2018 Durham Blackboard User Conference – Key Messages

The E-Learning Development Team attended the 18th Durham Blackboard Users Conference from 3-5 Jan 2018. The theme was ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ and many of the speakers kept this in mind when sharing their practice or research in their sessions.

Keynote – Sharon Flynn

Sharon Flynn is the Assistant Director of the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at the National University of Ireland (NUI), Galway. She shared her experiences of developing the digital competencies of staff at the NUI. Being based within CELT was an advantage for the 3-member team, enabling them to start with pedagogy.

One thing e-learning teams have in common is the desire to make an impact in the organisations we work in: Are we being productive and effective? Are we changing the culture of our institutions? The areas explored by Sharon’s work provide some useful ideas for learning technologists to reflect on:

  1. What are the barriers to technology adoption?

Reid (2014) provides us with a fishbone diagram organising the barriers to adoption of instructional technologies into areas that can help remind us to have a broader focus in our solution design. There is rarely just one reason why something very useful to learning has not been adopted.

Categories for barriers to adoption of instruction technologies

  1. Who are we helping?

Who are we helping? by Steve Wheeler

Steve Wheeler suggests that it can be helpful to align our strategies with different groups of technology users as suggested in Roger’s (1962) Diffusion of Innovations. Read more about Steve’s ideas in his blog post “New ideas in a digital age“.

  1. In what ways can we help these different groups?

The CELT team at NUI provide

  • Help desk support
  • Online support
  • Workshops and Festivals (one week of hands-on activities)
  • User stories
  • Projects
  • Formal course/training programme

What works and what doesn’t:

Most of the support involves signposting people to guides already created. Tech support is absolutely required to overcome the barrier to adoption, so although the team prefers to work at a pedagogy level, tech support is a necessary part of overcoming barriers. Online resources are time-consuming to create and although it can be useful to be able to point people (especially techno-realists) to them, they are not always specific or directed enough for some people. Technophobes are not likely to use guides and may need to be talked through what to do.

Workshops are run once a week and advertised in advance but are not well-attended. However, in preparing for the workshops, various resources are produced that are performative beyond the event and the work is productive in that sense.

Their ‘Blackboard festival‘ worked well. This was a week of workshops running from 10am-5pm, from a Thursday to a Wednesday the following week. (The weekend in between gives staff a break.) Lecturers talk about their own experiences during this festival. This sounds like our Learning and Teaching conference at the University of York but the idea of focusing on TEL might be an idea to try in departments that need the extra push to spread good practice.

Their User Stories are similar to our case studies on the TEL site.

Through projects, they aim to support staff to do things themselves, a key to success. The team might only be working with one person but this creates the use case for others.

A key difference between our TEL team’s work and the work of the CELT team is in the delivery of a formal training programme. Each module has a series of workshops, some of which are supported by previous completers of the qualification. Sharon found that some people need the formal route to motivate them. Here at the University of York, staff can enrol on CMALT. The idea of a formal route for TEL seems popular with some people who have enrolled on qualifications like the Sheffield EAP course to explore technologies relevant to the teaching of their discipline.


Learning to use Blackboard

In contrast, Candace Nolan-Grant from the University of Durham presented her team’s attempt to introduce staff to Blackboard by getting them to use Blackboard. Kolb’s experiential learning model was the underpinning pedagogy in the design of the self-access course. Adaptive release was used to make badges appear, creating a sense of achievement and gamification. It was promoted to new staff who were all enrolled and surveyed on their experience. Many users fell away quickly, with few of them completing all the course content. Perhaps there is something to learn from applying the ideas from Sharon’s keynote: one approach will not suit all staff who may be at different stages of technology competence and all perceiving different barriers to adoption.

Online induction for students

Tim Smale discussed their success of running a pre-arrival induction online course for new students at Keele University. The online induction, arranged as a sequential online course, helped to reduce support calls  on the services that were introduced to students (using Turnitin, accessing library services etc) compared to simply having a website with the information. Screencast videos were used to create multimedia resources. Like Candace, though, they experienced some drop-off in completions of the online course. This meant that the topic that was arranged to appear last was at a disadvantage. I suggested to Tim that allowing students a choice in topics to complete first would provide useful insight into what students thought was important. Another approach would be to have each department ‘compete’ to make their e-learning more engaging and attractive and these could win a premium position in the display order. After all, a dull module would put students off accessing the modules that follow on.

The effectiveness of Learning Videos on MOOCs

Allison Bell from the University of Durham shared her research on using learning videos on MOOCs. High quality videos are time-consuming to create so evaluating their effectiveness as a medium for learning is crucial. How can they help to improve the ‘stickiness’ of the information being communicated? What was the optimum format, length and quality of video to use? Guo et al (2014) found that students rarely make it more than halfway through videos longer than 9 minutes. Short videos up to 3 minutes had the highest engagement. Mayer and Moreno (2003) are key workers in the area of optimum cognitive load and matching modality of learning. Their advice is to manage the intrinsic load (complexity of the topic), optimise the germane load (effort to learn) and reduce the extraneous load (effort unrelated to learning etc). Some key ways to promote active learning with videos are to use guiding (or priming) questions, provide learners with some measure of control (chapterisation) and integrate questions into videos (Brame, 2015). Allison found that students are happy to accept any kind of video production standard so long as the approach is nurturing. However, lecturers are not necessarily natural video presenters and can find the recording situation challenging.

Online exams

Danny Monaghan of Sheffield University presented their Engineering Faculty’s experience of converting to online exams. They use a hosted Blackboard solution as their vle and create a parallel course for the exam, allowing marking and feedback to happen separately. Apart from informing Blackboard in advance to scale up resources, this has been a smooth experience. The exams are run using Respondus lock down browser. There is a hotline for support during the exam, with staff able to respond in person within 5 minutes if required.

Written exams are now completed this way, overcoming handwriting issues and saving an enormous amount of time in marking (deciphering handwriting). The Music department and Languages department are now running online exams as well allowing a variety of question styles, including listening to audio files to answer questions. There has been an increased engagement with the vle as a result of these departments using the vle for exams. Danny confirmed the usefulness of running a mock exam for students who are experiencing online exams for the first time.

This mode of examination has been very reliable, with only one exam having to be cancelled due to a digger cutting through a cable. One technical hitch was caused by the fact that Respondus lock down browser disallows shortcuts and typing accented characters becomes a problem. Language exams now run without Respondus and invigilators keep an eye that only one browser tab is open. This has not proved to be a problem in exam conditions. Someone in the audience shared that they used Netsupportschool to help with the lock down process.

Physical space to run online exams is now the cap on further growth or uptake. 400 concurrent users is about the maximum they can accommodate at the moment, including a separate room for students with additional needs. Newcastle University are trying out BYOD for exams and others are wondering if exam halls need to be built to accommodate this in the future as more Universities move to online exams. At the University of York, we have been running our own VLE exam service since 2013, presenting our experience (abstract, slides) at the Durham Conference in 2016. The issue of scalability is an equally pertinent question at the University of York as we help more departments to transition to online exams and we’ll be keeping a close eye on the experiences of others. Brunel University, in particular, are running a HEFCE funded project on Digital Assessment and supporting this with an event on 26 April 2018.

Gamification, open badges

Gamification and open badges came up in more than one session attended and are areas for the team to investigate further at York. We know of at least one use of gamification from Jonathan Fanning in Management (we’ll be following up with him in a future case study), and the Student Union are keen to use the ‘badges’ idea to promote engagement. If anyone else is engaged with gamification and badges at the University of York, please do get in touch!

Facilitating Synchronous Online Sessions – Webinars and Beyond

Belinda Green of the University of Northampton detailed the good, the bad and the ugly experiences of UoN staff members using web seminar (“webinar”) tool Collaborate Ultra. Her colleagues successfully used Collaborate Ultra to facilitate numerous online tasks, including (but not limited to): Interviews, evening classes, student community building activities, team meetings and 1:1 support.

The good: Use of Collaborate allowed students and staff to feel connected, involved and supported, no matter how physically far apart they were.
Collaborate Ultra is browser-based (no download required); easily accessed by guests; modern-looking; responsive; allows voice chat, text chat, webcams and file presenting; includes interactive tools (whiteboards, polling); allows session recording; integrates with Blackboard Learn (eg. our Yorkshare VLE) and much more.

The bad/ugly: Remote attendees with weak internet connections may not have as good an experience (something which should now be improved by a recent update to Collaborate); presenters with poor-quality microphones can negatively impact a session and cause attendees to lose interest.

Belinda’s full slides containing feedback and use cases are available here via SlideShare:

Want to know more about Collaborate Ultra?
Collaborate Ultra is an ideal tool for facilitating fully online meetings, workshops, lectures and seminars and it’s already available (at no cost) here at the University of York. We’re currently in the process of updating our online materials about Collaborate (look out for upcoming communications about our TEL Handbook refresh), but you can contact us to learn more about the tool anytime: vle-support@york.ac.uk or 01904 32 1131.

Conclusion and key learning points

  • Have a holistic approach to TEL solutions, staying aware of categories of barriers and types of users to help design appropriate interventions.
  • Online exams are here to stay and the University needs to look at a growth strategy.
  • Use of videos needs to be guided by well-researched guidelines.
  • Gamification and open badges are areas to explore going forward.
  • Synchronous online sessions are a great way to allow remotely-located users to meet and work together.

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