the power to be a blocker.
Finally, the concept of the action learning set was introduced, along with our first task. Action learning sets are a form of peer-to-peer learning with small groups arranging their own work between sessions. Our first task, to be completed before the next session, is to meet to discuss progress on our work-based projects for the course and to help each other work out any issues we may be having. To help we were given an introduction to some coaching models: GROW – Goals, Reality, Options (or Obstacles) and What’s Next; and OSKAR – Outcome, Scaling, Know-How and Resources, Affirm and Action, and Review. Also included was the concept of powerful questions which should, if they work, help to shift the perspective of the person being coached and have an impact on them.
Attended a briefing on the new HR / SLS procedure for managing short and long term sickness absence. The session covered the impact of absence to the university and the trends over the past few years, best practice for reporting and monitoring absence, the paperwork required by HR, triggers for referral to occupational health, new guidelines on phased return, misconduct (which is extremely rare), our responsibilities under the Disability Discrimination Act, and how to access internal and external services which are available to help people, such as counselling for stress and mental health issues. The purpose of the new procedure is to give line managers more direct responsibility and to try and remove the perception of HR as the ‘police’.
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.
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.