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.





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.

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.