Mobile, Open Learning: What are Blackboard users doing?

Durham Conference Blog post Part 2

Doors of the Calman Learning Centre
Calman Learning Centre (conference venue)

As I said in the last post, a great deal of the annual Durham Blackboard Conference is taken up, not unreasonably, by presentations from users. These are particularly useful since they give you an idea of what other people are doing across the sector. While I couldn’t attend them all, I’ll try and pick out a few interesting themes from those I did attend, and provide links to any presentations from those I couldn’t.

I also said in my last post that I would write up the debate about minimum standards for provision on a VLE. I’m sorry to keep you waiting, but  on reflection I’ll save that for the next post, since this one is already overlong, and I think it’s a topic that merits its own post.

The University in your pocket: Opening access to learning and support. Julie Usher Northampton University

While all the presentations were interesting, if I had to pick a “best in show”, I’d say Julie Usher’s effort slightly shaded it. She did a lot to lessen my scepticism about Blackboard’s mobile offerings, while giving a fairly balanced assessment about how to cope with the accessibility challenges of mobile learning.  Before I go on, here are her slides.

It seems that a common objection to mobile provision, is that not everyone has a mobile device, or at least, not all devices are capable of delivering the content in an acceptable format. Julie and her colleagues wondered how true this was, and carried out a survey, which revealed that over 80% of the students surveyed owned a laptop and a mobile phone, and almost 80% of them either owned, or planned to own a laptop. Of course, those figures only cover one university, which is in a relatively affluent part of the country, but they do suggest that it might be possible to overcome the difficulties presented by not owning a device. Northampton’s solution was to buy devices, and lend them to those students who didn’t own one. While one or two students were apparently a little surprised at having to give the devices back, they haven’t lost any yet!

None of this though addresses the question of how to support those students who are find using mobile devices physically difficult. Several strategies were deployed to alleviate this, including making sure that wireless access was available everywhere on campus, making the mobile app available for as many platforms as possible, providing mobile wi-fi units which staff can borrow for field trips, and trying to ensure that staff provide information in multiple formats.

We were also given an overview of what students were looking at. The most popular category was  “Course Information”, although I’m not sure whether this constituted administrative information, or things like lecture notes and handouts. Interestingly the least popular category was “photos”. You can see the full information on slide 6 of Julie’s presentation on the link above.

We were then given an overview of some of the challenges of putting the mobile app together. The biggest problem, unsurprisingly, was putting the data together in one place. The Northampton mobile app gives students access to all sorts of data, including the library catalogue, Blackboard, accommodation information, course information and so on. As is not uncommon, all this is owned by different departments, so they had to go through a long process of pushing at different doors to get the data together, and readable by the mobile application.

It proved worth it in the end though. The application was downloaded a thousand times in the first week, 3,000 times in the first month, and they’re now up to 6,575 downloads. It’s also a big hit with students. In fact, one student claimed to be so excited by it that they were “actually having a physical reaction”. Thankfully, Julie did not provide any more details!

Of course there are still challenges. Not everyone is as skilled, or as interested in mobile use as we sometimes assume, and not every platform is accommodating. (Apparently Blackberries are particularly difficult to support.). But, if you want to go down this road, the best advice is to be very clear about your needs (and which of those needs you can reasonably expect to be able to meet), get together a good project team with a wide range of experience, find a good provider, and above all don’t let things slip.


I should mention that while we’re not as far down the road as Northampton, we have been developing our own mobile version of Blackboard which you can see at

Beyond Good and Evil  Dr Nick Pearce: Durham University

Given our current involvement in the Higher Education Academy’s Open Education Resources project I thought this would provide quite an interesting background. Nick started by comparing the new “open” with the old “open” making the point that academic work traditionally aspired to be open. (There’s no point doing research if no-one reads it.) but that it is sometimes useful, or even essential, to use closed content in teaching material.

He went on to look at two cases, comparing the old printed reading packs that graduates of a certain age (such as me) will remember, with the mashup feature that has just been released in Blackboard 9 . While librarians put a lot of effort into securing copyright for the packs, they had relatively little capacity for content, and also had a limited reach in that they were confined to a single institution, or even course.. If you create lecture slides on PowerPoint you do have the option to make them available to a much wider public through services like SlideShare.  If you do that, you have to watch that you don’t transfer the ownership to the sharing service (Yes, you do need to read all those terms and conditions!), and also that you haven’t inadvertently shared something you don’t have permission to share.

The point is that “closed” and “open” do not equate to “evil” and “good” respectively. Sometimes it is worth keeping ownership of your work, and sometimes it is worth paying for “closed” resources. As is usual in education, the reality is contested and messy. Just because a resource is “open” (and exactly what that means is debatable) it isn’t necessarily better.

“These pages are now open for comment”  – Guy Pursey, Reading University

Reading university are making use of Blackboard’s E-portfolio tool, which is rather unusual in the sector.  When Guy asked how many people were using e-portfolios, I estimated that about half the people in the room raised their hands. When he asked how many were using Blackboard’s e-portfolio tool, the number went down to two! We don’t use it here, first because we believe that there are better tools available. We have provided access to Mahara, and we also think that there is potential to develop a WordPress theme that would support e-Portfolios  Secondly, there is the perennial e-portfolio issue of what do you do with it after a student has left.

Reading however seem to be taking a slightly different tack. The Law School use e-Portfolios for assessment, so they have developed two “widgets” (software apps). One to create Blackboard e-portfolios that have assessment pages built in, and one to provide tutors with the facility to comment on any part of the e-portfolio. (apparently, in the default version, this isn’t available). They are planning to develop a third widget which will allow students to export their portfolio in an open and standards compliant format. I suspect this will prove tricky as while some progress has been made with e-portfolio standards, I don’t think there’s enough e-portfolio use across the sector yet, to make them fully robust. Still, it appears to be a project worth keeping an eye on!


Get a high from LTI – Simon Booth (University of Stirling), Susi Peacock (Queen Margaret University) and Stephen Vickers (Edinburgh University)

The next session I attended was not so much a presentation as an interactive session, giving us a chance to play with the outputs of the CeLTIc project. This is concerned with Learning Technology Interoperability, in other words, getting other tools, like Elgg, Rogō and WebPA to work inside Blackboard. As very few of these are used at Lincoln (well, none, actually) there isn’t a great deal to draw out of this session for us, for the moment. Perhaps the most interesting feature was that the LTI tool itself actually creates an account in the remote service, which removes a significant barrier to broadening the use of technologies beyond Blackboard.  This is a project that seems to be well worth keeping an eye on, as I think this may well be the way that VLE development will go.

Open Education videos – Nick Pearce, and Elaine Tan, Durham University

A lot of people are now using open educational resources in the classroom. Nick and Elaine are looking into whether students who are now being asked to pay considerably more for their education are likely to resent the delivery of content which they can largely access for free. Possibly, but their findings so far, suggest that it is not so much the technology that is important to students, but the context in which it is presented. Students consume technology extensively anyway, as Julie Usher’s survey referred to above indicated. In this case, students were quite happy to send them videos that they (the students) had found, with a view to discussing contrasting viewpoints in lectures and seminars.

That’s surely the point. It’s not so much what technology you use, (Nick and Elaine illustrated their talk with this rather quaint image from 1899  – I’m linking, since it doesn’t appear to be licensed for reproduction). For me, the idea of feeding the content of books directly into students brains by some technological device is slightly absurd. Our eyes and (occasionally in education) ears are mostly sound enough for this purpose. The point, as this presentation showed is to debate, and discuss, the knowledge so that we can own it. It’s not really enough to acquire it. That said, OERs are quite useful for the acquisition part!

Increasing the use of Screencasts  – Andrew Raistrick, University of Huddersfield

Screencasts are recordings of interactions that take place on a computer screen. They’re often used to illustrate how to perform a particular operation in a piece of software. For example, we’ve made some use of screencasts to illustrate how to copy Blackboard sites in preparation for a new academic year.

Mostly though screencasts are pretty simple. Andrew thought that by using more video editing techniques, such as zooming, transitioning and animations, he could promote student enhancement, supplant cognitive processes and reinforce the content. He was also quite fortunate in that Huddersfield’s chancellor Patrick Stewart is both a respected Shakespearean actor, and keen to get involved in the University’s activities. As such, he was happy to provide some voice material to introduce the videos, which, from those we saw, did give them a certain gravitas.

The real point of the study though was to see if this had any effect on student learning, and the findings suggested that it did, in so far as students seemed to have better understanding of the subject and were more willing to experiment with the software that they were using. They also found that teachers welcomed the conciseness that the videos offered, and the fact that students were getting comparable teaching.

Those benefits, Andrew admitted, did have to be measured against a much increased production effort, but he felt that it was worth doing so, as the enhanced screencasts had worked across multiple disciplines.

 Links to some of the presentations  I didn’t get to

Ralph Holland: iTunesU Digital Distribution

Melanie Barrand & Adam Tuncay: Getting the message out there

John Thompson & Judith Jurowska: Opening Doors to Academic Integrity

Sue Beckingham: The role of social media in higher education in an age of openness and publicness

Peter Rayment:  Why our Help documentation might as well be in Dutch

Suzi Peacock: Opening doors with LTI