In this post I want to share some ideas from the Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference I attended in Manchester last week about how we can enhance our use of Blackboard .
It was a very diverse conference with 264 participants from 22 different countries. Topics ranged from the potential of using large amounts of data to provide personalised learning, the potential of Ed tech as a driving force in global education, to case studies from institutions.
There were many sessions that were directly relevant to us at Leicester, particularly those on implementing institutional change in order to enhance how we use the VLE. It is reassuring to see that we are moving in the same direction as many other institutions and that our implementation plans are similar to those that have worked successfully elsewhere.
Institutional change to enhance VLE usage
The University of Sheffield found the biggest problem students experienced with learning technologies was the inconsistent use by academics. To improve this situation, Sheffield introduced new course templates and a checklist to improve consistency. They also stopped copying old courses over and instead gave academics an empty course to set up each year. To implement this change they worked closely with departments, attending learning and teaching committees, student committees and working with departmental learning technologists. Student involvement was crucial too: they created a video of what students need from Blackboard and trained three student ambassadors who supported staff with the change.
Newcastle University did a similar piece of work in their School of Dentistry, moving from one enormous and unmanageable Blackboard course site (over 1500 content folders and 800 lecture recordings) to separate courses for each unit. They used the analogy of a huge box of Lego that kept the pieces tidied away in one place, but it was then almost impossible to find the pieces you need to make a model. They found it effective to put on unstructured workshops where staff could come and set up their new Blackboard courses with support from learning technologists. Academics found they could actually get quite a lot of the work done in one session and did also start to experiment with using new tools. It was reassuring to hear that this worked, as this is something we have already planned for this summer.
Bishop Grosseteste University investigated ways to make it easier for academics to create engaging online materials. They created templates with bespoke icons in a hidden area of the course based on different types of learning activities, for example discuss, read, watch… Academics could then copy these and put in their own wording. They generously made these templates available to us. We are already working on something like this for the new academic year and are going to incorporate these into our new Blackboard template.
The University of Southampton took a slightly different approach to encouraging effective use of Blackboard and introduced a VLE awards scheme. The awards are based on student nominations and winners are invited to an awards lunch and provide follow-up masterclasses to their peers to spread their good practice.
Approaches to staff development
There were some interesting ideas about how to help staff use Blackboard more effectively. Reading University are running a large scale project on electronic management of assessment and needed to enable staff to access support materials that were relevant to their role, easy to access and available when they needed them. They are working on a series of bite sized online tutorials in a self-enrol Blackboard course to provide this.
Trinity College Dublin wanted to increase effective use of the VLE by focusing on staff confidence, using Albert Bandura’s model of technology self-efficacy. They developed some realistic scenarios to create situated learning. This took the form of an interactive online tutorial that allowed staff to practice working with the Blackboard journals in order to increase their confidence.
Sheffield Hallam described how they were working to increase the digital capability of staff in order to promote teaching excellence. They are working with Blackboard to develop a postgraduate qualification in digital teaching and learning by embedding Blackboard’s Digital Teaching and Learning series of courses in university-run modules that allow staff to implement their new knowledge in context, then reflect and disseminate it further.
Ideas for the future
There were many other ideas that we may not be in a position to implement now, but are interesting to consider for the future.
In the area of assessment, Newcastle University described how they were implementing online exams. They currently use Blackboard tests together with Respondus to lock down the browser and provide printed copies as back up. They are piloting WISEflow from UNIwise to enable online written exams. They stressed the necessity of having dedicated people to implement this service, including dedicated technical support during exams. Also the importance of close working relationships between all the groups involved: exams office, academic schools, learning and teaching development office, IT Services and the invigilators.
Groningen University have obviously invested heavily in this area and have two digital exam halls with 300 seats in each. Students take digital exams in Blackboard, including both multiple choice and essay questions.
Hasselt University in Belgium have developed a Chemistry game for remedial Chemistry teaching. This uses the standard Blackboard tests in conjunction with scenarios and character icons to allow students to gain experience points depending on the difficulty of the questions they answered. Question sets were created for different topics and levels of difficulty and they provided feedback to help students learn.
Another creative use of Blackboard tests was a peer evaluation and feedback mechanism devised by the University of Antwerp. This involves students entering their feedback into a Blackboard test, then using VBA scripts to generate a personal feedback report for each student that is saved in their personal content collection.
There were some ideas around accessibility and inclusive design, including a product called ReadSpeaker that converts text to speech. This is useful for people with dyslexia but also others who would like to listen while they travel, or simply prefer to learn by listening. It also allows you to highlight an area of a page and mask the rest, which helps people with concentration problems, and also expand selected text. Blackboard also showed their ALLY product that automatically creates alternative versions of attached files (including audio, ePub etc). It also highlights possible accessibility problems to instructors and runs institutional content accessibility reports.
Overall this was a very interesting conference with some directly relevant ideas that we can incorporate into our work now as well as some possibilities to consider in future.