Silhouetted peace signs. Photo by Ian Schneider on Unsplash
Today I attended an Advance HE webinar on gender based violence, not directly related to my core work, but something which everyone should have some education on. This was a panel discussion led by colleagues in Scotland, where the approach to education and prevention of GBV in HE and FE institutions is tackled more holistically than in England, where it tends only to be seen through a criminal justice lens.
The session began with a definition of gender based violence from James Lang, as “any form of violence used to establish, enforce or perpetuate gender inequalities and keep in place the gendered order. Gender based violence is a policing mechanism.” A good definition which is inclusive of the violence which can be directed towards the LGBT+ community who face particular forms of violence such as outing and being denied access to medical treatment. There was a good comment about the LGBT+ community being targets of violence because we are “doing gender wrong”.
The discussion moved on to talk about the Equally Safe in Higher Education initiative which is being piloted at the University of Strathclyde. This is a toolkit of resources designed for HE and FE institutions to help approach and address the issue, including things such as how to educate staff and students, and how to design inclusive and supportive policies. The website is well worth a good read, and contains numerous helpline and links out to other organisations that can help.
CanvasCon had to go online this year due to the pandemic, but the (very small) silver lining, is that it meant I got to attend. Some things worked very well in the new format, others not so much, but the content of the sessions was very high. I attended all of the keynote addresses from both Instructure and the guest speakers, a handful of the partner sessions, and a number of HE admin and Faculty led sessions which were presented by colleagues at institutions using Canvas.
The day began with a keynote and welcome address from Instructure which was the standard corporate fare of how well they are doing and how great Canvas is, but one slide really stood out for me (first screenshot above), on how they have managed capacity during the pivot to online learning. To paraphrase, all usage records have been broken, but not Canvas. Can confirm: we’ve had no significant outages or degradation of service at Sunderland. Interestingly they saw this coming in February when the impact of the pandemic was starting to be felt in Asia, and took pre-emptive action before lockdowns were implemented in the US and Europe.
‘Education makes you dangerous’ is a quote I’ll remember from LeVar Burton, the first guest keynote speaker who talked about his passion for education, storytelling, and his work with Reading Rainbow. Another nugget which struck a chord was the ‘right to define your own destiny’. It was a good speech, invigorating, a reminder of the purpose of education and why I have chosen this career.
Instructure’s Chief Product Officer, Mitch Benson, gave a presentation on their focus on innovation, and how they are going to continue to respond and adapt to the changing needs institutions have as a result of the pandemic, such as integrating more options for online tutoring and pastoral care. This segment was delivered as a newscast, and I have to say they absolutely nailed it. This could have been really cringy, but the mix of content and professionalism of the delivery was spot on. Bonus points for the panda co-host.
I then attended a couple of user-led sessions in the HE Admin conference strand. First, on how instructors are really using Canvas by Bob Edmison at Virginia Tech, who developed a ‘depth of use’ metric of data points indicating how, and how well, staff are using the VLE. I say VLE, because they started this work prior to migrating to Canvas from Sakai, and the metric was designed to be platform agnostic. It was a really interesting talk which will feed into the VLE usage standards project which is ongoing at Sunderland. The second session was Jim Federico at Microsoft who talked about how they are working with Instructure to build deeper integrations with Microsoft products, particularly Teams. It was a little hush-hush, I’m not sure how much I can say about this, but what they showed looked really good, and I’m looking forward to seeing these features rolled out over the coming year. Jim win’s my Pun of the Conference award for including a photo in his presentation of ‘On-Lawn Learning’.
I also jumped into some of the partner sessions which replaced the usual conference stalls where partner companies can showcase their wares. One good one I looked at was Qwickly which allows tutors to make batch changes to things like announcements and adjusting assignment settings. The partner sessions were delivered on a platform called Remo which attempts to replicate the boardroom style aesthetic of conferences. You can see this in one of my screenshots which I’ve posted above. I get what they are trying to do with this, but for me it absolutely did not work. I found it artificial and annoying. Rooms which had a presentation had an unnecessarily small thumbnail for it at the top where a stage would be, and the table metaphor was awful. To interact with anyone, you had to join a table and then you could only chat with people at that table. But it’s so artificial, and then it didn’t even work within its own context, as you can see in the screenshot, despite the ‘tables’ having six ‘chairs’, I couldn’t join a table with an open spot because it was actually limited to 5 for some reason. I have a feeling a lot of people shared my experience, as there was little interaction or evidence of any significant use in any of the rooms I entered, and I quickly lost interest in trying to engage with them.
That was it for me on the live day of the conference, as I wasn’t able to engage with any sessions running in the afternoon as, despite my boss instructing us to treat this like we were going away to a conference and keep our calendars free for it, people still put meetings in for me that I couldn’t decline, so that was something else that didn’t work. Not a failing of the conference itself, but of culture. I note it because it is something to be aware of when planning or attending online conferences. The flip side success is that Instructure recorded all of the presentations, so I was able to watch a few more things that I had missed out on in the following days.
The big one was the second guest keynote from Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy. This took the form of an interview which was a nice break, another example of doing something different from the usual format which worked well. Sal talked about how he founded and grew Khan Academy, from teaching maths skills to his immediate family, to 110 million users today. I enjoyed seeing Sal’s humanity, and humility; the extent of his sci-fi book collection which you could see behind him, and the need for a human touch was a theme that came up throughout the interview, and a key factor he attributes to the success of the Academy.
I also watched a few more end-user led sessions, including from Kona Jones on ‘Designing for Kindness’ in which the theme was something that goes that little bit beyond accessibility, to making content which induces students to learn by being helpful, friendly, and well-structured. It wasn’t so much the ‘tips and tricks’ that I got from this session, as I was pleased to note we’re pretty much doing everything that Kona recommended, but the emphasis on why. Checking the quality of your captions, for example, is not a chore we should do for the sake of legislative compliance, but an act of kindness towards students who may need to use them. That did resonate, and will inform how I deliver accessibility staff development in future. Finally, I watched the ‘Owning Your Data’ session from a couple of the techies at Instructure which talked about changes and improvements to the Canvas Data Portal and related planned changes to simplify the database structure.
Finally, finally, my coveted Bookcase of the Conference Award! If there is one big positive that has come of pandemic home working, it’s getting to nose at people’s bookcases. And judge them. Both LeVar Burton and Sal Khan gave their keynotes in front of some impressive collections, but they both lose points for having haphazard stacks. LeVar’s collection appears the more elegant and classy, very important considerations, but ruined by a TV right in the middle of them! For shame. Therefore, the award must go to Sal Khan and his impressive sci-fi. Well done Sal, and well done Instructure for managing to deliver an engaging and useful online conference which had some genuinely innovative ideas and experiments.
A 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.
Screen 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.
Mods 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.
Screenshot 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.
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.
Photo 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.
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.
Photo: 10 things game designers know (and educators should!)
Attended the much delayed LTA workshop on Gamification today, from Kathy Wright of Advance HE. It was a very useful day which combined the pedagogy and theory behind gamification and game-based learning with practical activities that we could adapt to our own teaching. The thought that has stayed with me was the point that education is already a game, just usually a bad one, as students have limited agency, it’s poorly balanced, and often not fun. I discovered a nice new tool, Twine, for non-linear storytelling, and there are a couple of piece of research I’m going to be following up, Reid’s ‘Psychology of the Near Miss’ being one.