Improving your (Blackboard) course

Here are a few of my initial thoughts on finding myself a Blackboard user again after a four year absence. These are based on my recent experience in picking up on courses designed by others, co-designing courses with Keypath colleagues and eight years as a Bb user and those memories of how frustrated I used to get with Bb! Think of this as a check-list for your course.

  1. Descriptions – There is no reason why a folder, file or activity does not have even a short descriptor available. It takes such a short time to write one, so do it. Give the student a reason to click the title (no, ‘click here’ does NOT count!). What is the file or folder about? What do you expect them to do with the information or activity when they click the link? Put the link contents into context of the course, unit or week subject. Give them a purpose!
  2. Naming convention – Adopt a naming convention for your files and folders, and stick to it. Ideally this should be used consistently across the whole course or programme, not just your own modules. Think about the file or folder or activity in isolation … which looks better: ‘week_1.pdf‘ or ‘Accounting1.pdf‘ or ‘MD001_Week_1_Acocunting_Introduction.pdf‘. 
  3. Dates – If you’re re-using a Bb course and have rolled it over (see, I’m getting right back into the terminology here!) then please, please please check and re-check any and all dates? This is one reason why I never liked to use dates for adaptive release on content as this would make the rollover such a massive job, with a very real scope for some adaptive release settings to be missed. Get it wrong and students won’t be able to see or use your course. Also double check the grade centre for any and all dates. If in doubt, delete previous assignments and start from scratch.
  4. Links – Check all links, and not just to see if they work. Check they go to the right website or webpage and that it is still the right page/site you need (check for errors too). If you link to other Bb or institutional pages these are also available to your new students; either they need permission or you should move/copy the page to somewhere where they can access it.
  5. Formatting – Use the textbox for formatting your text, don’t rely on formatting copied across from Word. In fact, make sure you don’t by pasting any copied text into the HTML aspect of the textbox, which will not copy and formatting, then using the formatter for all formatting. Nothing annoys me more than seeing changes or inconsistencies in font, font size, indents, bullet or lists, etc. A little bit of attention at the start can improve your course no end.
  6. Contact – Are the right details available for the academic teaching and administrative teams? Have any changed? Can you put any extra content here like the time a student should expect a response (24/48 hours?), weekend or out-of-office replies, etc.?

Improve your course with images, descriptions, videos, assessments, interactions, etc. More here
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  1. Images and graphics – Use images and graphics carefully, make sure you attribute them properly, load them to the course content collection to be sure they’ll copy across in rollover. if possible always talk with your friendly ID or LT, they’ll help either find them images or design new ones for you ;-)
  2. Video – Consider video. Whether you record your own (with or without professional support) or use one of the many that are available online (YouTube, Vimeo, TEDTalks, etc.) but be sure to check the owner and copyright status of the video. If user ‘jonny5alive‘ loaded a BBC news item then odds are it wont be available online for very long. If the video is from the legitimate BBC account, then it’s a good one to use. This is not just about copyright, it’s also about making sure the video is less likely to disappear mid way through your module and you have to scramble around trying to find an alternative. If nothing else, record a short module intro AND a short intro to each week/unit. Not only will this be something you can reuse next year, it’ll also be a way for your geographically scattered students to engage with you and build a relationship. I’ve written more about videos in learning here.
  3. Activities – Whether your module space is for purely online learning & delivery, blended learning or your campus-based students, you can still make use of the Bb course area for activities or, if not the activity itself, explanatory and help guides to help students find and partake in the activity.
  4. Assignment – As with ‘dates’ above, check and re-check all aspects of the assignment submissions, especially how and when it’s available. Check with the academic and admin teams about grades, feedback, etc.

All the above are iterative stages to creating a working, competent, consistent, relevant and engaging course/module space for the students.

Image source: Domiriel (CC BY-NC-2.0)

Blackboard. Again

It feels like I’ve come full circle, that the last four years didn’t happen, but I’m back as a Blackboard (Bb) user again. 

My new role with Keypath Education, an online program management partner, has me working as an Instructional Designer in their course design and development team on programs for their partners. Specifically I’ll be working on the Aston University projects, and that means Blackboard. Again.

So. what’s changed? Well, I’ve obviously heard of some developments through my networks on Twitter and LinkedIn, as well as a visit (or two) to the Durham Blackboard Users Conference. My last real ‘user’ experience of Bb was at Leicester, who are still Bb users as far as I know, and it was a confusion of templates, webdav folders, Institutional vs faculty vs module vs school content, tool availability, library services. I still can’t believe the opening page a student sees is, more often than not, an empty screen of possibility – such as wasted opportunity (yes, I know you can change the opening page for a module, but so many didn’t and still don’t). And don’t get me started on the grade centre or course calendar or announcements! Or those discussion fora/forums.

So, is it any different now? I think it’s too early to tell but the interface hasn’t changed, the underlying infrastructure is the same, the method for displaying and cataloging the courses and content is still not very user friendly, error messages are still not informative or helpful. Yes, I am a little critical, but it’s only through highlighting these issues or opinions can providers such as Bb take on board the view of the user or administrator and work to fix or improve their product.

I apologise in advance, I will become a Blackboard bore again, I will ask lots of questions, and I will pester you all with Bb tales, tips and hints. And I hope to see some of you at Bb events again soon (I missed you)!

More again soon.

Image source: Aileen G S (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Learning Technologists as Project Managers too

As I work my way through job boards and role profiles in my effort to avoid my recent redundancy and the impending doom of an empty bank account (yes, really) I have found a lot of roles being advertised with headline grabbing titles and/or impressive requirements. What I’ve also found is there is sometimes a narrowness in thinking, from both employer or agency, in that people can and should be pigeon-holed into a role because of the title. If your title is one thing (LT?) then that means you can’t be considered for a role as an ID. Yes, there are differences, but there are also similarities which can be greatly enhanced by crossing disciplines, and this cross over can benefit both individual and employer with fresh ideas, fresh perspective and fresh enthusiasm.

What I’ve also seen, and this is the reason for this post, is that Learning Technologists* (LT) are also very effective project managers. Here’s why. The quotes are taken from jobs being advertised today for project managers in engineering and finance companies:

“As a project manager it is your responsibility to deliver projects on time and in budget, by planning and organising resources and people.”

Obviously, yes. An LT is required to work with multiple teams from academic, administrative and IT perspectives. Often the estates teams can be involved if it means new kits needs installation, as well as legal and HR if contracts need signing. Not to mention what happens when you need to dig into the data the system collects, where it’s stored and the data protection (and GDPR) issues that follow. Sometimes the LT is at the heart of this making sure the work is done and everyone involved has the necessary information to hand in a timely manner.

The thing is, we LTs often don’t know about the budgets or wider timelines involved, other than start of term or assessment dates. But this doesn’t stop us working to deadlines and strategies that have defined and immovable timelines. Damn, we’re good!

“Select, lead and motivate your project team from both internal and external stakeholder organisations.”

Sometimes the ‘team’ may just be you and the academic colleague who wants to do something they’ve never done before. Sometimes you may be experienced at this task, or it’s new to you too. The stakeholders here may be other staff who need mentoring or training on something new, they could also be students who need guidance on new assessment criteria or group working parameters. Again, it’s up to you to manage, “lead and motivate”.


Unleash your inner project manager
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“Planning and setting goals, defining roles and producing schedules of tasks.”

The timeline could include a new cohort of students, the NSS survey, release of module/unit materials for online learning, scheduled meeting, fixed reports, annual budget review, etc. It doesn’t matter the actual purpose of the goal, role, or schedule of tasks, the LT is at the centre and working with others to ensure nothing slips and everything works.

“Report regularly to management and the client.”

However the report is structured it doesn’t matter if this report is verbal over a coffee, written via email or other social channel used, or a formal document presented to a board or committee, the ‘client’ will have contact from the LT on the status of the work and progress. A good/great LT and project manager will also make sure delays and timeline slippage is reported well in advance and any impacts taken into account.

“… first point of contact for any issue or discrepancy arising from within the project before the problem escalates to higher authorities.”

As above, the LT is this point of contact on any work he/she undertakes. Whether the work is consider small or ‘incidental’ or a full-on VLE review with institutional impact, the LT is fully aware of the impact to themselves and those involved.

Project management is defined as “the application of processes, methods, knowledge, skills and experience to achieve the project objectives” (APM) and a project manager is “typically to offer a product, change a process or to solve a problem in order to benefit the organization” (Project Insight).

Working on implementing a new VLE or LMS for your department or institution? Chances are you’ll be working with a dedicated project manager or someone who’s acting in that role. Initiating some training on new tools or design or assessment criteria or rules around lecture capture … chances are you’ll again need to plan ahead for delivery of the training, resources to support it, room bookings or webinar time/space. See … you’ll need to employ project management techniques to make sure it happens when you want it to, how you want it, and where you want it.

Sounds familiar? It sounds like work I’ve engaged in for years now. I just didn’t know I could add ‘project manager’ to my list of skills too!

* Note: When I say Learning Technologists, I also mean Educational / Instructional Designers too.

If you’re interested, I’ve found this series of 15 journals (free download) from Product Focus, really useful introduction to project and product management. You’ll have to read your own skill and projects into the words, but it’s all there if you want it.

Image source: Judith Doyle (CC BY-ND-2.0)

Change the title, change the work?

Have I had it wrong all these years … is not been about me being a Learning Technologist (LT), I’ve actually been an Instructional Designer (ID) instead? Bear with me here …

I’ve been looking at opportunities on job boards (more on this another time) and have been looking at the requirements and roles for Instructional Designers. There are more of these around that LT or senior LT roles. Based on the role profile and job description, it got me thinking; “Well, that’s what I’ve been doing isn’t it?” Here are some of the descriptors and requirements that are asked for on an ID position, and how this mirrors the work I’ve been doing as an LT

“This role will be creating high quality new learning programmes for [name here], being the designer of the blended, engaging and interactive learning programmes to address specific business needs.”

“Creative, direct and concise. Good with technology. Great communicator, especially with clients.”

“Analyse base content and current study materials to identify the best way to present the content online.”

“Consider the range of instructional media available: video (face to face, voice-over PowerPoint), interactions and questions to recommend the most suitable for each instructional need.”

All the above have come from current ID roles being advertised. All this is precisely what most LTs I know are doing, and what I’ve done many times before too, yet you can be compartmentalised into a role by title, not by merit?

Let’s contrast this with similar descriptors from LT roles currently being advertised …

“Design and Development of e-learning content.”

“Undertake a range of activities to advocate for digital learning and its associated technologies.”

“The LT is expected to work proactively to identify potential resources for the [name here] and to plan and manage the development of varied e-learning material, including video, webinars, self-paced interactive resources, and [VLE here] activities.”

“Provide leadership and support for the development of innovative and effective teaching and learning practices using information technology.”


Learning Technologist or Instructional Designer ... or both? #edtech
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Do you see the similarities here? The only difference is that the ID role requirements are for commercial/corporate employers, and the LT ones for universities. Same role, often similar responsibilities and management duties (team and self), but different ‘sectors’. Of course, there are many differences in the roles that mean there are clear distinctions that warrant the different titles, and that’s fine – LTs may be more limited in scope in what and how they deal with, LTs may look after a tool (VLE, lecture capture, etc.) rather than a department or programme or academic group, etc..

But, for myself and those LTs I know and have worked with, we are much much more than this. We engage, advise, collaborate, curate, anticipate, lead, mentor, showcase, develop, design, implement, consult, etc. All these things are appropriate terms for both LT and ID roles. Yes? Perhaps it’s more to do with context … in my more recent roles and work I am so much more than an LT … I am now manager of an entire organisation’s learning platform, how it works, why it works and who it works for (internal and external). I ‘manage’ all aspects of the relationships between organisational parties with interest in the training as well as all external stakeholders, whether they are course participants or suppliers or accrediting bodies or potential clients.

According to the definitions in the ID role profiles above I have a more ID background and approach than LT, and have been since my 1st day in an LT-titled role, since I learned about my craft and stopped blindly following convention of the (enforced) VLE module structure and thought about making the learning more engaging and inclusive. It’s not about using the tools provided, it’s not even about finding new tools, it’s about using appropriate tools at an appropriate time for an appropriate motive to further the learning opportunities.


ID or LT? It's about using appropriate tools at an appropriate time for an appropriate motive to further the learning opportunities #edtech
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So, are you an Instructional Designer or a Learning Technologist. Does the title/name given to your role even matter? Perhaps the difference here is time … what was once two distinct roles have now merged in outlook and intention and can be seen as the same, depending on which title the organisation prefers?

Image source: Olle & Agen (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Authenticity

When you buy a new car or buy a new TV you go to a showroom who deals in the car or TV, either it’s an official retailer for the item or it has a reputation you trust. Well, we used to at any rate. It seems these days, and I’m equally guilty of this, we go online and find the cheapest version. There, that’ll do. Even if we use a ‘reputable’ website we may find ourselves buying the £5 USB cable made by a company we’ve never heard of instead of the £15 cable from one we have. “It’s OK, it’s from Amazon, it’ll be OK.” (Other online retailers exist, try them out too sometime!)

Is it the same with our learning? When choosing a college or university we look at a lot of things about it, not only the details of the course and individual topics within it but things like accommodation, proximity to the town or shops, on-campus events, clubs, sports facilities, reviews from previous students, etc. I don’t remember even thinking about who would teach me my degree, I looked into everything BUT the teaching staff. Is this wrong?

It seems different when looking at the different MOOCs on offer, I find myself looking at the course team as much as the course syllabus itself. A MOOC on Shakespeare? Why, yes please … but who wrote it and who’s delivering it? Ahh, a ‘renowned Shakespearean academic’ in Professor Bate and it’s been developed by the University of Warwick (ranked consistently in the UKs’ top 10 universities). That kind of makes up my mind .. even though the course page doesn’t say much about the course contents, other than the promo video

I’ve worked on a number of MOOCs and online courses as well as blended and campus/classroom based courses. There are many differences in what I/we do depending on the audience and delivery method, but the courses that have an element of face-to-face contact doesn’t really need the teacher introduced as part of the designed materials. This is, or should be, done in person. Often the first lecture or contact point with the students will be an introduction made by the teacher on who they are, what their background is and why they are the one who should give the course. Often courses are taught by a team, sometimes led by the senior academic and supported by either junior academics or PhD students. Are they also included in the list of authors or facilitators? They have equal right to be there, especially if the learners have more contact with them (in person or online) than the ‘lead’. This is content given to the students and often not part of the slides they can download for each lecture. There may be some info on the VLE, but is it really enough to showcase the breadth of knowledge behind the course and it’s creation?


Authenticity and credibility in online learning
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For these courses with contact time it seems it doesn’t really matter that this stuff isn’t written in to the course itself. For online courses of any nature or audience it is imperative this information is front and centre. If you can highlight prior to the course (especially for MOOCs) the credibility of the authoring and teaching team it will enhance the authenticity of the course itself.

This is often overlooked in some online courses and is why I insist on having this information front and centre in the courses I work on. This gives the course and the whole course team the credibility to be the ones to deliver and facilitate the course, and it gives the content and materials the authenticity needed to demonstrate to the learners that this team has experience and background to be the best team to lead it.

There are so many options and ways to learn online, sometimes the number of courses on a similar subject exist. So, which one will you choose? The one that looks nice? The cheapest one, or the one that has been developed and delivered by the best team possible, therefore giving you the best possible learning experience?

Yeah, me too.

Image source: Ara Pehlivanian (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Instruction

Following on from my two previous posts which cover my thought process about familiarity in learning design and how distractions can affect both our work and learn environments, I wanted to write about instruction. Instructions we give as well as those we receive.

When you start something new, at work or at home, do you read or follow the instructions? If it’s a new cabinet (Ikea anyone?) or piece of furniture, you’ll probably follow the instructions quite clearly. I know I do. Same with Lego? Yes, me too, although I do like to mess with Lego and see what weird-yet-satisfyingly-symmetrical construction me and my boys can come up with.

Even with new technologies I usually like to read a little of the instructions to get me started, at least to the point where I know how to charge it and when it’s ready to use. These days most modern companies provide some excellent get-you-started instructions with their products; enough for the likes of me who just want to get started, more detailed versions online for those who want to delve deeper. 

When we have a new person join our team we often find ourselves working through an induction programme, introducing them to key people they need to know (IT, HR, estates, etc.) and then spend time showing the ropes in the VLE, LMS, online HR system, file server, phones, etc. See, we take care of our own and make sure they have enough to get started, then step back and give them room to find their feet, all the time being a careful parent ready to step in and answer any questions.


When was the last time you read the induction materials, and I mean read not just link-and-fact checked them?
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But what of our online learners? We have probably developed a full-on induction or on-boarding process for them. We’ve probably not revisited it for a couple of years as well, but have we done too much or too little for our distant and online clients (yes clients … there is a payment transaction going on, even in MOOCs these days). When was the last time you read the induction materials, and I mean read not just link-and-fact checked them? What about getting them tested by someone new to the programme? 

In my time I’ve seen old induction instructions that are out of date, yet still valid because links work and the platform hasn’t changed. That shouldn’t mean we can let them be. In the last few years I’ve seen major changes in how different learning platforms are used. What they do are still mostly the same, but how we use them is constantly, or should be constantly changing. Therefore the induction programme should also be changed to reflect that too. Again, it’s not just about the click-this and click-that instructions, but the information around why we are asking students to do something that needs checking.

What do you do then? Do you keep referring back to those initial instructions throughout the courses, reminding the learner about the tools or help available, or do you rely on them remembering it and, hopefully, reviewing the induction programme? When you use a different or new tool with the learners do you write some guide for them, on both the how it works and why you’re using it? I bet you do, but do you go and add it to the induction programme for the next cohort of learners? You should.

For me the process of inducting learners to your organisation or platform never ends, or rather ends when they complete the course or programme and ‘graduate’. If they’re studying a three year degree it’s an easy bet that the tools and how you use them will change (again, SHOULD change!) over the lifespan of their studies. If your learners are only with you for a short while, a matter of weeks, then there’s still no reason to not keep them informed with either email communications or VLE announcements when they’re going to encounter something new as part of their learning. If they’re used to MCQs week on week,  then you start using discussion boards, then a reminder about what they are, what you expect from the learning in the discussion, and how to use them is a good way to introduce the activity.

Image source: clement127 (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Familiarity

Over the years and role changes I’ve used a variety of different VLEs. From Blackboard to FutureLearn, and from custom in-house developed VLE to customised large-scale MOOC platform. So, how important is familiarity when working, designing and developing on these platforms?

Firstly, are we talking about the familiarity I need to navigate the multitude of features and processes to get the course built and delivered? Or do we mean the familiarity the learner needs in order to have a smooth and tangible learning experience, whether they sit down and structure their learning or dip in as and when they can? Let’s try and deal with both.

Explain everything

  • For me: If you’re new to the platform it’s good to write notes to yourself as you do something new, work out how a feature works, etc. This is also a great resource for you or the rest of the team to open discussion around the how and why of particular approach to presenting a learning resource. Keep ideas, plans, design/colour schemes, times, asset library, etc. all in one place for easy reference. 
  • For the learner: Accept that the learner may not have read your carefully scripted course page or expensive course promo video and repeat it at the beginning of the course. The odds are that you put a lot of effort into that content so make sure it’s of use at the start of the course. It will need to be modified, you don’t need the marketing/promotional terminology here, so make sure it reads like the rest of the course (the ‘voice’ of the learning). Carry this approach to the whole course, not just the start: explain why you’ve included a video to watch and what the learner should think about while they watch it. Explain the structure of the course and what it means for their journey, and how the journey ends. And what happens after that. 

Structure and navigation

  • For me: A new platform will mean a lot of different, well, everything! Who hosts, manages or supports the platform? Who are they, where are they, when are they available? Make them your new BFF and ask for help as well as providing a fresh pair of eyes and offer feedback from your own experience on other platforms to see if you can provide efficiencies or development to improve. Always ask questions and always explain why, as well as showing them your results. 
  • For the learner: A consistent structure and navigation to the course will help the learner feel more comfortable and relaxed, therefore are more likely to retain the knowledge you’re presenting them with. As with the previous item, explain how the structure works, explain how to use the navigation, and above all keep the consistency of design that you’ve worked hard to develop. If you use colour of font size as a code of activity or resource identification, use it every time (you’ d be surprised how often I’ve seen inconsistencies, usually across courses rather than within the same course).

Example: FutureLearn navigation, Warwick’s ‘Leadership for healthcare improvement and innovation’.

Template

  • For me: Personally I hate templates or a forced way of working, but the method and structure they offer are hard to ignore. There’s a reason why templates work and that, as I mentioned previously, provides a consistency across courses, programmes, and team members. if you’re working in isolation, then the template probably doesn’t make sense to you as you already know what you’re doing. If you working a part of a larger team then the template provides the working structure you all need to adhere to to get that consistency I talked about.
  • For the learner: The template should not be something the learner ever really notices. The template is there to provide a consistent learning experience for the learner. If it works they wont notice it. If it fails they’ll complain of not understanding what they should be doing, or when, or how, or why. The template will provide familiarity and structure.

Text and images

  • For me: Nothing bores me more than a course full of pages and pages of text, no visual cue at all as to what’s happening. If nothing else a well placed image showing the general theme or topic helps bring the page to life. While some subjects are clearly more visual than others, there’s no excuse for not using some Creative Commons or licensed images, a YouTube video also explaining the subject, concept, interview with an expert, educator, practitioner, etc. While we try and accommodate as many styles of presenting learning materials, and those materials often reach us from the educator in text form, we would not be doing our job if we didn’t try and find a visual solution to break the text blocks up, even if it’s only a different way of presenting the text.
  • For the learner: if the learner wanted to read a textbook to gain the knowledge and qualification from the course, they’d that. Often what one learner likes is not what another likes. While one person can read book after book and retain the knowledge easily many cant, me being one of them. The inclusion of different sorts of activities helps, but so do different approaches to presenting the learning materials: image, charts, photos, infographics, video interviews, to-camera teaching presentations, video case studies, high-profile documentaries (check the ownership and originality if you’re using these from YouTube), etc. There’s always a way to bring something visual to the course.

Example: Documentary – DHL International Supply Chain, loaded to YouTube by DHL.

… now make an activity out of it, introduce some questions that the video can help with but requires the learner to go further afield to find answers and more resources for. Make the image or video part of the learning, not the learning itself.

Langauge

  • For me: If the whole team uses the term ‘page’ or ‘step’ to indicate a different element of a learning package, then be sure you all use that term. By using a variety of different terms to mean the same thing you will forever be translating instructions from one source to another for different things. Something will always get lost in the translation, mistakes will be made no matter how hard you try, and there will be more work down the line when you have to unravel the mess. Be sure the terms you use within the team are consistent (that word again) and appropriate. If you work with a new educator who’s used to different terms and ways of working then open the dialogue and work out what’s best – do they change to accommodate you and your team, or do you change your processes to accommodate them? Decide early on and stick to it! 
  • For the learner: No one wants to read a course that is heavy in jargon, acronyms, complicated academic terminology or badly presented materials. No one. Even if you’re writing for advanced Masters level students you should still use appropriate language, explain an acronym, and avoid jargon. You obviously don’t want to dumb the language down so it sounds like you’re being condescending to them, but there is a level that is acceptable. Find it, stick to it, and test it!

Familiarity in learning has always been about consistency – consistency in the approach to design and present the materials, consistency in language appropriate to the level of the course and the intended audience, consistency in quality of photos or images or videos, consistency in length of pages or steps. By being consistent in what you do and how you do it your course will also offer a consistency the learner will become accustomed to, which will bread familiarity and comfort with. From here it will be easier to follow the learning and complete the course.

Image source: Pete Birkinshaw (CC BY 2.0)

All change

In April, 2007, I joined Bournemouth University as Learning Technologist. This was the start of my journey in learning technology and working in an academic environment. Not really knowing or understanding what the role was I jumped in at the deep end and started learning all about pedagogy, learning technology, VLEs, assessments, assessment and marking criteria, copyright, academic personalities, missed meetings, impossible deadlines, broken links, unnecessary emails, internal politics, etc. and how to work with both highly passionate and distracted academics. Every day was different, no two projects or modules or meetings were the same. This is the kind of creative environment I found, and still find, comforting, challenging and worth getting out of bed for!

A little over five years later, May 2012, I moved the family to the Midlands and joined the University of Leicester. Working closely with academics from different departments the challenges were the same, the technology (for the most part) the same, and the support and camaraderie equally as inspiring and engaging.  

After two years with friends and colleagues at Leicester, May 2014, I made another move, this time to Warwick Business School. Joining a larger team as a Teaching and Learning Consultant (equivalent role and responsibilities to a senior Learning Technologist at Bournemouth and Leicester) I found my place within an established team dynamic, learning the processes and environments, using my experience and knowledge to enhance and further the ongoing projects. At Warwick I have been heavily involved in the FutureLearn MOOCs, as I wrote about in my 3-year CMALT review, as well as working with colleagues on the leading distance learning MBA program. With less hands-on involvement in the actual setting up and managing modules, and more instructional design, managerial and strategic responsibilities (for both the MOOCs and academic liaison) the role moved me and my interpretation of learning technology to a new level.

So, now we’re up to date (including a renewed and reworked CMALT portfolio). Now its the start of a new chapter for me and my family, moving onwards and upwards. Again.

Not that it was necessarily a conscious decision to go looking for a change but, from the beginning of November, 2017, I will no longer be working at Warwick, nor HE. I join a new startup venture as their manager for ‘product and proposition’ which, for me, means I’ll be managing and running their online platform and portfolio of accredited courses. Called the EasyCare Academy, it’s focus is to “improve older people’s lives with a person-centred approach that supports healthy ageing” through a person centred approach. The individual, their needs, their environment, their health, their wellbeing. Aimed, at the moment, at nurses, care workers, clinicians, etc. the courses will cover aspects of a whole of life approach for an ageing population, not just their medical needs. All delivered online.

Distance learning never looked so promising, interesting, engaging and worthwhile!


Learning technologists need to expand and explore, and @hopkinsdavid is not one to stay still (for too long) #CMALT
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The challenge, for me, is bringing my experience from +10 years in UK HEIs and +25 years with the internet and online communities, into the commercial world but not losing the core experiences of learning, online resources, design, pedagogy, management, leadership, network, etc. And enthusiasm. With a timetable for the first courses already set, and discussions around accreditation partners taking place, the schedule will only get busier as we work with more associations and partners, add more courses to the development cycle and explore a new platform and it’s capabilities. A platform has been chosen for it’s resilience, accessibility, scalability, and proven success at delivering online learning to a (large) global audience (more on this another time), which will be a great move for me on the back of my work on MOOCs (reflections like this and this and this).

So. This is an exciting and very scary move for me and my family, but one we’re confident is a good move. The EasyCare family are very welcoming, generous, passionate, dedicated and focused on the goals: to ‘change the future of healthy ageing’.

Image source: Forsaken Fotos (CC BY 2.0)

What’s a NGDLE?

I think we’re all interested in what our VLE or LMS will look like, or indeed what it should already look like. Whilst much has been talked and written about it, perhaps this visualisation from Bryan Mathers is the best view of it yet – the “Next- Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE)”. And it incorporates Lego so well – the Lego base is the overall requirement with each building ‘block’ being added as and when they’re required – personalisation, collaboration, accessibility, etc.

According to the Educause report, the emerging needs of a NGDLE are these:
“Its principal functional domains are interoperability; personalization; analytics, advising, and learning assessment; collaboration; and accessibility and universal design. Since no single application can deliver in all those domains, we recommend a “Lego” approach to realizing the NGDLE, where NGDLE-conforming components are built that allow individuals and institutions the opportunity to construct learning environments tailored to their requirements and goals.”

So what will a NGDLE look like?

So what will a NGDLE look like? by @bryanMMathers is licensed under CC-BY-ND

How ‘long’ is too ‘long’?

For a few years now I’ve been spouting the same lines when it comes to planning a video for an distance learning course or MOOC: “preferably no more than 4 minutes, definitely no more than 6.” Anything more than 6 and we’d consider splitting it at a natural point in the subject, or working with the individual and their content and seeing where a natural break can be made, or other ways to shorten the video.

This has been supported by experience (from distance learning courses I’ve supported at both Bournemouth and Leicester University’s) and the MOOCs I’ve supported and developed while at Warwick, as well as articles like this.

As with everything, there is enough evidence to be found to support and to disprove it.

Yes, I agree that if you have a ‘teaching’ resource, where the academic/teacher is speaking to camera then there is an optimum length that someone will sit and be ‘talked at’, and this is where I see the 6 minute limit coming into play. These kinds of resources are often loaded to a VLE or a MOOC and as part of a set of resources for the topic or week’s subject area.

But there are other approaches to video content where I don’t see this working. What about case studies or mini-documentaries? What about a conversation, when a short 4 minute clip just isn’t enough to get in to the details? Do you still stick to the short-is-best message? In order for these to work you will often need to make it longer so the content and ‘message’ of the case study can be put across.

Let’s not forget, the video is nothing on it’s own. It must always be put into context for the student – why are you presenting the video for them to watch, what do you expect them to think about when they watch it, is there something they need to question as a result of the video (and/or linking it to other resources to build their wider knowledge about the subject area), can they critique the resource and present their findings back to the group, etc.?

Examples:

Short, teaching video.
Taken from the Big Data course, this short video is a well-liked video of Associate Professor Suzy Moat talking directly to you, the student. It’s a great example of the personal approach you can still achieve from a 4 minute video, carefully planned and edited

Measuring happiness with Twitter and Facebook

Big Data: Measuring happiness with Twitter and Facebook – click to watch on FutureLearn. You can’t see the comments on this step unless you were enrolled on the course (April, 2015)

Long, non-teaching video.
Taken from the Literature and Mental Health MOOC, again from my work at the University of Warwick, this is a 26 minute in-depth conversation between Professor Jonathan Bate and Stephen Fry. No ‘teaching’ takes place here, but a clear and engaging learning resource, in the form of a conversation, where two extremely knowledgable and passionate authors discuss poetic form:

We did try and see what we could edit from this in to a shorter clip for the core materials on the MOOC, whilst making this full version available to those who were interested enough. Then we thought ‘stuff it’, this is excellent as it is, with the ebb and flow of the conversation between them just a pleasure to watch and integral to the learning experience from this resource.

In this example, the students on the MOOC watched the video and reflected on their own interpretation of poetic form, of specific poems, of the love of poetry to relax and ‘meditate’ for their mental wellbeing. The sharing and social aspect of the video, and the strength of camaraderie they shared together on this single resource. This resource, in the first week of the MOOC, had 1,400 comments on it!

Short, non-teaching video.
We have also used a mixture of both the above – taken a long interview and provided a shortened version for the students and the fuller version on YouTube, for those interested in more detail, background, and more depth to the work. In this example we have an interview with Professor Steve Koonin, which was 11 minutes in total, and we produced a more concise 4 minute version and directed the learner to the long version if they were interested.

What happened was that the majority of students who left a comment on the video started by saying to ignore the short one (loaded to FutureLearn) and watch the full version on YouTube instead! There were five of these in total in the course, and each time students referred their colleagues to the longer ones, often saying they’d have loved to have more!

Interview with Professor Steven Koonin

I have heard the argument before, when asking for the context of the video, that you “don’t get that on YouTube” so the students shouldn’t expect it on the VLE. Yes, but YouTube is not a structured learning environment and often, if you’re directing the students to the YouTube video you’d be telling them why. Again, the YouTube video on it’s own is nothing without the purpose of why you’ve given it to the students to watch it … !

For me the length of the video is never the issue. The video should be relevant and to the point, whether it’s an interview, conversation, or presentation, or a teaching style video that needs to get a particular theme or concept across. I will watch, and I realise this is ‘me’, two minutes or 20 minutes of a ‘learning resource’ if I am engaged and I see a purpose to it. If it becomes just waffle or filler or clearly does not have direct relevance to why I’ve been asked (there we are again – context) to watch it, then you’ve lost me and I’m on to something else.

Lecture capture
Lastly, let me cover the subject of lecture capture – I recognise the video approaches above are far higher quality of resource and enterprise that went in to creating them, but the above does not mean there isn’t a place for lecture capture in online and campus based courses because there is.

If a two-hour lecture isn’t stimulating when you sit and watch it at home, then odds are it isn’t for those sitting in the lecture hall itself either. That’s not a fault of lecture capture or the technology; it’s more something the lecturer needs to address. No one would blame students in the lecture that was being filmed for letting their minds wander and for working on something else at some point, so surely it’s fine for those at home to do this too. Those watching the recording have the added benefit of pausing the stream for a break, email, message, etc. and can come back when they’re focussed again. Those watching the archive can re-watch the same section again and again if they like until they’ve understood the section that they couldn’t understand before, or couldn’t hear, or missed due to any other kind of distraction.

There is a place for all these types of video resources, whatever their length. Just so long as it’s relevant. Always relevant.

Image source: David Hopkins (CC BY-NC 2.0)