As always, Blackboard puts on a great conference and this year was no different. Held at the University of Manchester on 10th to 12th April, here are my conference gems and stuff I will be focusing on this year at UCA.
Individualised learning paths and artificial intelligence
Keynote by Volker Hirsch was around exabytes and the insane amount of data we capture on the internet and how this could be used for individualised learning. His theory centred on using AI and data sets to empower how learning is delivered to students in that it would be less standardised and designed around the best learning path most suited to the student. Volker drew parallels with Facebook and AI in terms of behaviour patterns to gather data sets then digging deeper, he explained how data metrics with AI could help individualise learning for students so more tailored learning approaches could be envisaged. Indeed, Blackboard are researching how AI could help mark written work (on-mass) such as blog posts by analysing the words used and scoring according. I found this a little scary as I wondered how AI and computer learning would be received by students, and how this approach might not work for the arts where both subjectively and uniqueness are inherent in conceptualised creatively.
Analytics to measure student engagement
Analytics was also a big feature at the conference with tools having to ability to measure student engagement in the VLE and how this might transfer into measuring student learning. In reality, these metrics can be tricky as they rely on students interacting with Blackboard tools such as tests, assignments, blogs, reading, journals, watching, listening, completing scorm activities etc. etc.). It also measures time students spend in the VLE which again might be negotiable as this doesn’t factor in multitasking and leaving tabs open. For universities that use Blackboard tools exclusively and offer online learning programs, these stats are likely to be more representative. For institutions, such as UCA, having a mix of TEL tools (not exclusive to Blackboard) together with face-2-face studio learning, measuring engagement with Blackboard dependent tools is more problematic.
Blackboard Ultra on SaaS
This was a real highlight for me as I was able to see Ultra in practice. Ultra is Blackboard’s most advanced VLE platform and offers many features not available in Blackboard Learn (our current platform). Ultra’s interface and user journey is based around a true mobile experience with the activity stream, targeted (role-based) information and course access delivered on page one. Features on the horizon are the ability to give audio and video feedback with the online submission tool, so in future, assessment feedback could include a video clip of a tutor discussing students’ work in a far richer visual context. Attendance monitoring is among the current features in SaaS along with the notification preferences – allowing students to decide how often they get notifications and in what manner (push, email and SMS). SaaS delivery of Ultra has the latest system deployment rolled out seamlessly so downtime never happens. In my opinion, this is definitely the way to go. The platform looks sharp, it’s completely responsive and is far removed from the tired old Bb Learn (Sept 2014) we currently have.
Blackboard mobile app (student)
Speaking about the imperatives of TEL at the conference, Dr Thierry Koscielnial – Vice Chief Digital Officer at Cnam, Paris said ‘Mobile is the New Frontier’ which is something we have known for a while, but never before has the need to deliver mobile technology to students been so important. The Blackboard mobile app was certainly my top priority to explore at this conference as UCA will be rolling this out in September – all being well with the upgrade. However, to get the best user experience from the app, staying up to date with the latest Blackboard Learn is key. UCA are many versions behind, and losing out on vast improvements Blackboard has made to functionality. Among the app’s existing features, the Q2 2018 rollout (SH/MH) will be implementing learning modules, test improvements and branding features and Q4 2018 (SH/MH) will see improvements for wikis and rubric viewing.
Blackboard mobile app (instructor)
The Bb Instructor app is not available for UCA until we upgrade in the summer. When that happens, instructors will be able to view courses and communicate with students. From June 2018, instructors will be able review, mark and comment on submitted Blackboard assignments.
Turnitin due dates displayed in the app
Currently at UCA, Turnitin assignment due dates are not displayed in the app’s due dates tab as the Blackboard/Turnitin integration has not yet been completed – only Ultra/SaaS users with the LTI Turnitin connector have this integration in the app. This is a big concern in the sector – as well as UCA. 90% of written assignments at UCA use Turnitin so not having the Due Dates displaying in the app is somewhat misleading as well as confusing for students. Progress with getting this integration work done for non-SaaS users is moving however, and Turnitin have stated their side of the work will be complete in time for Q2 2018, whereas Blackboard’s Dan Loury confirmed (at the conference’s MoCo session) the work they need to do will be ready for the Q4 2018 rollout – this would apply to both the Turnitin’s Direct and Basic building blocks (assuming you have the latest version). See Blackboard Community for latest updates.
The student voice drives change for Sheffield’s VLE
Danny Monaghan and Farana Latif from the University of Sheffield spoke about their VLE Rebrand project and how students were their biggest drivers for change. A video featuring students talking about the failings of the VLE, how it could be improved and the dire need for academics to be digitally literate (with many clearly not) was shown at key meetings to Faculty. As a result, the TEL team recruited 3 student ambassadors who were given training and course admin rights to help staff to develop their courses. Following this, roadshows and lots of staff training was delivered. As a result, there has been a steady and growing improvement in the use of the VLE and academic staff feel more confident and empowered. Could UCA adapt a similar model?
The grades journey – Blackboard to SITS
Yanna Nedlecheva gave a really excellent and frank presentation about the work to date University of Westminster and Blackboard has done with transferring assessment grades from Bb’s grade centre to SITS. This integration work has been mainly successful but not without bumps. Some things still need to be resolved but on the whole, the project has massively reduced the workflow of grades into SITS. Below are some notes pertinent to the project:
- Moved to fully online submissions in 2012
- 80% were Turnitin assessments
- University agreed to pay print costs for marking hard copies
- Marking online was not so popular with 20% of faculty
- Bb developed a B2 to bulk download so marking could be done offline in Word, then bulk uploaded back into Bb
- Grade columns sometimes get accidentally deleted by the course team
Next step is to pilot one module in each school, which requires academics to mark the work online (in Turnitin or Word) and give the grade via the grade centre which gets sent to SITS.
The University of Reading are also in the process of scoping the Grade Journey integration and employing the same tools (SITS, StuTalk and ESB) that UCA have, so we need to watch their progress closely. There was discussion about forming a Blackboard Grade Journey user group that will enable HEIs to share information, so hopefully this will happen.
Making course material accessible to all
Often, there is a lack of awareness & understanding behind the impact of accessibility and how to create more accessible content. Blackboard has developed Ally, a new product that automatically runs all course materials through an accessibility checklist that looks for common accessibility issues.
Once these are identified, the tool will highlight the problematic issues and generate a range of more accessible alternatives for the instructor’s original and make these available to all students in the course. These alternative accessible formats include Semantic HTML, audio, ePub (electronic publication) and electronic braille. UCA does not currently have Ally.
Learning to Learn – seamlessly
My conference session looked at how the VLE was employed at UCA to help address government cuts in DSA by developing a toolkit advocating independent learning. Aimed to demystify assessment practice, the toolkit introduces appropriate technologies and strategies for different learning approaches through interactive tasks (quizzes and exercises) as well as web resources. Built mainly by members of the Library’s professional support team, the toolkit essentially operates on a point-of-need basis. Sitting centrally in a Blackboard guest course and linked through to Xerte, it’s components are employed on course and unit templates as well as being listed on Blackboard’s A-Z of everything.