Richard Walker and Blayn Parkinson from the E-Learning Development Team and Professor Helen Petrie from the Department of Computer Science attended Blackboard’s annual teaching and learning conference at University College Dublin (29th April – 2nd May 2014). In addition to presenting on the steps that we have taken to introduce accessibility and usability testing on e-learning software and to develop automated test scripts for major upgrades to our VLE platform, we also accepted on behalf of Chris Milson (Careers Service), an award from Blackboard to mark the exemplary use of Blackboard tools to support the student experience.
Here is a brief review of some of the key outcomes from the conference.
Blackboard’s new vision for e-learning
The conference celebrated the release of Blackboard’s new software (Service Pack 16) which brings with it an improved workflow for managing and moderating student assignments through anonymous marking, as well as providing support in assessments for significant numbers and comes with an in-built student preview of all course materials.
The workflow enhancements reflect Blackboard’s response to a listening exercise with UK and European clients which was conducted last year, which looked at requirements for anonymous marking support to be developed as a core part of the platform’s tool-set. The outputs from this consultation process are now part of the core tool-set for all Blackboard clients, and this development potentially marks a new direction for Blackboard in targeting region-specific requirements in platform development, rather than a ‘one size fits all’ model, which has tended in the past to reflect ‘home market’ US requirements. Blackboard staff were keen to emphasise throughout the conference that the latest release will not be a one-off response to international clients and they will continue to support country-specific solutions. The message that we have passed back to Blackboard is that further development on anonymous marking is needed – specifically in tying down anonymity controls for anonymous marking and associating permissions with specific roles (e.g. overarching permissions for a domain assessment coordinator role). We hope that Blackboard will respond, as well as continuing to listen to UK clients and in this way building on the April release.
Blackboard’s new CEO Jay Bhatt used his keynote address at the conference to set out his vision for the future of Blackboard software – which highlighted the need for improved usability and better integration between the various tools that Blackboard now offers, as well as with other third-party solutions. The old Blackboard way of acquiring and lumping on new tools in an unmanageable way has been overhauled, with greater attention now to maximising the value of the existing tool-set, revealing the potential of hidden functionality, which by Jay’s admission has remained undiscovered for many users due to poor integration and system usability. The focus on the learner, or “learner centricity” as Jay tagged it, represents the cornerstone of the ‘Blackboard Manifesto 2020’, which is shaping platform changes and development priorities for the foreseeable future. Jay provided a sneak peek of the new interface currently under development, which reflected a cleaner and less cluttered ‘look and feel’ to pages, with contextual help built in with the key tools. This looks promising, building on the progress made with the April release, which from a usability perspective has moved on from i-frame design to adoption of html 5.
Blackboard’s thinking on usability has moved on in other ways too, and they appear to have embraced the reality of the ‘reluctant and infrequent academic user of the system’, addressing the need for a simpler workflow for core tasks such as uploading content to module pages, with step-by step support and in-screen guidance and structured templates. This represents a significant step forward in building a usable system, which will cater for core and more advanced activities across the suite of Blackboard systems. Jay’s take on usability and “learner centricity” can be viewed in a YouTube interview, summarising the key messages of his Dublin keynote.
Promisingly, Blackboard have just signed a development agreement with Tribal who support our SITS student records system, and this articulates a joint commitment to develop to the LIS 2.0 standard. As a result we may soon see better data flows and integration between SITS and the native tools within our VLE system. This focus on country-specific partnerships again aligns with our interests, and hopefully will bear fruit in the domain of assessment management between these two systems, where we have already invested institutional development time in joining up the systems in the management of e-assignment assessment activities.
Finally, and returning to the usability theme, Blackboard have committed to a development pathway which embraces responsive design for core platform functionality. A mobile-ready platform rather than a partial app solution is long overdue. This does not preclude app development where it add values, and on the development roadmap there are plans for a tutor app to support marking of student work and online annotations of scripts synching with other Blackboard tools, which will be suitable for tablet devices.
Moving on from platform development matters, it is worth focusing on some of the excellent practice captured in the client presentations at the conference.
Colleagues from Aarhus University’s faculty of Science and Technology shared their strategy of encouraging staff to embrace the use of learning technologies more fully in course design. They have an ambitious target of engaging 60% of their teaching staff in the adaptation of their courses to build in technology usage, where it is appropriate and have identified a sliding scale of engagement from augmentation (enhancement) of courses through technology usage, to modification and ultimately redefinition of course structure. Probing the examples of staff engagement, there are echoes of Edinburgh Napier’s 3 E’s framework in the way that staff are being nudged in the direction of enabling and enhancing active student learning. Enhancement for an Astrophysics course was based on the creation of a collection of webcast videos on key concepts by the instructor, which students were encouraged to watch before a lecture. After viewing the webcast they completed a short test activity with 3 content questions, providing valuable feedback to the instructor on their understanding of the threshold concept under review. The feedback informed the way the instructor used the last 15 minutes of each lecture to focus on specific issues emerging from this activity. To encourage full student participation the lecturer is planning to commit 25% of the overall grade for this module to online contributions along these lines. Modification for a Management Calculus course focused on the replacement of lectures with online webcasts followed by online clicker versions of quizzes, which students were expected to complete as reflection exercises. The instructor then went on develop webcasts to address the weak points in student performance based on these exercises. Redefinition for an Animal Welfare course represented a shift to fully online content delivery with peer feedback and online discussion – a complete redesign of the course. Whilst these examples appear inspiring, it is was less clear how Faculty support staff will scale up training and support across their teaching programme to meet their staff engagement targets. Resourcing remains an issue when seeking large-scale changes in course design and delivery.
Gillian Fielding addressed the issue of staff engagement from another angle, focusing on the deployment of Blackboard Collaborate web conferencing at Salford University. Bravely Gillian co-opted the Vice Chancellor to use the solution to deliver a new strategic plan for the University, which was delivered in a live webinar. Collaborate has also been embedded as part of PGCAP delivery, modelling usage to teaching staff as a prompt for their own adoption of the solution in their teaching practice, and the software has also been purposely introduced to enable new opportunities for learners – specifically virtual open days for distance learning students -which has captured the imagination of academic and support staff at Salford.
Kim Comer and Paul Coulthard of the University of Manchester presented on Service Pack Upgrades – the Testing Dilemma. The main theme of this presentation was the increasing burden of testing Blackboard that the institution now faces prior to the VLE annual upgrade, with the volume of new features being introduced in new service packs. What constitutes sufficient and robust testing prior to the deployment of a release to academic staff? With finite resources for testing, there will clearly be a limit to what can be achieved.
It was apparent from comments from colleagues in this session that most institutions are facing the same problem, even those with considerable resources at their disposal. It is worth noting that the University of Manchester has 12 testers at their disposal in addition to their e-learning team, but currently has no real solution to this problem, and all the institutions represented at this talk were keen to find a solution. The general consensus was that Blackboard holds the key to quality testing for their releases. One possibility would be making their own testing process open to institutions to conduct testing against their own system configurations.
This neatly feeds in to Blayn’s presentation on Automated Testing which offers a solution through the development of shareable test scripts and an opening for Blackboard to take forward. Time will tell if they do in fact take this opportunity up – there have already been several expressions of interest in the use of Selenium for automated testing by other institutions.
Finally, Mary Jacob from Aberystwyth University talked about how the Blackboard Exemplary Course Programme Rubric is being used as a way of changing their learning and teaching practices. It is seen as a tool to help academic staff to think about the ways that they use Blackboard, moving away from the all-pervasive document repository model. To help achieve this they have embedded the use of the rubric into CPD and career progression requirements (supported by training); for example a member of teaching staff applying for a Senior Lecturer post would have to demonstrate how their module meets these standards as a pre-requisite of the application.
There were many more highlights, including Newcastle’s customisation of Blackboard and Respondus to deliver high stakes examinations at scale, Derby’s refreshing take on threshold standards – how to get meaningful staff engagement – and Trinity College Dublin’s thoughtful use of wikis and blogs to support research and peer tutoring activities for students on placements. Certainly much food for thought!
Richard Walker and Blayn Parkinson
E-Learning Development Team