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Category: 2016

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 This has been superseded by the new Blackboard Student app, with a Blackboard Instructor app under development for staff.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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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OMBEA Audience Response System

Attended a webinar demonstration of OMBEA, an audience response system similar to TurningPoint which can use both old-school ‘clickers’ or a browser based response. It seems good, but it didn’t ‘wow’ me. The best part of the system is the ability to upload responses to any quiz or survey to their cloud-based system which saves the results and gives you options to perform some analysis on the data.

I’m not convinced that these traditional audience response systems offer great value for money in the era of online tools such as Socrative, mQlicker and Poll Everywhere, and the ubiquity of smartphones.

At Sunderland we have SMART Response handsets which, for me, typify the problems with them and prove the need to move to entirely software driven solutions such as Poll Everywhere. The response handsets are expensive, the batteries run out (from personal experience, I would estimate that around 5-10% of handsets are not going to work at any given session due to faults like this) and the numbers of handsets we have is a mystery as they are spread out between different departments and faculties which guard them like Gollum. Getting enough together for a significantly sized session can be a nightmare.

Last year I was asked to advice on whether or not to use our SMART Response handsets or an online tool for a conference with an expected attendance of around 200. I recommended Poll Everywhere, but a senior manager was concerned that not all attendees would have a smartphone and thus some may be excluded. So I ran a poll to get some evidence and numbers, the results of which can be found on the team’s blog here. Only 2% of students said they didn’t have a smartphone or tablet, rising to 4% of staff, which I would argue is going to exclude less people than faulty audience response handsets. With Poll Everywhere, which allows people to respond via SMS, I think it’s fair to say you are doing your absolute best to accommodate the 2-4% of non-smartphone users as well. If you really felt the need to go further, well, we are also now in an era where £50 can buy you a pretty decent tablet.

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Session 3: Strategic Leadership, and Culture and Context Part 1

This was the first of two days covering the topics of strategic leadership, and culture and context, with today’s session also having a distinctive theme of reflection running through it. This started with a pre-sessional task to complete a short template document reflecting on an issue of leadership which you had faced at the university, this was then used as a basis for discussion in a group task on the day. I chose the integration of the Turnitin LTI into our VLE, a project which had stalled at the point at which I joined the university, but picked up and drove through to completion. The template we were asked to fill in was very helpful for getting me to think about this issue as a problem of leadership, rather than something technical to be overcome.

The first photo attached to this post shows the result of our morning group exercise, to create a visual depiction of what it means to us to be a middle manager. As a group effort there are various things going on in our drawing; to the bottom left is a comfortable paradise which we are shown to be leaving on our journey to become leaders, the kind that can conquer wild dire wolves. In the middle is someone on a boat, caught in a storm and frantically bailing out water which symbolises the pressures we can be put under, and for some reason there are a couple of people having a birthday party on the beach, celebrating success I think.

One part of this session that I particularly enjoyed was learning about different management styles, the various management theories that have come and gone over the past century or so, and talking about the differences between managing and leading, and how leading can inspire a team and be used to build people up, something we’ll be returning to during the sessions on coaching later in the year. As an aside, I also learned that the origin of ‘leadership’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘laedhere’ meaning guide, and the oldest known written record of this comes from Bede’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’ written in Monkwearmouth!

In the afternoon we turned to culture, values and contexts, with topics including the intersections between personal and corporate values, how cultures are defined or formed organically in organisations and the difficulties they face if they wish to change their culture, and how cultures and values can change or be forced to change as the result of external pressures such as, in an HEI context, governmental drive for a return on investment and increasing marketisation, and the changing perceptions, values and desires of students.

The day ended with a discussion on why and how to seek feedback on yourself as a manager and leader. One of the techniques introduced to us was the Johari Window – a concept which defines four aspects, or windows, to knowing ourselves. In the first window, or room, there is that which is public and which we also know about ourselves; secondly, there is that which is public but which we don’t know about ourselves, our blind spot; thirdly there is that which is known to us but no-one else, our private space; and finally the mysterious window of things about ourselves which are not consciously known to either ourselves or anyone else. An exercise we were given to shed light into the blind spot window was a list of adjectives which you give to trusted colleagues and ask them to pick the seven words they think best describe you. I used this technique after the session, giving the list to all of my team and another half dozen people I work closely with, and then collected the responses anonymously. Those responses were then collated to produce the rather re-assuring Wordle above.

The final image for this post is a photo of a disconcertingly simple chart that was drawn during the session showing how managers spend their time, with less time ‘doing’ and more time managing or leading the higher up you go. This has resonated and stuck with me because it helps to make sense of some of the tensions I’ve had in my new role as I am no longer able to spend as much time as I would like doing content creation style work and customer support. How to resolve this tension? Time, experience and this course is helping. It’s helped to define and demonstrate the value and need for my role which is making me more comfortable leading my team and in doing the kind of work that now takes up more of my time. Another option for me, looking a little further ahead, is to cross the line into academia proper, a minor career realignment that I’ve seen many people in my position doing.

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Zapier Experimentation

Following on from our earlier demonstration, Pearson have now set-up and released the first LearningStudio to Zapier integration for us to experiment with, a new course announcement trigger. I volunteered to run through the set up instructions provided and test. While it works well enough from a technical point of view, set-up is far from straight forward and it needs a lot of work before it could be rolled out to end users.

The Zapier side of things is fine, but to get the LearningStudio integration working you need to provide a course ID and that’s going to be a problem because it is not the University’s course ID, but a long sequential number generated by the platform, like a primary key, which you have to grab from the URL of the course home page. That’s do-able with good, clear instructions, but the second problem is that you need to authenticate with a username and password which, again, is not the University’s Active Directory account, but an internal password held in LearningStudio which is normally overridden by single sign-on. So, that means that anyone who wants to use LearningStudio integrations on Zapier would need to contact the team and have us reset their internal password and give it to them (heavy admin burden), or we need to find a way to get single sign-on working within Zapier’s authentication (technical challenge which may not be possible).

There are other issues. I don’t mean to be negative, what Zapier does is very useful and has a great deal of potential, but I think it is the wrong platform when compared with its principal rival, If This Then That. But that’s a moot point because Pearson have made the choice for us on the grounds that Zapier supports more enterprise integrations. I found this great blog post comparing the two platforms. If we, in higher education rather than a corporate environment, want to get students to engage with this, IFTTT’s greater support for web and social media integrations makes it the better platform in my opinion. The blog post is from 2014 though, and Zapier has improved. Support for WordPress has been added, with Blogger and Android listed as coming soon, but it’s still missing other popular services such as Flickr and Facebook Groups, and there is no indication of iOS support being forthcoming.

Licensing is also going to be an issue with Zapier. The free account limits you to 5 Zaps and 100 events per month. I used two of my Zaps just to test course announcements being pushed to email and OneNote, for just one course site.

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Dissertation

dissertation

"Crushed by Authority: Abjection and Oppression in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, The Trial and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four"

This is my dissertation, submitted for the degree of MA English. 3 copies, around 60 pages, maybe 15,000 words or so in total.

The culmination of a year’s work of my life. A year spent reading and researching Kafka, Orwell and Kristeva. I used pretty much my entire allowance of holiday to take December off to finish writing this thing. It was a frantic and stressful month. This past week has been insane. The past 48 hours… well…

Today was the final day for me to mail it in on time and yesterday turned into an all-nighter. Been a long time since I had to pull one of those. I haven’t slept since I got up at 8:30 yesterday morning. I’m utterly done in.

And now it’s over. Submitted. And I have in front of me around two months of purgatory before I find out if it’s a pass. Part of me doesn’t care. I look at all the hard work that’s gone into this and I’m proud of it. It is a thing of beauty. In a day or two, when I feel human again, I’ll even print off another copy to go on my book shelf.

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Session 2: Knowing Yourself to Lead Others

insights-bricks

The first full teaching day on the Leading from the Middle course was delivered by an external company, Insights, who used their Discovery tool, a kind of personality test, to create a profile for each of us before the session, and then used to session to explain the theory and how it can be applied to learn more about our own personalities and preferences, and how to quickly assess others and the best way to interact with them based on their profiles. The basic model is composed of four colour energies, cool blue, earth green, sunshine yellow and fiery red, a concept that can be traced back to Hippocrates’ four humours and developed by psychologists such as Carl Jung in the twentieth century. Insights have taken this further and developed their own model, a wheel with 72 types to give a more nuanced view of your personality. These are arranged under eight broad headings which are, going counter-clockwise from blue to red, Reformer, Observer (blue), Coordinator, Supporter (green), Helper, Inspirer (yellow), Motivator and Director (red).

I have to confess to being a little sceptical about this kind of thing. I enjoy studying the underlying psychology, and if it has been presented within that framework I think I would have gotten more out of it, but when they are corporatized and packaged up into small, discrete packages that can be easily sold to organisations by external consultants, and when something seems to be unnecessarily overcomplicated, then a little warning bell goes off in my head.

Nevertheless, you don’t get anything out if you don’t engage, and so I can reveal that based on the Insights Discovery Evaluator, a series of 25 preference statements which you rate to generate your profile, I am a blue, green, red, yellow kind of person. Not a huge surprise to me, and it accords with a self-assessment I made based on a ‘colour summary’ in one of Insights’ handouts in which I ticked mostly blue, quite a few on the cusp between blue and green, and a couple of red qualities, specifically ‘Fears: Losing control’ and ‘Decisions are: Pragmatic’. On Insights’ 72 point wheel, my conscious wheel position is 54, ‘Coordinating Observer (Accommodating)’, and my less conscious wheel position is 14, ‘Coordinating Observer (Focused)’. This is a bit of an interesting position; if I had to pick where I thought I fitted I would have went for either Reformer or Coordinator, though Observer is in the middle of these two so perhaps it’s right. The ‘Preference Flow’ shows that I skew towards red and yellow which, if I understand this right, means that I am making an effort to go in this direction, against my natural inclinations, which is a good thing. Most of my cohort were in broad agreement about where they came out in the evaluation, though a few reds noted that they feel that they are being forced into this category unnaturally due to pressures at work.

It’s not all about colours, and the profile which is created delves into quite a lot of detail about your personality and style, highlighting perceived strengths, weaknesses and communication strategies. I found myself agreeing with most of this analysis, even if the language was a bit over the top at times – “her original mind, fine insight and vision” (urgh) – but some of it was wrong and I would argue that some statements which were presented as positive things are really more problematic. For example, the statement that I am a “no-nonsense person who is not often attracted by the strange, exotic or unfamiliar” is patently untrue, certainly when it comes to my work and technology where I delight in being on the cutting edge. Another statement that stood out to me, as it goes to use of instinct which came up a few times, was “may be rather slow to make decisions as she wants to gather all essential information before acting.” This may be true in an ideal situation, but in reality, when there are deadlines and pressures, or no clear indication on the correct course of action, I am a great believer in going with instinct or in choosing the more positive option, something which I find usually works out well.

One of the most useful things I will take away from the evaluation and the session is the need to adapt communication strategies to match the preferences of the other party, so that you are not, for example, unnecessarily forcing a more red person to give you too much detail before starting work. Also, using the most appropriate colour response to a situation to get the best results, so in my case that could be being more open and sociable in less formal meetings for example. There were also some comments in a suggested development section which I found useful. “Accepting that perfection can be a rather obstructive standard to constantly aspire to” is something that I am aware of and I know that I can spend too much time on something when ‘good enough’ is enough. Also, “never attending a meeting without speaking out” stood out as, thinking about it, I can see many examples where I am very quiet in meetings, and I will be more conscious of this in the future. However, as a counterpoint to that I do feel the need to note that there are so many meetings I attend which are almost completely pointless and accomplish very little.

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