Watched a recording of Pearson’s PAB webinar which was held in lieu of the conference in Denver, where they demonstrated many new features which have either been made live recently or are due for release over the coming year. Highlights were the new look Threaded Discussions tool which is being rolled out piecemeal now, the new course dashboard which is going to replace Social Learning Module Home (here’s hoping for a catchier name this time round), the Android app, and the long overdue notifications centre – something which our students are clamouring for. Also tucked away, but of particular interest to me, is the new ‘External Tool’ menu item type which should make it easier for academics to deploy the new version of Turnitin we have been working on, which uses the standard LTI from Turnitin instead of the Dropbox integration which Pearson developed but that doesn’t work terribly well.
One of my little areas of expertise at Northumbria was providing analytics data and reports on Blackboard usage and it’s something which was missing here at Sunderland, for the VLE at least. Unfortunately the way Learning Studio works it has not been possible to implement Google Analytics tracking code system wide, but I’m not easily deterred! I found a way to embed the code into an announcement on the landing page so that we can at least get client side data: numbers, technology, location and mobile use which is all useful in informing development.
If the report looks a little familiar, well, that’s just because great cooks bake nice cakes no matter what kitchen they’re in!
The team’s web pages on the University’s website were pretty out of date when I started, though I actually first noticed a few weeks beforehand when doing some research on the department and found some broken links. After I started I soon learned that the pages were actually much worse, with many having gone without revision for over two years. It turns out that it was my predecessor who primarily took responsibility for these, so I was happy to adopt the responsibility myself.
I thought it would be a nice, quick and easy job. I was mistaken. Once I delved into them I found that there were many more pages than I realised, going as deep as four nested levels in some places. I have flattened this structure right out, reducing it to two levels at most and standardising the template, entirely removed around half of the pages – most of which related to the 2012 project to transition the VLE from WebCT to Learning Studio – re-wrote many other pages, tidying things up and making the language more professional and affirmative, and of course fixed all broken links and email addresses.
Finally I created a banner in the style of other departments within SLS and added a sidebar on the right for a Twitter widget and a feedback button, replacing the old link on the left which was out of place as it links to another system.
One pithy definition of madness is that it is the act of repeating the same action over and over and expecting different results. So it was that back in April I was asked to create a Twitter account for the team which, having done so, was promptly ignored and left to languish. To this day all six glorious tweets from that account were made by your humble author. Today, or rather spread over the past couple of days as a ‘bitty’ job, I have resurrected the old ‘LDS’* Twitter account and renamed, revamped and brought it back into use.
So, am I mad? My intention behind this is to have a more informal avenue of communication between the team and our customers, but to be a success it will require active engagement and relevant content. UoS_WaLTS has one thing going for it that NorthumbriaTEL didn’t: me, enthusiastic and not going anywhere anytime soon this time.
Another little job I’ve been doing for similar reasons of engagement is improving the announcements page on SunSpace, which was just dull black on white text, trying to make it look nice and keeping the content current so that it isn’t reduced to just annoying wallpaper which people scroll over to get to their courses, to which end I have also embedded a widget for our Twitter feed into the announcements for all users section.
* Learning Development Services, the old name for my team before merging with Web Services.
Well, I have now worked for the University of Sunderland for a month so I think it is a good time to step back a moment and reflect on how I’m finding it and what I think of all the systems and services which are new, or not so new to me.
The most striking difference for me is the culture which is open and receptive to ideas, thoughts and opinions. I think I, and the team are very fortunate to be based in the same building as the service director as she is very approachable about all issues, trivial and major, and that is something which I haven’t experienced for a long time. Everyone at the University seems to be happy. Even the unhappy people are still pretty happy, their unhappiness compartmentalised, and this is reflected in, if I recall from my induction correctly, a 96% satisfaction rate in the latest staff survey. There is a great deal of trust and respect, everyone seems to have their heads down doing good work, and I find that there is a genuine desire to keep students at the heart of everything we do, even if it means creating extra work for ourselves. The two campuses in Sunderland are both excellent, very smart and professional. The London campus also looks good and I hope to get the chance to pop down there at some point.
Pearson Learning Studio (SunSpace)
The big one. The VLE. All over IT you see a dichotomy, two big players doing similar things or selling similar products but coming from different cultures – Linux and Windows, Apple and Microsoft, iOS and Android – around which are clustered a number of others either trying to break in, offering a niche or which are fallen stars. The VLE market is no different, and so we have Blackboard and Moodle. When Sunderland reviewed their VLE provider a couple of years ago they, however, took the brave decision to go with something different and chose Pearson Learning Studio, formerly eCollege and branded internally as SunSpace.
Learning Studio is provided as a software-as-a-service model; at Northumbria we self-hosted Blackboard so it is a completely new experience for me. The plus side to that is that we are largely unaffected by the performance problems which plagued Blackboard and which on occasion drove me to the edge of sanity, but of course Learning Studio has it’s own issues. The core functionality is pretty good, but there are a lot of features which I am used to and which I think are reasonably standard that are simply missing. Customisation is also very limited because every institution which uses Learning Studio is using the same Learning Studio, so for example we once asked for a default setting to be changed which was done, but the next day it had been reverted because other universities didn’t want it that way and I guess they had more clout. Using it as an administrator or academic can be a little clunky at times due to some questionable UI design, but for the most part, and for students, it is not bad at all. Overall, and from my perspective, it’s a definite improvement.
Another Pearson product which we purchased alongside Learning Studio, Equella is a content repository which links into Learning Studio fairly seamlessly. I like Equella too for the most part, it is a very polished nice looking application and unlike Learning Studio it is self-hosted which gives us complete control of the application and content. That, of course, has its drawbacks too and our installation can be frustratingly slow at times which makes me wonder if it needs some optimisation or improved hardware. Something for my to-do list.
Also like Learning Studio there are some usability issues. After you have finished contributing a new item the ‘Save’ button is the wrong place, in the top-right, instead of being on the bottom-right where the next button has been on the previous screens. When contributing an item there are three screens of information to be completed, but the second two screens – Classification and Format – would seem to be redundant as the information you can enter there doesn’t seem to be used anywhere. There is no advanced search functionality, for example, which would allow someone to search for only files tagged as a specific type or format. What is worse is that none of the fields on these two screens are required, but you cannot skip them and just press ‘Save’ after entering information on the first screen, you are forced to skip through them. I still have to work through the Equella training materials in detail though, so perhaps these are mysteries that will resolve themselves.
It doesn’t seem to be being used a lot at the present time which is a shame, as it makes it very easy to add complex items into Learning Studio such as the package files produced by Storyline. It is also great for any materials which you want on multiple locations, help guides to go into Learning Studio and on the website for example, as you can then just update the material in Equella and the content in the module and on the website is updated to the latest version automatically. Like the Content Collection system in Blackboard, but much more versatile as it is not tied into the VLE alone.
JIRA and Confluence
These systems were nice surprises. JIRA is a project management and service desk application which I am loving, and Confluence is a wiki solution which we are using to host our intranet and a team knowledge base. Both products are from Atlassian – https://www.atlassian.com/ – and integrate seamlessly with each other.
There are lots of other applications we are using which I have had demonstrations off but not yet had the chance to evaluate in any great detail. Mahara is our ePortfolio solution, Helix Media Library is being used to run our streaming media server which is an application I have known about by good reputation for some time, and our public website is powered by TERMINALFOUR. There are a few old faces here too, SITS is chugging along in the background powering all the student data, Turnitin is available as an assignment option and even good old Blackboard Collaborate is available within SunSpace under the pseudonym of ClassLive.