Is 4 a lucky number?

We have been successfully using the blog, wiki and podcast tools developed by Learning Objects for many years at Durham. Currently we are still using version 3 of the Campus Pack tools, fully integrated into duo (our Blackboard Learn server). A new version (Campus Pack 4), hosted by Learning Objects (but which still integrates with duo)  has been released. More information about it can be found on the Learning Objects website. Members of the LTT will be working with members of the blog and wiki special interest groups in Durham to evaluate this upgrade and plan an implementation timetable.  Of particular interest is their reference to forthcoming support for mobile devices.

If you are a blog, podcast or wiki user (or would like to be) then check out the link and let us know what you think!


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

Case studies bank

I’m just starting to put together a bank of e-learning case studies, which we hope will give ideas and inspiration to our colleagues in Durham and beyond.

We started by building on an ongoing project “Using new media to share student learning experiences and good teaching practice” which was kick-started by Durham University’s “Enhancing The Student Learning Experience Award”, which plans to use Voicethread to record and promote good practice, and also facilitate a dialogue between author and audience.

The case studies bank is now live, but it’s definitely a work in progress, and will be edited and expanded in the coming months.


Blackboard: the road ahead?

Edinburgh UniversityI returned to my home city (Edinburgh) on Tuesday, to an invitation-only meeting of Blackboard clients. The purpose of the meeting was twofold – first to listen to our complaints about the stability and performance of release 9.0 (assuring us that they have heard and quality is their focus today) and secondly to explore new directions – features that might be available in future versions: 9.1, 9.2, 9.3 and finally 10.0.

Staff from Blackboard were keen to stress that the company had been restructured with named individuals now given control over individual areas of the product – e.g. the content system, the learning system, the community system and so on. These individuals see all the support tickets and the enhancement requests and have the budget and the authority to decide which to resolve first. It was a good opportunity to talk to these people and make them aware of the issues that UK users feel are most important. They also stressed how there has been a drive to ensure that the voice of users is heard in the decision-making process. They stressed how they use feedback from bodies such as the Blackboard Ideas Exchange (a client group set up about 3 years ago, which Durham is a member of) and product development partnerships (e.g the beta testing of 9.0 and 9.1 that we are involved in from a developer’s perspective) to inform their decision making.

They then moved onto the roadmap presentation. This was prefaced by the usual slide of legalese - essentially boiling down to “don’t buy shares in Blackboard based on this information as it may never happen”. That aside, they talked about developments that should be available in later versions of 9, and others that are still in the planning stage.

They mentioned plans to support anonymous marking for staff (though sadly not moderated/multiple markers). Next they demonstrated easy ways for lecturers to search and then add content from other sites (mash-ups)  – e.g. flickr, YouTube and SlideShare. You simply typed in a search term, saw a list of matches in Blackboard and then ticked the items you wanted to add. This worked as a custom content type, in tests, blogs, and the new kid on the block – wikis. What was particularly nice is that there is also the option to import metadata about these items automatically, including details of the license. The wiki tool demonstrated was still under development and did not match the sophistication of third party tools e.g. the Learning Objects Campus Pack tools we currently use with duo.

For people who create a lot of tests, there are better ways to search for and share individual questions, assessment criteria, etc. without having to import entire pools.  The Learning Module has also been updated (this allows you to create structured content items which students can work through in a linear way, or dip in and out, depending on how you set these up). These are heavily used by many clients using the WebCT products, and the new versions planned for Blackboard have a much better navigation interface, including indications of progress (a student’s completion) within individual modules.

There are also a lot of changes planned for the content system. The underlying code in new versions (planned for 9.1 and beyond) will be updated to use a much newer version of the Xythos code (including a new WebDAV engine – hurray!). This will mean a much better link between courses and the content system, so if you add a PowerPoint to a course using the normal Browse for files on your Computer method, when it is added to Blackboard, the file is actually added automatically to the appropriate folder in the Content System. This has two benefits. Firstly, by hosting it in the Content System, students and staff can easily search for phrases in Word Documents, PowerPoints, PDFs, etc. as the files and their content are all indexed. Secondly staff can look at a special Course Files area and see all the documents that are used in the course in one place. It also supports versioning, comments, etc. just like any other part of the Content System.

The new version will also support image thumbnails, so if you upload any of the common image formats (e.g. gif, jpeg) then you can choose to see a small version of the picture displayed on the page, helping you to select the right file.  There is also a much improved file upload facility, which uses a java applet to allow you to drag and drop files and folders from your computer directly into the content system (without the need to first map a drive).

More exciting for developers, there are plans to expose the database schema. This would allow developers to add custom tables to Blackboard in a way that is supported and will work on everybody’s system. One way that would help is that the Sign-up Tool which currently stores data as an XML file, could switch to a database model, which should make it faster and provide new opportunities – e.g. the possibility of restricting students to signing up to only one or two lists.

They also said that they plan to allow people to add new custom course roles. I’m in two minds about this – as an end user it is great news (we could create special roles with “see everything but change nothing” access for reviewers, external examiners, etc.) but as a developer I think it might add a lot of behind the scenes complications…

In the longer term, they are also looking at social learning spaces – how could Blackboard be extended to allow students to create their own areas for societies, sports clubs, informal learning groups, etc. The present organisation tool (basically a Blackboard course with another name) requires a lot of administration to set up and manage, and the layout of the page may not be ideal for this new purpose. Would it replace flickr or FaceBook? No, but it might provide a useful, secure alternative that some users may want to use.

They also plan to allow many more people to test beta versions of the new releases. Whilst they have always had a beta program, this tends to be restricted to a few technical staff in institutions, as it often requires installing your own version of the code. Now Blackboard are hosting their own test server – the Project NG Playground)  and anyone can apply for an account to play with. Details how to apply will be posted at

All in all, there are some exciting developments, we just hope that the renewed emphasis on quality and rigorous testing delivers the stable, intuitive, stable, extendable, stable, stable product we all want.


A wiki based summative assignment

wikiI’ve just had a meeting with Claire Horwell, a colleague in Earth Sciences.  A few months ago I helped Claire with a wiki based summative assignment (“summative” meaning that the marks count towards something), and I wanted to chat to her to find out how everything had gone.  She had used Learning Objects’ Teams LX wikis in our duo (Blackboard) system, setting up one wiki per student for them to work in.  The task she set the students was to produce a wiki on a selected volcanic hazard.

She felt this exercise had generally been a success, although one or two students did report some problems (but nearly all of the students didn’t).  The main problems seemed to be related to inserting images into wiki pages, and problems caused by misbehaving web browsers on students’ own computers, which caused the wiki visual editor to not load properly.

Part of my input to the exercise was to meet the students in a lecture room, and demonstrate to them how to edit a Team wiki in duo.  At the time I decided not to give them a handout, but in hindsight I think this was a mistake (I conclude this because some of the problems students encountered are with things I demonstrated to them, so I don’t think my demonstration was adequate).  I should have prepared a brief (1-2 pages) handout showing the main steps, and focussing on the problems I’ve already mentioned.

Generally Claire felt the students rose to the challenge, and many of them did a really good job, both in terms of academic content, and in terms of presentation, style, use of the the wiki medium, etc.  Importantly, she didn’t feel that the wiki got in the way of the students’ learning, it made the task more interesting and gave the students possibilities they wouldn’t have with an essay.  The feedback that she got from the students that mentioned that wikis was broadly positive, although one student didn’t like them (most of the feedback didn’t mention them at all, which is probably a positive sign).

Next year Claire plans to repeat the exercise, but she will make some significant changes.  Last year she had each student work in their own individual wiki.  This caused her a huge burden in setting up and configuring nearly 100 individual wikis, and in marking them, so next year she’ll run this assignment as a group project, for groups of 4 or so students.  This is really a reflection on the workload associated with handling nearly 100 individual pieces of work, more than on the use of the wiki per se (but the set-up was a significant amount of work – incidentally I had suggested to Claire that she get the students to set up their own My Wiki, and submit that, but she was uncomfortable with the possible problems associated with that route).

I asked Claire what level of support she had given to students while the project was running – she estimated that about 10% of them had asked for help of some sort, and said that it was mainly fairly trivial, with images being the main problem.  Nevertheless, it’s worth recognising that this was extra work – if she’d simply asked the students to submit an essay, she wouldn’t have had to give this extra support.

2 students had more significant problems, and were referred to me for help.  I was able to help both of them – in both cases their problems were caused by peculiarities of their own computers.

wikiAll in all Claire said the exercise had been a success, and she was happy with it.  The fact that she plans to run something similar next year confirms this.


Online aspect to a poster competition

I’ve been working with the Postgraduate Training Team (PGTT)  on preparing for their poster competition.

This competition is to allow PGRs (Postgraduate Researchers) to prepare and submit a conference-style poster, and also to assess and discuss these posters, al in a “safe” environment – basiclly to give them practice with conference posters.

This year, for the first time, recognising that many PGRs are researching part-time, at a distance, or both, the PGTT is offering an online strand to the competition, and that’s where input from the Learning Technologies Team has come in.

To allow people at a distance to take part in the competition, they’re being allowed to submit entries online.  Judging is being run online, either synchronously (e.g. with a webcam and something such as MSN Messenger), or by email.

To allow people at a distance to view the competition, we’re using a duo wiki.  This will allow the distant audience to view the posters (one wiki page per poster), but also to comment on and discuss the posters, and interact with the authors (via wiki comments).

We’re also experimenting with using Photosynth to give the distant audience a feel for the event on the day.  The aim here is that Stephen Applegarth will photograph the room where the posters are being presented, and then build this into a Synth using Photosynth, to give a virtual impression of the competition in the room where it takes place.