Thursday, 28 January 2016

Learning from Failure at #durbbu

Earlier this month I made my annual pilgrimmage to Durham to attend the 16th Durham Blackboard Users' Conference. I've been attending this event every January for the last number of years and can honestly say that it's a highlight in my calendar. Even better that it's at the very, very start of the year, meaning I'm not missing too much activity at work, and I can focus my mind completely on the theme of the conference.

Moreover, the annual Durham event is one of the best organised, consistently enjoyable and useful, and the friendliest Ed Tech conference. If Carlsberg did conferences! This is mostly down to the amazing team behind it all, including Malcolm Murray, Julie Mulvey and the Learning Technologies Team at Durham University.

If you are a Blackboard customer in the UK or Ireland (or considering becoming one), you should not miss this annual event. Because it's a Users' conference, it does not have the corporate feel of, say, the Blackboard Teaching and Learning conference. Instead you have the opportunity to hear about and share the real-life experience of fellow Blackboard customers, warts and all. There is also a good representation of staff from Blackboard, giving you great access to raise issues, ask questions and find out about new developments.

Learning from Failure

This year's conference theme was Learning from Failure. It was an excellent theme because this is how most of us learn. It's normal for our efforts to go wrong, but the important thing is to learn from that failure and try again. Even better if we can learn from others' failure, and avoid making the same mistakes ourselves.

We don't often talk about our failures, so I felt privileged to hear about how other people have overcome problems to achieve goals in the use of technologies for teaching and learning.
My notes from the conference extend to several pages. Here I just describe some of the more relevant learnings for me. I did also create a storify from all the tweets from the event, using hastag #durbbu. Some other attendees have written excellent blog posts from the event, which I list at the end of this post.


Bb Student app

I was particularly interested in the launch, in the UK and Ireland, of the new Bb Student mobile app. This is because we've had some particular problems with the current Blackboard Learn mobile app, related to a current (major) project concerning release of grades. The new app, which I write about here, is slicker and more student focused, but unfortunately doesn't solve our problems. This was good for me to learn, if not entirely satisfying.

Collaborate Ultra

We've been hearing about the new Collaborate Ultra product, which will eventually replace the current Collaborate, with the dreaded java download. We have done some testing at NUI Galway, but haven't made the switch, due to limitations in functionality.

However, I was very lucky to hear from Kelly Hall of Edinburgh University about Stepping into the unknown with Collaborate Ultra. Kelly gave a very engaging and informative presentation where she described how 3 groups at Edinburgh have piloted the new system. She was able to identify exactly the limitations and difficulties experienced, but concluded that the groups were overall very happy with Collab Ultra. The main loss of functionality is the ability to create break-out groups, but Blackboard is working on this.

Based on the experience of the pilot, Edinburgh is looking to rollout to Ultra during the summer of 2016. She suggested that case studies, based on the pilot groups, are being compiled and may be made available to those interested.

Enterprise Surveys

I've never really considered Blackboard Enterprise Surveys functionality, because I was under the impression that it was only available as part of the Community System licence. It turns out - I was wrong! After putting the question to twitter, I soon got the response that it is available in the basic, vanilla Learn licence - though clearly turned off in ours.

A presentation from Chris Slack and Adam Tuncay described how they have deployed module quality surveys using different approaches: OMR (Optical Mark Recognition) forms, Blackboard tests, and finally Enterprise Surveys. While there are clearly a lot of challenges in using the Enterprise Survey tool (59 known issues, 3 critical issues) the increase in response rates and the reduction in labour costs were particularly impressive.
Hearing about this project (and its many set-backs) has encouraged me to take a look at Enterprise Surveys on our own environment, some day in the future when I have a bit of time!

Blackboard Updates

The Durham conference always includes a keynote from Blackboard itself, where we can learn something about the current direction and future roadmap for the company. This year, Alan Masson (Head of International Customer Success) gave an engaging keynote reflecting on our shared journey (Blackboard + customers) and what has been learned along the way.

Just two days before the conference, Blackboard had announced that Bill Ballhaus was to succeed Jay Bhatt as CEO.With a new CEO, the focus of the company is likely to shift, so Alan couldn't really say anything about current direction. However, he did speak about some upcoming Roadmap Webinars for the International market. These webinars are a good opportunity to find out more about product strategy, developments and releases.

Alan also pointed us to a new Technology Adoption Guide - 6 Characteristics To Increase Technology Adoption.

Grades Journey Tool

We are currently, at NUI Galway, in the middle of a major institutional project which involves the use of Blackboard's new Grades Journey tool. At the time of the conference, we were on the cusp of rolling out, using a big-bang approach, new grade centre columns to all modules, in all Schools and Colleges, across the University. So, I was particularly interested to hear from Jim Emery from Glasgow Caledonian about his experience of the Grades Journey tool.

Glasgow Caledonian's context is slightly different from ours, albeit with similar goals ultimately. Perhaps very sensibly, GCU is about to commence a pilot of the system, rather than our all-or-nothing approach. His description of the endeavour as a "series of small battles rather than a long war" rang true for me, although I currently feel like I'm involved in a very long war!

Jim's presentation was very honest, as he described his learnings from the project so far. We also spent some time comparing notes on our experiences, which was extremely valuable for me. Jim has written about  Marks Integration, framing it in the context of the Digital University.

Digital Badges

I enjoyed Graham Redshaw-Boxwell's talk about digital badges at Newcastle University and beyond. I think there are plenty of links with the All Aboard project in Ireland, especially the digital badges component of this.


I realise that I'm writing this post three weeks after the conference took place, and I've focused only on those talks that made the most impression on me, in terms of my own learning. I also very much enjoyed Eric Stoller's keynote, about academics and social media.
Unusually for a conference, any of the talks I went to were of high quality, and I learned something new in each one.

Other blog posts about this event include (apologies if I missed any - let me know in the comments):

Learning from Failure – The 16th Durham Blackboard Users’ Conference- Rosie Hare
Reflections on Day 2 of the Blackboard Users’ Conference- Richard Walker
Durham Blackboard Users’ Conference 2016: A Few Reflections - Danny Ball
Learning from Failure…- Maria Tannant
Durbbu - multiple posts by Matt Cornock


Anonymous said...

Great post, Sharon. I agree that #durbbu is the most friendly conference. I've only been twice but I hope to make it a regular thing in my calendar.

Sharon Flynn said...

Hi Rosie, thanks for reading and commenting. It was lovely to meet you earlier this month and I really enjoyed your blog post. In particular, you gave a wonderful report on Eric's keynote. Hope to see you again in Durham in 2017.