Congratulations to Blackboard on this conference, which was by some way the best I have been to, both in terms of the wonderful location at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, the wide range of extremely useful presentations and the networking opportunities especially with other Blackboard users from around Europe and beyond. There were many interesting sessions which I could write about, but here are the top 5 things to interest and/or inspire me!
Students taking charge of Higher Education
Wednesday’s highlight for me was undoubtedly the host institution’s session entitled “Sharing Best Practice at the University of Groningen: A Student Centric Approach. This covered two main areas, the development of a new student Portal and the role that students have in support for TEL. The second of these was extremely impressive. There is a team of 24 students who provide first line support for a range of systems including Blackboard, which at Groningen is called Nestor. They have a thorough training and induction programme lasting 6 months, and then are typically employed, for up to 12 hours a week, for up to two and a half years. Students manage the service, and they have recently developed a MOOC called “Students taking charge of higher education”, (with Futurelearn), which covers for example how students demonstrate professional behaviours.
Exemplary course design
With the TELED team’s recent focus on course design, I was interested to hear Lloyd Stock and Alan Mason talk about the Blackboard exemplary course programme (ECP). Although already familiar with the rubric used, I found the examples they showed useful (including the YouTube playlist of course tours by winners), together with their ideas around promoting good course design through an awards programme, whether that be submitting courses to Blackboard’s own ECP or internally within the University, as for example done at the University of Aberystwyth. This theme was picked up several times during the conference including by Danny Monaghan, and Pete Mella from the University of Sheffield, who talked about their institution’s experience of improving the quality of Blackboard courses through an exemplary course program, including academic colleagues using these as evidence for assignments in their equivalent of the CREATE programme.
Natalie Thorne from the Distance Learning Unit at Leeds Beckett University gave some insights into how they use Blackboard to support distance learning programmes in a very effective way. Natalie demonstrated some excellent visual design of courses including activity and page layouts , engaging learning activities using both native Blackboard and external tools, as well as practical tips including how to reduce clicks by linking directly to learning modules from a course menu. Natalie’s session really reinforced the point that Blackboard can be an effective environment for online distance learning, as long as courses are well-designed.
In the Blackboard roadmap session there was an emphasis on an updated look and feel and responsive theme for our version, 9.1. A new system and course theme is due out in Summer 2016, and responsive design and mobile optimisation including for submission of assignments in the Autumn.
Farzana Latif stimulated much interest with her account of the University of Sheffield’s TELfest event. The week long festival takes place annually, and has had a significant impact in raising awareness of and interest in TEL. In the first year they had 175 colleagues attending at least one of the sessions, and in the second this went up to 280. There are a mixture of sessions, for the more and less experienced, some run by the TEL team, some by academics and others such as the Library. It has helped Farzana and her team both promote certain themes and/or new opportunities, but is also a valuable opportunity for them to listen to staff views, needs and concerns, for example in their “Blackboard listening session”, where representatives from the company have attended. They have found that the events attract staff who had not engaged with TEL before, and have helped new champions to emerge.
Assessment and feedback
Large scale online exams, electronic management of coursework, and implementation of the Blackboard Grades Journey were recurring themes. A number of universities in Europe are successfully doing large scale computer based exams using Blackboard (as well as other systems) with Groningen itself being an excellent example. I was extremely impressed with the photos they showed of their 600 seater exam hall, which has flexible desk space so it can be used for handwritten or computer-based exams, including typed essay style exams using an adapted version of the Blackboard text editor. They reported that their online exams on Blackboard managed hosting are going very well.
There were some useful accounts of implementing the Grades Journey, which Joe Gliddon attended as this will be something he will be involved with in his secondment to the SLSP programme. Last but not least, Joe and I had to wait until Friday morning to run our session “Submit work here” which looks at the work we have been doing here at Bristol on the use of Blackboard packages to provide a scalable workflow for coursework assessment and feedback online. Our presentation was well-attended, over 30 participants almost filling the small room, and there was plenty of discussion.
A number of colleagues from other institutions approached us with questions and comments, for example around ideas for other uses of packages, such as to provide learning activity templates.
Overall the conference provided plenty of insights and ideas for us to consider. For the Ed Dev team the interest shown in exemplary course design and how this can be given recognition both internally and externally was particularly inspiring and timely.