Monday, 22 February 2016

16th Annual Durham Blackboard Users' Conference

The theme of this year’s Blackboard Users’ Conference, held on 7th & 8th January at Durham University Business School, was “Learning From Failure”, which was suggested by delegates from last year’s conference. The keynote was delivered by Eric Stoller, who addressed the issues of digital identity and failure on social media.

Blackboard themselves also addressed the conference, although they called their talk “Reflections on a shared journey” rather than examining the concept of learning from failure. They examined the changes that the system has undergone over the years and the needs of Blackboard today, including a resilient server, trained staff, backups and appropriate network access. These days the system is “mission critical” and users have higher expectations.

A Sessions: Is There A Place for Blackboard Collaborate in Blended Learning Design – Matt Cornock, University of York

This session looked at whether Blackboard Collaborate could be useful in blended learning – learning that mixes face to face and distance learning. It covered the issues that can be experienced with Blackboard Collaborate including loss of sound quality, connection reliability, issues with the launcher and whiteboard interaction. MC discussed a case study in which students on a creative writing programme used Collaborate to try and replicate the face to face environment. It was found that this didn’t work as the online environment could not facilitate the spontaneity and natural atmosphere of a face to face environment. Also, remote students by this time had already formed their own social groups for mutual support so they did not need to approach these sessions in the same way.

However, Collaborate has been proved to be useful for such functions as library tutorials and support, as well as group work, some individual tuition, teleconferencing and careers workshops.

B Sessions: Designing A Pre-Induction Course: Mistakes, Issues and Success – Steve Dawes, Regent’s University London

This session examined the issues faced by staff at Regent’s University London when designing a pre-induction course for students. The course was designed to streamline the induction process for students which can often be daunting.

The course was designed to be a simple student-centric platform with a single login so that all students could access it even if they did not yet have their own personal login details. It focused on the key information that students would need when arriving at university, including information about accommodation, visas and study skills. The students were not taught how to use Blackboard – it was hoped that they would be able to pick it up through completing this simple course.
The homepage was designed to resemble the University website so that students grew familiar with the structure of the website. There was only one course link to click on to get to the information they needed. There was an element of interactivity: e.g. a checklist entitled “Are You Ready?” consisting of a series of yes or no questions checking if students had everything they would need. There was also an interactive map of the campus.

987 of the trial students completed the final survey. The most popular elements were the introduction and the “Are You Ready?” questionnaire. In general there was a good student uptake with positive feedback, and a reduction in emails to student support. This was done for the Jan rollout and will be improved for the September cohort.

Future potential improvements include polls, Collaborate sessions, media content and group inductions.

C Sessions: Growing Pains: Preparing For A Teenage VLE – Andy White, University of Cumbria

This session charted the University of Cumbria’s use of Blackboard as their VLE platform since 2003. At the time, study was mostly campus based but videos would be filmed and posted out to distance learners. Students also had to send paper-based submissions through the post.
Over time there was a move to integrate Bb usernames and passwords with University ones, and they got the licensed mobile site in 2012. In 2014, Bb was listed by the University as “mission critical” for disaster recovery.

This year it was decided that every programme should have a presence on Blackboard. A benchmarking exercise was introduced in order to check whether courses were active, if they contained any broken links, or had any hidden content. An annual review is now planned to ensure that high standards are maintained.

D Sessions: Working With Students as Partners to Help You Identify and Learn from Your Mistakes: Developing a Pre-Arrival Study Skills Course for all Undergraduates – Sam Nolan, Eleanor Loughlin, Malcolm Murray, Elaine Tan and Jacquie Scollen, Durham University

After it was suggested that students wanted more contact before arriving at university, it was decided at Durham that a pre-arrival study skills course should be developed. A short 2-week course was trialled last summer, covering topics such as preparing for academic study, independent learning and digital literacy. A videographer was employed to film staff and current students talking about relevant topics. Other areas such as library services were also explored. The course will be rolled out to all students in the next academic year.

The course contains information about coming to Durham, preparing for arrival and transitioning to independent learning.  It also contains information about classes and reading materials, as well as support services such as library services. To date, the course has received 103, 576 views. Student feedback suggests that those using the course feel more prepared for their arrival at Durham.
The presentation explored mistakes the staff felt they had made and the steps they plan to take to rectify these. For instance, they felt that they should have involved students as consultants from the start of the project, and made risk management a priority earlier on.

E Sessions: The SPECTRE of Blackboard Design – James Leahy, Regent’s University London

This session looked at the syndrome of “Persistent Empty Courses” at Regent’s University – the problem of lecturers not making good use of Blackboard courses to enhance learning even though the offline course was excellent. In this example, the presenter added banners, logos and videos to the course to demonstrate the potential of online materials.

F Sessions: Establishing High Stakes Computer-Based Testing through Blackboard As A Supported Service: An Institutional Perspective On Key Challenges and Lessons Learned – Richard Walker and Andy Parkinson, University of York

This session looked at the growing use of VLEs for formal assessment and explored the ways in which staff at the University of York have coped with the challenges of implementing this. Exams on the VLE must be intuitive, flawless and fit for purpose, with a dedicated infrastructure and automated marking.

Staff were aware of possible issues that could arise, including loss of student data and multiple workstation failure. They took steps to minimize this, including creating separate exam accounts for students.

Some of the issues encountered included students being sent to the wrong rooms, and ongoing challenges with timetabling. One issue involved the randomization of questions – some students were shown the harder, essay-style questions first while others were given multiple-choice questions – this could be seen as unfair, so the issue was later rectified.

G Sessions: How I Have So Far Failed To Create A Fully Accessible VLE – Al Holloway, University of Northampton

Al Holloway’s presentation explored how he has tried to create a fully accessible VLE, but this has been difficult without the wholehearted support of all staff. Accessibility issues include Blackboard themes and layouts, video content, recorded lectures, documents and content authoring, and different browsers.  Some staff responded to his requests to look at making their material more accessible, but others made less of an effort. He emphasized the importance of gaining support from key stakeholders, and suggests implementing a method to audit accessibility.

H Sessions: Electronic Submission on Large and Complex Courses – Chris Boon, City College Norwich


This course looked at ways to manage the Grade Centre in Blackboard given the widespread use of electronic submission. These methods including splitting the class into groups, creating categories, and using Smart Views.

I found the conference really useful, and it was good to meet other people who work with VLEs. I picked up some useful pointers and learned a good deal.