Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Beyond Teaching at the London Blackboard User Group, December 2010

The London Blackboard User Group met in the pleasant surroundings of Regent’s College last week. The presentations were on the theme of “Beyond Learning and Teaching”.

The presenters and case studies were:
  • Supporting Accessibility (Jennifer Fraser & Michael Wheare, Birkbeck) - the presenters discussed the process of making digitised readings accessible to the visually impaired.
  • Prompting Health & Safety Awareness (John Conway & Stefan Hoyle, Imperial College) - for this online training course, extensive use has been made of the selective/adaptive release functionality to ensure students complete the test and can’t make more than two attempts.
  • Information Literacy (Sarah Spells & Jo Tate, SOAS) - all students in the School now have access to an organisation in the BLE which provides subject-specific information literacy/research support and advice.
It might be more accurate to say the theme of the meeting was “Beyond Teaching” because there was definitely a still a student learning focus in the activities discussed. Seeing as Blackboard is a ‘virtual learning environment’ that does seem to make perfect sense, but participants questioned whether the VLE is always an appropriate space for the activities it is used for. During the questions and the closing discussion some people felt that institutional websites and intranets should host materials which are not actually part of a student’s course, or at least that the pros and cons of using the VLE should be looked at closely.

Perhaps in the early days of VLEs, learning technologists were pleased to see the system being used widely, but now, with some reporting the VLE has become a portal to access all kinds of material and services, there is also an issue of the demand on system and human resources, and the impact this demand may have on the elearning service these resources are supposed to be supporting.

On the other hand, the VLE offers benefits. It may be desirable that students should be authenticated and personally granted access to materials via membership of specific areas; they may also need to complete assessments. VLEs are also easy for staff to add simple content to without needing specialised web authoring skills or assistance, or to create more sophisticated content for using ‘rapid’ authoring tools.

The fact that we were debating whether people are now using the VLE ‘too much’ certainly indicates that the often reported ‘death of the VLE’ may be a way off yet.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

The Search for the Truth Behind the Rumour: Dispelling Open Source VLE Myths

The Search for the Truth Behind the Rumour: Dispelling Open Source VLE Myths 
Bryony Bramer, Leo Havemann and Sarah Sherman, Bloomsbury Colleges, at Blackboard Learning & Teaching Conference 2010, Swansea

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Review of Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference 2010

Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference 2010, Swansea, reviewed by Leo Havemann and Mimi Weiss Johnson, in the ALT newsletter, Issue 19 (12 May, 2010).

Monday, 10 May 2010

Don't let an ash cloud ruin your meeting (or tutorial)

In the wake of the recent/recurring volcanic ash travel crisis and ensuing estimates of enormous costs to the UK economy, Lucy Kellaway (writing for the FT) seems like a lone voice in the wilderness when she says the ash cloud helped productivity:
For offices all over the western world, last week was one of the sanest and most productive for a very long time. On Monday, people got to work to find half the appointments logged into their BlackBerrys suddenly cancelled. [...] A cancelled meeting is a net productivity gain: it tends to go away altogether.
Meeting minimisation seems to be one of the great 21st century aspirations, but when so much of work is collaborative, we also can't afford to miss crucial information and discussions, or we are liable to be allocated tasks we don't fully understand.

Another ash-related article that caught my eye claimed that serviced office firm Regus experienced a 108% increase in demand for videoconferencing during the UK flight ban, suggesting that many people decided to meet virtually rather than not at all.

The Onlignment blog is featuring this issue in a series of posts entitled 'We can't go on meeting like this'. In the introductory post they state:
...let us bring together four ideas:
1) Companies are not going to stop holding meetings
2) The risk of disruption to travel is ever-present
3) Every business has to have a contingency plan to allow meetings to happen when it is not possible to bring people together
4) If companies are to use online conferencing, then they need to plan it, and do it properly
Having recently attended a couple of sessions about Elluminate (which is integrated with the BLE via a building block - more information here) at the Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference, the idea that we should be doing more meetings (and more teaching?) online was already kicking around in my head; another presentation at the conference discussed the massive surge in Blackboard use that occurred during January's snow disruption.

Certainly putting more notes up on Blackboard is helpful, and good use can also be made of asynchronous tools such as discussion forums and blogs, but these approaches may not adequately replace planned face to face interaction. Although it may be possible for a cancelled lecture or tutorial to simply be rescheduled, perhaps a better option would be to do it virtually.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Free online Turnitin training

nlearning, the Northumbria University spin-out company who support Turnitin in the UK, are now offering weekly training webinars for TurnitinUK users (for instructors, rather than admins).

They sent an email advising:
Sessions are every Wednesday at 1400 (GMT) via WebEx and dial in details will be sent to you after you sign up. There is no limit to the number of sessions you attend or the number of people who can attend. Please feel free to forward this mail on to any colleagues who you feel may be interested in this training.

Please sign up using this form:
I attended the first session in order to get an idea of how useful it might be for our user base in Bloomsbury (bearing in mind we are using Turnitin via the Blackboard integration).

Although they were using webex, it was possible to get audible/understandable sound via the headset and not be dialled in on the phone, so that was definitely a point in its favour.

It would be quite a useful session for someone using the standalone ( version of Turnitin rather than through the Blackboard integration as we use it. The part that could cause some confusion for our instructors was the explanation of creating a class, getting students to sign up or uploading your student list, all of which in our case is handled by the building block.

Then there was quite a good discussion of the originality reporting aspect.

There was plenty of time for Q & A built in at the end.

Overall as I suspected, I think we would be better off getting people to attend an integration-specific session, but I don't know yet if nlearning are definitely going to provide this, and how regularly.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Notes from the Turnitin User Group (Birkbeck, 3rd February 2010)

& Introduction

New appointments at iParadigms:
  • CEO - Chris Caren
  • VP Engineering - John Hartman
JH has implemented recent server-side changes which have significantly improved the speed of the Turnitin site/service.

One outstanding issue since the last UG - problems with generating Grademark images, is ongoing. 4 other issues have been fixed.

User voice - log in to the institutional administrator account and at top right of screen click on Feedback Forum. You are allocated 10 votes. Most-voted requests will go into the development/release schedule. (In Bloomsbury we only have one admin account - can we have more, in order to vote more?)

nlearning are now on Twitter but they have protected their updates - you can request to follow them at

They have produced some free anti-plagiarism and referencing guides for Ofqual, designed for sixth formers (but may well be relevant to first years).

New Peermark functionality added (seems like Grademark for peer review).

The developers are moving toward a unified interface where you can see the assignment with the originality reports, Grademark etc as an overlay and more rapidly switch between them.

Also the integration for Blackboard will become a 'deep integration', meaning we will gain the same functionality with our integrated assignments that standalone Turnitin website users have with theirs. (Possibly this has been done for the Moodle integration already?)

View requests straw poll - when a request is sent to view a paper in the database due to a match being flagged up in an originality report, the email currently goes to the instructor. The group generally felt this should go to the institutional system administrator, or else to both.


Speaker: Stephen Bostock (Keele Uni)
Discussed Grademark in terms of student benefits and staff barriers to its use.

General discussion:
  • Most institutions had seen some use of Grademark, and people who have used it are generally positve about it - but many academics remain unwilling to mark online.
  • The much-voted for ability to bulk-download Grademarked papers is now scheduled for April release.
  • Importing rubrics can be done at an individual account, or else system-wide level - the group requested this feature could be rolled out at a 'department' level.

Formative Use of Turnitin

Many institutions are seeing benefits from incorporating formative use of Turnitin into student training on academic honesty / information skills / anti-plagiarism and referencing. In some cases training is delivered by academics, sometimes by the library, and sometimes with input from various sources. The group generally felt there was value in formative use as the students would be able to learn about plagiarism without fear of getting in trouble.

Institutional policies governing use of Turnitin were discussed. Policies included:
1) for each assingment, either all submissions or none must be checked.
2) each student must have one formative experience of Turnitin before submitting real coursework.

Formative use cases discussed:
1) Students submit a report to Turnitin (not assessed), then based on the results write a piece of reflective writing which is assessed.
2) Students submit a draft of a piece of coursework, and later the finished version. (In the case of the draft, the submissions should not be added to the student assignment database, in order to avoid causing a high level of matching when they submit the finished piece.)

It was suggested that formative use works best when tied in with assessment and not done as an isolated exercise.

University of Leicester subject-specific plagiarism tutorials were recommended.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Durham reflections (post-Blackboard conference)

I attended the Durham Blackboard Users Conference back in early January, along with some other members of the BLE technical group, and having also attended last year, I once again found it well organised and well attended, so it was a great opportunity to hear and meet speakers from all over the UK and beyond. Highlights for me included hearing about how e-learning is being embedded into key skills training for bioscience students at Leciester (see Jo Badge's blog for more info), thus-far somewhat disappointing results from a promising Twitter project at Kingston (see Tony McNeill's blog) and a presentation from US academics about Blackboard's Exemplary Course Program, explaining why they believe student engagement is at the heart of exemplary courses.

Overall, I thought it was interesting (ironic perhaps at a Blackboard conference - though to be fair there was a social media theme) that the most interesting work being done by presenters is generally happening outside the VLE itself. It must be said though that most continue to regard their VLE as an important tool in the e-learning kit.

There was a lot of reflection on barriers to e-learning development, with major ones cited being:

  • many staff lack the time, and sometimes skills or willingness, to engage beyond creating course document repositories;
  • students often demonstrate an unwillingness to participate in tasks that are not assessed; and indeed sometimes also to participate in collaborative tasks which appear to hand advantage to 'competitors';
  • students are not necessarily the ‘digital natives’ they are often assumed to be;
  • some students, while confident in their use of technology, don’t see the relevance of it for learning.

This makes me wonder if too much of our focus as learning technologists tends to be on staff development, when we should perhaps be engaging with students more directly, and also engaging with the tools they know and like more.

Images courtesy of ewjz31 via Flickr.