Blackboard Midlands User Group report. 24th June, 2010

De Montfort University Leicester
A machine to make you think

I find these meetings quite useful, partly because they’re a good way of keeping up to date with what colleagues are doing across the region (and to tell others what we’re doing), partly because there are often demonstrations of useful new technologies, and partly because Blackboard themselves come in and tell us what they’re up to. So I took myself off to De Montfort University, Leicester where I was delighted to find this dot matrix screen urging worthy thoughts on passers by. Actually I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t turned down the wrong road.  There may be a lesson in that.

Image credit

Anyway. Among the highlights of the meeting were a demonstration of Blackboard 9.1 which De Montfort, Northhampton and Dudley College are going for. Most others there seemed to share our view that the new interface was too big a change, for their staff. That said it is a bullet we are going to have to bite soon enough, and there is some quite attractive new functionality in 9.1. It supports anonymous marking which is something that there is a lot of local interest in at Lincoln. I do have some reservations about their interpretation of “anonymous”. You can certainly hide the students’ names in the gradebook, but as you can turn this feature on and off at will, it doesn’t seem to me to be all that anonymous. Compared with the same feature in the Turnitin Gradebook, where if you turn anonymity off , you can’t turn it back on. (And it records the user identification of the user who has turned it off, who has to enter a reason for turning it off before it actually turns it off. (I hope you’re paying attention. There’ll be a test later).  There was also a nice link between the gradebook and the wiki feature. Now you can go straight to a user’s contributions to a wiki from the gradebook entry, whereas before you had to use the wiki’s page history to see who had contributed what.  Finally we were shown what Blackboard call a “mashup”. Data purists will point out that it isn’t a mashup at all, but is simply a way of integrating  material on Flickr, You Tube, and other social networking sites (and acknowledging it’s provenance) into a Blackboard item.  It’s actually quite a slick feature, and technically doesn’t breach anyone’s copyright, although I still think it would be wiser to restrict your use of such materials to those with a creative commons license.

An interesting feature was that the demonstration was streamed live from Dudley College using Elluminate which seemed to work quite well, and may be a useful way of delivering lectures and other teaching interventions remotely.

The other big product that was demonstrated was Echo 360,  a lecture capture system. Essentially this works by the lecturer walking into the room, switching it on, and it records everything that happens. (audio, video, and even co-ordinates any slides that might be displayed) As it records a “thumbnail” is created every minute, (it looks a bit like the “scene” menu on a DVD) so it is easy for students to navigate through the lecture to any particular scence they are interested in. As you might have expected there was some scepticism that such a tool would deter students from attending, but in fact those who had attended claimed that they found the reverse was true.  If anything, recorded lectures had a slightly higher attendance than non-recorded lectures, possibly because if it was thought worth recording, that sent the message that it was worth attending.  And as one colleague pointed out, the lecturer always has the option of saying…

“And the questions on the exam will be….” (Presses pause). (Presses play). “…Oh, you’re watching the recording are you? Oh dear!”

Although that is perhaps a little cynical.  The point is that the recordings can be integrated into a Blackboard course thus providing a service for students who are genuinely unable to attend, or need to revise the finer points of a lecture.  Neither there is much of an issue in terms of data storage as Echo host all the data, although the university or the authors of the data retain full intellectual property rights in it.

Of course I couldn’t get the sales people to admit how much it would cost. All they would say  was that they had a wide range of licensing models. We’d also have to consider which rooms we’d want to equip with the service, but an increasing number of universities are offering this type of facility, so if we want to remain competitive, it is perhaps something we should investigate further.

Tenth Blackboard Users Conference Durham

Well, another Durham Blackboard users conference comes to an end, and as always there were a few thought provoking ideas. This years’ theme was “AntiSocial” or the way in which those of us responsible for promoting the use of virtual learning environments might make more use of some of the social networking software that is becoming more popular. I’m not going to indulge in a long multi-part blog post because a) it makes for a very dull post, and b) one of the most interesting points made in the conference was that students may still be working in a web 1.0 mentality. That is to say they want to take stuff that other people put up for them, rather than sharing their own stuff of the internet.  So in that spirit, here’s what I intend to do with this post.

 Firstly if you want to get a detailed account of who said what at the conference go to and search for #durbbu10. Many of those present (including your correspondent) posted tweets during each of the sessions, and there are some quite interesting points hidden in there although you do lose the narrative thread that a blog post might provide. (But you wouldn’t have read it, would you?)  Secondly and more conventionally I thought I’d pick out a few highlights and offer some thoughts on them. In the social spirit though, if you want to argue, (or agree), feel free to comment on the post.  

Highlight no. 1 came in Lindsay Jordan’s keynote in which she demonstrated how she had taught teenagers about the menstrual cycle through the medium of interpretative dance.  (You really had to be there!). The point for me was that as Lindsay pointed out, she could have just uploaded a set of diagrams on to a VLE, but this way she got the students involved. Of course dance isn’t a medium that readily transfers to Blackboard, but the point was the students could all play a part in the learning experience because they all had a small part in the dance. There are ways for this to be done in technological media. But as I’ve already implied they may not want that.

 Highlight no. 2 was from Katie Piatt of Brighton University. She started her session by distributing a collection of random Lego parts to each audience member.  However some members received a pre-packed bag of parts. Then we were all told to build a car. Of course the pre-packed bags contained four wheels, a base, some axles and bricks for a body. The rest of us came up with wonderfully creative solutions from the resources we had. Her argument was that if you give students pre-packed learning materials, then they’ll just build with what they’ve been given. If you give them a different selection of materials they’ll come up with something more creative using their own prior learning. Although there is still an element of selection because in fact the random selection I described wasn’t actually random. Everybody got at least two wheels for example, which I suspect was planned. Still the point was well made, that if you don’t do anything different with your students you won’t get anything different from them.  Reflecting on this later, it did occur to me though that if you wanted students to “make cars” then the pre-pack approach is probably the right one. Very few of the more imaginative creations would actually have moved. But that’s a very instrumental approach, and unlikely ever to lead to innovation.

 The implied question is should we stop giving students ‘pre-packed’ learning material? I don’t know the answer to that but I suspect that things like the NSS and in FE OFSTED inspections strongly militate against that kind of risk taking. This was borne out by my third and last highlight was a quotation from a student. “Why would I want to risk my degree by sharing what I know with other students?” Perhaps that should be a lowlight. It’s depressing enough that students believe that universities have a quota of first class honours degrees and that by helping one another they’ll spoil their own chances. But it also implies a possibility that we could give some form of credit for evidence of public sharing. I’m not sure that this could be in the form of academic credit because it doesn’t really speak to the students’ ability as a social worker, mathematician, classicist or whatever, and that’s what we’re certifying after all.  Clearly this needs a bit more thought.

 That’s probably enough for this topic. I’ll just take this opportunity to thank the team at Durham for their organisation of an excellent meeting, and look forward to returning next year.  And, do please add comments if you want to agree or disagree with me, or remind me of a highlight I’ve forgotten.

Blackboard Midlands User Group meet. Part 3: Community reports

Or, what everyone else is doing with Blackboard.  As I said in part 1 of this post, the biggest issue for many of our local Bb users is whether or not to upgrade to version 9. Northampton had done so, albeit on hosted servers, rather than attempting to install it locally, whereas Leicester had tried to and abandoned the project because of what seemed to be a relatively trivial issue about font recognition. Of course it turned out not to be trivial!

There was a bit of a debate about how long sites should be “kept” for, largely because a delegate asked whether you could transfer archived sites across versions. A delegate from De Montfort said that they had tested it and yes you could, although the question wasn’t so much about learning materials, where it seemed that many institutions had found that colleagues were quite happy to copy sites from one year to the next. The issue was one of student submissions, and how long they should be kept for. Only one institution follows our model of keeping the last two years, and deep-archiving older sites (I think it was DMU again – it’s hard to keep track of who says what in a discussion that takes place in a lecture theatre). The question at issue was the maintenance of electronic “quality boxes”. Yes, of course you could download selections of submissions and keep them separately but some delegates felt that Blackboard should be able to offer some sort of feature like this. Afterwards it occurred to me that you could probably manage this by using the content store if you really wanted to.

A few institutions were working with web 2.0 and other add ons. Staffordshire were putting out tenders for proposals by teaching staff for innovative use of web 2.0 tools (A similar model to our FED projects, I guess, and they’re supporting that with a technology enhanced learning conference each June. (Think we could squeeze yet another conference in?) In a similar vein the University of Worcester were doing a lot of work with tools like, their learning object repository, Wimba and the Adobe e-learning suite, although they didn’t demonstrate any of this. They’re also creating a virtual streaming server to enable staff to upload audio and video, again, much as we plan to do.  This kind of third party approach to modifying Blackboard was also in evidence in the presentation from University College Birmingham where they’re making use of Articulate to increase the level of student interactivity.

The last category of activity was around the way Blackboard is managed, and there were some interesting comparisons, although unfortunately not enough time to discuss them. Aston for example manage their entire support with a team of three, two full time staff and one placement student who changes each year, and Staffordshire are talking about “farming their course management” out to the faculties. If that means having “super users” in each faculty, I can see that might be a productive approach, but as ever there wasn’t time to follow this up in any detail. On a more technical note, I was interested to see Derby’s approach which used multiple log in pages for different types of student. It wasn’t easy to get a view of what this looked like for students, because Sandra, their sys admin, showed us her page which contained tabs for each of them. I’m assuming that they’re using branding to manage this.

So, all in all a useful, if rushed, day. I do think we need to do a bit more investigation around the third party tools that others are using and see if we can get any benefit from them ourselves. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to follow up some of the contacts at the national user group meeting in Durham next January.

Blackboard Midlands User Group meet. Part 2: The assessment handler.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Blackboard have developed a plug in to handle assessments based on institutional procedures for managing assessments, as opposed to a system that handles assessments the way Blackboard thinks they should be handled. It was designed in conjunction with Sheffield Hallam University, partly in response to the NSS findings about student dissatisfaction with the rate at which they received feedback on their assessments. The tool is an “add on” to versions 7, 8 and 9 so we could use it, were we prepared to pay for it.

The procedure for creating the assessment is much the same as it is now, except that there is another option in the drop down list on the action bar – in the demo version this was called SHU assessment, although if we were to use it we could call it what we liked. “Lincoln Assessment would seem favourite!  (This was in version 8 which we use – they didn’t show it in the new interface for version 9). Once  you have clicked the go button, you add the title, brief and attach any files much as you do now, but there are some additional features. You can describe the assignment as a “group” or an “individual” assignment, although I didn’t see that this gave any additional functionality beyond a description (Could be that they didn’t demo it). You also have the opportunity to designate a physical hand in point, so the tool can be used to record and publicise assignments, but you don’t have to submit them on-line. Quite why you couldn’t just write that in the description field wasn’t made clear. The really interesting bit was in a feature called the “file rename pattern”. Essentially this allows you to change the way the grade centre records the submissions. Most obviously it facilitates anonymous marking because you are asked if you want to alter the students name to say, an enrolment number. Of course anonymity here does depend rather on the institutional definition of anonymity, and there is an option to generate a random string of numbers. I asked if you could turn anonymity on and off at will, which would be a rather obvious weakness, but I have to say that my question was deflected (OK, they didn’t answer) and I didn’t get chance to pursue it as there were many other questions.  That’s an important issue though. The Turnitin Grademark feature offers a similar level of anonymity, but if an instructor attempts to turn it off, it does allow it, but they have to enter a reason why they’re turning it off, and they can’t then turn it back on again.

An additional feature, although one I didn’t quite see the point of was that you could set limits to the number of files that a student uploaded to any assessment, and you could also set a maximum disk size for assessments. I suppose that it would be useful if you’re trying to teach students to manage file sized properly (Which would be no bad thing, come to think of it), but I couldn’t help thinking you’d be making a bit of a rod for your own back if you have plenty of space.

Completing (i.e. submitting) the assignment is much as it is now, except that students now get a digital receipt for their submission via e-mail, which provoked a debate among delegates about how worthwhile this is. My own view is that it’s fine, provided students have the option to turn it off if they don’t want it.  There are a few extra tools for grading the assignment now. An instructor has the option to select files and download them into a zip file which also includes a spreadsheet with all the students’s details. Once the work has been marked the instructor can zip them back up, along with the spreadsheet, (into which marks have been entered) and re-upload them into the gradebook.  This sounds pretty much like what our computing department have been asking for for a while, so it may be worth investigating this tool further. (I wouldn’t put too much trust in a demonstration).

Blackboard Midlands User Group meet. Part 1:Version 9 or not?

Every so often Blackboard users from around the region meet up at one of the hosting institutions. This time I had a long journey to Birmingham University Medical School. (Only fair that I should travel though as Lincoln hosted the last one!). The format of these events is that each attending institution gives a brief update of what they’re doing, and then there’s usually a presentation from Blackboard about what they plan to do. Rather than give a chronological account, I thought I’d treat you to a few blog posts on the main issues. First up is the upgrade to Version 9, or rather the debate about whether we should go for it.

In summary I’d say the jury was still out, but appears to be moving to a majority verdict in favour. The most convincing arguments came from Northampton who admitted to some pain, but identified more positives, which were that their focus groups liked the version 9 interface, and they were getting positive feedback from their early adopters. Certainly, the presentation from Blackboard themselves on the Next Generation did give the impression that in the next release Blackboard would begin to look a bit more like a 21st Century e-learning product. I’ll discuss that shortly, but before I do I should run through some of the negatives. Northampton did admit that they had had as much as 7 hours downtime since the upgrade, but they have a hosted service (rather than running their own servers) and a lot of this had to do with a move of the data centre they were using. They also admitted that their Blackboard contact was very familiar with their server configuration, and this proved a great help. There were some reports from other institutions (albeit not represented at the meeting) that they had needed to updgrade their server confiiguration very rapidly in order to cope with version 9.

Leicester University also reported a problem with the upgrade to version 9 that proved a show stopper for them. Essentially it was that the wysiwyg editor didn’t respect font choices. This might sound relatively trivial, except that they had a number of departments who needed to use mathematical notation, but found themselves unable to use the symbol for pi. In contrast Dudley College, said that they had decided to abandon Blackboard and  switch to Moodle, but after testing the latter were planning to launch Blackboard 9 to all students at Easter.  Each organisation only had 5 minutes to talk so I never found out what the problem was with Moodle.  Interestingly, given the discussions we’ve been having at Lincoln Birmingham University is thinking about using version 9 as a student portal, but from the discussion it seems they’re not much further along that road than we are at Lincoln.

So what does Version 9 have to offer? Well the afternoon was taken up with a presentation from Blackboard staff in the USA (Birmingham has quite an impressive videoconferencing set up.) They were actually describing what Blackboard is calling the Next Generation. Of course, one has to be cautious about this kind of thing. Blackboard presentations always begin with a slide that has a lot in common with those voice overs on the Simpsons when they’re spoofing adverts. “Caution. Any images or promises in this presentation do not imply any connection with reality!” I’m exaggerating of course although not by much.

But, bearing that in mind, this is what they had to offer. The phrase they used was that these features are “targeted” at release 9.1 (not scheduled for it)

Bearing that in mind though there are also some interesting developments in functionality – “New” content types  – you can “add a page” and “add a file”. Essentially this seems to be a modification of the add item feature – a page can contain thumbnails of files, which can be stored either with the site or in the content store. If the file is a PDF it can be set to open on the same page.  Essentially it’s a wysiswyg editor, as now, but on a larger scale.
It shows a list of files associated with the site, which you can see as thumbnails, or in a traditional list view. Still needs the content system for full functionality.
The Edit view seems (on some pages) to have been replaced with a “build content” button which seems more intuitive.
A lot of the control panel functionality seems to have shifted to the side bar – you still have a control panel, but the links now open as sub menus (Not unlike the Windows file Explorer) The site map too opens in the side bar.
Each link in the site has a sub menu for things like adaptive release – in fact they  seemed to be roll-over menus. Rather than the four buttons we know each item has a set of sub menus
There’s an assign text book feature, which looks very like the old Amazon plug in
Learning module feature. Offers ability to organise information in a logical manner and then present that to studentes. Again, it’s basically a display of folders
Lesson plan feature. Certain parts of the lesson plan can be explained to the student, who sees information about the lesson, instructor objectives, content and practice questions. Instructors get lots of opportunity to identify (and add) metadata – again from a sub menu. Basically it seems to create a template for your own plans. Second part is allowing you to insert curriculum resources (e.g. learning materials, subject content etc.
Mash up. (Not really a mash-up) But they’re adding a feature by which you can easily import Flickr, Slideshare and Youtube data into Bb. You simply search (e.g.) You tube, preview, select it and then embed it. In the presentation this all seemed to work fairly simply.
There is also an add interactive/tool menu button. Seems that BB have now produced their own wiki tool Very detailed wiki stats are available – even to the level of detail of how many words have been modified on any given page by any given students. They’ve also added some grading functionality to the wiki. You can grade the wiki from within the wiki. True of blogs and journals as well.
Changes to grade center. Again accessible from control panel which is a sub menu on side bar. Can also search grade centre for different types of view. (e.g. Assignments, blogs, tests)
New feature will be the ability to grade anonymously. Also they’ve introduced the ability to grade by individual questions, rather than by students. (although if you do choose this latter option then you can still anonymise the students)
Question types chosen from within the questions (as opposed to selection the question type before you create a question) Again there seems to be a much nicer interface. BB weren’t able to say which

Bearing that in mind though there are also some interesting developments in functionality –There are  “New” content types. I’m not sure they’re all that new actually. For example they showed us that you can “add a page” and “add a file”. Essentially this seems to be a modification of the add item feature – a page can contain thumbnails of files, which can be stored either with the site or in the content store. If the file is a PDF it can be set to open on the same page. Admittedly it’s difficult to get an impression from a presentation but it seemed to me that they were basically offering a wysiswyg editor, as they are now, but with a rather better interface and the opportunity to separate files from items.

One feature I liked was that you can now see a list of files associated with the site, which you can see as thumbnails, or in a traditional list view. They said that this still needs the content system for full functionality, although in response to a question afterwards said it didn’t. It was getting late so I didn’t pursue that.

Another interesting development is that the Edit View hyperlink seems (on some pages) to have been replaced with a “build content” button which seems more intuitive. On other pages it had been replaced with an Edit button. I thought that a bit confusing but on reflection I suppose if you’ve started to build something, it is logical to go back and “edit” it

Much of the control panel functionality seems to have shifted to the side bar – you still have a control panel, but the links now open as sub menus (Not unlike the Windows file Explorer) The site map too opens in the side bar, again something that is long overdue. I did wonder about accessibility as inevitably the font size is rather small.

Each link in the site has a sub menu for things like adaptive release – in fact they  seemed to be roll-over menus which expanded. Rather than the four buttons we know each item has a set of sub menus so rather than go to an adaptive release page, you’d roll over the link and various aspects of adaptive release are displayed – time constraints, user visibility conditions and so forth. A lot of this approach had been taken to the learning module feature, which had been given something of a makeover, in that it had a much more logical structure.

There’s an assign text book feature, which looks very like the old Amazon plug in

They’ve also added a “Lesson plan” feature. Certain parts of the lesson plan can be explained to the student, who sees information about the lesson, instructor objectives, content and practice questions. Instructors get lots of opportunity to identify (and add) metadata – again from a sub menu. Basically it seems to create a template for your own plans. There’s a second part to it which allows instructors  insert curriculum resources (e.g. learning materials, subject content etc. making it quite hard to distinguish from a learning module.

Of course, few corporations can see a bandwagon without wanting to jump aboard, so we now have Blackboard “Mash-ups” Actually they’re not really mash-ups except in so far as they show data from other sources. Instructors can easily import Flickr, Slideshare and Youtube data into Bb. You simply search (e.g.) You tube, preview, select it and then embed it. In the presentation this all seemed to work fairly simply.

There is also an add interactive/tool menu button. It seems that BB have now produced their own wiki tool. It looks different from the learning objects wikis but they seemed most anxious to show us the eye boggling level of detail including how many words have been modified on any given page by any given students. They’ve also added some grading functionality to the wiki. You can grade the wiki from within the wiki. True of blogs and journals as well.

There have also been some changes to grade center. Again accessible from control panel which is a sub menu on side bar. Can also search the grade centre for different types of assessements  (e.g. Assignments, blogs, tests). Another new feature is the ability to grade anonymously. Also they’ve introduced the ability to grade by individual questions, rather than by students. (although if you do choose this latter option then you can still anonymise the students). Question types  are now chosen from within the questions (as opposed to having to select the question type before you created it)

That’s a bit of a gallop through their presentation and I may not have done it full justice. But there’s a lot else to go through, and I’ve already broken my rule about 100o words per post. Future posts on this topic (In the next day or so if I get time) will look at the “assessment handler” a new plug in for managing assessments that is configurable to reflect an institutions procedures, and a second post about some of the issues that were raised in the discussion.

Prettifying the reading list.

I am indebted to my colleague Paul Stainthorp for this ingenious mash up of Refworks and Amazon to create something that almost (but not exactly) resembles the old Amazon reading list plug in we used for Blackboard. The plug in used to show bibliographic details and an image of the book cover making reading lists a bit more interesting. The user could click on the image and buy the book from Amazon, or follow a link to the library catalogue (assuming the site owner had put one in). Unfortunately when we upgraded to Bb version 8 the plug in stopped working as the developers hadn’t offered an upgrade

Well the mash up goes one better in that the book title is linked to the library catalogue, and it also offers links to a Refworks folder, Librarything, Google Books and Amazon (but of course!) I should say here  it’s not simple to do – and the method described here is local to the University of Lincoln.  But in the interests of remembering how to do it, I thought I’d set out the method here. Couple of things to remember before you start. You will need a Yahoo Pipes account, and you will need to know your way around Refworks. You also need to have instructor or Teaching Assistant rights on Blackboard.

1) Go to your Blackboard site and click the Refworks Bridge tool (You’ll find it under the Site Tools menu)

2) Create a Refworks account linked to Blackboard (N.B. This will not be synchronised with your main Refworks account) (Need to put instructions about this here) (You only have to do this once – that is not for every site in which you are an instructor. If you’ve already done this ignore this step)

3) Set up a shared folder in the BB refworks account.

4) Add the books to the shared folder. You could use the Refworks Ref-grab-it tool to get the data from Amazon to do this. In fact it is a good idea to do so because the pipe will be calling the ISBN from Amazon in order to display the image.

5) Share your Refworks folder. Ensure that the show RSS feeds check box is ticked and select “50 Most Recently Added References” from the create RSS feeds drop-down box.

6)DO NOT forget to give your folder a Title.

7) Click the URL in the shared folder display, and right click the RSS feed icon. Select “copy shortcut” from the sub menu. (if you’re using IE7 – if you’re using Google Chrome it will say “Copy Link Address”

7 Leave this window open, open a new one and go to Yahoo Pipes

6) If you haven’t already got one create an account for yourself on Yahoo Pipes. If you have, log in to it

7) Search Pipes for “pstainthorp”

8.) select “University of Lincoln Library Booklist”

9) Paste the URL of your shared folder into the Refworks RSS feed and click the “Run Pipe” button

10) Your reading list will be displayed. But you haven’t finished yet. Oh no.

11) Right click the Get as RSS Icon and select “copy shortcut” from the sub menu.

12) Go to the content area of your Blackboard site where you want the reading list to be displayed.

13 Go to Edit View and add external link. Paste the RSS feed you’ve just copied into the URL box.

14) Give the external link a title, and add any comments.

15) Click Submit.

And that is it!

Blackboard Conference Barcelona, April 2009


Having been packed off to Barcelona for the annual Blackboard conference I thought it useful to provide a brief report. I do have much more extensive notes if anyone wants them, but I have come to the conclusion that brevity is the soul of blogging so I am going to try and keep this down to no more than 1000 words. If you want more leave your e-mail address and your question as a comment!


Having had a few days to reflect I think I identified four themes to the discussions which were


1) National and international attitudes to education.

2) Content.

3) Community

4) Not Blackboard.


Firstly there was a remarkable degree of optimism from the keynote speakers, about the value that national governments were placing on higher education.  A very interesting statistic about the benefits of investment in education came from Dirk van Damme from the OECD who drew our attention to the fact that in the 1950s South Korea and Ghana were at the same level of economic development, which is patently not the case any more. Of course there may be more factors than simply investing in education at play here but the point is that it is possible for countries to change their prospects. He also pointed out that we in the west were nowhere near the participation levels of some countries which had managed to get 80% of their population into HE. What the consequences of this might be were still unforeseen. We don’t know what effect the tripling of the number of graduates might have on social indicators such as crime, health, and welfare.


He also suggested that the main threat to universities was not private providers, along the lines of Microsoft’s Hamburger University, but the direct assessment of skills by employers. How long would it be before they realised they did not need a separate institution to certify their abilities – which of course rather undermined his last point about the social implications of expanding the numbers of graduates.  For those who would like more information about this and about what the OECD are doing about it. have a look at


The second theme of the conference was what I have called Content – by which I mean new features of Blackboard, or interesting plug -ins. The first of these was something called Waypoint, which is a plug in for managing assessment and more accurately feedback. It is being used at Bournemouth University who had a policy on a 3 week turnaround for assignments (just like us!) Waypoint can either manage the

whole assessment process online or be adapted to work with paper submissions. Essentially academics create an online block of assessment criteria, sample comments etc that go to form the feedback. (sounds a bit like Turnitin’s Grademark feature to me). These criteria are then grouped together into assignments and can be shared between academics. However individual comments may be added to provide feedback

and it does allow double and blind marking. While it sounds impressive, it does require a bit of effort to learn the software, and it does cost $9000 p.a.


Waypoint is a plug in provided by a separate company, but Blackboard themselves have a few new products on the point of release. There is a communication system called “ConnectED” which will enable Blackboard users to send text messages to students, as well as offering a choice of other communication methods, although there are some regulatory hurdles to be overcome before they can release it in Europe. They’ve also entered into a strategic relationship with Wimba to make Wimba Pronto (an instant messaging service) available for free. I thought the most interesting announcement though was that they are planning to open up the content store so that users can make their content available to users in other institutions. Michael Chasen, Blackboard’s CEO claimed that Blackboard stored more content than Facebook, and that this was rather a waste of resources. (If true, I’m inclined to agree!) There is no suggestion of going “open access” rather that there will be an extra level to the content store which will be accessible by any Blackboard users, although of course the content creator would still need to have given permission for such access.


That of course leads us into the third theme – community. Blackboard see themselves very much as a community of users and spent a lot of time plugging the developer and “Behind the Blackboard” Communities. They’ve also developed an API for Blackboard 9 which allows other LMSs to be incorporated – e.g. Links to Moodle, Sakai etc. Directly from course list on BB home page. They are also thinking about pushing content out of Bb e,g to Facebook. (BB9 has an interface already.) The point is that the authentication problems go away because the Facebook user is told that there is a new item in their Blackboard course, but they still have to log into to find out what it is. Iphone and Ipod touch fans may also be interested to know that there is now a BB app available for these gadgets.


Finally I was struck in the various paper presentations that I attended by the number of presenters who were talking about things they were doing with social networks such as Elgg, and Ning (But not Facebook, Heaven Forfend!) rather than Blackboard per se. There was quite an encouraging “edupunk” feel to some of these papers, that is that there was very much a DIY attitude to educational technology.  As one presenter put it, we want to get away from the traditional lecture model, but that doesn’t mean we just give lectures in the pub. In other words we don’t just move over to Facebook, because the students don’t want us there, just as they don’t want us in the pub. But we do create useful spaces, and there was a very encouraging use of tools such as Ning and Elgg, to encourage students to contribute work in different formats and to collaborate with each other.


Clearly 1000 words isn’t enough to do full justice to the conference so I may return with posts on more specific topics at a later date.


Note: For some reason this post has attracted a torrent of automated spam. I’ve therefore turned commenting on te post off. Sorry about that, although in reality, I doubt any genuine commenter will want to say anything 3 years after the event.

Hearing voices in the VLE – Creating an Audioscape

Here’s the final report from Durham on a presentation from Susannah Diamond of Sheffield Hallam University about the expansion of audio technologies into their learning landscape. Learning is no longer a matter of listening to a lecturer, if it ever was. It requires timely input in terms of guidance, empathy, information, challenges, orientations facilitation assessment feedback and other ways of direction and support. At Sheffield Hallam University, the Academic Innovation team have been harrnessing Blackboard to provide a familiar interface to digital media work and to develop a new pedagogy around digital audio.  Audio as a learning environment is a little bit unsettling because it raised the question of what the learning environment would look like if audio was everywhere  or perhaps more accurately, what it would sound like. In many senses audio is a disruptive technology because it takes us away from our comfort zone of text based resources. Basically they get students to make audio notes, and to store them in a variety of portfolios.


Stages in audio innovation.


Firstly of course, it is necessary to put audio in reach of academic staff and students. They started by using the Podcasts LX tool which is a great tool for academics to post material, provided they’ve mastered the gadgetry to make the recordings in the first place. They then used a technique akin to reverse engineering,  getting students to listen to the clips that had been uploaded and getting students to deconstruct them by asking, for example in the case of radio programmes, how and why were these programmes made?  This played quite a significant part in the second stage which was about promoting creativity in the use of digital media, and encouraging staff and students to take risks. They tried creating  some digital audio learning objects, and rethought podcasts so that they weren’t just a transmission stream from the lecturer to the student, but instead became a medium for digital storytelling  in which they  encouragedstudents to construct stories about their learning

The final stage is the development of a user friendly digital media architecture. Audio technology is everywhere of course, but they did find that they needed to give quite a lot of guidance on working with audio to their users. There were also some surprising discoveries. For example, they had assumed that iTunes would be popular with students.  In reality it turned out that students wanted their  through the VLE, not on their iPods, which again gives some support to the notion that students do tend to compartmentalise their social and academic lives


How do we store and share audio content is also something of a problem. They thought about a number of tools ranging from portfolios to digital repositories. In fact they went with the Learning Objects LX expo tool, which is a sort of e-portfolio tool which contained  audio feedback an alternative to written feedback.  There was a bit of a throwaway comment that audio feedback can make it easier to give bad news as explaining a poor result seems much more human. Well, I don’t know, but it’s worth considering. Another interesting project was the 100 Things project listing 100 things every students should make . (This could cover how to write a reflective report to what’s the best pub in town)


Audio is certainly a technology that we haven’t really exploited ourselves as yet, and while there are some issues around the availability of the recording gadgetry and finding a relatively quiet space in which to make a recording, it does seem to offer quite a lot of potential for meeting different learning styles, and of course to promote accessibility and usability.

Reality Check: Do you know how good your Blackboard modules are

Kate Boardman, University of Teeside


Looked at what Teeside’s staff were actually doing with Blackboard in the light of minimum standards that they had set up, their e-learning framework and they found that the results were in fact “quite scary”.


She started by asking the rhetorical question “If you were asked by one of your Pro Vice Chancellors about the state of e-learning across the campus, what would you say?”  You might, um and ah and say, well we’ve got so many modules on Blackboard – for example, at Teeside  80% of modules have a Blackboard site. But of course, “having a Blackboard site” doesn’t necessarily mean that e-learning is taking place. If this hypothetical PVC was to then ask you to be more candid about the exact nature of the e-learning that was taking place, how would you describe that?  Kate mentioned a survey that had been done that said 98% of students said the most useful thing that could happen with Blackboard would be if their other lectures used it. That suggests to me that the students do actually use Blackboard, but that not many of the modules are actually used.



Teeside have set up minimum criteria for their Blackboard sites. They must have


  • A clear navigation menu
  • Staff details
  • A module guide
  • An overview of how the module will be delivered
  • Content organised in folder
  • No empty areas
  • Delivery schedule
  • Assessment information
  • Submission instructions
  • Assessment feedback
  • Copies of all teaching materials
  • Regular announcements
  • Link to current reading lists


Setting minimum standards is to invite the obvious question of whether modules actually meet them. It was time for a reality check. The evaluation team employed a Peer observation and review methodology, which basically employed 20-25 students in each school to review the modules with a brief to look at e-quality (which I imagine means whether the sites meet the minimum standards) across schools, levels, subject groups, and staff. Kate also suggested that presentation is important creating and interesting online module presence and reported a finding that students frequently comment adversely on sites that are difficult to navigate, This makes some sense because presentation is part of the communication process with students. She reported that only 26% of Teeside’s sites had changed from the default appearance provided by the University. It would be quite interesting to conduct a similar survey here, although I’m not convinced that this is quite as important as Kate seemed to think. If the default appearance provides adequate navigation, then there seems to be little value in changing it for the sake of aesthetics. Another aspect  of communication is the obvious one of how many announcements have been made in the site? Over 60% of Teeside’s module had none.


More significant , I thought, was the issue of construction – in  a higher level module it is not unreasonable to expect students to demonstrate a higher level of knowledge and understanding of the subject matter by constructing relevant information. Blackboard provides tools such as blogs, but the trick is to ask what students are doing, not whether or not the Blackboard site has a wiki.  Although, again according to Kate, 89% of the sites at Teeside did not provide any opportunity for students to produce or publish the results of their own work.  


I suspect that a similar review conducted at Lincoln, or pretty much any university  would probably produce similar results. On the plus side, any intervention makes people think about their teaching. Kate echoed Andy Ramsden’s keynote with her suggestions about how Teeside proposed to tackle the situation. She basically advocated a return to sound principles, including the encouragement of contact between students and teaching staff, the development of on-line activities, the production of self test assessments, which importantly provide the students with feedback, and the provision of media rich content. That of course raises the question of how you do this. The old idea of providing staff development workshops, she thought, (and I agree) doesn’t work, because they are not immediately relevant to most people’s needs. (Which actually raises the question of why we still think the lecture meets students’ needs, but I digress). Instead we should be focussing on small steps taken by individuals. When people do raise an issue we should be working with them, on a one-to-one, and just-in-time  basis if necessary. We should then write up the case study and publicise it as widely as possible. The more case studies we have, the stronger our understanding of what e-learning is going on in the University.


E-portfolios: Models and Implementations: Idealistic whys versus Pragmatic Hows

As promised, here’s the next report from the Blackboard Users Group conference. E-portfolios and “Personal Development Planning” have something of a chequered history in Higher Education. While there are many enthusiasts for the idea, it’s probably fair to say that students haven’t in general embraced the idea with any noticeable implementation.

Tim Neumann from the Institute of Education at the University of London gave us a brief account of the history of e-portfolios. He started by reporting that there had been a sudden increase in the number of academics asking about e-portfolios, although there appeared to be different drivers in different parts of the Institute.. In fact e-portfolios can have multiple functions, – they can provide personal development records, be a vehicle for assessment, a reflective space, a personal document repository, a basis for career development, or a simple documentation of personal achievement. In many respects the process of creating a portfolio is as important as the end product, but the multiple purposes that they can be put to, seems to cause as much confusion as clarity. As Tim rather drily noted, some staff in the Institute may not have had a fully developed understanding of the nature and purpose of an e-portfolio, for example the doctoral course team wanted it to provide an online record of doctoral meetings (which actually struck me as quite a good idea), the team teaching the MA in ICT in Education wanted the e-portfolio to contain a bibliographic management system, and the Master of Teaching course wanted to skew the e-portfolio to open source tools. All these are worthy things, but they’re not exactly the prime purpose of building an e-portfolio.

Nevertheless they did pilot a number of e-portfolio software tools, largely with a view to making comparisons between them. Among those they looked at were something called Avenet E-folio, Chalk and Wire, Digication, Interfolio Elgg, and Pebble Pad, (I have to be honest here and say I’ve only heard of the last two. Tim was quite candid about the fact that they were looking for tools that were available at little, or preferably no, cost. They also found that students were reluctant to use Pebble Pad, but unfortunately he didn’t give us any indication of why this was the case.

That said, they are currently trialling a tool called Learning Objects LX expo, a Blackboard plug in, (which we have ourselves, although have yet to investigate fully ) This is described as a personal website builder, rather than an e-portfolio tool, although, I suppose a personal web site is a sort of portfolio. In fact, it’s more of a social networking tool, not unlike Facebook. Anyway, Tim felt that this had been the most successful of the tools they had evaluated so far, in that it had met most of their objectives and provided all the functionality that they required. We should perhaps follow their example and have a further look at LX expo.