Being fairly recent converts to Blackboard, I’ve always thought that it would be useful to get involved with the local user groups, and I have been to a couple of Midlands User Groups meetings. So, I hired a car and took a couple of colleagues to Northampton University (Evidently, “local” these days is a fairly relative term!)
The usual format of the meetings is that there is usually a brief update from members on issues that are currently of interest, so the proceedings started with me being put on the spot! I discussed our experience of lumpers and splitters, which seemed to generate some interest – well, some nods of recognition anyway! There were some questions about what our largest lumped course was, which I can’t answer yet, because we haven’t enrolled any students. But it seems that, based on other institutions’ experiences there are performance issues with large courses, specifically relating to archiving, copying, assessment and gathering course statistics.
There was a lot of interest from other presenters in Safe Assign in particular as a competitor to Turnitin. The Blackboard representatives there were very cagey about what exactly Safe Assign could search. One reason given was that if students knew this they would know where not to copy from. Reflecting on this in the car on the journey home we thought that this was a bit odd – if students are that sophisticated in their plagiarism, that is, choosing and synthesising sources and rewriting them, they weren’t that far from doing proper academic work! More pragmatically there was some criticism of Safe assign on the grounds that it was a one-shot process, i.e. it doesn’t let you resubmit the same assignment
Northampton demonstrated a blended learning course based on the e-tivities idea. Essentially it appears that they’re using wikis, blogs syllabuses and Scholar, (Students upload their own work to this and link to each others’ projects). They’ve provided course material on how to use wikis and blogs (Students use the blog as a reflective diary) There has been considerable interest in using this type of approach from other schools in the University.
It was also interesting to note that we have been comparatively fortunate in that we have been able to invest in a comprehensive package with Blackboard. One colleague reported that they were just piloting the learning objects LX pack for distance learners for example, and another reported on their recent acquisition of the Content System.
Another interesting issue came from Cranfield University who had similar problems to us in some respects – at least in terms of the splitters. All their taught courses are 12 months – teaching tends to all happen early on, and then students go away to work on dissertations. It is obviously very difficult to integrate the gradebook in this context. So they were looking for a way to make gradebook easier to use for academic staff. They employed a graduate from a previous year to redesign the course with quite interesting results stripped down the navigation for example – quite dramatically in many cases. The view was taken that students did not need all the links that a typical course provided, which bears out my own view that we do tend to overengineer learning technology. (Having multiple ways to do the same thing makes it a bit like those adverts that say “more information on our web site, and when you go there it’s exactly the same information) They ended up merging courses into single sites (not unlike our lumping) One interesting comment was that many academic staff had no idea where in Bb to load content! They had a publicity drive on this but it had had very little effect. Although, I’m not quite clear what if any changes they made to the gradebook as a result of this.
Another theme that came out of the discussions was the extensive interest shown in the e-portfolio tools, for assessment, rather than for PDP purposes. We’ve hidden these because we want to emphasise Pebble Pad for personal development planning. I think PebblePad remains a much stronger product, for PDP but I wonder if we shouldn’t spend a bit more time looking at portfolios as an alternative assessment tool.
One of the strengths of these meetings is that they are attended by representatives from Blackboard and we were presented with a Blackboard Road Map. In truth I’d seen quite a lot of this before (at the Blackboard Users Conference at Durham) but there do appear to be some quite convincing reasons for moving to Blackboard v8.0 , not least because Safe Assign and Scholar, Blackboard’s social bookmarking tool are integrated into it. We could have the latter as a plug in but it would seem more sensible to have a complete product rather than a loose association of tools. Of course, the counter argument is that we’ve hardly tested our current version of Bb in anger yet, so there’s a risk in upgrading. Having said that Blackboard 8.0 is largely a back end upgrade, so there shouldn’t be many customer facing issues.
Beyond that it was quite interesting to get a corporate perspective on higher education. Some of the slides were quite interesting one interesting phrase I noticed was “Education= Economic and social health”, which suggested a rather instrumental approach to education. (Nothing about the discovery or production of knowledge, for example)
Blackboard say that they’re “not so much about the technology but about how the technology is used” and their strategy is to focus on student achievement. So they don’t see themselves as just a software company. They focus on three strands, “learn”, “transact”, and “connect”. (Learn is our area) – but Bb claim to be 100% focussed on education and about moving from e-learning to e-culture. An informed e-culture to boot! (That wouldn’t be 100% on education then!) Which made me think that the leadership awareness of e-culture could be an issue for many insitutions. How far are senior management realistically able to keep up with the cultural change that technological affordances bring about? Blackboard do seem to be aware of this and are working towards assessment methodologies, not only of individuals, but also of institutions, programmes, and courses, and that this requires academic and administrative levels of engagement and assessment. They also showed an awareness of web 2.0 with a tool for integration with Facebook (although we tested this, and it didn’t work – In fairness that maybe because our firewalls are blocking it.)
They also mentioned EduGarage, which is their developer network. This seems to work on open source principles, which I’m all in favour of although I’m not entirely clear about the exact nature of licensing model. But if we have people who are involved in development work, we should probably get involved.
We then returned to the member’s upgrades. Alot of this was about institutional contexts. Leicester had merged MIS/CS into a single IT services department and had also had to merge their two VLEs into Blackboard. This was problematic because they had to integrate Question Mark into Blackboard – but it transpired QM have no commitment to upgrading their connector to Blackboard. There’s maybe a lesson for us about tying into 3rd party tools there. Having said that Leicester have bought Wimba, (which gives inter alia voice discussion boards .) Turnitin and others. They’re also planning to integrate with Facebook – initially using the Bb plug in.
Blackboard pointed out that they can keep 3rd party tools up to date if need be, although this would inevitably come at a price.
There followed a bit of a debate about how VLE’s are being used and supported. One telling point was made about how Resource Allocation Models tend to see teaching as “standing in front of a class” Preparing a wiki for example, is not seen as valuable an activity in terms of resourcing. (Neither for that matter is preparing a Blackboard Course)
There then followed another useful update from Dudley College. They’re running WebCT and have been for a while. They appeared to be more interested in e-portfolios, again, more for assessment than for PDP type activities. But of particular interest to us I think, was their model of staff development. They’re running a 2 week on-line course for academic staff – to showcase what sort of things can be done with the software. This will count towards staff CPD – they have to log in for a couple of hours each day. They’re also producing a CD-ROM for staff with video guides on how to do stuff and have also produced a selection of flash games, which can be edited by the simple expedient of editing a text file. THe intention is that staff can customise the games to the needs of their own discipline.
In the afternoon (after an excellent lunch!) an “award winning” Blackboard course on Plagiarism that had been developed by Northampton was demonstrated. (The award was a “Blackboard Exemplary Award” whatever that might be. I’m a little bit sceptical when I see the phrase award winning these days, because there appear to be awards for just about everything. – I’m waiting for the first “award winning awards ceremony”)
Anyway. The aim of the course was to to ensure that every student gets the same message about plagiarism which can then be refned and dealt with in a specific way and present plagiarism in a positive light (Is it a Development issue or is it a Disciplinary issue). They used the metaphor of a degree course as an academic journey with hazards being littered along the route – successful study is about knowing how to avoid them. The destination is related to the type of skills you need for a particular degree. There are also links to personal development planning.It’s essentially a linear course – students work down the buttons on the left hand side. Rightly I think they tried not to just focus on plagiarism – shouldn’t be too threatening – instead the focus is on academic integrity and why it’s important. Of course you can’t avoid talking about academic misconduct but this is introduced later on and is talked about in the sense of not being fair, or in terms of gaining an unfair advantage. Issues like helping a friend in a crisis were also covered. Is this collusion? The course also includes interactive demonstrations of what plagiarism might look like and the course finishes with a chance for students to submit to Turnitin at the end. But no tutor sees the originality report- which made me wonder how feedback was given. The course was quite well received by students who have suggested that it be made compulsory.
This is the kind of idea that we might take forward with Bb. The Virtual Campus had a set of generic skills support materials involved, and Blackboard seems to have the potential to support more of this kind of work. The question is how can it be slotted in to existing courses. I’m a little wary of having a huge list of skills courses on the front page.
There was then another presentation from Blackboard on what is rather pretentiously called “Project Next Generation”.
Release 8 not a big interface upgrade but includes Safe assign, Scholar, Self and peer assessment tools, and an enhanced gradebook. Next generation (or “Release 9” to mere mortals!) still has the familiar tabs, but has some extra functionality, such as drag & drop capability on modules making it easier to redesign the front page. It also integrates Sakai and Moodle courses into a module – so if you’ve been working in Moodle, you can simply import your Moodle course into BB)
There’s also an instructor Dashboard which has a traffic light interface – e.g. Red might show alerts about students who have problems, yellow shows you things you should be doing in the next couple of days (e.g. notifying students about due dates) and green just shows you standard announcements. There is also the ability to create role specific tabs, so you could, if you wanted have a tab just for external examiners, that showed them the courses that they were marking. You can also have modules that are specific to your course. It’s also integrated with Facebook so that you can get Blackboard alerts when you’re in Facebook It also appears that frames have been replaced with modules – so a course menu might appear in another module. (I wasn’t entirely clear how this would work to be quite honest.) I did like the fact that it had an explorer type view available, which shows the icons for all your files. (Interestingly this is known as the “WebCT view” by Blackboard staff, which says something about the history of VLEs and how features move from one to another.)
The portfolio tool also looked much improved containing employer information, educational journal, reflective blog and a gallery. But on being asked for further and better particulars the presenter rather sheepishly admitted that what was being presented on screen was just a mock up and not yet available.
They finished with a mention of the Blackboard Ideas exchange, which appears to be rather similar to the developer community – This needs further investigation on our part, as I suspect it could be quite useful. Although I dare say we’d need to take some ideas ourselves!
The meeting finished with an Open Session at which people presented their wish list.
There was some discussions about Wikis – former WebCT users can’t use the Learning Objects LX plug in
A question was raised about the use of the peer and self assessment tool in group assignments – Apparently you can’t assign an assessment to a specific group. (or student)
There was a request for a batch unenroll tool. This can be done in snapshot, but that isn’t a convenient method for many users.
Course test generation is apparently problematic on large sites, as is archiving courses. It seems that Bb is not really designed for large courses, but we’d like it to be better able to cope with them. One solution might be to schedule complex tasks such as archiving for quiet downtime. It was also suggested that it would be useful to have some sort of warning that embarking on such a task will have consequences for system performance.
A request was made for the provision of section breaks in Blackboard pages. I didn’t really see why the syllabus tool couldn’t be used to achieve that though.
Finally another request was made for more group functionality. It would be useful to make the group tool a little bit easier to use. Bb representatives talked about the community system as one way of communicating with groups, but I don’t think that was quite the point. On the other hand the group tool is very powerful, and I can see users tying themselves in knots with it as it isn’t terribly intuitive.
All in all a very worthwhile meeting, with a great deal of food for thought. In some respects I was quite impressed with how far we’ve come in such a short time, but of course we’re not really using it in anger yet. I think it’s definitely worth keeping up with the group, and I think all of us were slightly disappointed that the next meeting isn’t until Easter 2009