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Contextual Statement

I have been employed with Northumbria University’s LTech team since March 2009 as a Customer Support Administrator, providing technical support to all staff and student users of our eLearning systems, principally Blackboard and PebblePad. This is usually in the form of email and telephone conversations co-ordinated in our call logging system, SupportWorks, but occasionally via one-to-one meetings or small training sessions. I am also involved with the administration and maintenance of these systems and represent the LTech team in intradepartmental meetings, participate in support communities such as NELE (North East Learning Environments) and virtual communities such as the various Blackboard administration and support mailing lists.

Prior to joining LTech I worked on Northumbria University’s IT Helpline for just over a year which afforded me the opportunity to become familiar with all of the university’s IT systems including Blackboard and SITS, the student records system which is heavily integrated with Blackboard, as well as the university’s structure, people, culture and methods of working. The Helpline is the first point of contact for all IT queries, so part of my role then was to diagnose and resolve basic problems which people had accessing Blackboard, such as using an incompatible web browser or having an error on their student record, and referring more complex problems onto the second line teams such as LTech.

My career in public sector IT started at Blackpool Council where I worked my way up from administrative assistance to ICT Officer, a technician’s role, in February 2006. As an administrative assistant for the Learning, Culture and Community Learning department part of my role involved giving information, advice and guidance to prospective adult learners on available courses. I was very fortunate in this position to be given a chance to show my IT skills; I was given a project to lead implementing new performance monitoring software, this coupled with the Diploma in Computing from the Open University which I was working on in my own time is what got me the ICT Officer position. The diploma, completed in 2006, covered object orientated and SQL programming and relational database design, skills which I am still using in LTech to assist our software developers. I have also studied HTML and CSS which I have used to create several personal and small community websites in addition to many web pages for many purposes at both the council and university.

Having gradually become more specialised through the course of my career, I believe that now is an excellent time to gain CMALT accreditation in order to further my career in the field of learning technology. I have very much enjoyed my time in the LTech team, and hope that the team will grow in the future opening up a more advanced position for me, with greater responsibility for administration and / or design, or else that such a position will become available elsewhere. Attaining CMALT accreditation would be of enormous benefit as it has rapidly become a highly respected industry standard and affords me the opportunity to consider my career and personal development both to date and in the near to medium term future.


Core Areas of Skills, Knowledge and Experience

1. Operational Issues

a) An Understanding of the Constraints and Benefits of Different Technology

In November 2011 I was approached by an academic who wished to use Blackboard to somehow assess a group piece of work which, in the past, had been in the form of a group presentation but this was no longer suitable due to an increasingly large cohort of students. Her idea was for them to create a website which could be hosted within Blackboard, one for each group. I called her to discuss her proposal and found that the students were not being taught web design as part of their course and because our implementation of Blackboard (version 8) has no WYSIWYG website creation tools, I explained that a true website would likely be too much of a challenge for the students involved. Instead, I suggested to her the use of a blog or wiki as these could be used to create a similar end product and because we have many suitable tools available, namely a hosted WordPress installation, LX Objects Blog and Wiki tools integrated with Blackboard and PebblePad, an ePortfolio tool which the university adopted in 2010 in answer to the poor portfolio tool in Blackboard.

I arranged a meeting between myself, the academic and another member of our team who is more of an expert on PebblePad than I, to demonstrate the different tools and to discuss their pros and cons to see if any of them would meet her needs. The advantage of PebblePad was due to its nature and philosophy; it is built from the perspective and benefit of individual users rather than imposing a structure and use from above, making it more personal and private. One problem is that though it is possible to build a blog in PebblePad it is not as intuitive as dedicated blogging tools, but the big disadvantage is that the academic and student cohort in question had little experience with PebblePad so there would have been a steep learning curve. WordPress was better, especially so as we have installed the BuddyPress extension for added versatility, but was ruled out for the same reason as PebblePad – the need to learn a new system.

Finally I showed her the Blog and Wiki tools in Blackboard and explained their benefits and limitations, specifically that they were operationally very similar to other tools in Blackboard which both she and the students had used extensively, but that some of their functionality was limited when compared to dedicated blog and wiki tools. I also showed her how to use the Group Management tool in conjunction with these to create groups, assign students to them and create group specific blogs and wikis. She chose to use the Wiki tool for this semester, but is going to investigate PebblePad further for next year.

Figure 1a is a screenshot of the SupportWorks call history in relation to this query. Note than nbzc8 is my username, XNORLEARN is the name of the LTech team and ‘eLearning Portal’ is the university’s branding for Blackboard.


b) Technical Knowledge and Ability in the Use of Learning Technology

In 2006 I completed a Diploma in Computing from the Open University which comprised of three modules – M206 and MT262 for object orientated programming using SmallTalk and C++ respectively, and M358 which taught relational database theory and SQL. Figure 1bi is a scanned copy of my diploma. I have continued to develop my programming skills by studying XHTML, CSS and Javascript, and keep abreast with accessibility issues from resources such as W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). For our upgrade to Blackboard 8 I converted and updated a number of support documents from MS Word into fully valid XHTML and CSS valid web pages. These can be viewed by following these links:

Known Issues
Minimum Specification
Legal Issues

Upon joining the LTech team I received extensive training from colleagues on the technical aspects of Blackboard and plugins such as Turnitin, but to learn how the systems were actually being used by our academic community to deliver teaching and learning I attended all available in-house training courses (see Figure 1bii, from my HR record). This allowed me to see what aspects of the systems were being taught, what questions academics were asking and what they would like the systems to be able to do in order to provide the best possible learning experience for students. I was then able to concentrate my own development in those areas.

For example, a number of academics were confused by the myriad assessment tools we have available (see Figure 1biii) so I made sure that I knew about all of them both technically and in terms of the circumstances in which one method of assessment is preferable above the others. To learn about the Test tool I created my own test which implemented all of the different question types (see Figure 1biv) and can now recommend when the use of certain questions would be particularly valuable in enhancing the learning experience, such as using Hot Spot questions in an anatomy quiz. As another example, until recently I have recommended Blackboard’s Digital Dropbox when academics were looking for a simple file submission tool as it is quick, simply, reliable and its use requires very little training on the students’ part. However, now that we are preparing to upgrade to Blackboard 9.1 and the Digital Dropbox has been removed I am starting to warn academics that the tool is deprecated and am investigating alternatives for them, such as using the Assignments tool. Since this involves additional steps to set up, which is a barrier to adoption, I have had to find ways of selling the tool to academics such as highlighting beneficial features like the fact that it creates a column in Grade Centre where marks and feedback can be conveniently posted.

In addition to using Blackboard LTech were piloting PebblePad at the time I joined and rolled out the system live for the start of academic year 2010/11. To learn PebblePad I have received training from Pebble Learning, worked closely with one of our academic advisors to understand the pedagogic benefits of the system over Blackboard, and most importantly have delved into the system myself to learn and understand it so that I know when to recommend it to people and what benefits it offers. Blackboard, for example, I find is very good for teacher-centric and passive reception type of learning, but I have been able to recommend PebblePad to people looking for a more learner-centred system which puts personal ownership and learning as guided discovery using reflection as its core.

I continue to attend academic training events and relevant meetings to understand how our learning technologies are being used ‘in the real world’ as it were, for example, the recent Support Northumbria Conference on April 11th (as per Figure 1bii) included a preview session of Blackboard 9.1 which we are currently piloting at which I was able to meet some of our academic and support staff to get their opinions and feedback on the new system.


c) Supporting the Deployment of Learning Technologies

My primary responsibility in LTech is to manage the helpdesk, a centralised system (SupportWorks) through which all technical and customer problems are reported to us. I would estimate that this accounts for around 70% of my work. Figure 1ci shows the results of a report ran in SupportWorks for all calls closed by LTech during the week October 10th to 16th 2011. Note that I have cropped the results of other teams from this report and blanked the names of my colleagues. As you can see, I closed 66 of the 71 calls the team dealt with this week, having spent just over 34 hours working on them. This is higher than usual as it was fairly early into semester one when support calls peak. I then did a search for all of the calls closed during this period and scanned them for customer feedback which you can see in Table 1c.

My work on the helpdesk directly informs both my own development and improvements in the service we provide. For example, I am usually the first to know of any serious faults with Blackboard or PebblePad and can take immediate action to rectify them while keeping my managers, colleagues and the IT Helpline informed. As a specific example, after the university deployed Internet Explorer 8 I started to get a lot of calls about external links not working. I discovered that this was due to academics not setting them to open in a new window, and IE8 not allowing mixed security content on the same page (by default). I raised this issue at two intradepartmental meetings I attend and, as a result, the need to set links to open externally is now explicitly mentioned in help guides, training sessions and, for a time, as an announcement on the Blackboard Home tab which I put up. Figure 1cii is a screenshot of the minutes of the Operational Management Group from October 9th where I raised this issue. (Note that these minutes were presented for the following meeting, hence the September 13th date.)

I am also in a position to identify training needs; if I start to see a lot of calls about a given issue I raise this with my managers informally or at team meetings. This is a process which goes both ways, and when I start to notice calls coming in about something which I am unfamiliar with I can investigate and train myself, as I had to do when we piloted the Assignment Handler building block in Blackboard.

As a final example, in an attempt to address a lot of the common questions I was receiving from students about Blackboard I created a new ‘Quick Start’ guide covering all the basic functionality to coincide with the rollout version 8 in 2010. This guide is publicly accessible here (PDF).


2. Teaching, Learning and / or Assessment Processes

a) An Understanding of Teaching, Learning and / or Assessment Processes

As discussed in section 1c, my principle role is to look after our helpdesk, the bulk of which are queries from our academics and students asking for assistance in how to do something such as creating or submitting an assignment. In order to give them the best possible service I need to be able to understand the various ways I could teach them and then choose the most appropriate. In most cases this will be a short email or phone call giving them instructions, but for more complex matters I find that it is often best to send a pre-prepared help guide which they can study at leisure and refer back to. We have a large number of detailed help guides, but for more niche areas I have created many of my own procedure notes which I can give out. I have published some of these for your reference here:

Blackboard – Add RSS Feed (docx, 12 KB)
Self Enrol to a Blackboard Organisation (docx, 12 KB)
Transfer Items in the Content Collection (docx, 13 KB)
PebblePad Export / Import (docx, 11 KB)
PebblePad – Un-Publish and Un-Share an Asset (docx, 13 KB)
WebDAV in Windows 7 (docx, 11 KB)

A key goal for me is to reduce the number of help requests we receive and I try to do this by teaching people how to do what it is they need themselves, rather than just doing it myself, even though that would often be quicker. Figure 2ai is from a monthly report I run for our management team in which you can see the number of calls falling year on year from August to October, our busiest time. In the table you can also see a comparison between the number of Incidents I handle (technical faults) versus Services (requests for help).

Figure 2aii shows a call log from an academic who wanted me to advise on what assessment tools can be used for tutors to grade anonymously, an increasing important consideration as it has been shown to improve equality and fairness. I advised accordingly, from memory and from some experimentation with the tools available at my disposal, before recommending Turnitin, pointing out a potential problem, and then directing the customer to a help guide with additional information.

Figure 2aiii shows the call log from a PHD student, Ryan, who asked for my help in setting up a collaborative learning technology of some kind in order to interact with a group of around 20 students, individually and collectively, in order to provide data for his PHD which was in methods of guiding their learning in the field of sports development. I had a number of emails, phone calls and meetings with Ryan and some of my colleagues in LTech in order to establish his requirements, gain an understanding of the teaching, learning and assessment processes he wished to implement, and then researched and recommended several options which met his requirements to some extent. I dismissed the collaborative tools in Blackboard as unsuitable because the students he was working with were external and would have had to learn the system from scratch, a steep learning curve and a barrier to use, instead recommending WordPress because it was a very close match with his requirements. For example, he was concerned that the students would feel like they couldn’t be completely honest if their entries were visible to the other students, but with WordPress we could give each student a private blog which only they and Ryan could access. WordPress also allowed Ryan to have a communal blog where he could leave feedback, comments and suggestions applicable to all of the students. Finally, the LTech team have our own WordPress installation so could guarantee reliability, security and backups. (See Figure 2aiv).

Another reason for my recommendation of WordPress is because I knew that there was a large number of plugins available to expand on its basic functionality which would allow me to fine tune this particular installation to Ryan’s needs. Following continued research I discovered the BuddyPress plugin which gave his site a more ‘Facebook-like feel’ (Figure 2av). Finally, recognising the need to keep the students engaged with the technology so that they would use it more, and to make it as easy for them to update as possible, I investigated the possibility of integrating further Web 2.0 technologies which the students would already be familiar with, finding, installing and configuring a Twitter plugin (Figure 2avi).


b) An Understanding of Your Target Learners

Section 2 has been difficult for me to write because, in one sense, I have no traditional learners, but in actuality my learners are the entire staff and student body, amounting to almost 35,000 people, when they need my help. For the most part my learners come to me when they encounter an issue they need help with via our call logging system, email or telephone. However they come to me, I log everything on the call logging system, I assign a broad call category to every call and I collect statistics on these once a month for our operational management team meeting (please see Figure 2ai for a sample from this report), and two or three times a year for our internal Blackboard User Group, as well as reporting any trends I notice.

When I joined the team it was my idea to gather further feedback from our learners by attaching a small survey to the resolution email template which is send out when a call is closed. You can access this here, but please don’t complete it as it is live. Until recently this form was done on SurveyMonkey, but when we chose not to renew our license for budgetary reasons I created a team Google Docs account and re-created it as a spreadsheet and form.

I am keenly aware that not everyone contacts me when they have problems so I am always looking for new ways of reaching my learners. Recently, for example, I added Google Analytics tracking code to the two home pages for our staff and student help guides and will be reporting on this information at the next management group meeting. The exit page data should tell me which guides are being used most frequently, allowing me to highlight these areas for targeting at training events.

I also represent the LTech team at our Blackboard User Group which is made up of representatives from all schools and includes staff and students, this is a forum for them to raise issues which are perhaps not reaching me via other channels. Figure 2bi shows the minutes of the User Group meeting held on May 12th 2011, with an action point concerning PDFs opening inside of Blackboard. (I have blanked the names of other people at the meeting for confidentiality.) This is an issue closely related to the point about external links which I have discussed in Section 1c. The two points were mentioned together in a ‘Welcome to the New Semester’ announcement which I placed on Blackboard at the start of semester one, 2011/12. I used custom roles to show different versions of the announcement to staff and students, Figure 2bii shows both announcements.


3. The Wider Context

a) Understanding and Engaging With Legislation, Policies and Standards

Legislative responsibilities are communicated to all staff via the university’s corporate communications department but I make it my own responsibility to keep up to date on issues as these communiques often cover only the basics. To do this I have bookmarked and regularly check areas of the university’s website where legislative information is published, for example:

IT Strategy
Legal Issues

I put this knowledge into daily practice when, for example, I am creating new HTML modules on Blackboard; I make sure to always use alt tags for images and I don’t specify a specific font or point size so that the appearance of our Blackboard is consistent and user’s own defaults and custom style sheets, if present, take effect. In the past, on Blackboard 7.3, many different people were responsible for different tabs and we had a situation where people were using all sorts of different fonts, sizes, styles and colours, many of which would have been difficult to read for people with sight problems, a violation of our responsibility to them under the terms of the Disability and Equality Act 2010. So when we upgraded to Blackboard 8 I re-coded all custom HTML modules to make them as consistent and standards compliant as possible. I chose not to specify a given font or point size for the aforementioned reasons, and because we cannot do this for Blackboard’s own modules, therefore if I had done so I may have inadvertently made two modules next to each other look very different on some people’s browsers. Document 3a (docx, 1.2 MB) shows a series of screenshots taken of the old look Blackboard showing font and style inconsistencies across the tabs which were available pre-login. You can see what the equivalent tabs look like in Blackboard 8 here (no username or password required).

As you will see, I have made the font and style consistent across all modules and tabs, removed all duplicate or redundant information, added alt tag information to all images and unified the many different help resources into a single ‘Help’ module which is available on the Welcome, More Help and Home tabs (Home available after logging in).

Because we have the occasional academic who will inadvertently add copyrighted content to their course sites, I need to keep up to date with copyright and intellectual property legislation so that I can keep an eye out for any possible violations in my day to day work. Also, when I am asked for assistance in adding material to a course I can make sure that they have obtained copyright clearance before taking any action. Figure 3a is a screenshot of a call I dealt with recently where I was asked to rip and edit a CD then add it to a course site as a podcast. You can see in Update 008 where I have advised the academic what they need to do with regards to copyright.

An understanding of technical standards is also an area where I need to keep up to date. The fast pace of browser development is something which has long surpassed official support from Blackboard for version 8 so I am constantly testing the latest versions of popular browsers so that I can find and try to fix any new problems. For example, I recently discovered that Hot Spot questions no longer work in Firefox 8 and later, a browser only officially supported up to version 3.6. Standalone web pages I have created, such as the Known Issues and Minimum Specifications documents discussed in Section 1b, I have made XHTML and CSS compliant for maximum browser compatibility and best practice.


4. Communication

a) Working With Others

My role within LTech is to provide the second line of customer support for all of our eLearning systems, meaning that I am constantly working with the staff on our first line of support, the IT Helpline, our third line which is the database and systems administrators in LTech, colleagues in other departments, notably administrators in the schools who are responsible for student records, and occasionally with our suppliers directly, e.g. Blackboard, Inc., Learning Objects, Inc., iParadigms, LLC. and Pebble Learning Ltd. A typical example would be an academic who wishes to have two or more course sites merged in Blackboard. They will contact the IT Helpline who will take the details, I will check all of the course sites for any potential problems before asking one of our database administrators to set up the merge. After the next snapshot I will check to make sure the merge has completed as requested and then inform the academic.

Figure 4ai shows the SupportWorks call diary for a more complicated problem, a student was not being imported to two course sites on Blackboard. The IT Helpline did some initial investigation but found no obvious faults (updates 001-006), I found something which I thought may be causing the problem (updates 008-012) and asked the customer, an administrator in one of the schools, to correct what I had found on the student records system, but this did not fix the issue. I then had to refer the problem onto both of our database administrators in turn (Ray, VCRG1 and Mark, ITMR1, updates 013-023) and together we were able to find and correct a fault with her record on our database. This was fixed by Mark (update 023) and after the next snapshot I was able to confirm that the problem was resolved and informed the customer and the student (updates 025-034).

I also represent the LTech team at several meetings, the Operational Management Group which is the decision making body for all issues relating to the day-to-day running of our eLearning systems, the Blackboard User Group, as discussed in Section 2b, and the Library and IT Services Information Group which discusses any IT issues across the two services.

I have already discussed the issues we had with external links and PDF documents where I was a liaison between the User Group and OMG (see Sections 1c and 2b). As a second example, at the Information Group on September 28th 2011 I was asked if there was any way for IT Service announcements to be posted on the Blackboard Home tab. I was wary about doing this as previously Blackboard had become unwieldy due to various different modules for different services, so suggested that this be limited to the two most recent items and a ‘more’ button. At the meeting I suggested a new module, but when I was developing this I chose instead to incorporate it into the existing ‘Help’ module because I felt that it was an appropriate existing location and it saved a little more space also. I mocked up the changes, took it to OMG for approval and then made it live when given. Figures 4aii and 4aiii respectively show the action points from each set of minutes, and you can see what my new ‘Help’ module looks like as it is available on our Blackboard log on page.


Specialist Option: VLE Administration and Maintenance

When I joined the LTech team in 2009 I was taught the administration and maintenance of Blackboard and PebblePad informally by my colleagues. This includes upgrading Blackboard user accounts, creating dummy accounts, development course sites, organisations, etc., and logging this on an extensive spreadsheet which I am responsible for. With regards to PebblePad, the administration is much less but I am responsible for creating internal accounts and checking the logs and complaint reports, a feature some people use for reporting problems with the system. I also taught myself Blackboard by creating a dummy course site which I used as a testing ground and bits of the work I did then still exist, for example, the test I created to learn the different question types and which I discussed in Section 1b. I also signed up for all of the training courses which we ran so that I could learn the systems from the point of view of our administrators and academics who are using them to deliver learning, you can see this in my training record, Figure 1bii.

I continue to learn by participating in conferences and user groups such as NELE (North East Learning Environments) and in virtual communities, for example, I subscribe to several mailing lists relating to Blackboard where I have been able to learn about problems and bugs in more recent versions than we are running, forewarning me about issues I may face in the future. These communities also give me the chance to contribute and share my knowledge where I can. For example, I have assisted a contemporary in Florida who was unable to get Blackboard’s Virtual Classroom tool working on Macs (see Figure 5i), and I have shared my philosophy quiz (referred to above) with someone who was looking for a pre-prepared bank of questions (see Figure 5ii).

In addition to responding to reported problems and requests, part of my role in maintaining our systems means that I take responsibility for proactively testing on a constant basis. For the reference and benefit of all of our learners I keep a log of all problems which I and the team are unable to resolve in the ‘Known Issues’ web page which I discussed in Section 1b.

When an academic accidentally discovered a security hole in one of our custom modules which allowed students to add themselves onto courses with the ‘Tutor’ role, I had to track this down so that our developers could fix the problem (see Figure 5iii). I understand what the academic was trying to do – get the student onto the course site they needed as quickly as possible, and the frustrations caused by following the correct procedure, but because I can see and understand all of the processes and back office systems I was aware of the serious ramifications which could have occurred if this problem hadn’t been discovered, most crucially that because this bypassed the student records system, the student would have received no credit for the course.

Following this incident I scanned Blackboard looking for similar problems and found that another custom module which allows staff to check who is attached to which course sites worked if you had the direct URL, even if you weren’t logged in to Blackboard. This too was fixed immediately by our developers.


Future Plans

In addition to, hopefully, gaining CMALT accreditation, 2012 will also see my graduation from the Open University with a honours degree in Humanities with Philosophy if I pass my final course and exam, with a guaranteed upper second. I will then have to make a decision on pursuing a master’s degree in Political Philosophy which would start in January 2013 for three years. At present I am inclined towards this course of action as, in the current political and financial climate, and the massive changes to university funding, I fear that this option may not be available to me in the future if I delay.

Within LTech, 2012 is also a big year as we will be rolling out Blackboard 9.1 with Service Pack 8 during the summer recess and are about to start a massive program of testing, development and training which I will be heavily involved with. Also on the team’s agenda is a potential review into our VLE provision, with some quarters wishing to move away from Blackboard. As an Open University student I have the unique perspective of being a heavy Moodle user in my spare time in addition to working with Blackboard constantly during the day, so can see a lot of the benefits and problems which afflict these different VLEs.

I am very happy in LTech, and see myself staying in the team for the foreseeable future, however, if we do move to a new VLE, especially Moodle, there could be an opportunity for me to advance to a higher position as the team may need to expand. To put myself in the best position for this I am studying HTML5, CSS3, Javascript and PHP informally using resources such as w3schools and hopefully, if funding is available, I will be able to attain certification in some of these areas.


Confirmation and Date

“I declare that, to the best of my knowledge, the statements and evidence included in this submission accurately describe my practice and are drawn from my own work, with the input and support of others duly and clearly recognised.”

Signed: Sonya McChristie
Date: 04/07/2012