What Sheila's seen this week – #turnitofftuesday, 365 portals and a blended learning video

Like many other institutions we were hit by what we are calling #turnitofftuesday when Turnitin went down for a couple of hours on Tuesday afternoon.  As ever, this caused a lot of  stress for some of our students who were trying to submit assignments. As we had no notification from Turnitin about any service disruption we didn’t know about it until students contacted the help desk.

For us, this highlights the need for more transparency and guidelines for staff and students in this type of situation. Sometimes I think we need to have a large “don’t panic” button, for both staff and students, as there are a number of things we can do to quickly mitigate this type of situation. It’s also important to remember that for the vast majority of time the service has and is working – it’s just sod’s law that outages happen at peak times. That said, the lack of information from Turnitin has been disappointing to say the least. I know UCISA and HELF are “on the case” on behalf of the sector.  Developing guidelines around EMA (electronic management of assessment) is on our Blended Learning roadmap for this year, but we maybe need to move it up our agenda.

The tension between cloud hosted services and internally hosted is perennial, and at GCU we do rely on a number of hosted services related to learning and teaching, not least for our VLE. We are also embarking on an ambitious portal development programme called “Portals for All” which is based on Office365, and again relies on cloud based hosting. We will need to ensure that we do have transparent guidelines in place for service any service disruptions there too. Over this week I’ve been part of a number of meetings and discussion around functionality, data sources, time, culture changes (you know all the usual fun stuff). Our IS team and the external contractor have a pretty ambitious development schedule, but we should have a new student portal available by August.In the meantime if you have any experience of using 365 based portals I’d love to hear about them.

Since joining GCU one of the things I’ve been trying to do is to identify and to map all the different systems we use to core learning and teaching functionality. Unsurprisingly we already have a lot of duplication of services/functionality and the Office 365 platform offers yet more. So it is going to be really important for us to work with our IS colleagues to ensure that students and staff have a clear understanding of our core provision and support. Getting the balance between trusted, reliable services with flexibility to experiment is going to be crucial.  As part of this I’ve  developed a simplified model for blended learning which highlights some of the practices and systems we are currently using. This will be augmented with a number of cases studies. This short video gives an overview.

Shared services in HE – what really matters to you?

Last week I attended the Jisc Learning and Teaching Practice Experts Group meeting in Birmingham. As ever this was a really well organised, informed, informing, collaborative experience.  It was the 31st meeting and there really was a sense of community at the event. You can get a feeling of this from the tweets from the day

Tags explorer view of #jiscexperts14
Tags explorer view of #jiscexperts14

Sarah Davies, Head of Change Implementation Support for Education/Student, started the day by giving an update on the changes to Jisc, how it has been refocusing its activities in light of the Wilson review to achieve large scale impact based on sector driven priorities.  Sarah’s slides give a good overview.  Part of this involves developing new areas of impact, co-design methodologies with Jisc’s core community, regular reviews to ensure programmes/projects are “tightly steered and gated” whilst at the same time allowing Jisc to be agile and try “new things”.  The inevitable “21st century challenge” for most organisations.

screen shot of Jisc Strategic Framework Impact Areas
Jisc Strategic Framework Impact Areas

Shared services are not new to Jisc, and they are still very much at the heart of their outputs and deliverables. Just what constitutes as a service can be a bit of a fuzzy area.  Traditionally in IT and Jisc terms, shared services are focused on technical infrastructure. Being able to share development costs across the sector is of course a “good thing” and long may it continue. As we all know technical services can’t work in isolation, people and processes are what make any platform successful. This is where the other side of the shared services that Jisc provides such as information, guidance, synthesis of practice from programmes come into play.

Sarah asked if we could share examples of where/how we had used the guidance/information services provided by Jisc.  Since starting at GCU almost six months ago I can honestly say that I refer to Jisc “stuff” almost daily. I realise I could be a perceived as being a bit biased having worked for a Jisc funded innovation centre for many years. However as  you know, dear reader, I wouldn’t recommend anything if it I didn’t believe it was useful.

Just now we are looking at portfolio provision and Jisc resources have been invaluable as a trusted source for definition, as well as examples of practice to share with colleagues. I can’t  accurately quantify how much time they have saved me, but I know we have been able to pull together things much faster than if I had had to search for trusted information.  Similarly we are developing guidelines for e-submission processes. So the work from the recent Assessment projects and the new briefing papers on EMA are so timely for us. I think they will save us at least a couple of weeks of research and again, I can’t emphasis the importance of this enough,  are based on current experience within the UK HE sector.

The Learning and Teaching Practice Experts Group is a key example of a shared service and effective way for Jisc to engage with its core community as it starts to realise its new strategic framework. It’s increasingly one that matters to me and my working practice.

Whose app (or map) is it anyway? #HEAVandR

Early this week my colleague Evelyn McElhinney and did our first visitors and residents mapping workshop for the current HEA Online Residency in the Disciplines programme.

The student co-hort we met with were all post registration health professionals, who are undertaking professional CPD courses here at GCU.  We had a good mix of participants both in terms of age and gender and in attitudes to using technology. From the self confessed luddites (always makes me smile when people use that term in a self derogatory fashion in relation to their own perceptions of “being rubbish at technology”, the original luddites were all highly skilled people) to those who seemed pretty confident about where and when they are online.

As we stated in our bid, one of the reasons we wanted to be part of this programme was:

“Effective online engagement is particularly relevant to health care professionals, who are bound by professional codes of ethics. The increasing use of social media for professional and public engagement requires them to develop understanding of the interactions between professional and personal spaces.”

True to David White’s experience, as our participants were developing their maps, some really interesting questions and discussions emerged, particularly around the use of apps. Is interaction with an app visitor or resident behaviour? Of course that very much depends on the app, and you connect to other services/online spaces with it. If you are for example using a fitness app to collect data about yourself is that resident behaviour or just a private record? As we were dealing with health care professionals, this led to another discussion about boundaries of personal and professional technology. If you have a say, blood pressure app on your phone should you use that with patients, or should you only use authorised apps and devices?

This led to another discussion or perhaps more accurately a series of questions about the whole quantified self movement and learning analytics. In terms of health care, in certain cases self monitoring can be very powerful. But if we all are recording everything on our Fitbits (or whatever) should that data be collected and stored by, the NHS? What are the practicalities never mind the ethics involved in that?

Lots to think about and I’m sure it wasn’t all just sugar and e-number induced nonsense.

Picutre of blank v&R map with biscuits and sweets
Essential kit for v&r mapping

Exploring the digital university – next steps digital university ecosystems?

Regular readers of this (and my previous) blog, will know that exploring the notion of just what a digital university is, c/should be is an ongoing interest of mine. Over the past couple of years now my colleague Bill Johston and I have shared our thinking around the development of a model to explore notions of the digital university. The original series of blog posts got very high viewing figures and generated quite a bit of discussion via comments. We’ve developed the posts into a number of conference presentations and papers. But the most exciting and rewarding development was when Keith Smyth from Edinburgh’s Napier University contacted us about the posts in relation their strategic thinking and development around their digital future. Which in turn will help them to figure out what their vision of digital university will look like.

For the past year Bill and I have been critical friends to Napier’s Digital Futures Working Group. This cross institutional group was tasked with reviewing current practice and areas of activity relating to digital engagement, innovation and digital skills development, and with identifying short term initiatives to build on current practice as well as proposing possible future developments and opportunities. These will be shared by Napier over the coming months. Being part of the Napier initiative has encouraged me to try and develop a similar approach here at GCU.  I’m delighted that we have got senior management backing and later this month we’ll be running a one day consultation event here.

Earlier this week Bill, Keith and myself had a catch up where we spent quite a bit of time reflecting on “our journey” so far.  Partly this was because we have another couple of conference paper submissions we want to prepare.  Also as we now have a very rich set of findings from the Napier experience we needed to think about  our next steps. What can we at GCU learn from the Napier consultation experience? What are the next steps for both institutions? What common issues will emerge? What common solutions/decision points will emerge?  What are the best ways to share our findings internally and externally?

As we reflected on where we started we (well, to be precise, Bill) began to sketch out a kind of process map of where we started (which was a number of lengthy conversations in the staff kitchen between Bill and I) to where we might be this time next year, when hopefully we will have set of actions from GCU.

The diagram below is an attempt to replicate Bill’s diagram and outline the phases we have gone through so far. Starting with conversations, which evolved into a series of blogs posts, which evolved in conference papers/presentation, the blog posts were spotted by Keith and used as a basis for the development of their Digital Futures Working group, which is now being used as an exemplar for work beginning here at GCU.

Stages of the Digital University Conversation

I am more and more convinced that one of the key distinguishing features of a digital university is the ability of staff and students to have a commonly shared articulation and experience of the digitally enabled processes they engage with on a daily basis, and equally a shared understanding of what would be missing if these processes weren’t being digitally enabled. You know, the digital day of student, lecturer, admin person type of thing, but not visions written by “futurologists”, ones written by our staff and students.  Alongside this we could have the daily live of the physical spaces that we are using. So for example we could have overlays of buildings not only showing the footfall of people but also where and when they were accessing our wifi next works etc.

Now, I know we can/could do this already (for example we already show access/availability of computers in our labs via our website) and/or make pretty good educated guesses about what is happening in general terms. However it is becoming easier to get more data and more importantly visualise it in ways that encourage questions around “actionable insights’ not only for our digital spaces, digital infrastructure but our physical ones too. Knowing and sharing the institutional digital footprint is again central to the notion of digital university.

Alongside this, by using learning analytic techniques can we start to make see any correlations around where and why students are online? Can we understand and learn from patterns around access and engagement with learning activities?  Are students are using our uni provided spaces and wifi to do the majority of their uni work or to download “stuff” to listen/watch/read to on the bus? Are they just accessing specialist software/kit? Does it matter if they all have Facebook/youtube/whatsapp open all the time if we are confident (through our enhanced data driven insights) that they are successfully engaging with our programmes and that they have the digital literacy skills to connect and collaborate with the right people in the right spaces (both on and offline)?

As we were talking one word kept coming.  It’s maybe a bit old fashioned, I know they were all the rage a few years ago particularly in the repository sphere, but we did think that mapping the ecosystem of a digital university could be the next logical step. The ecosystem wouldn’t just be about the technology, infrastructure and data but the people and processes too.  Via the the SoLar discussion list I discovered the  Critical Questions for Big Data  article by Danah Boyd and Kate Crawford. As part of their conclusions they write:

“Manovich (2011) writes of three classes of people in the realm of Big Data: ‘those who create data (both consciously and by leaving digital footprints), those who have the means to collect it, and those who have expertise to analyze it’. We know that the last group is the smallest, and the most privileged: they are also the ones who get to determine the rules about how Big Data will be used, and who gets to participate.”

In terms of a digital university, I think we need to be doing our utmost to ensure we are extending membership of that third group, but just now there is a need to raise awareness to all about how and where their data is being collected and to give them a voice in terms of what they think is the best use of it.

What a digital university will actually look like will probably not differ that much from what a university looks like today, what will distinguish it will be the what happens within it and how everyone in that university interacts and shares through a myriad of digitally enabled processes.