Notes from the BbTLC 2018

This is the second time that I attended the Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference. As Cardiff University has about 31k students and 5k staff using the Blackboard technologies, it is an effective way for us to get involved in the event. I highlight what I have gained from the 3-day conference as follows.

1. Expectations and unexpected facts

Having a conference mobile app and a twitter hashtag is an effective way of organising my activities and not getting lost in the big venue and the busy schedules. One feature I like particularly is the option of “mobile web browser” if you do not want to install an app on your mobile device. Also, following the #BBTLC18 tweets allows me to learn what is going on in other sessions that I was unable to attend. It’s a good way of taking notes and sharing with people at the same time.

Attending conferences is a great opportunity to network. It helps me to catch up with old peers and get to know and meet new people who work in the same area. Especially it’s very useful for me to recognise the pioneers and experts from other universities and to learn how they have contributed to this area. For example, talking to Dr Jonathan Knight, one of the three UK Blackboard MPVs (Matthew Deeprose, Chris Boon), I learnt that Blackboard provides Weekly Office Hours (Technical and Learn) to enhance its support.

Blackboard IM product will end its life in December 2018. Although not many universities are using it, we have users who like it and use it for supporting students widely. It’s pity that Blackboard did not show its user feedback research on this tool before they made the decision. Conversations with Behind The Blackboard are often like to talk to a robot. So I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak to Anneke Bates about my concerns and requirements. Thank Andy McGinn and Wade Weichel for directing me to the right expert.

There is no perfect product and service. With non-enough testing and users’ feedback, the transitioning from Crocodoc to New Box View had brought many unnecessary problems to our users. I appreciated that Blackboard honestly took the responsibility for this issue. I’m also very grateful for the peers who have shared their resources and experience of supporting the transition via the Blackboard Community.

2. Priority

For me, the first thing that I need to do is to check and participate in the User groups. The Blackboard Community has been available for all users for about two years. I haven’t followed the user groups as regularly as I should. I need to go through the information and discussions in the Mobile/Collaborate (MoCo) User Group and the Wales User Group, and keep an eye on the European Ally User Group when it activates.

In Wade Weichel and Dan Loury‘s talk, it presented Blackboard’s platform strategy and upcoming product development. Blackboard becomes listening to users more. So the second thing for me is to check the details of the Q2 2018 and discuss with my colleagues about our plan.

The third is to bring the offer of “Academic Adoption Discovery Workshop” back. Although we had Blackboard consultation a few years ago, I don’t know where it ended. Meanwhile, I didn’t attend the pre-conference Academic Adoption Day on 9th April 2018, and not sure if there were something similar. It would be helpful to see other attendees’ reflections on it if they had attended the first day activities.  I will keep an eye on relevant tweets, blogs, and discussions.

The Blackboard Catalyst Awards can be tracked back to 2005. It aims to recognise and celebrate those in the Blackboard Community that have demonstrated and achieved exemplary practices in teaching and learning improvement. Congratulations to the BbTLC18 winners (University of Derby, Edge Hill University, University of Leeds, Prince Sattam Bin Abdulaziz University). I think two schools in Cardiff University have done excellent work through Blackboard technologies. I will encourage the academic staff and learning technologists to submit applications for the awards.

3. Adoptable ideas

Andy Jaffrey from the Ulster University (the first UK university of adopting Blackboard Predict) presented how they have used Blackboard Predict to explore predictive analytics solutions which would allow at-risk students to be identified sooner, make early intervention possible, and further to increase retention. He mentioned that they provided “Annual report for each school on their Internet”. I think this is a service that we haven’t done enough and should investigate how we can improve sooner. We use Eesysoft to assist the Blackboard analytics. When Andy mentioned the challenge of answering to staff’s question “Can you show me why the student is predicted to fail?“, I took it as a thought-provoking question for both my team and Eesysoft (a very friendly supportive team) to prepare.

Maria Tannant from the University for the Creative Arts shared their experience of developing a toolkit to support their VLE. The most valuable lessons/tips for me to take back include:

  • Devolve responsibility and allocate ownership of the resources to different teams – indeed when we design a supporting structure, we often manage the resources for the original team which created the resources. We did not make the ownership and responsibility clear.
  • Involve QAE (Quality Assurance and Enhancement) – we often forget this one or maybe we do not know how to involve them?
  • Provide Glossary to help students to understand the terms that the University uses, for instance, learning outcome, feedback, and assessment. We are improving at this point. However, we need to make it more accessible for students, and design a way of involving students to contribute to it too.

The Excellence in VLE Awards scheme developed by the University of Southampton is a good example of engaging academic staff to recognise and share e-learning best practices through listening to students’ voices. I missed the session presented by Tamsyn Smith, Sam Cole, and Matthew Deeprose. However, I had nice conversations with them in the evening party. I’d like to share their tips and experience with my colleagues and develop some engagement programme in my institution.

4. Good to learn

  • The close speech from the Professor Richard J. Reece, the Associate Vice-President for Teaching, Learning and Students at the University of Manchester showed us what a Digital university looks like, what the University of Manchester’s digital strategy is and how they are working on it. I like the diagram of the Student Lifecycle at Manchester in particular.
  • It’s good to have the time to read the e-learn magazine (No.19 Learner Engagement) on the train back to Cardiff. The particular interesting reading was the 5 UK highlights in Education on p.67.
  • Not new but still good to see the similar findings of what are the key matters in students’ experience of VLE from Lisa Fishburn’s (Newcastle University) presentation, for instance, More lecture capture, Easy to access resources, Better mobile app, and Consistency of content. I was surprised to see an Organisation in their VLE has grown so massively and pleased to learn how they have stopped the potential disaster. It’s an alert for us to check our use of Organisations in VLE too.

5. Further reading and exploring

The conference can be overwhelming. All in all, it provided opportunities for me to meet people, develop ideas, speak to vendors, be aware of new development, and get inspired. A very big thank you to Blackboard for organising the event. I look forward to working more closely with the community, the peers, the third-party producers, and Blackboard partners.


Inclusive learning and teaching environments course – week 2

This week, we had overwhelming information on the topic – how we can develop inclusive learning and teaching environments.

First, we need university-wide strategies and disability policies that help staff to understand the Equality Act 2010 or relevant Disability Act requirements and guide staff to realise and change mechanisms to support disabled students. These are two examples of Cornell University and University of Plymouth which show how they have suggested staff to foster inclusive teaching and learning environments. I think the checklist for inclusive teaching (from University of Playmouth) is particularly useful. It should be a part of the baseline (or sometimes called minimum standards) for VLE and relevant learning technologies in supporting online activities. It should guide not only the academic staff but also all support/professional staff.

Second, can technology helps? Yes, but we need to know limits of a technology, policies supporting disabled students, and teaching approaches. For example, the following statement is on a list of suggested good practice of communication in an inclusive way. It shows technology is not the first solution, we need to change our approaches before use a technology.

Notes or slides uploaded to a content management system or virtual learning environment 48 hours before the event.” (section 2.2)

Then we discussed the use of technologies such as lecture capture, presentations, note taking, TTSe-books, e-journals and students support.

So how about supporting students in different subjects such as STEM, Arts or Architecture? Think about the learners who are with mobility limits, hearing impairment, colour-blinded, or dyslexia, how assistive technology can support them in undertaking reading, assignment, writing, typing, or presenting? Through a few real learner cases, we discussed what should improve, what technologies can be used and what resource formats creators need to generate. My immediate taking includes:

Timely, the latest Inclusive Teaching and Learning in Higher Education as a route to Excellence guide identified 5 risks of adopting a strategic approach to reasonable
adjustments and what possible mitigating actions the HEP can take

Resources for us to understand inclusive teaching and learning:

Tools for supporting inclusive teaching and learning:


Digital accessibility course – week 5

The last week is about accessibility for everyone in everyday life. I think we all have a lot linking to it.

On 1st October 1999 San Francisco unveiled the first accessible (talking) ATM in the United States. I haven’t noticed if any of the ATM I used in the UK has Talking accessibility. Therefore I searched and found that the first Talking ATM might be installed in 2012 in UK. The first ATM in China was installed in the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Shanghai branch in 1988. The first talking accessible ATM was installed in the Industrial Bank Co.,Ltd in 2015 in China.

The National Federation of the Blind in the United States has mounted a campaign The Home Appliance Accessibility Act: seeking sponsorship in 2012 for legislation on domestic appliances. I searched and found the UK law on the design and supply of products. In China, it covers by three laws:

It’s good to see and learn the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). I didn’t realise there are many accessibility guidelines existed.

We can easily find an example of home appliances and self-service terminals (SSTs) outside the home which has accessible issues. Therefore everyone should try to avoid creating accessibility barriers using the universal design principles:

In addition, to reduce accessibility barriers, we should involve users in innovative technology research, design and development. The Research Institute for Consumer Affairs (Rica) is a good example. However, bearing in mind that a product shouldn’t make people feel stigmatising (see the first Principle of 7 Principles Universal Design which is ‘Equitable Use’).

So far I have learnt to be aware of accessibility issues and the Accessibility legislation in different countries, remember to refer to the universal design principles to design/choose products, read the WCAG2.0 guidelines to create accessible web content and use document accessibility guidelines to check document accessibility. More I will take into my practices.

At the end, I have to say thank you University of Southampton and the partner universities to help us understand how important the accessible digital technologies are and how we can overcome barriers encountered by people with sensory, physical or cognitive impairments.

Digital accessibility course – week 2

I enjoyed learning new and practical things in week two.

I add two things of the course design which have given me good experience.

  • It provides exercises and quiz in the section which are designed timely and not lengthy.
  • People’s comments provide extra useful resources.

Technology can be very helpful. Human can design and create assistive technology to compensate for limitations relative to mobility and speech. I suppose this is “When God closes a door, He always opens a window.” Having a disability does not exclude people from discovering and pursuing their passions in life. The incredible examples are:

I have started to aware many technologies I never heard of. I listed some below. I thought I would be able to use these technologies easily, but actually it’s complex, especially I had to try them in some way that I don’t usually do. For instance, I tried the NVDA on Windows 10. I closed my eyes, and only used the keyboard to work out what a webpage looks like by listening to what the software tells me. It’s no success I could follow and find the information easily. Listening to the robot voice made me tired and annoyed too. The exercises let me see how technologies/documents/webpages have been designed without thinking of accessibility. Online resource creators (including me) can easily forget the accessibility guidelines.

The most import point of this week is learning how to make document accessible. Here are things I learnt particularly and I have started to apply them in my own document creation from this week.

  • I never noticed that there is an “Insert captions” feature for an image in MS-Word. I often create an caption under the figure/image myself.
  • Between Decorative image, Informative image, and Functional image, I felt I haven’t used the “alt” tag in the functional images properly most of time. The W3C Web Accessibility Initiative tutorial is really helpful.
  • Using”alt” tag for Group of images
  • A mistake – using style (e.g, bold enlarged text) instead of proper headings
  • A mistake – putting blank lines between paragraphs rather than setting the “space before/after” attribute for paragraphs
  • The accessibility guideline provided in the course is very useful for auditing a document for accessibility.

Digital accessibility course – week 1

I registered the “Digital Accessibility: Enabling Participation in the Information Society” online course, which started on 6th February.

With my previous experience of a software engineer, I knew that the good or bad of an application is largely related to how much the designers/programmers know their users. I took an “Interaction Design” course as a part of my degree many many years ago. I learnt how our own brain illusion can affect our understanding and designs. Although in my work I haven’t been involved in creating/developing products/applications any more, I see many examples of learning content delivered without thoughtful design and users complaining about the difficulty and inconvenience when use a system (including myself!). I hope through this course, I refresh my knowledge; learn this topic systematically, especially considering the disabled/elderly users, which I may not have enough knowledge of; and start to improve my practices.

This is my first MOOC experience. Because it doesn’t have a blog area in the course, I decide to write down my experience here.

First, I noticed the course itself is a good example regarding to digital accessibility. I list some.

  • It clearly presents online communication etiquette and content copyright.
  • It provides transcript for each audio/video clip. The transcript is easy to read and searchable. I can access to it at any time.
  • It provides a glossary (downloadable) which helps us to check the vocabularies used in the course.
  • The comments field supports editing and spelling check, which is very useful to avoid typos.
  • I can check my comments and progress quickly.
  • Video materials are downloadable.
  • Audio materials can be set to play with different speed.

Second, the most mind-opening statements for me are:

  • Professor Mike Wald said “Everybody can think of themselves as only temporarily not having a disability, because at some point in their life as they get older, they will have some sort of disability.
  • “… disability is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. … An impairment is defined as long-term limitation of a person’s physical, mental or sensory function.” from Scope
  • The term ‘Usability’ is normally used to refer to the actual use of the technology by a particular target group of users and contexts (e.g. including whether they find it easy to learn to use). The term ‘Accessibility’ is normally used to refer to the use of the technology by everyone rather than just a specific group of users (e.g. including whether blind people can also use the technology).”  from section 1.6.
  • Up to one in seven people in Europe may have speech, language and literacy difficulties at some time in their lives.” from section 1.15.
  • As Neil Milliken said that “everyone in an organisation should have some knowledge of the issues that affect one in five of the population”. I think I never even asked myself what is the issue?

Third, the new knowledge that I knew little about:

  • I realised how little knowledge I have about the UK law/legislation. I learnt that “…only Accessibility has actual legislation making it illegal to disadvantage a disabled person through an inaccessible product or service.” In the UK, it’s the Disability Equality Act (2010).
  • Everyone can influence their organisation. However, to be able to do so, it needs a hub and spoke, effectively, and champions. More importantly, it needs an executive sponsor who is higher-up enough to support companions.
  • Subtitles and captions are different. I now know why Blackboard Collaborate product uses the term ‘captions’.
  • Seeing the examples of people who have dyslexia, hearing impairment, deaf, visual impairment, and cerebral palsy, and the discussions about the challenges they face daily, I appreciate what I have. I started to see more of people’s needs and learn the existing technologies that they are using but I haven’t heard of.

Fourth, the course opens many resources to us. I am starting to think how much work I have been involved in has met the Accessibility standard, and how many of our current web resources follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0. The new tools/resources that I can immediately use in my practice are:

Finally, I list a few inconvenient points.

  • The learning resource links are not opened in a new window/tab. When click on a link, it opens in the same window, which if you are typing some comments and click on a link accidentally, you will lose the unpublished comments. You need to type again.
  • It does not support ‘searching’ in the course.
  • It suggests that 3 hours/week studying time are needed. In fact, I have spent much more time on learning course materials, reading people’s comments, posting comments, and digesting what I learned in this week. Is it because I haven’t been a student for too long? I guess if the learner has already had the background knowledge, they can learn much quicker than I did, but still 3 hours/week seems impossible.

The Learning Technologist role (2)

The year of 2016 ends soon. I didn’t write a post here until now. Giving a brief summary, it’s a year of half of the time spending on family responsibilities and half of the time being busy for making progress in an inefficient process (I don’t like this part, but sometimes I have to accept the fact).

At the end of the two years working on the “enablement officer” secondment role, I see the role of “learning technologist” clearer. Linking back to my previous post, I think it’s necessary to write down my experience and lessons as a learning technologist (if I dare to call myself so).

What it is and what it is not

Basically to me, there are many of us who work in this area have similar background. I use a diagram to indicate it. However, this doesn’t say people who are originally from different backgrounds do not have the capability to do an excellent job in the area. This diagram is a simple example which shows how our own biases can be in the area.


In the diagram A and B stand for people who work in the IT and the Education. C stands for people who work in Learning Technology area.

A: knowledge originally was from IT background (I mean people understand how/why a system was designed, implemented and developed in certain way). This is gained either from education or from long work experience in the area of IT. Considering a context such as higher education, people in the area need to gain the knowledge of education and pedagogy to be able to understand if a technology helps teaching and learning. Gradually the C area appears.

B: knowledge originally was gained from studying the Education subject or from adequate experience of teaching/researching. It is not easy for people working in education to avoid technology or say “digital”. Some of them start to learn IT or understand how technology works. They see the benefits and the limits that technology brings into education. They are the ones who put spurs to the C area.

C: People who work in this area have the adequate knowledge/experience in both A and B, and I think more and more people are going to work in C area. Trying to separate the IT capabilities and pedagogy support from the learning technologist’s work will make their work even harder.

I like what Matt Cornock said in his blog post “Learning Technologist – Oldest job around?“.

… learning technologists are seen as problem solvers working to understand and improve pedagogy, rather than problem makers who would otherwise try to force technology where it doesn’t fit.”

In higher education, there is a need that staff become more technologically adaptive and confident, but it doesn’t mean technology is the key. I agree that the core of the learning technologist role is not about the technology itself, rather is more about helping to resolve the pedagogic problems that the teaching/learning is facing. Understanding the user experience and help users to adapt and explore the benefits and constrains of using technology is the key.

My understanding of the required skills of a learning technologist role does not change much. According to the particular task we work on, some skills are required more than others. I list the knowledge/skill that I found is essential:

  • pedagogies in higher education (I need to improve myself a lot. This is related to my knowledge of the UK Education and policies.)
  • website, webpage, and HTML(5)
  • the ability to identify if a problem is a technical bug/defect
  • effective communication (I need to improve myself a lot. This is related to my knowledge of the UK culture to a good extent.)
  • both online and face-to-face presentation (I need to improve myself on podcasting. This is because I am not very confident as a ESL person. However strangely I feel fine with face-to-face presentation.)
  • coordinating webinars/virtual classrooms (I need to improve myself a lot.)
  • learn/share good practice and/or lessons from/to peers (Being visible and connected is the way!)

The work wasn’t easy and is still challenging. Below are the areas that I feel difficult in my work over the past two years.

An easy-reach contact/sharing structure 

I like to encourage self-directed experiential learning. My assumption was that nowadays it’s not easy to avoid using technology (e.g., pay bills online, online shopping, video chat smart phone, attending webinars, etc.). People use technology and learn how to use technology unconsciously. With the assumption, my “advocate” approach didn’t work as good as I expected. I thought with telling users where the resources are, they will learn themselves. Actually I realised that I need to work alongside with them. I work in a central division rather than in a school/department, one of the barriers is that there are often too many service/management tiers between us and the actual users. The communication process is lengthy and tardy. Another barrier is that learning technologists were not involved in working with academic/professional services staff at the beginning to avoid many problems regarding to making decisions. This is often impossible.

What I learnt is that learning technologists are the people whom the academic/professional services staff need to contact directly at first when they are starting to think about adopting technology in practice. Learning technologists help them to identify their pedagogic problems, choose tools, learn the tools quickly and prepare/deliver activities. Learning technologists share the user cases with other users, evaluate the technology adoption, and feed the experience/lessons back to the technology providers and user community.

Various methods are essential

Following the point above, another barrier is that users are at different levels in terms of essential digital skills/knowledge, so does the learning technologists have different level of expertise in terms of learning technology support. For example, from my experience of delivering support resources, it showed that working on a single approach to encouraging self-directed experience learning is inefficient. I may have created information-rich resources and made them available for users, however without going through the resources with users, some may say they don’t have time to read, some may say they don’t understand, and some may say they can’t find the specific information. Relating to where the resources were, who created them and who updated them, I realised that we need to provide various types of key resources and deliver them to users by different channels. For example, delivering a user guide in a way that users can learn easily may need us to provide a step-by-step one page printable guide, a 3 minutes audio/video clip to explain the guide, a diagram that shows the relationship between this guide and relevant resources, regular webinar training sessions, and follow-up user experience Q&As and feedback. It requires a lot of work from learning technologists as sometimes many of them are different formats, but similar content; sometimes it needs creativity, and sometimes it’s about project management.

Teams and organisational knowledge

By my own experience, I got the impression that individual learning technologist rather than a team is seen as key resource by institutions, and they have been managed like they can do any other learning technologists’ work at a same quality level, or say, hold the same set of knowledge/skills. In many cases, core values of teams are unseen and not identified, and team knowledge is not addressed. Many learning technologists work on their own without supporting/understanding from the institutional level. What kind of knowledge is shared and how knowledge is shared are determined by the individuals. Meanwhile, likely we only bring users a short-term satisfaction because the technologies are delivered before a responsible robust team is ready. Here what I mean a “team” is that people feel they belong to and work for a team goal rather than a team in an operational framework.

Community of practice is a way that tries to bridge the gap, however learning technologists team building and organisational knowledge management are weak.

Leadership skills

I noticed that it requires good leadership skills in the learning technologist role. One of the important aspects of the role is that learning technologists provide recommendations and work with users toward the most workable solution. They need be creative due to the tight budget. In addition, their work impacts on user’s views, user’s experience, and the proliferation of a technology. They even need to shove people’s (particularly the senior managers, senior academic staff, and “conventional” users) perceptions of IT and learning technologies. There are few opportunities for learning technologists to develop leadership skills. I like this simple video that explains what is leadership; it’s different from management!

At the time I wrote this post, my colleague Dewi Parry sent us a blog post “A Learning Technologists Dilemma” written by @KerryPinny. It’s a helpful post that encourages me to think about what I can do next.

Understanding the situation more

I read a book “Scarcity: Why too little means so much” recently. Although the empirical research was from economists’ focus on the problem of scarcity, that is, on how people allocate their resources in the face of many competing demands, I recommend this book to everyone. I found that I was in the situations too many times like the cases discussed in the book. I was thinking it’s about self-control, people’s ability to learn or a part of the individual’s natural characters. However, this book sheds light on human cognitive tunnel, which explains the limits what we are able to see, and therefore what we do. It may help us to understand the situation we are in.

A note of the ITIL training

I attended a 3-day ITIL foundation training last week. My department requires as many staff as possible to attend it.

ITIL is a brand owned by the AXELOS Ltd, where you can find learning materials. ITIL provides best practice guidance to IT Service Management (ITSM); it’s not a method or a standard, and it doesn’t tell you what to do.

How could we learn so much in 3 days? Well, I suppose it’s because (1) we all to some extent use IT services; (2) the work we have been involved in more or less is embedded in the ITSM process; (3) we all have taken some role somewhere that fits in ITSM.

Without touching the training materials, I jot down my thoughts here in case it’s washed off by my daily work, which is more about how to facilitate using technology in teaching/learning and actually do it.

The difficult bit in learning ITIL:

  • To some degree, we all have previous experience of ITSM. We have our own terms in the team/project/management. The tricky point is we need to understand/remember what the concepts mean in ITIL without thinking too much about our own concepts first. Then we need to link the concepts what we have used to ITIL and make sense of it. For me how well we can channel ITIL into our own experience is the challenge in the short course because first we can not get rid of our preconceptions in such short time. If our preconceptions about something in ITSM are diverge from the direction that recommended by ITIL, we can easily get confused. Second, we often think about what we need to do. Actually it’s a step farther than the ‘knowing where we are and where we want to go’.

The key things I’ve learnt:

  • It shows us what are the right direction to do things in ITSM and what we had done badly to some extent in certain aspects.
  • The RACI (Responsible-Accountable-consulted-Informed) model is crucial and essential. (see a RACI Matrix demo)
  • The service catalogue is essential. It needs to be available and to be managed by the service owner.
  • Differences between proactive and reactive (see a resource written by Neven Zitek).
  • What are ITIL functions, processes, activities and roles.
  • It’s about management, not about operation.

The key points about the exam:

  • Keep a balance between using previous experience or not in answering the exam questions. Some questions can be answered well based on my previous experience without learning ITIL. Some are simply about remembering the definition.
  • I was nervous in the real exam as earlier I was too relaxed at home to complete the mock exam paper. So do have a serious mock exam yourself!

What’s next?

  • My colleagues and I talked about it in the office. It’s not about passing the exam, rather it helps us to think things more logic and strategical.
  • I can start to use it in practice now and I had a couple of things/ideas on my to-do list for my next 2-3 months.
  • Hopefully we all speak the same ‘language’ and we can understand the terms used by different teams easily.
  • Shall I attend another ITIL exam after I put ITIL into my practice? Could it help me to see how much knowledge of ITIL I have really gained?