Old and New: Highlights from the Durham Blackboard Users Conference 2017 #DURBBU

Total Architecture

As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m no stranger to the Durham Blackboard Users Conference (now in its 17th year!) having attended and presented on number of occasions. However, this was my first visit in my new role at University of Liverpool and also the first visit to the new location at the Durham Business School. Very impressive venue located a little further out of town but close to the excellent Oriental Museum.  The conference began with a warm welcome from the new VC Professor Stuart Corbridge. Then we were back on familiar ground with Malcolm Murray introducing us to the conference theme (Better Assessment & Feedback) and using the Lego figures to settle us into a great couple of days.
The Keynote was delivered by Dr Susie J Schofield from the University of Dundee. Translating evidence-based principles to improved feedback practices” using the “interACT” study she co-authored. The main focus of the presentation was a review of the literature on a range of feedback models and principles (Gibbs, Nicol, Carless, Barton) and draw out some commonality. She shared the view that students can avoid bad teaching but they cannot avoid bad assessment. Stating how a shared understanding of assessment criteria is crucial to student success. I wonder how often there is the time and space in the curriculum to allow students to get a real grasp of this.  Sounds like a good opportunity for students to get involved and co-create their own assessments and criteria.
Wayne Britcliffe presented us with a useful overview of the breadth of tools being used at the University of York, to support assessment and feedback. Many of which are familiar to Blackboard users, although it was interesting to hear that they are a Google University He also shared some useful tips in and a few ‘gotchas’ This was a thought provoking and refreshing topic as it sums up the learning technologist experience at the moment. We are all dealing with similar issues and complexities of electronic assessment. This has certainly been the case for me. A deeper understanding of electronic submission and e-marking approaches have been at the centre of my working practice particularly as these methods gain wider adoption within institutions.

Patrick Viney from University of Northumbria presented a novel approach to using PebblePad V5. Not as an ePortfolio but to manage the dissertation proposal process for over 800 undergraduate students. A common problem to many institutions. The process was based on the workbook functionality in Pebblepad. This allowed students to submit proposals electronically and and select keywords to identify the topic and allow it to matched to an appropriate supervisor.  The effect of this change resulted in a speedier matching of supervisors to students. Reducing time taken from 2 weeks to 1 day! As well as time saving befits, this approach is paper free and auditable. Non submitters can easily be identified and contacted. I'm sure this process could be adapted to support a range of subjects at our insitution, and perhaps lead to greater adoption of the system.  Kudos to Partick for going live into the Pebblepad to demonstrate it. Always valuable to see it live if possible.
I've always been a big fan of screen-capture and I use screencast-o-matic a lot these days, since Screenr passed away a few years ago. I'm also very interested in visual learning, so I was keen to hear how University of Reading Lecturer, Emma Mayhew, used this technology to enhance student assessment.  Using Camtasia she developed a range of study support videos which quickly gained popularity, so she ended up creating more and using other tools such as Powtoon to get the message across.  Then applied this to her feedback on assessment. The video feedback reminded me of the useful qualities of audio feedback. Students get more feedback - quantity and detail, but also feed-forward suggestions about what can be done better next time. Staff demonstrate empathy and encouragement more clearly, but also visually identify issues where the student needs help. The process is necessarily efficient for the lecturer but is overwhelmingly receives positive responses from the students. An excellent presentation from an enthusiastic academic making positive changes.
Finally,  it has always been a bit of a tradition for Blackboard to share new advances in their technology at Durham. Nicholas Matthij was excited to share the work he's been doing on a new product called Ally. This is another Blackboard acquisition and looks to be platform agnostic. The functionality that Ally provides is to make  course content within the VLE more accessible. The tool guides academic staff on how they can make their content more accessible and offers alternatives while keeping the original files. Clever eh? In addition it also has an interesting analytics dashboard that could make it easier for staff to recogise popular content and patterns of use. Developed in part as a response to the changes in legal requirements,  Blackboard will make this service available in Q2 2017. Sadly this will not be appearing in the product as standard but can be purchased separately.

Anyone that is using Blackboard or its associated products would be well served in attending this conference. I know I always have been. Its not just because I keep winning prizes (iPad mini in 2012, £50 amazon voucher this year), although that helps! The community is the crucial element of the conference. Enthusiastic people presenting, sharing and openly talking about issues they care about to help change and make things better. Now that sentiment never gets old.

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