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Tag: Online

InstructureCon 2021

A second online only event for CanvasCon as the pandemic rumbles on, with two key differences from last year’s event: first of all, this event combined both all of Instructure’s various wares, not just, Canvas, and all regions – the Americas, EMEA, etc. And secondly, it was, to be blunt, a bit rubbish. I’ll get more positive and have nice things to say towards the end of this post, but I’ll proceed in order.

You have to go into events of this nature expecting a deal of corporatisation and marketing nonsense, but last year Instructure managed to get product and company updates to us via the means of a news broadcast style segment which worked well and was entertaining. In contract, this year felt like whatever private equity firm(s) currently own Instructure had sucked all life and soul out of them. The morning keynote was a roundtable discussion between what was effectively eight different marketing people heavily selling technological solutionism. A particular low point was reached when trying to sell the benefits of Canvas for Elementary. Do elementary school children (primary school), really need a VLE? Really?

This was followed by a ‘partner and product hall’ for corporate sponsors of the event to sell their wares, and were divided into platinum, gold and silver tiers depending on how much money they had paid Instructure to be there (I imagine). I engaged with these out of desire to try and get the digital badges and swag that were on offer (damn you psychology!), but there was very little value in the experience. They used a platform called Bizzabo to host these, and like Remo last year, it was awful, though for different reasons. They don’t support Safari, my default browser, the Microsoft session had an animated banner in the background which was completely distracting, and a number of sessions I went into just had no-one there, or, in one case, had people complaining about how the service wasn’t working for them as hosts. I did manage to have a good discussion with folks from PebblePad as I was keen to see what it looks like now and what it can do, as I’m involved in a small project looking for an ePortfolio solution for a midwifery programme that goes beyond what we can accomplish with Mahara.

In our third contrast with last year’s CanvasCon, the afternoon keynote was from will.i.am, and it was a rambling, incoherent mess, though he came dangerously close to making some salient points at times. While LeVar Burton’s keynote last year could be criticised for being a little too generic, it was well-argued and coherent, and more importantly, it was genuinely inspiring and motivational.

The conference was saved by the afternoon partner-led sessions – educators talking about education, and how they’ve used various Instructure tools to help and support them – this is what it should have been all about. I attended five such sessions in the afternoon, three of which were a bust for different reasons, but in a concerted effort to end on a positive note and take something constructive out of the day, I’ll focus on the two that were genuinely good.

“Quick Quality Guide: 10 Take-Home Tips to Make Your Course Sexy” from Florida International University, was a presentation on their top-tips for engaging and accessible course design using a metaphor of ‘sexy / fashionable’. Lots of Universal Design for Learning on show here, including using multiple measures of assessment, and a wide variety of different course materials. They also talked about using a landing page with key information, having a learner support page, and using course structure tools, like the Syllabus tool in Canvas, to aid design and navigation.

“Why Microlearning is Real Learning” by Dr Peter Thomas of HaileyburyX was another excellent session discussing the benefits of micro learning – content chunked into 2-5 minute sessions, and 15 minutes at most, as a way to reduce extraneous cognitive load, replicate real-world environments where people often have to learn tasks very quickly, and exploit attention grabbing mechanisms like Twitter and TikTok do so successfully, but for good intent!

All of the session recordings, including the other 85 peer / partner breakout sessions I couldn’t attend, are available to watch online here. Colleagues inform me that they attended some good sessions too, on the coming improved Teams integrations with Canvas for example, so maybe I was just a little unlucky in what I chose to attend. We’re all in agreement that you can probably skip the keynotes though!

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Romantic Online Course Design

The Abbey in the Oakwood
The subject of romanticism gives me a dubious excuse to use share one of my favourite paintings, Caspar David Friedrich’s The Abbey in the Oakwood

I’m taking liberties with the title of this post, because the session as advertised was ‘The Role of the Arts and Humanities in Effective Online and Blended Learning Design’ which is admittedly more descriptive, but also rather unwieldy. This ALT CPD session was a presentation and talk by Dr Neil Hughes, University of Nottingham, and the title ‘Romantic Online Course Design’, invokes the romantic movement of the 19th century.

The talk was an argument in defence of the arts and humanities in the face of the ongoing cuts and attacks by our current government, and how pedagogies from humanities teaching can improve online and blended learning provision. There was much here on the value of multiple means of representation, one of the pillars of universal design for learning, and I particularly enjoyed the advice on how students can be encouraged to use online learning tools available in the VLE such as discussion boards by providing scaffolding, using inclusive and intimate language such as the ‘we’ and ‘us’ pronouns, and emphasising the unique attributes of these spaces as private and non-commodified spaces in an online world where everything seems to be monetised now.

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Fire Awareness Training

The Plug Dilemma
The Paradox Plug! Sure you can click on the image, but it don’t do nothin’

Fire safety awareness training time again. A useful refresher, but the content hasn’t changed, and any new learning was constructed from the training’s test unit which consisted of a mix of questions that were either patently obvious or about things that weren’t covered in the training. While that latter group could have been infuriating, I found it the most useful because they made me have to think and work out the correct answer logically. I passed, first time, 90%.

The other thing I “enjoy” about these mandatory online training courses is critiquing the quality of the content and platform. And how we would have done it better. Consider the image I’ve screen-shotted here: “Click image to make it safer”. Well, you can’t. The image isn’t interactive. In fact there is no interactivity in the training at all, despite being referenced like this in many slides; it was just a text-only presentation with next and previous buttons. 4/10.

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Online Learning and Teaching for Neurodiverse Students

My Brain has too Many Tabs Open
If I could only Command+Q my brain sometimes. Photo by That’s Her Business on Unsplash

‘Exploring the Experience of Online Learning and Teaching for Neurodiverse Students’ was an excellent session hosted by ALT East England shining a light on some of the issues with online learning and teaching which particularly affect neurodiverse students. I’m going to do this backwards and talk about the second part of the session first, because it was the first part which was more impactful for me, and that’s what I want to focus on.

The second part was a talk by members of Anglia Ruskin University’s Disability and Dyslexia Service, who discussed the challenges of supporting hardware and software platforms they weren’t necessarily familiar with, and the benefits of online working which offered opportunities for engaging with students at times which better suited them, freed from on-campus, 9-5 hours, and for rapport building by sharing intimacies of home environments. I have personally loved pet-bombing during meetings and nosing at people’s book shelves, though I want to insert a note of caution here that many students are living and studying in far from ideal environments; having a suitable home working / studying environment is a privilege that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

Returning now to the first part of the session, this was a student-led discussion on some of the issues they have faced with online learning, and their thoughts on what we can do as developers and teachers to make things better for all students.

So for example, some students with anxiety or ADHD reported that they had found the structural changes difficult and, in the case of the many changes we’ve had to lockdown restrictions, frustrating. One student commented that all of their activities – studying, eating, leisure – were all now being done in the same small environment, shared with another student, and that was causing a lot of stress. Another student found online lectures harder as they felt more conspicuous asking questions, though on the flip side they also noted that lectures tended to have more availability at other times.

There was an interesting discussion on the use of cameras during online lectures, whether students should have them on or off. This is something I’ve struggled with when teaching, as there is no feedback for me to gauge students’ engagement and comprehension. One student on the panel commented that they have been in online lectures with up to 500 students, and cameras being on was very distracting for them. Another student commented that they preferred cameras on to get some social interaction with their peers, while another who was hard of hearing said that they benefitted from cameras being on for lip-reading.

On assessment, there was general appreciation for the ‘no detriment’ policy they had last academic year when the pandemic began, but this has been removed in the current academic year in favour of universal extensions granted upon request, which one student said was far worse because it extended the time available for them in which to be anxious about their assessments. There was no love for online proctoring software, with some students saying they had difficulty with suitable space for these, and even having to buy their own webcams.

I got a lot out of listening to students like this, but I found myself wondering about how to draw conclusions. On webcams for example, on or off? That, I think, is a decision that needs to be made with each student cohort individually, and in consultation with them – and with their consent! Far easier with cohorts of 30 rather than 300 of course. One good suggestion from the student group was to build in social time to online teaching sessions, either at the beginning or end of sessions where cameras can be on so that students can see each other and say ‘hi’, and then turned off during the taught component to reduce distractions, unless specifically required.

There are institutional things that could change to help students. Proctoring software is a vile product category that is just needs to get the sea. The whole lot of them. In the Sea. There was maybe an argument to be made at the start of lockdown, but people have had over a year to redesign assessments now, so there’s no excuse. And policies around mitigating circumstances and reasonable adjustments need to be made actually reasonable, and not applied across the board as though they were written on stole tablets. There’s core values stuff here. Should we be looking for reasons to fail students, or doing everything possible to help them to pass? I know how I want to spend my time.

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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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Multiple Mini Interviewer Training Module

I made a thing. And it feels like a long time since I made a thing, and I like showing off the things I make, so I hereby present to you a thing.

This specific thing is an online Multiple Mini Interviewer training module. The University’s new Medical School is in partnership with Keele University who have supplied us with the initial range of teaching materials, including their MMI training module for staff who will be interviewing applicants.

Last year we used their training as provided due to very short timescales, but for this year I was asked to re-create it with Sunderland branding, style and contextualising. It was a fun one, as I had to work out how to create reveal style effects when people click on buttons in Storyline. Still patiently waiting on Storyline 3 here… this will likely be the first thing I convert to the new version.

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Fire Safety eLearning

HR caught up with me again, this time making me take my fire safety training. Which was fair enough, as according to my records on here I haven’t done this since 2014. Not a lot has changed, it’s all fairly common sense advice – understanding how fires start and how they can be stopped, how to prevent by keeping the work environment clean and tidy, not using socket adapters, etc., and what to do in the event of a fire – basically, raise the alarm and leave via nearest route, or use the appropriate extinguisher if safe to do so.

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ALT Accessibility Webinar

Joined the ALT South webinar on online learning materials and accessibility, in which Tharindu Liyanagunawardena, Chair of the Online Learning Research Centre​ at the University College of Estate Management, presented a case study of their experience in adapting online learning materials to improve accessibility for students. This was initially in response to students who were having difficulty with particular items within a MOOC, but the lessons learned were adapted and implemented in new templates which were subsequently shared across the institution.

There was some discussion about Blackboard Ally, a tool, or ‘revolutionary product’ according to Blackboard, which can validate the accessibility of learning materials and in many instances convert them into alternative formats such as audio, electronic Braille, and ePub. Ally is available for multiple VLEs, not just Blackboard Learn.

The webinar was also my first experience of Blackboard Collaborate Ultra. Well, it’s certainly an improvement as it no longer uses Java, unfortunately is uses Flash instead. I would hope that that is a stopgap measure in the transition to HTML5, but with Blackboard who knows. In keeping with the theme of the webinar, there was mention of a feature in Collaborate Ultra which allows an individual to enter live closed captions. That is a nice feature.

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ExamSoft Demonstration

edpac

We’re looking at options for a secure eAssessment system that would be able to replace our archaic EDPAC forms, and ExamSoft were the first company to provide a demonstration and discussion for us this morning. For those who have no idea what I’m talking about, EDPAC forms are the old pink sheets that you complete by penciling in a cross in the correct answer box (and it does have to be a pencil of the correct weight too!) Those forms are then scanned by a machine we dub the bacon slicer and then we spend hours correcting all the mistakes and typing the comments manually. Everything about it is awful, and we’ve wanted to get rid for years, but there are pockets of use where people are wedded to this system and won’t switch to using MCQs in the VLE. So it is for them that we are looking for a new solution.

ExamSoft’s big selling point is that it can be used on student’s own devices, computers or iPads, which their software can completely lock down for the duration of the exam. This means that we could still get hundreds of students in one secure location all taking the same exam at the same time, one of the arguments in favour of EDPAC. Otherwise, ExamSoft is a fairly standard MCQ system. Questions can be tagged according to the subject or taxonomy of your choice, it can export and import from most other similar systems, integrates with Canvas, etc. I was a little concerned about what seemed to be the limited number of question types – I didn’t see drop-down or calculated questions for example – and I have doubts about how successful it could be as a bring-your-own-device solution for us.

It’s one thing for students to willingly have and use their personal devices to complement their studies, but if we as an institution require them to provide their own kit in order to take exams we’re opening up issues of responsibility as well as imposing an additional financial burden. If someone is bringing in their laptop and it is broken or stolen on the way for example, is that on us? Our insurance? Then there is the issue of technical support, both with the ExamSoft software itself, and logistical considerations such as ensuring that we have sufficient power sockets for the inevitable dead batteries (we don’t) and that our wireless network is robust enough to handle hundreds of simultaneous connections in a small area (it isn’t). Providing our own equipment via something like a laptop safe could offer a solution to some of these problems.

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Appraisee Online Training Module

appraisee_training

Freshly rolled out, our HR’s new online appraisee training module that I created for them in Storyline. We’re developing a good relationship with HR and more work of this kind is on the cards. Storyline is also picking up throughout the university, though Faculties are tending to purchase their own copies for one or two interested people to do the development themselves. The next big one I should be working on after we get through the new semester busy period is for HIV awareness.

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