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 http://twitter.com 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.

Putting stuff online not as simple as it looks

Ignore The Onion style headline. I just thought it seemed appropriate for the topic. Which is about a very interesting blog post from Derek Morrison which I found this morning which was largely about the attempts of the Newspaper industry to find ways of monetising the on-line news experience. There’s a lot of relevance for those of use working in learning technology.  I’ve taken a few quotations that piqued my interest and tried to see what relevance there might be for us in education. First up there’s a quote which really shows how  important it is to think differently when preparing on-line material for students.

Because the download of the Guardian is based on the printed version and because the specialist section is no longer in the printed version it’s only available in the online version! This is the same Guardian newspaper that trumpets its iPhone app and makes a charge for it. Some rapid rethinking of the business model is perhaps necessary here.

Well, yes. The lecture notes from a PowerPoint slide are not a lecture. (There I go making unconstructive remarks about PowerPoint again. Actually I think PP is a very  good presentation tool, but that’s all it is.)  My point is that just shoving such slides onto a VLE without any contextual information is largely unhelpful. We have to make an effort know what the students are failing to understand and tailor our material to correcting those misunderstandings.

If the press media wants to start charging for online content then it first of all needs to make it easy for us to know it exists and then make it easy for us to read it.

Oh Yes. Naming every link on the VLE  lecture 1, lecture 2, or worse “lecture notes from last week” is a very bad idea. Blackboard  certainly offers the opportunity to add metadata to virtually every content item, and if you’re using an open source tool like WordPressMU as a primary VLE, I’d urge that you familiarise yourself with tags.

We the end-users, the newspaper industry, and those developing smartphones would really benefit from some standards based approach to downloading such media content similar to what MP3 enables with audio.

Wouldn’t we though? Let’s face it, it took quite a long time for Universities to reconcile PCs and Macs on a single network. With students (not to mention staff)  turning up with all sorts of weird and wonderful devices I can see us looking fondly back on the Mac/PC thing as being but a minor skirmish.

my reading behaviour changed when using the iPhone in comparison to the paper product. By that I mean it was different rather than better or worse. One of the key advantages of the paper versions of newspapers and magazines is the ability to rapidly scan a relatively large information landscape and then focus on an item or article of interest. The visual real estate of a smartphone or device like the iPhone/iTouch is tiny by comparison.

Now that’s interesting. I used to  wonder if there is a difference between browsing a library shelf and searching a database. You could certainly pick up things from the books that were next to the book you were looking for. Yet, no library could possibly hold all the material a researcher needs, so you scan. If you do that with books and journals, I guess you probably do it with the documents themselves. So is there scope here for making documents scannable at a micro level. Is there something to be said for producing educational documents using some of the same principles that newspapers use to drag their readers’eyes to relevant parts of the page.

We should perhaps take note that when the majority of consumers are faced with such uncertainty their risk management strategies include “do nothing”.

Students too, I suspect!

The single document format debate

Last year, we introduced Blackboard at Lincoln, and, whatever your views on the merits, or otherwise of virtual learning environments, the functionality it is providing is definitely leading to an increase in interest in on-line submission of assessment. This is also an issue for exportability in e-portfolio development. (Just so I can keep the blog on theme!) If you want to make sure documents can be easily exported from one e-portfolio system to another, then I think it’s sensible to try and standardise your document formats. (Of course, this all depends on the type of documents you want to store in your portfolio)

But the submission of assignments issue presents a problem. Students don’t all use Microsoft Word 2003, which is still the University’s preferred word processing platform. So they’re submitting in Word 2007 (and a variety of other exotica that lurk out there on the net.). The result is of course that tutors can’t read these strange files when they download the files to mark them.

So, one suggestion, is that the university should move to insisting on submission in PDF format. Broadly, I think that’s a sensible approach, (although it’s not a solution). For all the talk we hear of digital natives, students aren’t all as tech savvy as they’re sometimes portrayed. And unless you’re on campus, or willing to pay for a PDF converter for your personal PC, it’s not so easy to do.

Anyway, my point is, if you want to convert documents to PDF, I’ve just discovered some useful (and free!) tools to do it. Here’s the link.

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.

Applying Laurillard’s conversational framework to blended learning, blogging and collaborative activity design

This presentation was from Rose Papworth, now at the University of York, (and who some colleagues may remember as a member of the Computing Sciences department in Hull.)

One of the criticisms levelled at virtual learning environments such as Blackboard is that they tend to be used more of a repository for content than as an environment in which students learn. This kind of approach has been criticised by many scholars, in particular Diana Laurillard, who sees learning as a conversation between teacher and learner, in which conceptual understandings are constantly revised. A criticism of this argument though is that while it is well suited for small groups or one to one teaching, it is not really very practical for large group teaching.
That said, the technology does exist to facilitate large group conversations, and Rose’s presentation focussed on developing Blackboard sites to facilitate learning as an active process, a social and collaborative cycle which contained intrinsic feedback to students. The sites were based on 2 3rd year undergraduate case examples, a small cohort in English & related literature and a large cohort in Environmental studies

Both course had a clearly stated idea of what they were working towards which Rose described as “scaffolded teaching and learning” The aim was to extend structural work with discussion time and improve the quality of discussion. In English, they used a blog as a repository for a weekly critical analysis in which the students were asked to consider the relationship between two texts. All members of the course had to read other members analyses and leave at least one comment. In English the intrinsic feedback came from the comment features, where the tutor started the process by making comments on early posts, and this started a cycle of where the students took action (posting their blog entry), received feedback, (from the tutors, who for example, directed learners to reading that may foster emerging interest in themes), reflected upon that feedback, posted revised comments and thus revised their understanding of the topic. In Environment and Health, they experienced some problems in getting students to engage with the process and as well as blogs they used a wiki an which groups published reports. In evaluating the project they found that there was less generic agreement about the value of the process but they did conduct entry and exit surveys with this group and they found that the process of engagement definitely promoted a wider conceptual understanding of the topic.

Rose then presented some findings from the evaluation. There were frequent log ins and wide experience of sharing ideas between students. Everyone agreed it complemented the class based learning and there were lots of positive comments from students and from tutors. One reservation expressed by teaching staff was that it was quite a challenge to give feedback without it sounding like it was the last word on the topic. Students are used to submitting a piece of work, and receiving feedback, but are much less used to the idea that they should respond to the feedback . They also found that it was important to model commenting so that students knew what they were doing.

Lessons learned
It remained difficult to assess group contributions, even with the wiki. Tutors in Environmental studies found that there was a need to make it explicitly clear that students need to do all their work in the wiki so that the tutor can see who has contributed what.
Students also found it rather daunting to be asked to write in public, and there were some examples of group politics, where students deleted each other’s work. Of course, the advantage of a wiki is that all the edits and deletes are preserved, but there is a need to ensure that students have group management skills before embarking on this kind of process.
The final lesson was around scalability. They used adaptive release with postgraduate teaching assistants for large groups but there was some variation in their understanding of the requirements of the wiki and blog environment. In future iterations of the programme they feel they need to more adequately brief the postgraduates about what needed to be done.
Even with these problems this does seem to be a more effective use of Blackboard than simply posting course materials. It

Has E-learning lived up to its early promise?

After the rather bitty liveblogs from the Blackboard conference, I’ve started to write up the other presentations where I took notes with a pen. (Now there’s a reliable, resilient and portable technology!) Hopefully, they’re a bit more reflective and readable. Rather than try and write up the whole conference in one post, I’m going to release an account of each presentation as a single post. This one’s probably the longest!

See the slides at http://connections.blackboard.com/files/edccbd7423/andy_r_reality_check_durham_09.ppt

The first keynote presentation which was from Andy Ramsden, head of e-learning at the University of Bath, who set about exploring whether e-learning has lived up to its early promise. In one respect he showed that it has, by using an electronic voting system throughout the presentation which would have been very unusual a few years ago, and did lead to quite a lot of interactivity in the session. He started by reminding us that those of us involved in e-learning were actually small cogs in big institutional machines, but that didn’t stop us from doing quite a lot to bring about change. In the first electronic poll he showed that at least 25% of the audience had been involved with virtual learning environments for more than 8 years, (including, it has to be said, your correspondent!) which led to the unspoken conclusion that if e-learning hadn’t lived up to its promise, we’d no-one to blame but ourselves!

He then presented the results of a survey at Bath, which found that 51.7% of academics didn’t post their lecture material before the lecture, and that 21.9% didn’t do it afterwards. In fact 10% of academics at Bath don’t engage with learning technology in any shape or form! Even those that do, tend to use things like PowerPoint, or even OHP transparencies. That said, there was some encouraging use of newer technologies like Twitter and videoconferencing. So, it appears, on the face of it at least, that the newer technologies have not changed teaching very much. But as Andy indicated, that kind of conclusion didn’t sit very easily with the array of technological gadgetry sitting on the desk in front of him, and he also noted that most people do in fact share things like web resources quite a lot. But there was another question about how they did this sharing, and we had another poll this time using a service called Edutext (I’ve got us a free trial by the way I’ll post here when the details come through) This time we all texted in the ways we shared information with colleagues. Predictably e-mail was by far the most common communication method in HE. (By a very large distance indeed.) So, there are at least two technologies, e-mail and the web that have very much lived up to their early promise.

What might explain this phenomenon. We were introduced to something called the 4-Es model developed by Collis & Moonen, (Which I shall be stealing, ahem, referencing for my ED thesis). This states that an individual’s likelihood of making use of a technological innovation for a learning related purpose is determined by four factors

• Educational effectiveness
• Environmental (that is, institutional) factors,
• Ease of use
• Engagement.

Without going into more detail this explains why people are perfectly happy to post word documents purporting to be the “course handbook” but less happy to spend time designing and posting on-line quizzes, learning how to use text messaging to promote interactivity in a lecture, developing multimedia etc. etc. Essentially if you want to get a technology adopted (the “success threshold”) you have to balance all these four factors. Take the example of the course handbook. The institution encourages the posting of these things. ||It’s easy to attach a document to a file (well, it is for most people). It’s information students need, so it’s educationally effective. (Actually, I think that’s questionable, but I take the point that it meets a need that students believe that they have.). I’m not all that convinced that it’s all that engaging, but course handbooks are something that people are familiar with. You can see that quizzes don’t really tick the same boxes, and you might say the same about some of the other technological floribunda, that grow in the e-learning garden, such as Second Life, blogs, wikis, and so forth. (They’re often engaging, but not easy if you’re new to them, nor are they institutionally encouraged, (well, OK, they’re not discouraged, but setting up a wiki isn’t an obvious route to academic advancement) and their educational effectiveness is, to date at least, unproven.

One of the things that we can do is to try and lower the environmental factors. If we can do this, we should be able to push the success threshold down.

The second strand is concerned with ease of use and engagement. Most obviously the network must be sufficiently robust to allow users to do what they want to do. Engagement does of course cover things like the relative attractiveness, ease of navigation, and other attributes, but it can also be encouraged by modifying the environmental factors. If, for example, posting high quality interactive materials was seen as a route to career progression then it is quite likely that more people would be inclined to do it. (That, of course, is precisely the argument we’re making for the deposit of material in the institutional repository.) The fact is though that Universities are in general rather more geared up to running relatively simple teaching and learning activities than they are to operating riskier programmes that have higher level learning objectives.

So, how might we change the situation.

Well, at this point, Andy went into a discussion of QR codes. Careful readers of this blog (and if you aren’t, may I ask why not?) may remember these being discussed in a previous posting about mobile technologies. A QR code is a variant on the bar code that can be scanned with a camera phone. Once it has been scanned it can link to a web site, send an SMS message to a phone, transfer a phone number, or simply provide more text. They are appearing in posters and advertisements in our larger cities, (although I haven’t noticed one in Lincoln yet). There are all sorts of potential educational and administrative uses, including campus tours, Library catalogue information, (although I wasn’t clear how this would work), they can be appended to printouts and the user can scan them for further guidance, and more exotically they can be used in Augmented Reality Gaming (Again, I hope you’ve been paying attention, – I wrote about this back in June – it’s a project at Manchester Metropolitan University where they send the students off around the city to find these QR codes. Not that I’m exactly sure about the wisdom sending students into some parts of Manchester flashing expensive technology around, but I guess it’s their city and their project!)

There is no suggestion that QR codes are the solution to lowering institutional barriers. Andy was using them as an example of the way of thinking we need to adopt if we are going to keep on developing technology. We need to ditch large scale workshops, and focus more on specific projects, which we might lead, but ensure all the team delivers on. We should prioritise profiling at meetings, (i.e. who does what, what are people’s capabilities) and produce short frequent publications reporting on our projects, and we should do it in all media. The point is there’s a long term commitment to be made, and it involves a change in the way we think about educational development.

Blogging in a photography course.

Well, I’ve recharged the batteries, and I’m now listening to Paul Lowe, photography lecturer and photojournalist is telling us all about how the London College of Communication is using blogs in their MA photography course.

(http://eflections.edublogs.org. for more detail)

By the way, Paul’s use of PowerPoint was the best I’ve ever seen at a conference. Obviously Paul has the advantage of being a professional photographer, but I’ve always thought that this is exactly what PowerPoint was designed for. Here are the slides. (I guess it take’s some practice to have the confidence to do this though)

Course about building their repertoire – giving photographers an appropriate skill set. So what’s the point of reflection

(So far this a summary of the work of Schon)

In the real world, professional practitioners of photographers are keeping blogs (as are other professionals.) So students who want to keep up with the industry should do it. And bloggers tend to match the demographic profile of potential postgraduate students.

Very much about the process. Blog used as a primary source, but the students write a critical analysis of their work at the end of their course, drawing on the data in the blog.

But some students are very comfortable with the blog and they do use the blog itself as the vehicle for their critical report.

Shift from the download to the upload culture.

course uses several platforms – Wimba live classroom. (Synchronous delivery), A CMS where students can upload their pictures for discussion, a NING site, for social interaction, and finally they use the blogs.

How do they work in practice.
The blogs are about mapping the learning journey. Very much about personal experience – getting a whole person view of the learner. Gives the tutor an insight into the mind of the student which would not be possible in the short time you are with them in a tutorial. What movies have they seen, what exhibitions have they attended and what did they get out of them?

Also it’s about writing for an audience – and getting feedback from the audience. You can also mash and mix it up with other resources. You can tag your thoughts, which then becomes searchable.

Blogs offer room for emotion and play – they’re very informal.

Give a fantastic insight into how learners learn. What have they gone out and done to meet the assessment criteria.

Notion of e-e learning. (Experiential e-learning) . Blog is like having an open brain (Latest advance on open source)

How do they use blogs on the course

Firstly they replace the sketchbook/reflecltive journal,
Also become a real time archive.
Most students prefer to host their own blogs rather than the university owned ones. (Though they’ve just set up a WordPress farm (whatever THAT might be!) within Blackboard) But they use it to talk about what they’re doing in their assignments. They’re often quite critical of the course, and this is more effective than other ways, not least because the lecturer can respond quite quickly.

Blog is also a way of keeping tabs on students who might be away for a long time on a project.

There is an interesting concept of “blog buddies” – Groups of 4 who make a committment to read and post comments on each others blogs on a regular bases. Quite a lot of mutual support is derived from this practice

There’s a bit of a worry about lurkers – but this isn’t really a problem. Even if you don’t post comments on a blog you can still get something out of reading it.

Some ethical issues – they set out ground rules about netiquette and the level of public access at the start – about two thirds of the students do make them public. They have had a couple of experiences where bloggers had have adverse reactions from those they have blogged about, and while this is part of learning to work for an audience, they do now raise these issues with students at the beginning of the course. “They’re beginning to navigate what it means to be public and what it means to be private” Professional not confessional is a nice catchphrase.

Feedback from students has been generally very positive. But there are some issues

Staff time – has to be managed well. Set up RSS feed via Google Reader. Read the blog in advance of an online tutorial session. Nor are these academic essays
Quality – Some entries are better than others. But that’s true of any educational activity
Language – not the problem they thought it would be – you have to have good English to do a masters course.
access points


Brilliant at building a sense of community
Because they’re warts and all, you get a much better idea of what’s going on.
Good way to organise thoughts of students
Always on – view of the students daily lived experience is authentic.
Informal, so truthful
And of course, they form an archive. So you can go back to them and do something with them.

Liveblog from the Blackboard Conference!

I’m sitting in a lecture theatre in Durham University’s very impressive Calman Learning Centre waiting for the session where Blackboard tell us what they’re going to do over the next few years to start. However, the conference organiser has just written “No sign of anyone from Blackboard yet” on the lecture theatre’s whiteboard!

So, as this is the second day of the conference I’ll start by briefly reviewing yesterday, which began with a thought provoking Keynote from Andy Ramsden who is head of E-learning at the University of Bath. Andy drew our attention to something called the Collis & Moonen four Es model of technological learning…

Ah, the Blackboard staff have arrived… I’ll return to the keynote later

They are about to reveal the brand new strategy – which apparently hasn’t been revealed to the rest of the company. You can hear breath being baited!

They’ve rebranded the academic suite as Blackboard Learn. – because they feel that it defines the products by what they do rather than by which market they are in. They have a large market in FE, Schools and corporate training and “academic” isn’t appropriate”

The suite also contains Blackboard Connect and Blackboard Transact – a messaging and an e-commerce suite – not yet available in the UK, but Connect is a multi modal messaging system, and there’s a lot of work to be done in negotiating agreements with mobile telephone companies

Showing a word cloud slide – Blackboard brings out three words in the cloud. Learning, Student, and Experience. No surprise there then!

Bb very aware that there are what they call spikes of use acxross most institutions. In other words it’s patchy, but BB are confident that students “love it”. Well they would say that wouldn’t they!

In 3 years they’re forecasting that there will be more use of Blackboard, (predictably) but they are also forecasting replacement of some physical sessions, and the development of better on line pedagogy. Indeed the speaker has just referred to having visited an FE college which has a new building that has been designed so that you can’t do traditional teaching.

BB have also noticed that there is a bit of a contrast between initial investment and long term gain. We all want to get our courses up and running, but how to develop this over the longer term. That’s pretty much where we are now, I’d say. And they’ve also pointed out that institutional missions change and that was often out of our hands.

He’s just mentioned the words “credit crunch – quite good that they resisted using them for 15 minutes I suppose”

But BB are driven by economic uncertainty, and global connectedness. At least that’s what driving the company’s strategy – how do we engage diverse learners with diverse styles in and beyond the classroom”. I’m quite pleased to see that they’re accepting that learning occurs everywhere now, testing the classroom centred model

But technology can play a big role, ifyou can manage it, measure it, rely on it, it will solve tomorrow’s problem, as well as todays, and it comes from experienced sources that are going to be around for a long time. (I predict that we’re about to hear that Blackboard are just such a source!)

Bb think that engagement is key to recruiting and keeping learners, and central to that is the learning experience. And that includes the social experience of learning. Interestingly Blackboard seem to think assessment is important, and needs to be integrated into daily teaching and learning practices and they have a plan to centralise and integrate all your assessment initiatives.

Now this is interesting – they’ve started talking about delivering through an Open platform. – They haven’t used the phrase “open source” yet, but they do acknowledge that it is a useful way of developing very rapid innovation. – THey see their role as vetting the tools to see that they a) are fit for purpose and b) to integrate any such tools properly into the Blackboard suite. . They’re also talking about opening up content, not only produced by academics, but also by students. This has to be done in a secure and sustainable way, and they see the way forward as being through the development of well documented APIs

Just changing presenters – time for a short rest from typing.

    Next generation product strategy

Version 9.0 is now known as NG. (Not every innovation will be released at once though)

Doesn’t look all that different from current functions. Modules can be moved around much more easily via drag and drop. Course pages also appear to have acquired modular home pages. You don’t have to go to the control panel to build a course – all the tools are in the instructor view. There’s also a link to the community system, so you can integrate links to communities inside courses. There are tools to assess individual discussion postings. There are additional forms of assessment (safe assign, a self and peer assessment tool and an extended range of assessment types. Hmm this is questionable – he’s just given the example of a question hot spot. Which isn’t new at all!

Now showing the grade centre – which does look quite intuitive. They’re also providing a lot more opportunities for feedback – They’ve found that students and academics have a different understanding of what they mean by feedback – so Bb have introduced tool by which academics can tell students what they need to do to improve performance.

They’ve also created something called “social learning spaces” (sounds pretty much like rebranding comnunities to me – as I say though, they have added a tool where stuff in communities can be incorporated into courses) – And now we have the inevitable link to facebook, You can access your Blackboard work via facebook, There’s also a link to Merlot (Actually these links look like they’ve just created tabs, which contain web links – It looks as though sites can have their own tabs, although I might have misunderstood that)

Scholar (the social bookmarking tool) is now incorporated, but when a user signs up, they keep the account for life – even if they leave the institution – good way of keeping in touch with alumni.

They’ve also introduced a tool to manage digitised resources- so when the CLA people come round and ask what’s been digitised, and who’s using them, you can just ask Blackboard. They implied that this is free in v.9.0

They’re working on a Blackboard interface for the iPhone, and a variety of other mobies. They’re also developing Blackboard Sync for iGoogle and My Yahoo. Actually that does look like quite a cool application.

We’ve moved onto questions now. First one, is “Not much of this is actually new, is it?” (Beat me to it.) And the answer is that it is new to former WebCT users. Hmm.

Second question is will there be a UK english language pack, as there are currently three versions of US English. Again, I thought we were using UK English.
Ah, now somebody’s asking about Blackboard Sync – their technical people wouldn’t install it because of the risks of authentication. Sounds familiar and a lot of other people are asking that. But there are no usernames and passwords passed to Facebook (or any other clients).

BB do store the passwords, but use them to create protocols for a 3rd party client which then uses some sort of single sign-on tool. This discussion is getting a little technical (even for the BB staff, and they’re now arguing that institutions should talk to their TSM about this matter because there is no single generic answer. Which seems sensible to me.

They’ve also developed what they’re calling an “outcomes system”. You create a map of your instititution and against each faculty, and department, you post their change management initiatives, and measure progress against them. Not sure that this will have wide immediate appeal across academia!

Right. They’re summarising now, so I’m going to stop now, and save the laptop batteries.

Towards a conceptual framework

I seem to be getting back into the swing of things a bit. I’ve just read three articles, one about the importance of working with the departments in universities (TROWLER, P., FANGHANEL, J. and WAREHAM, T., 2005) by which argues that working with departments is as important, if not more so, than working at the institutional or individual level because it is at that level that there are established working practices which is where the changes need to be brought about. (Bit of an echo of Wenger’s communities of practice notion there too.)  They introduce the important concept of “Teaching and Learning Regimes” or what the department does. From my point of view this raises the important question of where the EDU directs its efforts, which I think I will have to build into the case studies.

The second article was a review of the roll out of the Blackboard VLE at York University.  (BEASTALL, L. and WALKER, R., 2006) The relevance of this to my research is that VLEs are something that EDUs are inevitably going to be involved in. (Although, as far as I can tell, York doesn’t have an EDU as such – the article refers to a small “e-learning support unit” and I can’t find any evidence of an actual organisational unit on York’s web site) But whether it does or it doesn’t is beside the point for my research. What was interesting about the article was the emphasis that they have put on departmental readiness in terms of meeting the University’s teaching and learning priorities. They claim to have taken a mixed bottom-up and top down approach, although their description of “bottom-up” seemed to imply that this was mostly delivered through departmental working groups. I suppose that is bottom-up in a sense, but it also got me wondering about “in-groups” and “out-groups” Are there those who are aggressively not interested? Are there those who are interested but can’t get involved because of other priorities? Which sort of reinforces the question Trowler et. al. are asking. What constitutes a practical working group, and how do those outside it work with it to change its practices?

The third article was quite different in that it dealt with the idea of threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (MEYER, J. and LAND, R., 2003) A threshold concept is a concept that students need to acquire to be able to work effectively in a discipline. Without a proper understanding of these concepts, a student will at best be able to mimic the discipline and reproduce very limited answers to questions (There’s something of an echo here of the notions of deep and surface learning). I do find this a fascinating topic, and not only because the examples they give are inherently very difficult for me to understand, but sort of explain what they’re getting at. It’s highly relevant, because I think the notion of liminality – that is being at the boundary of understanding in a subject – might go a long way to explaining how educational development units go about interacting with the subject? Do we really understand what teachers in (say) physics, biology, history, or sports science are trying to do. Can we get across the threshold? If we do what do we lose? I liked Meyer and Land’s analogy with the Adam & Eve myth. Once you’re out of Eden, there’s no going back, no matter how comfortable the illusion that you didn’t have freedom, autonomy and responsibility might have been. Is it possible that EDUs will have to abandon any long held values?

I think I’m still some way from finalising my conceptual framework, but if anything, today’s experience has taught me the value of reading. (As if I needed to know!) Sometimes, when you feel you’re getting bogged down, some different perspectives can really get you going again. Unfortunately the work I am being paid to do is shoving its nose in and I’m going to have to leave the Ed D. alone for today – But I think I know my next steps. Firstly I must reread my first draft of chapter 1 and see if these ideas can be incorporated, and secondly I think I can do quite a lot more work on developing my case study protocol, now that the conceptual framework is beginning to form in my mind.

Quite a good day really! Oh, and here are the references

BEASTALL, L. and WALKER, R., 2007. Effecting institutional change through e-learning: An implementation model for VLE deployment at the University of York. Intellect, 3(3), pp. 285-299.

MEYER, J. and LAND, R., 2003. Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge: Linkages to ways of thinking and practices within the disciplines. Occasional Report 4. Edinburgh: ETL Project.

TROWLER, P., FANGHANEL, J. and WAREHAM, T., 2005. Freeing the chi of change: the Higher Education Academy and enhancing teaching and learning in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 30(4), pp. 427-444