About Maria Tannant

Formally trained in visual communication, my career route has taken me into web design, teaching and learning technology. My expertise and interest lies with using technology to create effective activities, environments and resources to enhance learning. Within the area of digital literacy, my research looks at the advocacy of self-directed learning using a constructivist approach that promotes the use of self-paced and just-in-time learning.

My Highlights: Blackboard Teaching & Learning Conference 2018

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

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

Blackboard Ultra homepage

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)

Blackboard Instructor App Release Strategy

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

Blackboard Mobile 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

University of Westminster Grade Journey

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

Blackboard Ally meeting the EU Web Accessibility Directive

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.

Blackboard Ally Accessibility Features

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

Learning to Learn Seamlessly at UCA

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.


The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in Learning Technologies

The 18th Durham Blackboard Users’ Conference

As always, this conference is predominantly about learning technologies and how they are used in Blackboard. Hosted annually by the University of Durham there were around 100 attendees from across the sector – academics and learning technologists enhancing learning and teaching with the use of technology.

Staff Development and Digital Competency

The opening keynote by Sharon Flynn from the National University of Ireland (NUI) in Galway focused on staff development and digital competency. The TEL team Interestingly sits in Teaching and Learning and includes learning technologists, academic developers and audio visual developers. She has tailored a National Framework for professional development and was instrumental in helping to form All Aboard Digital Skills in Higher Education, a national project that aims to empower learners, teachers, and anyone who uses technology to support their work/study, or other aspects of living in a digital age.

All Aboard Digital Skills in Higher Education Tube Map

All Aboard Digital Skills in Higher Education Tube Map

Sharon’s TEL team also have their own helpdesk system supported by a Resources Website where all help material is held. The Helpdesk allows the team to identify and track patterns and common queries. An Overview is produced on a monthly basis.

Typically, attendance at workshops are low but the prep material is useful to add to resources. A popular and well attended Blackboard festival is held at the end of August normally lasting 4 or 5 days. University of Kent also host a Blackboard festival each year where staff showcase best practice. Badges are used to encourage enthusiasm and recognition within digital literacy and managed through the Blackboard’s achievements, a feature we have yet to employ at UCA.

Real-time Video Conferencing with Collaborate Ultra

I attended this session given by the University of Northampton as I was keen to see what the tool could offer – as UCA has no classroom video conferencing or recording tools. Northampton use it mainly for seminars, group and one2one tutorials, research proposal workshops, interviews, guest speakers and PG twilight classes (1 hour session) which include a planned activity. Their PhD project community use collaborate to connect with fellow students globally. The conferencing tool opens directly in the browser, so no need to install any software to join a session. The only downside mentioned was rural areas with a weak internet connection which meant the session would drop out.

Benefits of Collaborate Ultra at University of Northampton

Benefits of Collaborate Ultra at University of Northampton

Personally, I am still unconvinced we need such a tool at UCA – UNLESS we expand into more online teaching and international partnerships with other institutions, then it would be a sound investment.

Online IT Induction for Pre-Arrival Students

Lina Petrakieva & David McArthur from Glasgow Caledonian University presented their work stemming from a 3 year research project around student induction. They designed and built a pre-arrival student induction which aims to help students become familiar with their login, university email and virtual learning environment (Blackboard). Working alongside Registry and IT, they used a number of techniques to take students to a bespoke learning object (built in Adobe Captivate) where students were asked to complete a number of tasks in order to obtain their university email.

Timeline mapping the evolution of the IT Induction at GCU

Timeline mapping the evolution of the IT Induction at GCU

Over 50% of students completed the induction which is significant compared to the 37 views we had with our own UCA IT Induction (hosted on YouTube). Glasgow now plan to make a part 2 induction which covers more aspects of digital literacy. This is definitely a model to learn from, GCU have sent me a copy of this induction, so watch this space.

EMA – Electronic Management of Assessment

A number of presentations covered this topic and it was interesting to see how different institutions approach this feat according to their assessment practice, tools and strategic vision. Both Reading and Aberdeen gave papers on how EMA brought consistency to the process that fostered pedagogical benefits, improved and supported assessment experience for staff and afforded significant reductions in administrative work. The use of Safe Assign was used at Aberdeen whereas Reading used Turnitin with both using the Grade Centre to distribute Marks – something UCA does not currently do. Andrew Yule from Aberdeen gave a compelling argument for Safe Assign in that letter grading could be employed (unlike Turnitin) and assignment Due Dates and Marks where flagged up in Blackboard’s mobile app – whereas Turnitin’s Due Dates are not – a bone of contention indeed!

Blackboard Managed Hosting – One Year On

Chris Boon from City College Norwich shared his experience of managed hosting. The advantages (fast, robust, up-to-date, headache free, responsive, better user experience) far outweigh the disadvantages. These disadvantage being loss of direct database access – which in most cases, forces best practice but can prevent customisations from working.

What UCA can learn from this – as we are due to move to managed hosting this summer – is to avoid the Webservices API used for SIS middleware, and use REST APIs instead.

Online Assessment – a marriage between Registry and Faculty


Durham Blackboard User Conference on Assessment and Feedback provided an opportunity to disseminate the work I and fellow Learning Technologist Tony Reeves have done to move the University for the Creative Arts towards a fully online assessment process. My conference paper ‘Online Assessment – a marriage between Registry and Faculty’ unpacks why UCA took the decision to give Registry responsibility for setting up all online submissions and assessment forms via Turnitin, and myself and Tony acted as broker to facilitate such a marriage.

what students say about assessment feedback

The mantra for such change in practice embodied parity for student learning and experience across all courses in the use of Turnitin, leaving administration and process to Registry – sparing Faculty the pain.

Grades journey via Turnitin

View the presentation:Online Assessment – a marriage between Registry and Faculty


Sector spotlight on the Blackboard Mobile Apps – Bb Student and Mobile Learn

The Durham Blackboard User Conference 2017 was themed around Assessment and Feedback. However for me, discussions about the student mobile experience stole the limelight.

Mobile Learn screens (left) Bb Student screen (right)

Mobile User Symposium

The pre conference workshop manifested into a mobile user group symposium of which was the conference highlight. This group was made up of 35 delegates from over 30 HEIs and each voiced how their institution was delivering a mobile experience to their students. Unsurprisingly not one institution had a mobile strategy in place and this was understandable considering the pace technology moves.

Mobile Symposium – user stories revealed

What did come to light from each delegate were Blackboard’s two different mobile apps and how this is causing some confusion in deciding which to employ and promote to students. Mobile Learn (pictured above on the left) is the older of the two and displays much of what Blackboard Learn (desktop) delivers whereas Bb Student (pictured right) delivers only a fraction of the contact and is mainly geared around working with Blackboard’s own core tools, such as Marks, Due Dates, Announcements, Grade Centre and course content. Bb Student does not display module pages*, Turnitin assignments or Campus Pack objects (blogs, journals, eportfolios and wikis). Therefore, UCA would not be deploying the Blackboard Bb Student app (although visually more attractive) at this stage. Blackboard would need to build in more integration for third party tools to consider adoption. The notion of putting all eggs in one basket (using all of Blackboard’s tools) builds a model reliant on one provider and this would alienate many of our current users who value a range of technologies and providers – many of which are cloud-based and use open source.

Mobile Symposium – minutes

* UCA are currently heavily dependant on module pages to host library content including subject specific resources

Conference workshop tackling first year student engagement with learning technologies and the VLE

Delivered at The 16th Durham Blackboard User’s Conference – Jan 2016 themed ‘Learning from Failure’

I devised this workshop to sound out TEL folk across the sector on what they might want for their 1st year student experience and explore ways in which institutions prepare learners for study. This is based on the fact that it is a misconception that learners arrive at university with the ability to discern and select ‘appropriate’ learning tools.

Content given before group task

Split into three groups, 18 hardy colleagues from UK HEIs contributed by participating in the following tasks:

Task 1 – The Learner’s PLE 
Design a PLE (personal learning environment) that enhances a new student’s learning experience at university. The group may elect a specific subject area the student has chosen to study.

Task 2 – TEL Manifesto
Draft up an institutional TEL Manifesto intended for new students that enhances learning and enriches their online user experience.

The workshop was a mix of lively discussion and resolve. Groups had 20 minutes to work on both tasks and a further 5 minutes to share their findings. Overall outcomes demonstrated that educators need to be more proactive and prescriptive in advising learners what tools/apps they should use to enhance learning. Along with a learners’ preference of tools, alternatively known as their personal learning environment (PLE), the workshop explored what principals and guidance institutions give to new students to enhance learning and enrich their online user experience. Workshop participants worked in groups to tackle both these questions; outcomes can be viewed on the Padlet links below.

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 12.46.00.png


Group 1 workshop outcomes

Group 2 workshop outcomes

Group 3 workshop outcomes


Padlet was used during the workshop so groups were able to disseminate their findings collectively on group board – this tool proved to be more effective in working collaboratively to gather ideas and place all associated workshop detail in one place.

Learning from Failure…

The 16th Durham Blackboard User’s Conference 2016

This conference was slightly different in that normally one would expect to share and disseminate success across the HE Sector, not reveal things that went wrong and messed up. But unpacking the concept, isn’t it always the journey that’s the most interesting aspect to a successful project… the things that were tried and failed for one reason or another.

Keynote by Eric Stoller

The Keynote ‘Why Educators Can’t Live Without Social Media’ by Eric Stoller highlighted the importance and power of tools such as Twitter and LinkedIn in that every person should have a profile. He also centred around what tools learners are using and how ‘tool selection’ is pivotal to learner success. This theme related to my own session, a workshop focusing around what advice educators should provide to learners when building their own personal learning environments (PLEs); and what guidance institutions should give to learners about using the VLE and associated technologies in the light of 81% of students use mobile devises to study.

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 19.24.21

Interestingly, but not surprisingly Stoller spoke about how email matters – a great relief to institutions that completely depend on email for all core communications and day-to-day business. He spoke about the popularity of Snapchat and yik yak and how trends are moving towards anonymity and not exposing true identities. These tools, predominately used by Millennials foster new attitudes and social behaviour with peers.


This indeed introduces a form of semantic language whereby signifiers, like words, hashtags, signs, symbols and app functionality allow powerful and sophisticated ways of communicate. Along with anonymity comes the need to understand the implications of such tools. We have witnessed shame and disgrace on certain individuals that have openly voiced offensive opinions on social media. Employability and online profiles go hand in hand and educators need to make learners aware that the internet deletes nothing. Once a FB post or tweet is made there’s no going back. Undeniably learners need to be prepared for the potential onslaught social media can bring. Interestingly Stoller terms soft skills as human skills and advocates that digital skills need to be built into learners life skills.


But often, learners arrive at university unprepared for the world of social media and it’s greater implications to web ethics and online privacy. Institutions need to grapple with this problem and educate learners to protect their online reputation and create awareness around the misgivings careless and spontaneous actions on social media can cause.

Conference Sessions

Pre-Induction Course: Regents University London – Student Induction is always a nightmare and trying the pack everything into the induction week has proved ineffective and draining. Students are too preoccupied with settling in and forming peer groups, so preaching protocols, structures and processes is rather like pouring water through a sieve, the information will not hit the intended mark. That is one reason why I was interested to hear how Regent’s University London had tackled the problem. Steve Dawes presented a neat solution whereby the TEL team designed a Pre-Induction Course inside Blackboard for students to work through before they arrive at university. As the presentation demonstrated, this method proved highly successful, as the learners were far keener to explore the course area to gain insight to what they might find and expect at university.

Regents University London pre-induction course

Developing Presentation Skills: Durham University – Students were filmed during a 2 minute recording which was then uploaded to the VLE and used for peer review via adaptive release. Uploading the video clips was somewhat labour intensive but the exercise proved successful. Methods of giving peer feedback in this instance could be varied to suit the discipline. One method might be to use a blog post to embed the video and invite peers to comment, this could just as easily work in a locked down wiki page or Padlet which only the peer reviewers have the link.


Single input of grades from VLE to SIS: Glasgow Caledonian University – This is something all universities dream about and a true acclaim to being digital. Presented by Jim Emery, he revisits the term ‘Think Different’ with the laborious business of marks entered manually into the students records system, and the implications to data accuracy, pressure of time, system instability and staff stress. Piloting a new integration process that extracts Blackboard grades directly into SIS, GCU have successfully cracked the challenge.

Jim Emery from GCU presenting Blackboard Marks Integration with the Students Records System

The next step is system rollout but not before staff development, change management, and a simplified but effective workflow is implemented. Only then can GCU be deemed a digital university… the rest of us paper-bound manual institutions will look on in wonder and all want to work at GCU where things can only get better.

Incidental but of vital importance

One of the best parts of attending a conference is coming away with real gems often sourced from networking, below are my three DBBUser gems:

1 – Lynda.com

Blackboard’s Lynda.com building block – and to think we’ve had this resource for over two years and had no idea there was a building block that is accessed via the content mash-up tool. Installing this was painless, and Turning provided the API keys within hours.


2 – Turnitin’s Roster Sync

Casual chatting with colleagues about Turnitin’s Roster Sync was revelational, I discovered colleagues only needed to activate the Roster Sync to attach late students to a class – whereas in my institution there are no students listed to begin with and there’s a requirement to Roster Sync on every new module. Consequently, academics forget to do this and students cannot submit. A Turnitin support call is in progress.

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 22.02.30

3 – Extending and Adapting Campus Pack

At last year’s Durham conference I gave a presentation about flexible learning spaces using Campus Pack (CP). One element of this was each student having an area for Professional Development Planning (PDP). At this year’s conference, I met a colleague who attended that presentation and stated she had implemented journals for each of her medical students using CP and got students to export these (as a webpage) to upload into Blackboard’s online submission area for assessment along with the various other assignment components. This extended practice not only enables all the work to be accessed from a central assessment location, it also exports a copy of the PDP at a point in time, so thereafter, learners can continue developing their journals in CP for the next assignment detail.

Reflective formative spaces moulded around course pedagogy

Using Campus Pack Learning Objects

With a bit of imagination and clear idea of a course’s pedagogic remit, building learning spaces around specific learning outcomes is a breeze using Campus Pack Learning Objects. The trick behind this ease of flexibility is getting under the hood and changing a few settings according to the type of interactivity desired. For example, a tutorial blog can allow the tutor to post up notes (and any relevant media) that feed forward (Murtagh and Baker, 2009). These face2face one2one tutorials are normally given with a laptop to hand, notes are taken by the tutor and posted up, students respond with the comments tool by a certain period (if requested). The benefits to this method mean tutorial notes are held centrally and online; act as an aide memoire to both tutor and student of what was discussed; allows the student to reflect and articulate how they intend to take their work forward; provides a recording mechanism which is useful when several tutors are giving feedback over the course of a project. Additional support staff (study development tutors/disability tutors) can also access the feedback first-hand and discuss this with the student, often contributing with posts so feedback is collective and everyone is on the same page. Thus, taking a heutagogic approach consistent with Bandura’s (1986) conceptualisation of self-regulation, involving self observation, self-evaluation, and self-reaction, learning is student centric and self disciplined.

Presentation given at Durham’s Blackboard User Conference 2015 demonstrating Unit Feedback, Tutorial Log, Personal Development and Work Placement Blog learning spaces.

By integrating the student’s private feedback areas within the university’s virtual learning environment (VLE), staff and students can access a ‘trail’ of feedback – all in one place thus ensuring students and all the teaching support teams have 24/7 remote access. This student-centred place also becomes a deeper space for autonomous learning and continuing dialogue between students and staff, thus creating an ‘inside-out’ (Higgins, Hartley and Skelton, 2001) approach to assessment feedback, which embraces reflection, criticality and student ownership to learning.

Reflective formative spaces moulded around course pedagogy

WHO BENEFITS: Reflective formative spaces moulded around course pedagogy

Alongside benefits to the student, university and course team – as shown above, this learning and teaching intervention has greatly increased student satisfaction at UCA. Students’ perspective of course organisation and management has greatly improved and administration time along with costs has significantly reduced. See above slideshare which illustrates improvements to UCA’s NSS figures.

Campus Pack may not be the most sophisticated piece of technology, but it is certainly cost effective and adequate for courses wishing to adapt and flex learning activities/spaces and deliver a far richer model of teaching, learning and assessment.

Higgins, R., Hartley, P. and Skelton, A. (2001) Getting the message across: the problem of communicating assessment feedback. Teaching in Higher Education 6(2): 269–274

Murtagh, L. and Baker, N. (2009) Feedback to Feed Forward: student response to tutors’ written comments on assignments. Practitioner Research in Higher Education Vol 3 (1): page 20-28

Bandura, A. (1986) Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Web Literacy in Academia

Durham BB 2015 conference

The conference brought together examples of students as partners as well as question what this might mean to the future of education. The second conference keynote Radical Participation (slides below) was delivered by Doug Belshaw, web literacy lead at the Mozilla Foundation.

Doug spoke about a perceived value for academics to learn a certain literacy in order to come closer to the concept of students as partners, for example Facebook literacy, or Blackboard literacy. He defines the need for radical participation in order to succeed in this notion of partnership. Such engagement would fall into three key themes shown below.

Mozilla’s web literacy map


  • Composing for the web – Creating and curating content for the web
  • Remixing – Modifying existing web resources to create something new
  • Design and Accessibility – Creating universally effective communications through web resources
  • Coding/scripting – Creating interactive experiences on the web
  • Infrastructure – Understanding the Internet stack


  • Sharing – Creating web resources with others
  • Collaborating – Providing access to web resources
  • Community Participation – Getting involved in web communities and understanding their practices
  • Privacy – Examining the consequences of sharing data online
  • Open Practices – Helping to keep the web democratic and universally accessible


  • Navigation – Using software tools to browse the web
  • Web Mechanics – Understanding the web ecosystem
  • Search – Locating information, people and resources via the web
  • Credibility – Critically evaluating information found on the web
  • Security – Keeping systems, identities, and content

See webmaker.org/literacy for more about Mozilla’s work on web literacy.

A time when all academics are web literate

We need to ask ourselves honestly if such an ideal can ever be achieved? Indeed, I have seen a good number of new staff employed for their web and IT literacy skills over and above their subject based skills. From my own experience as a late starter to technology, messing around learning how new tools work and employing them effectively within pedagogy is extremely time consuming. I had the luxury of studying an MA in Online and Distance Education; so many hours were devoted to learning how these tools worked. I am not trying to make excuses for busy academics that never find the time to dabble with new learning technologies, I just wonder how they can when they teach, assess, produce research outputs, review course programs, manage staff and recruit new students.

Are we really expecting the impossible, or should there be a far greater focus on learning technologists working together at course level with academics to ensure real currency lies within the course’s pedagogy. One solution might be to offer student TEL ambassador scholarships whereby the student’s tuition fees are wavered if they become active partners and work to literally retain technical currency both within the course program and the people who deliver it.

Students as Partners

Durham BB 2015 conference

Conference signature image

This year’s Durham conference was centred around the theme of Students as Partners with Abbi Flint from the HEA giving one of the keynotes broadly based around the report Engagement through partnership: students as partners in learning and teaching in higher education that Mick Healey, Abbi Flint and Kathy Harrington have just published via the HEA.

Clearly the conference theme is a very timely topic that challenges our assumptions, practices and beliefs about learning, teaching and assessment. The educational experience a student today gets is very different from the one their tutors and teaching staff received as undergraduates. The conference questioned whether our own experiences are still valid reference points.

From my experience as a learning technologist of five years and MA student in online and distance education 3 years ago, I have witnessed rapid change in pedagogy with the onslaught of technology. This change has indeed reconceptualised education as we know it. The concept of students as partners may seem strange and some students might indeed ask why they should be partners when they pay 9k a year for a course program that is partly conceived by their peers. But unless educators can fully understand today’s digital technology and how new generations are using it, we can never hope to deliver a parallel learning experience that enhances and excites our learners. In fact, without working and learning from students in a form of partnership, we will be out of touch, ineffective and blatantly arrogant with the needs of learners. As Jim Emery from Glasgow Caledonian University stated in his presentation around student engagement “those who graduated even as recently as 4 years ago faced different challenges from the students of right now. The dynamic and relationship between a teacher and a learner is different, or if not it’s ineffective”.

But the notion of student as partner has to be genuine. To be a partner, one has to be fit for purpose, be able to understand the challenges, tensions and opportunities. For students to take partnership seriously, institutions need to man-up and take the responsibility of ensuring technical currency exists within the pedagogic delivery. This again can only be done with the student voice and institutions positively acting on their findings as Duune suggests below:

There is a subtle, but extremely important, difference between an institution that ‘listens’ to students and responds accordingly, and an institution that gives students the opportunity to explore areas that they believe to be significant, to recommend solutions and to bring about the required changes. (Dunne in Foreword to Dunne and Zandstra 2011, p. 4)

Students as Partners – Making it Happen

Measures such as student reps being on all university committees, including the exam reviews and assessment boards have been put into place by Hull York Medical School.

Student TEL Ambassadors at Hull York Medical School

Slide from HYMS presentation

They expelled the ‘token gesture’ principle and forged ahead to work with students as co-producers by involving them with getting a variety of curriculum development activities as paid university employees. Examples include working with the HYMS eLearning Team as Student TEL Ambassadors to ensure that the VLE courses for the new academic year are updated and evolve in appropriate ways both in curriculum design and content and to accommodate the changing profile of students. Often, this would involve the students working alongside clinical and academic staff as co-designers of learning resources and influencing the way they use technology to enhance learning and teaching. Students have also worked on research projects and developing eLearning resources such as virtual patients and e-tutorials.

Another significant and simple participation tool used in the open course GCUGameson was Padlet embedded into their Blackboard Course Site. This simple tool cut through all the red tape and complexity that comes with the Blackboard discussion tools.

Highlights from Blackboard’s L&T Conference 2014 – Dublin

My 3 days at this conference was a really worthwhile experience and below are some highlights I wanted to share and take forward in my own practice.

Keynote Address

The opening keynote was delivered by Professor Stephen Heppell – Chair of The Centre for Excellence in Media Practice, a research and innovation centre based in the Media School at Bournemouth University. His talk focused on the value and power of the ‘now learning’… such as Twitter and YouTube and the sense of connectedness through technology and social media. His work researches how kids in different environments react to a range of learning and teaching approaches. His photographs demonstrate how spatial surroundings affect mood and attitude to learning by using colour, soft furniture, audio and a relaxed sense of order. His classrooms are more like chill-out pads than the usual traditional desks lined up in front of a blackboard.  The Kids would often be encouraged to direct the learning, take the classes and engage in peer feedback. This notion of peer directed learning brings about the need to involve students far more into curriculum development – which ideally needs to happen when courses are conceived or revalidated – something a bit more radical than inviting a few student reps along to agree a near preordained course program.

A number of workshops tackled staff digital literacy with using a range of frameworks to implement mandatory assessment and a suite of needs-based training – Regents University London being one. Other presentations focused on how course teams and learning technologists transformed the curricula to employ a blended approach to learning – reducing traditional lectures, using webcasts, reflective journals and peer reviews.

Peer Review with Turnitin’s PeerMark

There were 2 very interesting sessions about Turnitin’s PeerMark assignment tool presented by Jiska Bomans-Memelink and Klazine Verdonschot from Leiden University and Dr Ronel Callaghan from the University of Pretoria. PeerMark allows students to review their peers’ papers based on scale and free response questions selected by the instructor. In all cases, the practice was extremely successful and adds an extremely important element to student learning with regard to criticality and self-reflection.

PeerMark Process in BlackboardPeerMark process in Blackboard – practiced by Dr Ronel Callaghan

A Menu of Learning Approaches from SHU

Brian Irwin, Head of TEL and Ian Glover from Sheffield Hallam University presented an excellent workshop around teaching approaches to encourage deeper engagement with TEL. The university had two big institutional challenges around consistency and not fulfilling TEL potential. They TEL team wanted a way to encourage staff to go beyond the minimum and transform their teaching with the use of technology. They felt a fixed framework such as the minimum expectations would not work for teaching given the diverse needs of different modules and different teaching styles/personalities of academics. To meet this goal they set up a project as part of the UK’s Changing the Learning Landscape programme, which explored the creation of a ‘menu’ of teaching approaches, which reflected the ways academics at SHU were teaching their students. The menu works by helping academics identify the different ways they could teach their students. For each teaching approach there are examples of how technology can enhance those approaches using the range of tools available at the institution.

Cards to use for different learning approaches in workshopsCards used in workshops for different learning approaches

Their approach was to focus on the things Shu was doing from a grassroots direction involving academics. They pulled together a project steering group including SU and academics. The prompts were initially about teaching approaches (not focused on technology). They got over 100 staff attending the focus groups and they put together a menu (not framework) so choice is at the fore. Technology was thought about in a broader sense. The SU also ran their own workshops to identify needs. People participating at the workshops are encouraged to talk about their teaching approaches. Pedagogic language was not used to sell the concept, neither was technology – icebreakers were used to kick off sessions and relax everyone. The workshops last around an hour. The PVC was extremely supportive and encouraged people to attend the workshops. This has become so embedded that course validations are reflecting on their teaching approaches and employing the changing the learning landscapes program.

What’s New in Blackboard

In terms of Blackboard’s new products and improvements, the April 2014 release offers:

– Student preview
– Anonymous and multiple marking (parallel marking)
– Opportunity to reconcile grades
– Improved Safe Assign integration

Interestingly, Blackboard now has a new partnership with Tribal so they will be able to integrate more with marks, assignments, user and module data.

Tribal and Blackboard integrationTribal partners with Blackboard for a joined-up process

Another important aspect they are working on is simplification – making the look and navigation far easier and simple to use. The ability to drag and drop material into course areas will become available and the look will become much sleeker. They want to cut down on the clicks esp. in the grade centre. I have to admit that some of the proposed designs and features look fabulous – it remains to be seen if they actually materialise.

Blackboard's new look grade centre

A preview of Blackboard’s new Grade Centre

In terms of Blackboard’s cloud social space, students can now opt in by signing an agreement, they can also delete their profile and any content they have added to the cloud. For mobility, they are working on responsive design so lets see how well this pans out and complements the Bb mobile learn.

Responsive Design from Blackboard

A vision of Blackboard’s responsive design

Collaborate (video conferencing tool) is I the middle of changing the JAVA function so in future users don’t have the problem of ‘can’t install the latest plugin’ to make it work on institute machines that are locked down as far as upgrades and installs go.

Empower and Enhance with course templates and community modulesFinally, my own presentation Empower and Enhance with Blackboard Course Templates and Community Modules can been seen in Slideshare. It demonstrates how the learning technologists at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA) use Blackboard’s tools to enhance staff/student learning