Upgrading duo

On the evening of Friday the 29th of June, CIS staff will perform the annual upgrade of duo. Upgrading duo allows us to keep the system secure and up to date with the latest web browsers, as well as allowing us to apply a series of patches and introduce new features.

For fans of version numbers, we will be upgrading duo from Blackboard Learn 2017 Q2 cumulative update 5 (Release 3200.0.5-rel.6+3dd6b56) to Blackboard Learn 2018 Q2 cumulative update 1 (Release 3400.0.1-rel.90+b74efee).

This introduces a number of bug fixes, a couple of new features and one much requested improvement – full width display.

Full Width Display

As part of it’s adoption of responsive web design (sensible resizing and reformatting of content so that pages work well on laptops, desktops, tablets and mobiles) in 2016 Blackboard chose to implement a maximum screen width of 1300 pixels. If you displayed duo on a screen bigger than that, then grey bars were shown on either side. This is a common feature of many websites – you’ll see this behaviour on many WordPress blogs, the University website, etc. It makes the maths for calculating where things should go simpler, but it can make the text harder to read than it should. This was particularly apparent if you tried to display duo using one of the new high resolution projectors in a teaching room, or on a big monitor on your desk. It also makes tasks such as grading harder because much of your screen is effectively unused.

duo renders with grey bars at the left and right of the screen
The opening page as it appears pre-upgrade. Note the grey bars at the left and right.

The good news is that Blackboard have now done away with this and after this upgrade duo will resize to fit any screen size. Some extra intelligence has been applied to the display of the grade centre – if you are using a very wide screen, rather than just displaying the same number of columns, but making them really wide, duo will actually show more columns, which should mean less scrolling around.

The same page post upgrade – now duo is using the full screen

Course Availability

Every year we create new courses on duo for staff to use in the new academic year. If the module has been taught before, then the duo course is a copy of the old one. Staff need some time over the summer to update any content, alter the dates of deadlines, etc. and so these courses are automatically set as unavailable. This really means unavailable to students – staff can access them so they are able to make the required changes. Before they can be released to students, staff need to remember to change the course settings. Blackboard have added a handy padlock icon to show staff the status of the course and alter it with a single click:

This course is unavailable to students – red padlock icon displayed
This course is available to students – unlocked padlock icon displayed

Note the padlock is only shown on standard course module pages, (the one with What’s New, Tasks, etc. on it) so if you have changed the landing page of your duo course to point to the announcements tool or a standard content page then you won’t see it. Ah well, Blackboard giveth and they taketh away …

New Attendance Tool

For many years, Blackboard users have been asking for an Attendance tool. Well there is one now. It uses a special attendance column in the Grade Centre and allows you to mark a student’s attendance at a given event (e.g. a tutorial). This updates their percentage attendance score. Blackboard have plans to integrate this with webinar tools such as Blackboard Collaborate and other third party tools which could automatically update this same score.

Once you get your head round it, it works quite well, It is explained nicely in this video (if you can stomach the jangly background music).
Note the video refers to both versions of Blackboard – at Durham we are using “classic” Learn, not Ultra.

As ever, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to get in touch with any member of the Learning Technologies Team.

Background Image by Milivoj Kuhar

Changes to the Assignment tool in duo

marking work at a desk

If you only ever use Turnitin assignments in duo (as a student or member of staff) then you can ignore this post. It refers to the built in Blackboard Assignment tool and specifically the part of this that is used to render the student’s work on screen and add comments. The grading and rubric functions are unaffected. These changes affect existing and new assignments.

Why was a change necessary?

The Assignment ToolThe Blackboard Assignment tool used a third party service crocodoc to provide the rendering and mark-up features. This tool was bought over by another company (Box) and they have announced the end of life for the old crocodoc tool on January the 15th 2018. As such Blackboard users have no choice but to move. In the duo upgrade carried out on the 6th of January we applied patches to allow us to switch from crocodoc to Box. This allows you to see but not edit old crocodoc annotations, and use the new Box tools on any unmarked work now or in the future.

What has changed?

The new tool supports more formats (now including video) but at present has fewer annotation options (though Box promise they are working with Blackboard to expand these). The Box tool adds the ability to Print annotations but removes the ability to download them. We expect to see pressure from users result in more improvements soon. This post from Blackboard documents every change.

Where can I get advice?

If you want to discuss the implications of these changes then don’t hesitate to get in touch with any member of the LTT via the IT Service Desk.

unsplash-logoAndrew Neel

Contract Cheating

Several members of the LTT attended the 2017 Academic Integrity Summit last week – an event hosted by Turnitin. One of the “hot topics” was contract cheating (a term that also covers activities such as ghost-writing and the use of essay mills). This was very timely given the recent publication of advice from the QAA and the NUS.

The term “contract cheating” is used to cover a spectrum of activities – from swapping essays with friends, through to commissioning people to write an essay or computer practical for you – in fact any activity where the student benefits from it, even if actual money doesn’t change hands. The University takes a very dim view of such activity – penalties range from losing marks to failing the entire module – see the Learning & Teaching Handbook.

Phil Newton and Michael Draper have come up with this formal definition of contract cheating:

a basic relationship between three actors; a student, their university, and a third party who completes assessments for the former to be submitted to the latter, but whose input is not permitted. ‘Completes’ in this case means that the third party makes a contribution which results in reasonable doubt as to whose work the assessment represents.

In November 2014, reporters from the Sydney Herald managed to hack into a contract cheating site and obtain the names of thousands of students, their university and the essay title. This resulted in a huge scandal and Australian Universities were forced to confront the ugly truth that contract cheating was happening at their institution. This led to the development policies and procedures to respond to this threat.

contract cheating and assessment

In a subsequent study of over 14,000 HE students in Australia – contract cheating and assessment design – 6% of all students admitted some form of cheating activity. Suitably robust comparative figures for the UK are not available, but staff – try googling your module code and essay titles and see what turns up…

Worryingly the vast majority of students in the survey (“cheaters” and “non-cheaters” alike) expressed a low level of concern about this – seeing it as a “victimless crime”. This is very different to the view of staff, who are very concerned about this activity and the risk it poses to academic integrity – the foundation of all our teaching and research activities. The challenge is how to change the perception amongst students.

Can contract cheating be detected? Well, contract-cheating providers have no morals, and there are documented cases of them informing universities of usage of their site if students don’t pay the bill on time! Also their focus is more on money-making than security, so as the Sydney Herald case shows, it is easy enough to obtain information about the people using the sites (often little more than a customised WordPress blog). The challenge for automated detection at the time of submission is that these essays (or at least the expensive ones) are new works, so will not flag up as plagiarised. Instead systems need to look at changes in writing style, sentence length,  examine the document meta data, and possibly perform some form of stylistic analysis. This is where having a bank of submissions from the same person helps. Technical solutions are currently being tested and when available it will be possible to apply them to the back catalogue – so cheaters be warned!

If you want to know more have a look at this post from academic integrity expert Prof Phil Newton at Swansea University

Cover photo shared under a CC0 license by Sander Smeeks at unsplash

Integrated Online Training

One feature we will be rolling out after the upgrade (probably a couple of weeks later) is an integration that facilitates a new approach to online training.

Before the Upgrade

At present many online training courses are hosted on duo (from topics as diverse as Fire Safety to Consent Matters) but it can be hard to find them and ensure that details of any activity on these courses is fed back to other University systems. This is especially important for training where there may be a legal requirement to show that people have received and completed appropriate training (e.g. the Fire Safety example). Depending on your role in duo and which portal modules you have chosen to display on your home page, you may see links such as these which all point at online training courses:

A sample of current portal modules displaying links to training courses on duo

Details of these online courses were only available in duo, meaning that not as many people knew about them as we would like. There are catalogue tools built into duo designed to help you search for courses, but they are not capable of the rich level of filtering by role/job that is needed for this task – e.g. determine what training a third year Biology student who also works in the College bar first of all needs to take, then which other courses are recommended and finally what other courses are available for them to take if they want. To be fair to Blackboard that is not a surprise – it is designed to be a learning management system not a dedicated training management system.

Immediately after the upgrade

After the 2017 duo upgrade in September, all these training-related portal modules are going to be moved to a new dedicated Training tab. This is an interim arrangement until the full integrated training system is rolled out (that requires some final testing of changes to both sides – to duo and the Training Course Booking System (TCBS).

A new (interim) Training tab
As a short term measure to ensure continued access, look for these modules on a new Training tab

There might be some items listed as online training that need moved to become normal courses – e.g. Special Department-wide sites on duo. Members of the LTT are working on that.

By the start of the new academic year

Longer term, the training tab will show a special training tab interface (optimised for mobile devices). When it is first opened it will show you a list of the online training courses that you are enrolled on as a student:

A list showing your online training courses enrolments.

As this list may get quite long there is an easy way to filter the results displayed – by typing into the Search box displayed immediately above the list.

The opened drawer – open and close it using the button at the top right

If you open the side panel at the right of the screen, you can access your current training record, showing every online and face-to-face training course that you have completed at the University (assuming it stores this fact in the TCBS). There is also a link to the TCBS allowing you to search for more courses – note that the catalogue will show online as well as face-to-face courses. These include direct links to automatically enrol you onto the duo course (more on that in a minute). Longer term we’d like this link to automatically sign you in, but that requires some recoding of the current TCBS authentication framework.

The button is only shown if it applies

If you teach on an online training course on duo (i.e. hold an Instructor/Leader role) then there is another button displayed that shows you a list of these courses separately, so it is clear which are training courses you need to complete as a student, and which are the ones that you are designing for others.

Back to duoClicking the home icon at the top left of the screen returns you to the normal duo tabs.

One of the best features of this new integration is that it supports the ability to create direct links to any online training course on duo. These can be accessed from

  • another course in duo (perhaps suggesting related courses which cover a topic in more detail)
  • the catalogue entry in the TCBS
  • a web page
  • an email

In each case they behave the same:

  1. When you click on the link you are taken to duo.
  2. If you are not currently logged in you will be asked to log in.
    login prompt
  3. If you are already enrolled on the course, then you are taken directly to it and can access the content without further ado.
  4. If you are not, then you see a page which invites you to join the course, displaying more information about it (so you are sure this is the link you meant to click on).
    Confirmation page
  5. If you choose to join the course, then you are added and can access the content straight away, without the need for any approval by the staff who wrote it.
  6. Some courses also support self-service removal – e.g. if you later decide that this is not the course for you, then you can remove yourself from it (though note anything you did on the course – including records of any training passed will be deleted).
    Opening the course

Scores showing that you have passed the online training will be fed from duo automatically to the TCBS (not instantly, but probably each night). This will mean that you (and appropriate line managers/supervisors) will be able to see your achievements from the training record in the TCBS.

We hope this will provide a simpler, more fluid training experience for staff and students.

Removing Social Spaces

All the spaces at Durham
It was accessed via My Blackboard

Around 2013, Blackboard introduced a feature called Social Spaces that was part of a suite of cloud tools. You probably haven’t heard about it, let alone used it. To access it you clicked the bottom icon in the list of tools displayed in the My Blackboard tool on duo (shown to the right).

It opened up a range of online spaces where you could share thoughts with others – possibly invitation only (e.g. a University society), across Durham, or even with Blackboard users across the globe. As part of the upgrade planning, we revisited Durham’s list of spaces (note any hidden spaces are not shown here):

All the spaces at Durham

When we looked into the contents of these spaces there was very little going on. This screenshot shows one of the more used sites – which is just a monologue from me a few years back:

A series of posts with no replies

Student feedback has been very clear = turn off features that are not needed, keep the interface simple. In light of that, consider it done – the Social Spaces feature will be turned off as part of the upgrade in September.

More about the 2017 upgrade

Is using a laptop to take notes in a lecture a bad idea?

laptops vs notes

This week members of the LTT discussed a series of papers which compared students’ understanding of lectures (and in some case final grades) comparing those who took notes on paper against those who used laptops (interesting there was little reference to mobile devices in the papers). The study show that if the students using computers try and record the lectures verbatim, then their retention and comprehension is poorer than those who take abbreviated notes. This affect appears most marked in male students, particularly those struggling to master the concepts.  Interestingly in one study where tablets were used (Mueller & Oppenheimer, 2017) where students also used a stylus to write notes freehand, their results were found to be as good as those of students who took hand-written notes.

These papers raised a lot of questions : What about students whose note-taking doesn’t stop after the class – if they later summarise their electronic notes, or perhaps convert them into a mind-map – what affect does this have? What about classes where lecture capture is used, or when notes supplied in advance? Can the observed difference be reduced or even reversed, if students are taught different ways of taking notes electronically? Who should teach students this? Are there things that lecturers can do to help students understand what note-taking strategy might work in their classes?

Plenty to mull over!

We looked at:

May C (2014) “A learning secret: don’t take notes with a laptop” Scientific American, 3rd June 2014.
Available at  https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-learning-secret-don-t-take-notes-with-a-laptop/

Mueller PA & Oppenheimer DM (2017) “Technology and note-taking in the classroom, boardroom, hospital room, and courtroom” Trends in Neuroscience and Education 5(3) pp 139-145
Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tine.2016.06.002

Mueller PA & Oppenheimer DM (2015) “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking” Psychological Science 25(6) pp 1159-1168
Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797614524581

Patterson RW & Patterson RM (2017) “Computers and productivity: Evidence from laptop use in the college classroom” Economics of Education Review, 57 pp 66-79.
Available at  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econedurev.2017.02.004

Background image credit: Galymzhan Abdulgalimov shared via unsplash https://unsplash.com/photos/ICW6QYOcdlg

Updated Library Resources

Today we have updated the Library Resources tool in duo to support a new way of delivering content (scanned documents) under the revised CLA license.

The list of resources will not look different, but when you click the link it will fetch the appropriate PDF file not from the e-reserves folder in duo as before, but instead from a central repository. In the long term this should reduce the work needed by the Library to make CLA items available. For the first time CLA items are accessible in past courses, as the new license allows this.

There are a few more changes to the tool’s codebase to support referencing/citation tools – more on that shortly…