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By Karen Howie (Head of Digital Learning Applications and Media in Information Services)
Reflections from sunny Newcastle (Blackboard’s TLC Conference)

Reflections from sunny Newcastle (Blackboard’s TLC Conference)

I spent a good part of last week at Blackboard’s Teaching & Learning Conference in Newcastle this week with some of my excellent Edinburgh colleagues plus many excellent colleagues from around Europe – some of whom I knew virtually and met in real-life, for the first time, at the conference. They were real humans, it was very exciting!

Some of the presentations I attended were very interesting and gave me food for thought and I thought I’d do a reflection of some of the thoughts I had during and since the conference.

I was heartened to see that Blackboard are still developing new things for Learn Original and not totally focused on Ultra.  Although Ultra looks very swish – there is functionality we need that doesn’t exist in Ultra yet and although I know Blackboard will get there, I’m still happy our VLE will continue to get ‘shiny new things’ until we are ready to make the leap.

I enjoyed seeing what’s new in Ultra, it’s  been a while since I looked but Blackboard, there are still to many traffic light coloured grades in there for my liking – hopefully that can totally be switched off….!?

I was amazed at what the University of Groningen are doing around online exams – which I think is excellent – even if I do think exams are fundamentally not a great way of assessing.    If we have to do them though, what they are doing is fab!

I really enjoyed listening to Kevin Bell’s keynote, there were so many themes in there that I really agreed with and he spoke so well.  Themes like:

  • We should learn for the joy of learning, not for the result. The experience is reward enough.
  • Students should be at the centre of their learning
  • We should re-use other people’s content more, there’s such a lot to choose from out there if you just look.
  • Gamification of learning is great!
  • We need to think about more risk and more radically changing what we do

Juliun Ryan from Sheffield Hallam did a fantastic presentation about wrestling with assessment workflows which I really identified with. Some of the problems he described, we’ve seen ourselves. What was amazing was the huge increase in the NSS scores for the departments which dealt with this problem. He talked about a ‘rubrics amnesty’ which was about academic staff coming forward with their marking rubrics in order to standardise them more to give students the consistency and transparency they need.  This was my favourite phrase from the conference!  I suspect the students really appreciated the consultation that took place during this project and felt a lot more heard.

Andy Turner from the University of Reading talked about a project to standardise course navigation, which was strikingly similar to our Learn Foundations project and it was nice to see that we aren’t the only institution grappling with these issues.  I also learned something about Learn at this presentation – something you can do which we currently have switched off which helps with the re-use of content *mental note to go and play with our settings on dev Learn later*.

Sara Preston from the University of Aberdeen talked about a fairly crazy couple of years of change for them – they moved to SaaS, took Ally, switched on Ultra navigation and are soon to move to Ultra courses.  It made me exhausted just thinking about it. Total kudos to her and her team – it’s a phenomenal amount of work and she still appeared to enthusiastic with lots of positive things to say.  Phew!

I also really enjoyed the presentation by Hamish Loveday at the University of Dundee about not blaming the tools – again, there were so many similarities of things going on at Dundee to things here.  Effectively he was talking about the processes and workflows you can change to improve your life, without necessarily touching the tools.  They also did a super fast move to SaaS and very soon will be turning on Ultra based navigation – even faster than Aberdeen.  I needed to lie down after this presentation!

A team from the University of Derby did a presentation about ensuring quality in online programmes which really made a point – they sneakily demonstrated a lack of quality by doing a bad presentation’s first 10 mins via Collaborate, and then came into the room to find a stunned audience.  It was very clever. The Collaborate session was hard to hear, the tools they were demonstrating didn’t work properly, they couldn’t see or hear the audience and we were all pretty frustrated.  We could certainly feel some of the frustrations of an online learner!! I certainly won’t forget that experience in a hurry, I was so pleased it was done like that to prove a point.

This is just a snapshot of the presentations I went to and what I gleaned from the conference – I have many more pages of notes.  There were many new tools and roadmaps described and demonstrated,  I won’t go into these here, I’d rather get my mitts on them first to make sure they do the things we hope they will.

Last but not least, my colleagues Neil, Lucy, Jon and Karen very deservingly won a BB Catalyst prize and we are very proud of them. Congratulations to them and all the other hard-working and inspiring people who won these awards, it’s so nice for them to be acknowledged by Blackboard for the excellent work they are doing.  Something to aim for, for next year!!!

Photo of the team and their award
Jon, Neil and Lucy with their Catalyst Award





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