Friday, 12 January 2018

Durham Blackboard Users Conference 2018

The conference theme
Last week I had the pleasure of spending time in Durham for the annual Blackboard Users Conference. Now in it's 17th year, I've been lucky enough to attend over the last 7 years and it has been a great time to meet people and learn about what is happening across the UK with other Blackboard VLE institutions (MOLE runs on Blackboard Learn).

This year, I was presenting about our move to running MOLE based exams and how it has developed over the last 5 years. I got a lot of questions at the end of my session, so I'll take that as a sign that it went well :)

The conference started for me on Wednesday afternoon with the Blackboard Mobile and Collaborate User Group. This runs as a hybrid meeting, with people both in the room at Durham, and connecting in via the Blackboard Collaborate online collaborative learning platform. This gives us a chance to find out what others are doing with their mobile platforms, find out the issues and problems that arise, and how the challenges have been overcome. An update round the meeting from each institution allowed us to set the scene, and then we had members of the Blackboard Mobile team joining us from the US to present some of the new features that are coming soon, and to take feedback from us on the mobile apps. It's a good way to kick off the conference, and the discussions carried on over an meal in the evening.

Thursday morning saw the start of the conference 'properly', with a welcome from the Durham PVC for Education, and then the usual conference opening from Malcolm Murray, who heads up the Learning Technologies Team in Durham who organise and run the conference. Next up was the keynote from NUI Galway's Sharon Flynn. A long time attendee of the conference, it was great to have a keynote from the community for a change, rather than someone coming in from outside. With the conference theme of 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly' (the theme is always suggested by the attendees of the previous year) Sharon wove this into her talk about where they had been and where they were heading. Sharon was the inspiration that triggered TELFest for Farzana and myself, so it was lovely to get a mention from Sharon about this during the keynote.Unfortunately illness gave me a late change for the next session, as the presenter I had earmarked to listen to had been unable to make it, so I jumped in the session Urkund were running to show how their plagiarism detection tool has been integration into Blackboard Learn. As we are a heavy user of Turnitin, I am interested to seeing what alternatives are out there, even though there is no consideration in moving away from a service. A spot of lunch is always good as it's a chance to catch up with people as well as actually eating something. I had a number of things I wanted to talk about and these contacts are invaluable in helping us improve how we do things - this year has been no exception in providing this help for me :)

After lunch I went to listen to how Edinburgh approached gathering meaningful data on their student experience. Ross Ward talked about how they had done this and gave me some food for thought on how we can continue to improve our 'UX' since the course refresh. Next up was Dave McArthur from Glasgow Caledonian, who definitely gave the most entertaining presentation of the conference, with much laughter in the room, talking about how they reworked existing content for use in a distance learning programme.The afternoon continued with Jonny Crook and Andrew Gold from Manchester Uni talking about their experiences of using standard course structure, again something that is of interest as we have just been able to introduce course templates for departments this year. Day one finished in Blackboards session on the impact of accessibility. With their new Ally tool looking very interesting, this is an area I think we need to explore in more detail, and with their research findings that around 80% of images did not contain alt descriptions and 1/3 of document had contrast issues in VLE content, it's clear work is needed.

Important networking!
The evening was more time to talk to people over the conference dinner, in the wonderful setting of the great hall in Durham castle. Having been for a few years, I know a lot of the attendees quite well and it's always good to meet up again, and have some fun as well as talk work.

Day two began with the Blackboard keynote from Katie Blot, who gave us an insight into her time with the company and where things are heading. Next up was an interesting presentation from Candice Nolan-Grant from Durham about how then have used a course within Blackboard to offer new users self-guided training. This is something I've been considering, so it was good to see how they had done it, and be able to ask some questions about their successes and failures. Watch this space!Next up was Derby talking about their academic led EMA project, and it was amazing to see how big a project it was. Over lunch I had a Blackboard Usergroup Leaders meeting, which is a very useful time to get together face to face and discuss some of the things we have been trying to do over the previous year, and where we would like to be heading. I run the North England usergroup (NEBUG), which has been around for a few years now and is a very useful addition to the conferences throughout the year. After lunch I was up at the front. The final sessions were a useful insight into the tendering process from John Usher of Blackboard and Jonathan Knight from Keele talking about something we've just begun to implement, and that is the devolving of administration access using hierarchies, which is getting very system admin technical, so I'll not go into any more detail.

Home time
As ever, an excellent conference. I always come away feeling inspired by what others are doing, confident we are working hard to make things better and amazed by the generosity and camaraderie of the Blackboard community in the UK and Europe... Also very tired!!!

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