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Impressions of Durham #2

January 31, 2011
"Kathedra", Durham

"Kathedra", Durham

This is my second report on the 11th Durham Blackboard Users’ Conference.  My previous post dealt with the keynote presentations; now I’ll deal with the break-out sessions and workshops.

Two presentations dealt with the use of Blackboard to induct and orientate new students.

First up was Nichola Hayes from the University of Leicester, with Three Steps to Success: Building the Right Foundation – A taster, induction and first module reconfiguration course design for students studying at a distance.

This looked at Leicester’s use of Blackboard to improve the way Distance Learning students are introduced to their programmes – and given an opportunity to check that this way of learning will suit them. The central team has developed a 3 step programme, which is then tailored and deployed by course teams. This approach is being used only on certain courses. There is a checklist which course leaders need to go through to ensure that their course is suitable – e.g. the course involves heavy use of Blackboard / TEL. Also, the approach is only deemed suitable for courses which already have strong course design.

The three steps are

  1. Blackboard Taster

This uses an open access Blackboard course introducing potential learners to the technologies / learning methods which will be used on their course. Details are sent out to all applicants for DL courses, at the point of application. Because the course is open to guest users, no login credentials are required (N.B. Leicester still use Blackboard 7? When they move to version 9 they may need to rethink some of the technical details of this, as Blackboard has tightened up on guest access to the system – this is something we discovered when looking at opening out access to study skills courses and communities in Blackboard). At this stage the information provided is fairly general e.g. learners see screenshots of discussion boards rather than actually being able to contribute to forums.

  1. Orientation Course

This runs 2 weeks  before  the start of their studies, when students do have a Blackboard login, and takes things further . The idea is to avoid students having to learn how to use the technology later on,  when they should be concentrating on subject content. The orientation course gets them to explore and understand key processes outlined in the Student Handbook (e.g. around assignment submission). This helps the learners, and avoids course administrators having to answer the same questions over and over later on.

The key aim is to make sure students feel they are ready to embark on their chosen programme of study before it starts.

  1. Module One

Once their course proper has begun, students complete a centrally-devised long thin module (covering library skills, key skills etc.)

The University is developing a Distance Learning Backpack – a virtual student handbook bringing together everything DL learners need to know through their course, with information from a variety of central departments as well as the Faculty.

Nothing here is rocket science – certainly not in terms of the technologies involved. But the new funding arrangements seem certain to accelerate the provision of distance learning courses across the HE sector, and we would do well at TVU to take note of this model to ensure that distance learners are not disadvantaged in comparison with those with a more traditional attendance pattern.

Of course, it’s not just distance learners who need support in making the transition to higher education. Simon Davis from the University of York presented Delivering transition support through the VLE looking at learner orientation onto full-time taught  courses. York also set up courses inside Blackboard to induct new students. York’s term for the induction sites is “Transition sites”, although some teaching departments refer to them as “Welcome sites”.

The sites have been set up for specific individual courses, and are made available to students once they have been accepted on the course – i.e. before they arrive (N.B. this whole process relies on these students having a University IT account which is at least a partially-enabled)

How are the transition sites created? Course teams use a variety of approaches

  1. site creation led by current students
  2. created with participation of current students
  3. created by academics
  4. administrator-led

Who took the greatest role in producing the site did affect the focus of the site’s content, but in almost every case feedback from new students was extremely positive.

Another recurring workshop theme which tied in well with our current interests at TVU was feedback. Guy Pursey & Karsten Lundqvist from the University of Reading are leading DEVELOP, a JISC project one part of which involves the use of video feedback. This is being used for generic, whole class feedback, rather than feedback for individual students. They’ve found that it works best when the academics accept fairly low production values. One department tried to produce professional standard high resolution video, but this was unsustainable (as well as eating up far too much storage space).  In the trial, students overwhelmingly liked video feedback. They thought they were getting more feedback than usual, even though lecturers said they delivered the same amount – students seemed to realise they were getting feedback when delivered as a discrete video, rather than in the classroom.

The project team looked at using a dedicated platform to deliver the videos, but students didn’t want it on a separate system – they wanted it in Blackboard. So Karsten is developing a building block for lecturers to upload their video to the dedicated storage area, but to do this – and make it available to their students – via Blackboard.

Alex Spiers, from Liverpool John Moores University, also looked at video feedback, using tools available as part of the Wimba suite (now Blackboard Collaborate). This is something which we will be following up at TVU.

Mike Cameron, now at Newcastle University, reported on a project he was involved in when at Durham, in collaboration with City University.

The survey showed that the majority of students who responded do have mobile devices and use them to access email/VLE etc. And are keen to be able to use their mobiles to access information/content e.g.  timetables, VLE, feedback/grades. Less keen to use mobile devices  for interactive activities e.g. voting systems. But do they know the benefits of, say mobile voting systems, if they’ve not experienced these in practice?

Some comments from others attending the session:

  • small number of respondents – probably most likely to be those who did have / use suitable devices.
  • even if 60% of an institution’s students have suitable devices, while it may be worth providing services for those users, these will have to be additional provision – institutions can’t disadvantage those learners who do not own smartphones etc.

Also there seemed to be some confusion in what was being classed as a mobile device – not just smartphones, iPads etc. but possibly netbooks and laptops. This highlighted the need to be very careful when formulating questions for a student survey: we are planning a TEL survey which will include questions on students’ mobile capability, and will have to try to avoid any ambiguity in the questions asked.

A second session from Mike Cameron was entitled Sharing good teaching practice through collaborative, multimedia slide shows. This looked at  a project at Durham which attempted to find a more interesting way (than text-based reports) of presenting case studies of lecturers’ use of TEL. The project used cheap video equipment e.g. flip cameras to record video clips of lecturers talking about and demonstrating what they had done. These videos were then uploaded to – and lecturers and students encouraged to add comments. The content on voicethread is visible to anyone, but only registered users can add comments (I’ve noted that 50 user accounts cost approx $100 p.a. – having now looked at the site, this would appear to be the Higher Ed Single Instructor licence).

This conference is all about users’ experiences, so the representatives from Blackboard Inc. are invariably limited to an hour or so on the Friday morning of the conference. The general feeling seemed to be that this was the best (for which read most honest?) presentation from Blackboard for a long time.

Some key points for TVU:  9.1 Service Packs 3 and 4 (released either side of Christmas) address the current Content Collection issues, but we must wait for SP5 for a full fix. This is due late March / early April 2011 – so we can hope to have it tested and deployed by the time lecturers are looking at preparing their Blackboard courses for the 2011-12 academic year. If all works as promised, we can also start to plan and deploy the “Move to Course Files” tool  in a more coordinated and determined way. This tool – which Blackboard currently suggest is not used because of its unreliability – moves all files uploaded to a Blackboard course pre-version 9 into the Course Files area, where they can be much more easily viewed and managed by lecturers. Once this tool is working properly we may well recommend that all course materials should be stored in the relevant course template, rather than being duplicated onto each course instance.

SP6 (due mid-year i.e. June-ish) should include an improved Rubrics feature which will allow instructors to provide feedback to students on each criterion in the marking scheme, and automatically assign grades based on the student’s performance against that criterion – then modify the automatically assigned mark if required. At first sight this looks more sophisticated than what is currently available in Turnitin – although we were looking at a video mock-up of a tool which clearly won’t be finalised for some months, and which – Blackboard would be the first to point out – may not look like this when released. SP6 will also include an upgraded SCORM player, which may not affect many of our courses, but is good news for those which do make use of SCORM-compliant materials, whether produced in-house or sourced from elsewhere.

I was also reminded by this presentation to check out Bboogle –an open source  project to integrate Blackboard with Google Apps. It strikes me that this could be a particularly useful tool if the university should ever decide to go down the Google route for provision of student email and storage space.

Of the exhibitors, I was rather taken by the potential of Kaltura, an open source video-hosting platform, which appears to offer the simplicity of YouTube with the benefits of greater control over who can access your content, and which will  integrate with Blackboard. This is another product to follow up.

For other people’s takes on the Durham Blackboard Conference, see

Matt Cornock, University of York

Alex Spiers, Liverpool John Moores University

Julie Usher, University of Northampton

Julian Beckton, University of Lincoln

CLIPP Board,  Aston University

The Kitchen, Teeside University

One Comment leave one →
  1. Mike Cameron permalink
    March 22, 2011 3:02 pm

    Hi Andy

    Thanks for posting about the Durham conference.

    With teh Voicethreads, Durham prodused, anyone should be able to comment. You have to register, but that is free. The comments are set to be moderated before appearing on the site.

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