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.

To prep or not to prep: supporting newcomers to online learning

Studying an Open University module by nature is situated within a group of learners and tutors, this naturally evolves into learning community.

The success of such a community is dependant on the group dynamics such as how the forum activities lend themselves to discourse, how the tutor draws out discussion and the ability and confidence learners have to engage with such discourse.

Personally, the benefits if learning within a community is sharing knowledge/experience with fellow learners and making sense of course material, literature and new concepts from shared perspectives. Learning alone would cancel out the shared understanding and reduce the richness of my learning journey significantly. There is also the peer-supporting element of the community, getting help and advice from co-learners helps to build a stronger sense of community and this bonds learner more closely.

The Ludwig-Hardman and Dunlap 2003 model is far too supportive of learners and does not provide the authentic learning environment learners really experience when arriving in a new environment and discovering new forms of communication. I would also argue taking learners along such a supportive route is stifling their own pursuit of experiential learning, as McLoughlin states ‘To foster effective learning, it is important to make sure that the learners are not just exposed to inert facts and information, but they are afforded an experience that enables them to plan, act and reflect’ (2002pp.157). Doing this within the course environment and at point of need then becomes meaningful and relevant. Salmon also supports this view by stating ‘offering face-to-face sessions to try and instruct new participants in all the features of the platform and then to expect them to be able to take part successfully is not a good idea’ (Salmon 2002 pp. 14).

Having the resources to help students at point of need is a matter the course team should build in (or link to) by default at the start of each online course. The course tutor should ensure such resources are used by students who are less confident, while at the same time allowing the more confident learners to help with this support. Thus, such a model helps to support the notion of community and learning happens in a far more evolving manner.


Ludwig-hardman, S., & Dunlap, J. (2003). Learner Support Services for Online Students: Scaffolding for success. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distance Learning, vol. 4, issue 1. Retrieved from

McLoughlin, C. (2002) ‘Learner support in distance and networked learning environments: ten dimensions for successful design’, Distance Education, vol.23, no.2, pp.149–62.

Salmon, G. (2002) E-tivities: The Key to Active Online Learning, London, RoutledgeFalmer.

Typesetting, Typeface and Dyslexia

Typesetting is an old word now, but I’m trying to describe a mix of uppercase/lowercase alpha characters alongside numerals, so for now I will refer to typesetting because that’s what we do when we apply these to a page.

I’m one of those people that struggle with block text presented in uppercase, in fact I also struggle with combination of uppercase letters and numbers such as RFPR2201 – there’s just nothing memorable about it for me. Besides not being able to remember such arrangements, they are hard to read smoothly, coming across as tongue twisters – try saying RFPR2201 quickly. Does this make me dyslexic I wonder? If we consider changing the pattern of this code, which version do you find more memorable? I’ve place them in an order I find most memorable and less difficult to say…

  1. rFPr2201
  2. RFpr2201
  3. rfPR2201
  4. rfpr2201
  5. rFPR2201
  6. Rfpr2201
  7. RfpR2201
  8. RFPR2201

Again, ordering by ease and memorability, the connections I make are denoted by a hyphen acting as a pause:

  1. r-FP-r-2201
  2. RF-pr-2201
  3. rf-PR-2201
  4. rfpr-2201
  5. r-FPR-2201
  6. R-fpr-2201
  7. R-fp-R-2201
  8. RFPR-2201

Typeface also plays a strong role in setting triggers in memory and legibility. I came across Christian Boer’s Dyslexie typeface, which is especially designed for people with dyslexia. Research by the University of Twente in Holland showed that people with dyslexia made fewer mistakes reading with the typeface Dyslexie compared to standard fonts. Dyslexie has distinct differences between each character such as placing emphasis on certain parts of the letter which makes it easier to recognize against similar letterforms.