Sunday, 18 May 2014

Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference 2014

UntitledA few weeks ago I attended the Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference, which took place at University College Dublin. Both David Hopkins (day1, day2 and day3) and Sheila MacNeill (here and here) have already blogged about the event. I know I'm quite late, but I thought I'd get a few thoughts down before I forget altogether.

This was the first Blackboard Europe event that I have attended in some time. In general, I find the Durham Blackboard Users' Conference more useful and better value. This year I decided to go, for a couple of reasons:
  • It took place in University College Dublin (where I studied Science as an undergrad many years ago), which made travelling so much easier. Also, I could stay with my Mum and have a little quality time with her.
  • I had been encouraged to submit a proposal on our Explore project with Mosaic, which was accepted. So I was able to present with my two (undergraduate student) co-presenters, Fionn Delahunty and Darren Kelly. More on this soon. Take a look at our prezi for an idea of the project.
  • It was a good opportunity to network and connect with other Blackboard customers from across Europe, and also to hear from Blackboard about where the products are going. It was really good to catch up with friends, and especially to meet twitter buddy @sheilmcn for the first time.
So, what were my takeaways? New product developments, new customer focus and a few things to think about over the next couple of months.

What's new and what's in the roadmap?

UntitledThe latest Learn release (known as the April Release) contains some features that will be of immediate use to us. On day 1 of the conference, Jim Chalex spoke about the new Delegated Marking feature, which will support the common activities of double and blind marking, where an instructor can also reconcile grades and feedback over a number of markers. A lead instructor can enable delegated marking for an assessment, and choose markers from list. He/she will then have an overview of marking as it progresses.

Even more exciting, the April release finally includes a Student Preview feature. This is something that our Blackboard instructors ask about constantly, particularly when it comes to assessment and grading. I've written a short overview, including the Blackboard Quick Hit Video, over on our Blackboard blog.

Further down the line, included in the product roadmap, is the improved user interface, using responsive design. From the demos and screenshots, this looks very nice, and will definitely enhance the user experience.

Looking at Blackboard Collaborate, I was certainly happy to hear that the Irish character problem (experienced when trying to use the Irish characters á and ú) will soon be fixed. While it doesn't affect many people, the impact is significant for those it does. Even better is the news that, sometime in the future, Collaborate will be completely browser-based, and users will no longer have to download java files.

A new version of the Collaborate app (version 2.0) will be launched sometime in the summer. Version 3.0, some time away, will include moderator controls.

Finally, the Blackboard Mobile app is also being developed, to be more consistent with Learn. Hopefully this includes features for instructors.

New Customer Focus

On day 1, just before Stephen Heppell gave his wonderful keynote, Matthew Small welcomed us to the conference. He said that the conference was about sharing best practices and advised us to take time to get to know the team, and to give feedback. This appears to signal a new approach by Blackboard, which was backed up during Jay Bhatt's session later that day.

Although I was uncomfortable with some of the language used ("student as customer/consumer", "content delivery", "countrification") there was definitely a sense that the company is interested in becoming a partner, rather than simply a provider of products. Jay spoke about wanting to offer solutions, rather than just a suite of products.

Over the three days, there was also a feeling that Blackboard staff wanted to talk with us, to find out about our experiences and to get feedback on the products and how we are using them.

User Experiences

During the conference I went to a number of talks from people using Blackboard products to do various things. Among my highlights were:

UntitledTransforming Science Higher Education into Active, Blended and Online Learning: a presentation of 3 case studies from Aarhus University. Based on the SAMR model for technology integration, they demonstrated 3 levels of transformation: augmentation, modification and redefinition of courses.

Mobile in the Field: Adel Gordon from the University of Northampton spoke about an award-winning project using mobile technology to enhance the experience of students of Geography in fieldwork. I'm really pleased that Adel will be joining us for the CELT Galway Symposium next month, when she will be talking about this particular project.

UntitledUsing Blackboard to create an open, online course: Rob Farmer and Kate Littlemore (also from Northampton) spoke about the development of an open online course, entitled Study Skills for Academic Success. From a 100% face-to-face course, this was developed over about 18 months to a fully online version. The MOOC version of the course started on 5th May and can be found at

Successfully Delivering Large Scale Online Summative Assessments: Ashley Wright from Newcastle University gave a very comprehensive overview of how Blackboard can be used for summative assessments. For more about OLAF (Online Assessment and Feedback) see the OLAF FAQ blog.

UntitledSo, overall, a useful event, and a good opportunity to connect. UCD was a great venue and it was lovely to be back again. Although the weather wasn't great, the view from the O'Reilly Hall across the lake to the Library was stunning, and brought back some great memories.

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