Threshold Standards for the VLE?

Durham Conference blog post, part 3

As promised, here’s the last blog post from Durham, but in some ways the most controversial. There was a panel debate at the end of the first day on whether institutions should impose a minimum standard on VLE provision. To put it in Lincoln terms do students have a right to expect that certain things should be provided on Blackboard?  This is an issue that raises its head from time to time, and on the face of it one might think it was uncontroversial. (Students are paying fees, are they not? Why shouldn’t they expect some material to be provided through what is, effectively, the major student learning portal.).

For me though these things aren’t quite so simple. I do accept that students do have a right to a basic institutional information set, but there’s a debate to be had about what it should contain. I’m a lot less comfortable with the notion that every module, across all disciplines and at both undergraduate and postgraduate level should be denied the freedom to use a technology in whatever way those teaching the module think most appropriate. My second objection to a minimum standard of teaching information is that it is very likely to be highly didactic effectively saying “This is what you must do to pass this module.”Lincoln’s strategy is to cast the student as a producer of their own learning. While that clearly involves providing students with spaces to learn in, and access to resources, whether they be text based, digital, or specialised equipment, it also involves providing the opportunity to make, show, and perhaps most importantly of all discuss their work. I’m not sure that VLE’s are really set up for that as I said in a post a few weeks ago. Not yet, anyway.

Anyway, that’s enough about my views – how did the debate go.?  Well, right at the beginning, we had a vote on whether we should have a minimum standard, and the results were

First vote
Results at beginning of session

YES – 56%

NO – 17%

DON’T KNOW – 23%







(Actually, the preferred term is threshold standard rather than minimum standards, the idea being that users will progress beyond the threshold, rather than work to the minimum).

In some respects this debate is a reflection of the success of the VLE. Many of the early adopters were seen as being rather adventurous, pushing the boundaries of what could be done with technology. Nowadays though, VLEs , and learning technology are commonplace, and while I don’t want to over – generalise, students are generally much more familiar with learning technologies, which implies that there would be a demand for technology based learning even if fees had not been introduced. The environment they grew up in and are familiar with happens to be technology rich. Certainly, as one of the panellists suggested, it’s a good idea to try and look at the VLE through students’ eyes. I haven’t conducted any sort of survey into this, but I strongly suspect that most educational developers prefer to see themselves as having a quality enhancement role, rather than a quality assurance role. Enhancement, to be effective, must involve the views of the users, which takes us back to the Student as Producer strategy.

Some contributors suggested that the commonest complaint from students were not so much about content, but about inconsistencies in design and structure. That, as one panellist pointed out was a real problem for joint honours students. The general feeling of the meeting was that this is best solved by involving students in the design but at a course or departmental level, rather than an institutional level, which would go some way to alleviating my objection that courses in say Fine Art, are profoundly different from courses in Computer Science and trying to impose a universal standard on both would be counter productive. (Although that still wouldn’t really help joint honours students)  It was suggested that departments could produce mutually acceptable templates for their Blackboard sites, which is a start, but still runs the risk of empty content areas. I’m not sure that’s a major issue. While we don’t mandate what staff do with their Blackboard sites at Lincoln, we do have a standard template for new sites, which staff are free to change. My feeling is that, while I have some reservations about the didactic nature of the template, it does work quite well, although I do think there’s scope for a small piece of internal research assessing how often colleagues depart from the template, or if they don’t which buttons are most used.

One audience member asked about standards in other technologies. I’m not sure that, other than computer use regulations, which are really about ensuring that an institution complies with legal requirements, they are that common. We don’t really mandate what colleagues can say in e-mail, or even what format emails should be sent in. Even if we did, we couldn’t enforce it, which is of course an issue for VLE provision too. The only real sanction is that poorly designed content posted on a VLE is likely to stay around much longer than a poorly delivered lecture, and be visible to colleagues) which ought to be an incentive for colleagues to concentrate on ensuring that such material was of the best possible quality.

A final objection to a threshold standard is that it requires a certain standard of competence from the users of the technology. University lecturers are primarily employed for their disciplinary expertise, and to a lesser extent for their pedagogical skill. Technological skill comes (at best) third, although you might argue that, in the current highly technological environment, digital literacy is as essential as, well, literacy. My own view is that most people’s digital literacy is pretty much adequate, although there are a minority who will always prefer to get someone else (usually an admin assistant) to post material on the VLE. That I think is where minimum and threshold standards have the potential to cause recruitment problems. As an institution we’d have to decide what were essential skills for working with technology, and ensure that we find people who had sufficient disciplinary, pedagogical and technological skills.

Interestingly when the vote was run again at the end of the session, the results were


Vote at the end of the conference
Vote at the end of the session

YES – 43%

NO – 43%

DON’T KNOW – 14%



Which if nothing else, indicates that debating a topic improves understanding. At the end, everybody understood the question. More seriously, the debate was an excellent illustration of the problems associated with imposing standards on a highly diverse community. They’re a good idea until you have to conform to them yourself.


One last thing – there’s a much better summary of the debate available provided  by Matt Cornock, to whom many thanks.

All that remains for me to do is to thank the Learning Technologies team at Durham for organising an excellent conference, (which they always do!) and to recommend the conference to colleagues for next year. It’s always a good mix of academics and educational developers, and you get to see some really interesting practice from around the sector. I’ve been for the last four years now, and while I’m more than happy to keep my attendance record up, I’m beginning to feel a bit selfish about hogging it.





Mobile, Open Learning: What are Blackboard users doing?

Durham Conference Blog post Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Beyond Good and Evil  Dr Nick Pearce: Durham University

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ralph Holland: iTunesU Digital Distribution

Melanie Barrand & Adam Tuncay: Getting the message out there

John Thompson & Judith Jurowska: Opening Doors to Academic Integrity

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

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

Suzi Peacock: Opening doors with LTI


Trojan Horses and Openness.

Durham Blackboard User’s Conference 


Durham Cathedral and Castle
Durham Cathedral and Castle

In what has become something of a new year ritual for me, I took myself off to the wonderful little city of Durham (A bit likeLincoln, but with a much more impressive river to set off the cathedral and castle!)  The conference itself is, effectively, the annual meeting of UK Blackboard users and is a mix of keynotes, practitioner presentations, debates and presentations from the Blackboard executive about their plans for the future. And delegates get to eat the conference dinner in the Great Hall of the castle.

This is the first of two posts. In this one I’ll try and summarise Blackboard’s plans for the future, and the two (excellent) keynote presentations by Grainne Conole and Ray Land.  In the next, I’ll write up the practitioner presentations, and what proved to be a very interesting debate about whether institutions should try and specify a minimum threshold for content on Virtual Learning Environments


Blackboard’s plans for the future.


There will be a new look and feel to Blackboard released in February, although this won’t affect any of the existing functionality. From the demonstration, it did appear to have a much more modern aspect to it. Additionally, users will have much more ability to customise Blackboard to their own taste (or lack thereof!) Later in the year , although they were rather vague about exactly when this will happen, they plan to release an upgrade to the on-line submission process, which will allow instructors to mark student work using Microsoft Word’s track changes feature –. It will be possible to save the file, with the comments made, and then release that to the students as feedback. Lincoln users probably won’t see these changes until September at the earliest, since any upgrade needs to be thoroughly tested behind the scenes, to ensure that the upgrade doesn’t break any current services. There was also some talk of a new analytics product being released soon, which would give us much better information on how Blackboard is being used, although either the details were a bit sketchy, or more likely, my notes are a bit sketchy.


The Keynotes 1 : Using the VLE as a Trojan Horse:  Grainne Conole


First up was Grainne Conole, with a presentation on “Using the VLE as a Trojan Horse”. The argument is essentially, that the VLE can serve as a “nursery slope” on which academic staff can familiarise themselves with technology. That might sound a little patronising, but it is a fact that not everybody is at the same level of technology skills. The VLE also offers benefits such as centralised support and administration, development of consistent practice around teaching practices for example, online submission of assessments (and feedback thereon),


The idea of the “nursery slope” arises because there are lots of new technologies with apparently unlimited potential for new approaches to learning and teaching, but the reality is that the opportunities offered by social technologies, particularly those around peer critiquing, networking, openness, personalisation and user generated content are not fully exploited, and simply often replicate bad pedagogy. Of course that is a charge that might be levelled at the VLE itself.


It is true that many colleagues use a VLE as little more than a document repository, but that is hardly the VLE’s fault, and it seems to me that switching from one VLE to another is likely to delay the development of both digital and pedagogical literacy as colleagues familiarise themselves with the basics of a new nursery slope (Too frequent upgrades probably don’t help here either). But if you can keep your head (or at least your VLE,) People become more aware of the functionalities of the system, and will become more inclined to push at the boundaries.


Grainne then moved on to discuss some of the technologies that might be incorporated into the VLE  – content from mobile devices such as smartphones, study calendars, to pace learning, rich multimedia content, such as TED talks, self created podcasts and vidcasts, e-assessment exercises such as annotation tools, or online quizzes, social bookmarking and to do lists.


The Keynotes 2: The implications, meanings, and risks of openness in the digital academy: Ray Land.


Ray started with an interesting metaphor of the cloister. I’d never thought about the etymology of this before, but the word clearly shares a root with “closed” Academia is traditionally “cloistered”. Knowledge is enclosed in print, which is bound in books, which are stored in libraries. (In many libraries, the books were originally chained to the shelves). Not much openness there, and totally antithetical to the world we now live in which is characterised, not so much by openness, as by speed.


Digital knowledge however is constantly changing, shifting, being added to, and is essentially ungraspable. Even the concepts we use to talk about it are out of date. Have a look at this graphic showing what happens every 60 seconds on the Internet.

What happens every sixty seconds on the Internet
What happens every sixty seconds on the Internet


I suppose it’s a little disingenuous to present a global picture when most of us operate in a much smaller environment, (Planet Earth is quite a big place after all), but the case that there is no longer a stable body of knowledge in any discipline that can be mastered seems unanswerable. He then quoted the work of Virilio (1988) who argued that all technologies will ultimately fail, and of course the more connected they are,  and the faster the connections, the bigger the effect.  In other words, as Ray put it, the “21st Century Catastrophe, when it occurs, will affect everyone.” There will be no escape!



Putting the impending apocalypse to one side, we then turned to issues of how speed was affecting teaching. It seems unarguable that speed and quantity of information is antithetical the long established pedagogical techniques of discussion, thought and reflection. You can’t really have a debate on Twitter over a few weeks for example. Ray drew an interesting comparison with the slow food movement, which is primarily about people getting together to talk over meals, rather than gobbling sandwiches on the hoof. It seems to me though that the problem with “slow pedagogy” is that it’s very hard to step back from the complexity, or supercomplexity as Ron Barnett would call it, of the social media world. As university teachers we can’t really ignore it, and have to find ways of preparing our students for it.


Perhaps the biggest problem for academia is open text. There’s a lot of interest in Open Educational Resources, but the price of openness is the weakening of authority. That may be no bad thing, but, it is something of a threat to the traditional university. Ray gave examples of how degree programmes are changing – e.g. Coventry University now offers an 18 month degree “lite”, making extensive use of OERs (although evidently not those concerned with spelling!), and there are increasing numbers of web based learning organisations. That doesn’t mean the end of the University though. An interesting statistic is that 5% of the worlds population have had the benefit of a University education. 95% have not. Ray asked the question whether the cure for cancer, or a perpetually sustainable energy source was likely to come from the 5% or the 95%, if the 95% were given the opportunity! Apparently China is currently opening one new University a week. (Yes, you read that right! – A new University each week, not a new building).


Ray concluded by arguing that there is little doubt that being open carries risks. How do you ensure quality? Might individual teacher’s knowledge be marginalised by the changing “general intellect”? How do you ensure that knowledge is not misappropriated and commodified. by powerful technology corporations? As Ray’s other work has shown, academic knowledge is often “troublesome”. I’ve always felt that politics and commerce under capitalism have always been about pretending that there are simple solutions, and selling them on. In the end we need to think about how we can develop a new ethics of knowledge sharing and openness that acknowledges doubt and uncertainty, and most of all continue to research into the costs and benefits of open knowledge.