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.


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

Sharing Practice at JISC’s SETS 2014

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending and participating as a finalist in SETS (Southeast Technology Showcase), JISC’s annual awards scheme, designed to identify, promote, reward and disseminate the best e-learning practice taking place across the Southeast of England (SETS was formally known as the HiFi Awards). Each presentation was awarded points (1-10) by everyone else in the room according to 1) benefits to learning and teaching and 2) benefits to the university. Along with UCA colleagues, we witnessed some truly amazing work, which I’ll attempt to highlight below. I’ll also have a stab at what UCA can learn and apply from this innovative practice.

Starting with my own contribution for the University for the Creative Arts and assisted by Librarian Ian Badger, we presented practice on ‘Moulding and integrating the VLE to meet institutional needs’ with the following context in mind:

  • The course portfolio
  • The changing structure to the university, departments & staff
  • Emerging technologies
  • Working smarter with less

Notably highlighted are some of the methodologies and mechanisms employed by UCA’s Learning Technologists to enable Library and Faculty staff to ‘centrally manage’ content residing in over 1000 courses and units. The submission also looks at how the learning technologists audit e-learning activity across the university, which in turn informs UCA’s seven Schools of their course’s strengths/weaknesses and gives each the ability to share and learn best practice collectively.

This slideshare is UCA’s presentation.

Read what the JISC judging panel said about this entry

Swim UK the SETS winner presented a very effective use of the iPad. The swimming instructor would simply video the learner swimming underwater which then allowed playback at the poolside to look at areas of improvement for stroke and technique…

…Personally, I was surprised this submission won compared to some of the very clever and innovative entries I saw. It really does demonstrate the importance of applying the appropriate use technology to the right context – and I guess this was spot-on – simple but extremely effective.

Reading College came runner up with 4 students talking very enthusiastically about their experience of using a Google+ Community as their virtual learning environment and how it served as a vital mechanism for honest peer-to-peer feedback. Studying Object Orientated Programming (OOP) the students consisted of 3 separate groups who are never in college at the same time. In place of the college’s Moodle LMS,  a Google + Community was chosen as a virtual classroom to encourage collaborative working. Set up as a private community with only the students and staff as members, this online space enabled a secure and supportive environment. The G+ community contained the assignment material, noticeboard and links to resources, students were asked to share their work at different stages throughout project and peer-to-peer feedback was encouraged. With the G+ app being available on range of devices it meant that students could gain access to the community anytime and anywhere….

…For me the most striking comment came from a student who said that learning on a tool they used everyday (their phone) and building applications such as game design, the use of Google + was second nature as this was the technology of their generation. Social media platforms do indeed provide a very strong aspect to peer review and feedback in a less formal manner. This informality might even prove to be more effective to student learning than traditional forms of peer review – be it blind or formally arranged by their teachers.

Student from Reading College presenting their ideas at SETS

Students from Reading College presenting their ideas at SETS

Eastleigh College showcased their use of iPads and help videos students used inside workshop from benches and some seriously big machinery.  Designed and produced by students, these iPads were encased in metal covers and perspex fronts that stood on workbenches or could be secured to lathes….

…Having these iPads to hand in a workshop situation in-situ proved beneficial to both students and staff as you can imagine. Technicians can easily locate demonstration videos to show learners – freeing up time to attend to all the other duties that videos cannot replace.

Kent Community Learning and Skills, a learning provider for Kent County Council presented their Virtual Classrooms using Blackboard Collaborate to deliver ESOL to social workers recruited from other EU countries. These learners required support with understanding English grammar and British slang. Being spread across Kent the virtual classrooms provided an excellent and cost effective learning/teaching tool. Indeed, this was one of our favourite showcases…

…For UCA, this practice would certainly be useful for group tutorials or one-to-one tutorials especially with International students. The spanner in the works is JAVA, a technology Collaborate uses. JAVA updates frequently, but without updating the plugin, Collaborate will not work. The computers at UCA are managed by IT Services and students/staff cannot update the JAVA plugin, as they do not have the admin rights. Therefore practically speaking, if we wanted to use this technology, our IT processes would need to change. Students with their own devices would of course not be affected. I remember at the OU, we also used Collaborate (with Moodle) and part of the orientation process was to get set-up, explore and check everything works before an actual live session so all the potential hiccups were dealt with.

MidKent College presented an extremely smart, user friendly Virtual Coach for use in Medway and Maidstone staff rooms to provide cross-site teacher learning resources, videos, communication and information. Built in HTML and Metro UI CSS, the tiled web resource also included a Skype video calling feature, which allows communicate between both sites by touching the relevant tile. This resource was obviously built around a need and demand premise. It allows virtual communication between 2 campuses and provides a learning platform to boot…

MidKent College presenting their Virtual Tutor at SETS

MidKent College presenting their Virtual Tutor at SETS

…For UCA, I don’t think this model would work so well as very little use is made of staff rooms and a good of majority of academic staff are sessional. Therefore a 24/7 anywhere, anytime web-based resource would work better. However, there are a few lessons to be learnt from the very slick user interface and ease of use MidKent

Hadlow College project focused on the support they given to help learners turn their newly acquired skills into opportunity for self-employment. It is more common for Florists to be self-employed rather than find employment working for others. The Facebook business page is seen as a good and cost effective method of presenting Floristry that helps to attract and retain clients. With a view to helping learners finding or improving self-employment on completing the course, the Floristry teachers decided to make effective Facebook presentation part of the curriculum starting in August last year. Consequently, recognition of this end point of study for many learners required the development of self-promoting technologies to help learners understand, design and prepare for developing a client based of their own…

…For UCA, the approach to use social media for self-promotion is not new. However I was interested in the Facebook business pages Hadlow students were encouraged to create under the guidance of their teachers. The many hurdles of using social media can be addressed at course level so the entrepreneurial efforts of these emerging Florists can bloom and grow into professional and successful businesses…. WELL DONE!

Havant Sixth Form College presented a Web-based system to enhance differentiation in teaching and learning. Used by the Learning Support Department, the system allows academic staff to be informed about each student’s learning needs. Very detailed information is held about the learning ability of each student such as the learning style, working memory, sequencing/processing skills, reading/writing speeds, etc. as well as information about the type of aids/techniques that would help improve learning. The system also contains various reports for the Learning Support Manager so that she can track the administration processes and ensure deadlines are met. The system integrates with the college MIS database and Moodle LMS to provide a subset of data relevant to academic staff…

This screen shows details of the student's Nature of learning difficulty / need along other notes and strategies

This screen shows details of the student’s Nature of learning difficulty / need along other notes and strategies

…This system works rather like Caseworker but is relevant to every student. Built very much around the needs of the College, it certainly impressed the people sitting on our table. Having such a system at UCA would bring great benefits to learning and teaching, meaning we would all be on the same page and no doubt retention figures would improve.

Southampton Solent University showcased their Reading List Project which provides students from foundation level to taught masters with reading lists that link to required readings, fully embedded in their VLE unit pages in the correct referencing style. The software enables the reading list to be linked to the Library catalogue for print materials and ebooks, and hyperlinks to online material such as ejournal articles, digitised chapters, videos and webpages. Lists are easily accessed on and off campus and via mobile devices. The system is very flexible so reading lists can be quickly amended or moved at any time once live. Multiple reading lists can be provided for each unit allowing staff to take different approaches (such as core, general, topic-based and weekly lists). The project, now in its 4th year, is a bespoke open source development integrating Moodle and RefWorks based on the Open University Telstar codebase…

…UCA has some of these elements but more work is needed to unify unit reading and embed this into myUCA. We subscribe to RefWorks but students do not employ it heavily. The work Solent has done gives us plenty to follow up on. Currently, unit reading lists are given within the unit handbook which is a print-based document uploaded to the VLE, having a referenced style hyperlinked reading list embedded within each unit is certainly an aspiration for UCA that’s not too far off from happening.

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.

VLEs in 2010

Having just written my H809 TMA entitled Expectations of VLEs in 2010 it’s a relief to have a life again albeit for a week or so until it’s back to the grindstone.

The subject is something so worth exploring as the area to develop our VLE is wide open to pour creative energies into. We do however have some way to go before being showcased in JISC’s Effective Practice in a Digital Age brochure.

A good section of the paper is a critique of the vast UCISA 2008 Survey of Technology Enhanced Learning for higher education in the UK by Browne, Hewitt, Jenkins and Walker. I would be so interested to know the average time people spend completing that survey, I reckon  3 days at least. If anyone says 2 hours, I would be seriously worried. But all this is mentioned in the paper which you can download below.

For what purpose are UK institutions using their VLEs?

How are VLEs used?

I’ve been pondering this question for some days now and think I’ll use it for my TMA01. I’m not so convinced every institution is uses VLEs as intended. Moreso, I believe some are used as glorified and very expensive document systems.

I also feel some institutions believe they should “be seen” to have VLEs but in reality, manage quite well without. After all, students go to university for face-to-face teaching, not spending hours in front of a screen in semi isolation surely?

‘Who’ in fact, are institutions keeping happy by having VLEs?

Yes, there are many questions here, and I expect to touch on many, but to begin with, my focus will be HOW institutions are using VLEs. The five papers I’ve chosen for this research question is listed here:

  1. 2008 Survey of Technology Enhanced Learning for higher education in the UK
  2. ‘Disruptive technologies’, ‘pedagogical innovation’: What’s new Findings from an in-depth study of students’ use and perception of technology.
  3. The development of technology enhanced learning: findings from a 2008 survey of UK higher education institutions
  4. Effective Practice in a Digital Age – JISC
  5. Death of the VLE?: a challenge to a new orthodoxy

We don’t call it Blackboard

I’m currently trying to figure out how Blackboard 9 works, how it can be manipulated and best served up to the UCA community at large.

We don’t like the term Blackboard for our student portal, as Blackboard is merely the basic framework into which we add our resources. Our student portal is called myUCA after UCA (University for the Creative Arts).

We use the Blackboard community system product to target specific content to specific learner and staff groups.

EVERYDAY there’s a new development in the making – sometimes small, sometimes quiet significant. More to follow…