Learning from Failure – The 16th Durham Blackboard Users’ Conference

This was the second time I had attended the annual Blackboard Users’ Conference at Durham University and it did not disappoint. As the title of this blog post suggests, the theme of this year’s conference was ‘Learning from Failure’ and the conference took place at Durham University’s Business School on Thursday 7 and Friday 8 January. Perhaps because most people who work in universities or colleges have plenty of experiencing of trying something that doesn’t work, or failing to achieve what they set out to achieve with a project, there were plenty of worthwhile sessions to attend. I found it really beneficial to find out more about what had been tried at other institutions and hearing different perspectives on things such as learning analytics, open badges and VLE accessibility.


The first day of the conference started with a keynote from Eric Stoller – a consultant, writer and speaker and the Student Affairs and Technology blogger for Inside Higher Ed. Eric’s keynote was entitled ‘Why Educators Can’t Live Without Social Media’ and the slides can be found by clicking the image below. Eric suggested that the ways in which a university or college uses social media can convey a lot about the organisation’s culture, desire to innovate, and commitment to learning. You hear the term ‘lifelong learning’ being thrown around a lot in education circles, but how committed are university staff themselves to learning how to use a new tool or technology? Quite often, social media is just not a priority for those working in HE and there are tensions between the personal and the professional digital identities we want to create. Seeking out more ways to be in touch with students is not always actively encouraged by our current pay, promotion and appraisal systems and there are often concerns about blurring the personal and professional when using tools like Twitter with students – or potentially failing or making a mistake, as the conference theme suggests!

Personally, I love Twitter and use it primarily for connecting with those who work in similar fields to me. I often take part in Twitter chats such as #LTHEchat and have been able to build lasting professional relationships with others in HE and FE in ways that I would never have been able to if Twitter didn’t exist. For me it makes professional development more accessible and even if I don’t tweet every day, I often find that even reading and ‘listening’ (I prefer the term ‘listening’ rather than ‘lurking’) to the conversations that are happening online very beneficial. If I was ever in a role that involved teaching students I would certainly try to find ways to embed the use of Twitter into my teaching.

Click here to access Eric Stoller's keynote slides

Click the image to access keynote slides

Something that really resonated with me from Eric’s keynote was the idea that those of us working in Higher Education can lead by example with social media and help students to create their own digital identities in a positive way. He cited the example of the current President of the University of Cincinnati as a very senior figure in a university using Twitter to try and set a positive example to his university community.

Tweet from Santa J. Ono: The next generation is watching what we do on social media. It is up to us to lead them in the right direction...one tweet at a time.

Eric also cited the work by Jisc on Digital Capability and emphasised that there is a fluency and a spectrum when it comes to all things digital. Staff and students in educational institutions can learn from each other. This doesn’t mean that every single new tool or app will replace more traditional means of communication such as email, but it is beneficial to learn about the tools that are out there and think about how they can benefit both our working practices but also the way we interact with students to give them the best possible educational experience. It might mean making some mistakes or ‘failing’ along the way, but it is all part of the learning experience. One of the conference organisers, Malcolm Murray, made an excellent point during the closing session of the conference which I think can often sum up the culture of many workplaces, regardless of sector:

There is a flaw in the world if we are not encouraged to admit to failure.

Perhaps it would be more refreshing to hear more admissions of failure, especially when we have been able to reflect on and learn from it.

Eric also stated that he disagrees with the use of the term ‘soft skills’ when it comes to those skills that we learn outside of any discipline-specific studying we might have undertaken. Instead, Eric suggested that these skills should be called ‘human skills’ because the use of the word ‘soft’ could imply that they aren’t important. I would argue that most universities are now placing a lot of emphasis on the student experience and how the skills and experience students get from being part of a university community will enable them to thrive in the workplace after they graduate, whatever they may decide to go into. Our team here at York work more directly with university staff, rather than students, but the digital skills we teach to staff have an impact on the wider university community and (hopefully) a positive impact on the learning and teaching at York.

Conference sessions

The good thing about this particular conference is that everyone who attends are from institutions who use Blackboard Learn software as their institutional VLE. This means that a lot of the work other universities are doing with the VLE itself could be applied to our context here at York. There are also a good mix of sessions that focus on other technologies such as lecture capture and wider TEL initiatives such as Open Badges. There were too many sessions for me to be able to blog about them extensively, but some of my highlights are as follows.

I enjoyed the session by the University of Derby’s Online Learning school (UDOL) on how they are implementing Blackboard Analytics to monitor things such as student study patterns, lack of engagement with the VLE and whether this could be a sign of somebody struggling and also monitoring teaching and learning activity to see how they can support staff in a more proactive way. The implementation of Analytics at UDOL is still in the early stages and the presenters talked us through some of the stumbling blocks they’d had along the way, as well as acknowledging that data and statistics alone cannot always indicate that students (and even staff) are not engaging with the VLE. I will be interested to see how their use of Analytics develops over the coming months.

It was also interesting to hear from Graeme Boxwell from Newcastle University and how they’d implemented Open Badges for their ncl+ award (an extracurricular award for students, similar to our York Award). Graeme had undertaken a survey to get an idea of how other institutions across Europe had been using Badges before submitting a paper to their Learning, Teaching and Student Experience Committee in order to start implementing Open Badges. They decided to go with Open Badge Factory as their badge issuer, as they offered the best price compared with other leading providers out there. As with the Analytics implementation at Derby, Newcastle’s foray into Open Badges is still in the early stages so I would be interested to follow up with staff at Newcastle further down the line to find out more about this project and whether it is something. I think Open Badges are definitely something worth investigating. They are excellent as a form of digital accreditation that can stay with students/staff once they leave an institution and aren’t locked within an institutional VLE that they will eventually lose access to. In the question and answer session after Graeme’s presentation it was mooted that Open Badges would be good for Staff Development in a number of sectors, such as the NHS or Education where a lot of the development/training staff undertake could be taken with them to another workplace without the need to re-do the training. It is certainly something that we could think about experimenting with in the future.

One of my favourite sessions was entitled ‘How I have so far failed to create a fully accessible VLE’ ran by Al Holloway from University of Northampton. There were no slides for this session and Al mostly talked us through the various ways in which he had tried to champion accessibility across the School of the Arts at Northampton and showed us screenshots of some good and not so good practice in relation to accessibility and VLE module design and resources. It was good to hear that many others at other universities face the same challenges when it comes to embedding accessibility into all teaching and learning resources. Things such as lack of staff awareness of how to make their resources more accessible and the time it would take to completely audit every VLE module in a university to ensure it was 100% accessible were just a couple of the challenges highlighted during discussion. Some quick tips that you can follow to ensure your teaching resources meet accessibility requirements include:

  • Add captions/subtitles to any videos you create – or upload a transcript alongside them.
  • Use Headings in Word documents so that students using screen reading software can navigate your documents more effectively.
  • Avoid the use of the term ‘click here’ and making it a hyperlink in a document or VLE text. Instead, link the text that you have used in your sentence, as I have done in this blog post. This will give users with screen reading software more information about what the links actually lead to, instead of the software reading out ‘click here’ multiple times.
  • In Blackboard especially, avoid garish colours or patterns in your module ‘theme’ – this can make it hard to read and hard to navigate.

Most importantly, taking the time to make your resources accessible benefits everybody using the VLE module and also ensures that you are complying with the Equality Act 2010. More information and advice about accessibility can be found in our Basic Accessibility online Mini-Lecture.

ELDT Presentations at the conference

Some members of the E-Learning Development Team also presented at the conference. Matt Cornock ran a workshop to crowd-source opinion on whether there is a place for Blackboard Collaborate in blended learning design and Richard Walker and Andy Parkinson presented on VLE Exam. They will be blogging about their conference experience shortly and their presentation slides can be found below.

Further resources

Cover image, photo credit to @richard_glover

2 responses to “Learning from Failure – The 16th Durham Blackboard Users’ Conference

  1. Pingback: Creating failure opportunities – Initial reflections from Durham Blackboard Conference 2016 | E-Learning Development Team·

  2. Pingback: York E-Learning Newsletter – January 2016 | E-Learning Development Team·

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