Constructing Alignments

This week some members of the LTT have been looking at the Goals and Alignment features in Blackboard.  This allows you to define a hierarchy of attributes (these can be skills, learning outcomes, etc.) and then associate (Blackboard call this align – but it is really mapping) these goals with  individual content items in courses (be these documents, assignments, individual questions in tests or surveys, etc.).

This will not be a task that we expect every department to immediately want to do. For some it will probably look like too much effort. We will be running a few pilots of the system over this coming year. We expect it may appeal to accredited courses, or ones which want to make explicit their alignment with particular frameworks or University initiatives – e.g. the employability and skills agenda. We are currently working with the School of Pharmacy as they build out their new programme, helping them to map the content to the General Pharmacy Council Standards and also key skills and subject-specific skills and knowledge that they have identified.

The mapping can be displayed to students or hidden from them as staff see fit. We can see justifications for both approaches.  The real value of the mapping comes when you run reports. This allows you to see where the online component of your course is teaching and assessing these skills. From the Grade Centre you can see which skills the students are finding easiest and hardest to master.  This sort of information should prove very useful when you come to review a programme, or need to demonstrate the mapping to external bodies.

If you want to know more please get in touch with any member of the LTT.

Building out some goals in duo

Building out some goals in duo


Turnitin say sorry…

I received the following email today from the CEO of Turnitin (who provide the plagiarism prevention/detection service we subscribe to):

Dear Malcolm,

Turnitin is a mission-critical service for many of our customers. Providing reliable service is of paramount importance for our company.

We strive to maintain 99.9% service uptime in all geographies, and over the past 2 years we’ve exceeded this goal, until this May—when we experienced a significant day long outage, followed by several hours of downtime a few days later. The outages were due to a combination of both a database issue and a new and very high “burst” type of submission pattern from several large UK customers.

I apologize for these outages, and please know that our top priority is making changes to avoid similar outages in the future. Over the past 10 days we have increased our database capacity by over 600% for the UK service and modified the way the service deals with this emerging “burst” pattern of use.

Another goal is to have Turnitin’s customer support as one of our strengths when our customers think about Turnitin. Over the past few terms we’ve experienced very high growth in both service usage and support requests—driven primarily by questions from new users to our service. This increased service usage has at times resulted in less timely responses from our support staff than we target, and I again apologize if this has caused issues for your staff.

We recently implemented a “follow the sun” support model where cases from all of our worldwide customers are jointly managed by our support teams in the US and UK, almost around the clock, and this model has been rapidly getting us back to the under 24-hour response time we target for the majority of cases.

We’re also building more and more self-help into the service, so as many questions as possible can be answered in real-time, and our instructors can get their work done as quickly as possible. Look for more and more of this in our service in the months to come.

I will be visiting the UK this July for the 5th International Plagiarism Conference where I’ll be connecting with Turnitin users to answer any questions directly. I hope you’ll join me there.

Thanks for your continued partnership, and again my apologies for the service issues this past month.


Chris Caren
CEO, Turnitin

He also drew our attention to new real-time updates on Turnitin’s system status. These should provide information about the status of the Turnitin system, performance, security, and scheduled maintenance updates. They also have a Twitter feed.

He suggests that anyone involved with using Turnitin should:

Note that the Tweets and a link to the status page are available to all users from the performance tab in duo.


TurnitinUK and GradeMark

I recently attended a presentation by TurnitinUK to hear what new functions are in the pipeline. This autumn there will be a grammar and spell checker for instructors and the identification of ‘Translation plagiarism’ is planned for early 2012.

Cath Ellis from Huddersfield University gave a presentation about her implementation of GradeMark.  She outlined the advantages to staff and students, the formation of an institutional policy and work flow and showed some of the uses of the diagnostic tools in GradeMark to identify poor performance and areas of difficulty.

View her presentation in Prezi below.


Sharing Notes

This morning staff from the LTT attended a webinar about the latest offering from McGraw-Hill – GradeGuru. This is something they see as an “academic social network”. Students can sign-up (either individually, or via an integration with their host institution) and share notes, sketches, their own learning aids. Sharing can be restricted to just their friends, with other students on their course, extended to any student in their institution, or globally. The content is rated by other students, providing informal peer feedback. This also earns them a series of reward points, and one of a series of status badges, ranging from humble “member” to “guru”, depending on their use of the site. We explored potential concerns about copyright issues, plagiarism and access for all students – e.g. those using screen-readers. Currently most of the content is delivered through a flash interface, so it will not be accessible to iPad users, something they are working to remedy.

There are also a range of learning tools (a citation manager a bit like the excellent zotero) and an iPad app for managing your studies – described to us as a “Calorie-Counter App for Study”! Whilst Durham has not signed up for this (at least not yet – and there is a significant charge for this) it is interesting to note that it has already been used by over 100 students, who have posted over 700 notes. Members of the LTT would be very interested to hear from anyone who has used the service – do email us via the IT Service Desk.

More information can be found on the grade guru website ( or by watching this video:


Thoughful Technology

Last week I was running a session on the University PG Certificate in Academic Practice (the PG-Cap) where staff talk about changes they plan to make in their teaching – actionable theory. One of the people presenting discussed WITS – a Wireless Interactive Teaching System – developed at the University of Texas. I think it is a great example of how technology can be used thoughtfully to really change the learning activity in a class. Don’t take my word for it – watch this video of staff and students who have used it:


Follow up to workshop: SD160 – An Integrated Approach To Encourage Student-Centred Learning

This posting is a follow-up after yesterday’s Durham University staff development workshop:


which was presented by Marion Birch and Niels Walet of Manchester University.

There was a real buzz in the session; the excellent presentation from Marion and Niels, the good turn-out and lively discussion were all very encouraging.

During the session I was asked to circulate some information,  so here goes.

1) I suggested the session after reading a journal article.  If you’re interested and have the time, I certainly recommend reading it:

“An Integrated Approach to Encourage Student-Centred Learning: a First Course in Dynamics”, Marion Birch and Niels Walet, New Directions in the Teaching of Physical Sciences, Issue 4 December 2008 pp. 21-26, HEA Physical Sciences Centre, ISSN 1740-9888

(the article starts on page 26 of this PDF)

2) I mentioned the possibility of using mobile phones as “clickers”.  The system I’ve seen demonstrated is Poll Everywhere:

(free for up to 30 respondents).

The Learning Technologies Team can give you more information on this system if you’re interested.

3) I was asked to give a summary of “clicker” systems in Durham University.  As far as I know, most of us are using Keepad systems, with TurningPoint software (a few people are using TurningPoint Anywhere software with Keepad hardware).  I’m aware of a couple of other systems in use – one is an older Qwizdom system.

Turningpoint software is installed on all ITS run lecture-room lectern PCs, though I’ve sometimes seen problems so I suggest you check your lecture room before using it.

As far as I know, “clickers” are in use in

  • Earth Sciences
  • Economics
  • Education
  • Law
  • Maths
  • Medicine & Health
  • Modern Languages
  • Psychology

I think there may be one or two others out there as well – this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list.

4) I want to flag up that Marina Sawdon in Durham’s School of Medicine & Health has done some very interesting things with “clickers”.  Her paper is available here:

5) There’s a nascent “Voting systems user group” in the University.  Details of its first meeting are on another posting in this Learning Technologies Team’s blog:

That blog posting also includes details of ESTICT – the national Engaging Students Through In-class Technology special interest group.

6) If you want further information or discussion on any of this, please contact the Learning Technologies Team.


An Integrated Approach To Encourage Student-Centred Learning

I’m really excited about a staff development workshop that will be running here at Durham University on Wednesday 16 June 2010.  Here are the details:

When: Wednesday 16 June 2010, 12:00 – 14:00
Title: An Integrated Approach To Encourage Student-Centred Learning : A Case Study Of A First Year Module In The Sciences
Presenters: Dr Marion Birch and Professor Niels Walet, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Manchester
Venue: Ustinov Room, Van Mildert College, Durham

This is a session that I suggested after reading a journal article by Marion and Niels in the December 2008 issue of “New Directions in the Teaching of Physical Sciences”.  I wrote this blog posting about that and other articles.

After reading this article, I was really struck by two aspects of Marion and Niels’ work:

  1. How practical their approach was -  investigate a problem, try a new approach, evaluate, adjust, and then iterate until you’ve got it right
  2. How a combination of straightforward approaches made a real difference to students’ engagement, and students’ outcomes

I made a point of presenting this paper to my Learning Technologies Team colleagues at our Journal Club meeting, and they were similarly won over.  We concluded we’d like to share this more broadly with teaching colleagues, so decided to try to set up a staff development session.  I’m delighted to say that Marion and Niels agreed, and now everything is set for an interesting and stiumulating session on 16 June.

Although the title of the session reflects their Science background, and the session is clearly relevant to people in Science departments, I also think that their approach is applicable to all subjects, so I recommend this session to staff in all departments.

Durham University staff can book via our Training Course Booking System.  If anyone else is interested, please leave a comment below this posting and I’ll let you know how you can request a place.


Student Feedback Methods

Today four members of the LTT joined staff from the School of Modern Languages at their away day. We spoke about ways to provide students with feedback. A copy of the presentation is available below.

Note that this presentation contains links to audio and video files, so we’ve provided written transcripts of these for anyone who needs them.

  1. Slide 75 – Students from Sheffield Hallam and Chester giving their opinion on audio feedback.
  2. Slide 76 – audio feedback example
  3. Slide 77 – video feedback example
  4. Slide 80 – Jing video feedback demonstration

Problems with duo

We are sorry that some staff and students at Durham are still experiencing performance-related problems when using duo. These stem from our recent upgrade to Blackboard 9.0 service pack 3. Before the upgrade the service was stable, but had some annoying bugs (e.g. some parts didn’t work well in some versions of Internet Explorer, make attaching an assignment a one-click process , you couldn’t change the colour of content items – this may seem trivial but it caused problems in departments which had used this very feature to indicate the significance of documents/activities). When we applied the upgrade to our test environment, we didn’t see any performance problems, but then our testing focussed on functionality. We expect Blackboard to have carried out adequate load testing, as they state in their release documents.

Recent Performance data

After applying the upgrade to the production environment (duo) we have suffered from performance problems where we see the system degrade until an individual server crashes – you can see this in the graph.

We run duo not on one server but on three (or in these troubled times, temporarily on four) behind a load-balancer. This means that a failure on this graph does not correspond to a time when staff and students can’t log in, rather it shows a period when some users may experience a one-off problem and the other servers are carrying increased load whilst the failed server restarts. Symptoms of the problem may be overall sluggish performance, or suddenly seeing a red error screen which states that you are not authorised to access a document, upload a document, etc. We think these errors occur when the server you were communicating with falls over, and the transfer to another server is incomplete, meaning that duo no longer thinks that you are a valid user enrolled in the course.

We are working with Blackboard to try and resolve this and have a range of monitoring tools running in the background. In the interim, here are our suggestions for how to cope:

  1. Ensure you are accessing duo using one of the supported web browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox or Safari). Full details of these are available on the Help tab in duo after you log in, or from the Blackboard website. Note that the latest version of Google Chrome is not suitable for using with duo – you will not be logged in properly.
  2. If you do experience problems (e.g. red pages saying you are not authorised) it is not worth continuing
    • log out of duo
    • close down your browser
    • restart your browser, or try an alternative web browser
    • log in again
    • return to the task – your authentication credentials will be refreshed.
  3. Ensure that you are running an up to date version of java (it must be version 1.6 (java 6) – use the Browser Test tool on the Help tab to do this). If you are running old versions ( e.g. java 1.4) any attempt to use the visual text box editor (e.g. adding a new piece of content to a course) may cause your browser to halt, throwing a security exception. Updating your system’s Java runtime to version 6 is a good thing as earlier versions are no longer supported by the supplier (Sun) for use on production systems.
  4. Ensure that your browser is set to fetch pages afresh from duo each time – otherwise there is a danger that you might see a stored copy of “this page is not available” rather than the new version. It is also worth trying to clear out your browser’s cache.
  5. If you are having trouble downloading files, save them to your desktop rather than opening them straight away in Word, PowerPoint, etc.
  6. Also ensure you have the appropriate programme to open it – e.g. does your computer have a version of Word/Open Office that supports the new docx format?
  7. If you are trying to upload an assignment, the submission deadline is approaching and you can’t do this via duo, don’t panic. Send the assignment attached to an email to one of your lecturers/departmental administrator, explaining the problem and demonstrating that you did all you could to submit your finished piece of work on time.  Note if this work is to be submitted anonymously then please contact your department first to see where to send the submission.
  8. Try and avoid performing processor intensive tasks at peak times (e.g. don’t list every student on a huge course with several thousand users at 10 am!)
  9. If you are having problems using your own computer, please try an ITS computer in one of the University classrooms. These have been configured to support duo and automatically clear out caches, etc. when you log in.

Please accept our apologies for this poor performance, it is definitely not what we expected when we planned and tested the upgrade. We appreciate your patience.


Making learning count

Recently there has been quite a lot of discussion on some of the Blackboard Users’ mailing lists about support for equations on the web. Displaying complex formula on the web is a tricky thing to do as equations may use special fonts, special symbols and require what to a standard text editor are very strange layouts (think of fractions, summation, etc).

Currently Blackboard use a Java Applet (WebEQ) which provides a visual editor with an equation editor button. This equation editor works a bit like the one in Microsoft Word. It allows you to build quite complex equations from scratch, and many users are quite happy with it.

There is, however, a grwing consensus from some staff in science departments (especially Mathematical Sciences, Physics and Engineering) that they’d like something better. As people who work with equations every day, they already have libraries of formulae developed in packages such as LaTeX and would rather paste the equations from these, than rebuild them from scratch each time.  Whilst you can convert LaTeX to MathML and then paste that into the equation editor, you lose the link to the LaTeX formatted source, should you wish to edit the equation again later. Building equations from scratch using MathML is quite a convoluted process, and most people end up using something else to do this for them.

Also there are issues from the student experience. As each equation in Blackboard is rendered on the page using a Java Applet, pages with lots of equations (e.g. a big maths test) can be slow to load, and we have had occasional reports where not every equation has loaded for a given user. That’s far from ideal.

Thus people are now talking about either creating a new content type that can be used to display equations, and/or adding extra mathematical equation functionality to the existing Visual editor in Blackboard. Several different approaches have been suggested. These range from converting the equation to an image or a PDF (quick, but not very accessible) to using some inline javascript to render them in your browser. Some solutions require you to have browser plugins or special fonts installed. There is now an active community of users debating these on the blkbrd-l listserve (BLKBRD-L@ASU.EDU)and I thought I’d summarise the suggestions to date here in case anyone not on this list has used them and wants to share their experiences:

  • There is a dvi to pdf conversion program written by staff at Kettering University in the late 90′s that is part of ost LaTeX distributions dvipdfm – see:
  • Peter Jipsen at Chapman University (a Mathematics lecturer) has developed a system called ASCIIMathML that simplifies entry of mathematics notation on web pages.  It just requires the inclusion of a bit of javascript.  See
  • The ASCIIMathML syntax is a simplified version of LaTeX, but if you want to use real LATEX, Douglas Woodall at Nottingham modified Peter’s code and produced LaTeXMathML see:
  • Jeff Knisely has extended and enhanced Woodall’s code, see:
  • Someone else suggested a javascript library called which can render both MathML and Ajax, see:
  • We even had a suggestion to try using the Google Charts API (which incidentally we use in duo to generate the graphs in the new Postgraduate Annual Review tool). See:
  • Finally, as in the next version of Blackboard (Release 9.1) there is a feature which allows you to add more functions to the built-in visual text editor. Partly to teach myself how this works, I have just written a simple Add Symbol tool which works rather like the tools in a Word processor or the TinyMCE editor, where you see a range of tiles and click on them to add symbols such as Δ or Σ. That will be released when version 9.1 is made public.

I’d really appreciate any feedback/user experience of using any of these tools, or indeed any we’ve missed off.

Update: July 2011

This post about using MathJax in Blackboard looks interesting…