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.

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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.

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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 –

Blackboard’s 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.

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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 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

Student Ambassadors for Learning Technology

E-Learning Services Manager Steve Hoole from Bucks New University gave a fascinating presentation at London’s BUG about how the university employ 2nd year students as Learning Technology Ambassadors (LTAs) to help bridge the gap in digital literacy and enhance the LMS for improved student learning. Employed on a casual basis, earning £8 per hour, (same as student ambassadors) three 2nd year students (during term-time) work 10 hours per week to help support and advocate the use of learning technology among staff and students at Bucks.

So intrigued (and impressed) about this practice, I’ve decided to share a few note-worthy tips…

Advertising the posts…

With help from Bucks Careers Service, calls for interest were sent via a mailshot advertising the positions, these stated applicants would need to have an avid interest in digital technologies along with the people skills to transfer such knowledge and expertise to people that might be less adapt (or familiar) with digital literacy.

Making a selection…

Selection was through interview and presentation. Student applicants were asked to present 2 of their favourite technologies and give reasons why they had made this selection. The interview process teased out the best of the bunch and 3 appointments were made.

Training up the troops…

Time was allocated to induct the LTAs with the Blackboard course environment and each was given access to a course training area with instructor permissions. This allowed the LTAs time and opportunity to explore the full range of tools and become familiar and confident with each. Apart from this LTA training area, they only had access to their own course areas in Blackboard as regular students. They  also used as a support resource to learn new software that might be required in their new job. The LTAs were also provided with a uniform (Bucks e-learning T-shirt or Sweatshirt) so people would easily identify them from the general mill of students.

Typical LTA activities…

  • Work with staff on a one-to-one basis showing them how to make resources available in the LMS
  • Working with academic staff to transform teaching material into more engaging and interactive learning resources with software such as Captivate.
  • Explaining to students/staff which software to use for researching, bookmarking and social/professional networking.
  • Giving practical demonstrations on file compression, Photoshop techniques etc.
  • Helping to man the virtual library’s 24hr instant messenger
  • Creating campaigns to promote the use of certain technologies
  • Creating campaigns to for different service areas
  • Working closely with the e-Leaning Team and Student Union to address areas of identified need in learning technology
  • Help to flag up problems students often encounter that would normally go unnoticed


The digital literacy gap has improved and staff/students feel more supported. I also see this initiative as helping to close the divide that sometimes happens between students and institutional systems – as the LTAs are able to bring a new dimension to the service whereby students feel they have more ownership and control of how learning happens and is delivered.

Lessons Learnt…

Bucks intends to repeat the initiative in 14/15 and providing funding can be found, I can see this being a great success at UCA if implemented – perhaps having a LTA at each campus. Certainly, the LTAs are the ideal candidates to help run focus groups and identify with those individuals that ‘have something worthwhile to say about what LMS the university uses and how’.

Well done Bucks!

Learning Technology Ambassador Action Sheet

Learning Technology Ambassador Action Sheet – Used to target specific areas of support and record action taken

GLAD Conference 2014 – my thoughts

What is GLAD…? 

Group for Learning in Art and Design 

For those of you who don’t know about GLAD, it was established in 1990 as a grass roots network to improve student experience and stimulate debate in art and design education. This year’s conference theme looked at the studio and what it means to a student in 2014.

So, leaving Maidstone on a 6.25am train (destination Sheffield Hallam University) and retuning home at 9.30pm, we had a very packed day. Along with my co-presenter and work colleague Annamarie Mckie, we presented a poster session entitled a place of my own: reflective, formative online spaces for learning, teaching and assessment.

The poster displays the 3 main stakeholders and the benefits each stand to gain from using an innovative online space within the VLE that tutors can place formative feedback and students can respond. Click on the image below for a larger version – so you can read more about what these benefits are.


See poster above and here’s the background and case study.

The Keynote address – Revisionism v Chaos; The Studio Terroir was delivered by Professor Paul Haywood, Deputy Dean at Middlesex University. I found this talk to be the most inspiring part of the conference. Paul spoke and how a child learns by experience as construct but then is taught from parents etc. how things should look and gave painting as an example. He then took this theory into the artist’s studio and how ‘learning to paint’ has evolved through the centuries. He spoke of the moulded child/artist as being an inhibitor through construct – and does our current model of teaching foster a true creative process. His presentation displayed rich imagery and the red house struck a cord.

The second keynote – Open and Connected Classroom : A Show and Tell Presentation was delivered by Jonathan Worth, a photographer and teaching fellow at Coventry University. He spoke about the power of the virtual world and how someone’s images can be credible, believed and authoritative – or not as the case may be. His work with students explored questions about the benefits of the internet and the power of people connected together regardless of experience or qualification and how this has made a transformative impact on everyone’s lives. It led me to think about social boundaries and the absence of them in the virtual world – one example being the QuizUp app where you find yourself playing with someone in Texas (anywhere in fact) but complete strangers and people having ability to demand a rematch should you beat them, and if that’s not enough a chat tool and discussion board should you want to go deeper with making connections.

In terms of the planned workshops and presentations, the first focused around the technical studio and modes of student learning. I’ve highlighted the key aspects below:

  1. One day un-assessed workshops so students can learn freely and make mistakes – the notion of not being assessed opens a debate about the freedom to explore/experiment without the fear of being penalised.
  2. Google maps used as an icebreaker (for a digital literacy workshop) to see where students are located (even 2nd years)
  3. Pinterest used as collaborative boards to share visual dialogue and output.
  4. How students perceive feedback was another hot topic as some feared technical feedback, which students often sought and valued was not considered by students in the NSS.
  5. Helen Makin from Coventry University stated the delivery of making skills comes no longer comes from academic staff but from technical staff. The attitude from some sees the quality of making is a lesser skill to the conceptual skill. Consequently, technical staff feel somewhat short-changed and under valued – and I can fully sympathise here knowing what they are paid compared to academics.
  6. Students not turning up to workshops was another common problem, but as paying customers they expected workshops on demand and often one-to-one if they missed the planned session.
  7. Technical staff felt they needed more integration with project briefs in order to tailor and maximise learning outcomes – they saw themselves ‘working too much in the dark’,

The afternoon workshop explored the meaning of failing and how this relates to the studio space. In groups, we were asked to write a manifesto, this is our group’s offering:


‘The studio and how to fail in it”

  1. The studio is not destination transition
  2. Celebrate failure with less assessment and more scrutiny
  3. Failure is linked to a learning outcome
  4. Less prescription – allow some privacy
  5. Failure is contingent – students need to know this

Communities of Learning

Studying an OU module by nature is situated within a group of learners and tutors which 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 that that 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.

Durham Blackboard Users Conference 2014 – my highlights

Conference Theme: personalised learning

90% MOOCS are didactic – why bother!
The opening keynote by Professor Patrick Carmichael challenged the use of video being inappropriately used in 90% of MOOCS saying this practice amounted to a didactic learning model devoid of any real and meaningful pedagogy… No lecture notes, discussion, context and meaningful conversation – just a one-way dialogue which could be better served at TED or Khan. He argued for video to be embedded within a pedagogic context involving critical discussion and reflective activity that took learning to a deeper level. He showcased a video/discussion type software he co-developed which evolved from his Ensemble project which focuses on Semantic Technologies for the Enhancement of Case Based Learning.

UCA could create a similar model by using embedded video (eStream, Vimeo, YouTube etc) into a discussion tool or wiki even, this would then allow for associated learning materials and dialogue to take place.

Using eStream to help assess video work
Chris Boon from City College Norwich presented work around handling large video files for assessment. His students are uploading their video course work to defined categories within eStream and then using the mashup tool within blackboard assignment to submit their work for assessment. By using eStream, the videos ‘stream’ as opposed to slow clunky downloads, they are able to be presented within context and the tutor is able to view/feedback on the same page. The uploaded video in eStream are made private to the student and thereby only accessed/embedded by that student.

Chris also spoke about the pedagogic role video assignments have at City, whereby video production and role play are offered as alternatives to written assignments. The example given involved a group activity (3 per group) tasked with creating a video production relating to a work-based scenario (around child care), with each person acting out a particular role. Tutor feedback stated the collaborative activity greatly enriched learning outcomes from a shared perspective and greatly improved students confidence.

Currently at UCA, videos are either uploaded to the Blackboard assignment or linked/embedded from Vimeo/YouTube. Having the video hosted externally brings it’s own set of problems such as students developing the work remotely after the hand-in date, copyright and IP issues. So using eStream to assess video work at UCA is definitely worth investigating.

Derby’s VLE’s Threshold Standards and Staff Digital Literacy
Sarah Horrigan and Laura Hollinshead from Derby university presented their work on how they developed their own TEL benchmarking matrix to evaluate how well staff use the university’s VLE. This slightly differs from the annual learning technology audit we run at UCA which measures engagement with elearning by the level of activity found. Interestingly, they audit the VLE from a ‘student perspective’ by turning the edit mode off. Certain elements from this practice would be good to employ at UCA in terms of measuring staff digital literacy – perhaps employ students to define what constitutes a good course area which would then help determine the UCA’s threshold standards (formally known as minimum requirements).

The closing keynote by Robin Goodfellow spoke about how statistical data can (but often can’t) measure student learning. He has concerns technology can be used too elaborately trying to do too much and overly complicate systems. He gave the former MyStuff portfolio system (operating circa 2008 at the OU) as being a classic model of a system trying to do too many processes which results in an overly complex tool turning students off. Ironically, I was one of those students studying for a MAODE and having to use such a system only encouraged me to find my own Portfolio tool (Google Docs) which was a very good thing, as I am a firm believer in student ownership which converts to student empowerment. Here’s a grab of MyStuff in all it’s glory.


Finally, I should also mention my own presentation which showcased how the logistical attributes of UCA (University for the Creative Arts) has shaped the growth and management of learning technology with respect to Blackboard the university’s VLE and making learning material available via course templates and module pages.