Where Sheila's been this week – Engaging with learning analytics and Blackboard

Another week, another workshop on learning analytics. This time hosted by Blackboard, in the University of Salford’s rather fabulously shiny MediaCity building in Manchester.

As GCU is a Bb customer we are obvioulsy exploring the Blackboard Analytics solution, however yesterday wasn’t just a sales pitch, a large part of the day was given over to discussion and finding out what “our” priorities are. It isn’t lost on Bb colleagues that many of their case studies are from North America, so although of interest are very skewed the priorities of the educational system there.

Retention is of course high on everyone’s list, but I’m more interested in seeing how, and if, learning analytics can help make improvements in the wider student experience.  We seem to be obsessed with the bottom 20% and top 5% (Nb these are just made up numbers) but what about the forgotten middle who make up the majority of our student population? Improving their educational experience is probably more important isn’t it? Aren’t they the ones who are the key to getting all our NSS scores up?

Although many people are interested in learning analytics, getting started is quite difficult. Not least because it’s difficult to know where to start. Last week at #cetis14, we were looking at creating an institutional learning analytics policy, and I think everyone there agreed that senior management support was vital. In some ways, yesterday was more about bottom up approaches /needs, but again senior management buy-in was identified as key for any developments.However, it is crucial that everyone, including senior management, do understand the implications of taking a more data driven approach. Developing data literacy has to be part and parcel of any learning analytics work

During our discussions, the notion of “academic embarrassment” came up as a possible barrier to adoption. This was said in the context of sometimes work/projects being blocked because someone (perhaps quite senior) doesn’t understand the full implications of that piece of work, and often doesn’t (a) admit that they don’t know what everyone else is talking about , and/or (b) take/ or have the time to find out. This little doodle of mine seem to strike a chord with a few folk on twitter.


The Blackboard product does offer a lot, but of course at a price. But any serious work on analytics will have time and cost implications.  Identifying and selling those internally is the tough bit for many of us. The Bb product (and indeed, any analytics product/package) is just part of the overall solution.  However as I’m discovering just starting the conversations with some key stakeholders such as Information Services is a great way of starting new collaborations.


What Sheila's seen this week: celebrating learning and teaching, #cetis14 , and the need for handwriting

It’s been a busy old week this week with some very contrasting experiences and perspectives on Higher Education.  I’ve already written about #cetis14, and I’m still catching up with other blog posts, tweets etc about it. Marieke Guy has written an excellent post summarizing both days.  I’ve already posted some of my thoughts from the first day.  In between  #cetis14, I attended a couple of school based learning and teaching events here at GCU.  These annual events give an opportunity for colleagues to share some of the new approaches they have been developing.  It was really inspiring and reassuring to see such good practice in blended learning being celebrated, and some of the bigger questions for education generally (such as developing more open, online approaches) being addressed.

Some of my highlights included getting up close and personal with the very real mannequins being used in Health and Life Science as part of medical training, hearing real stories about how staff were being told what they had been doing for years was actually this new thing called flipped teaching, and how much student collaboration and reflection is being enabled through various mechanisms including our VLE.  Seeing the various ways our staff are developing new and existing ways to encourage our students to reflect, and share and build their own portfolios of learning openly is exciting but it does bring up a number of wider digital literacy issues.

One thing I (and I’m sure many others) have been pondering for a while now is profile management. From an institutional provision point of view, it seems that every system now has a cloud based student profile feature. So which ones, if any,  do we switch on?  From the staff/student point of view, which one(s) is it worth developing?

I know from my own experience I have a number of profiles, most of which are half complete. Take note Facebook, I am never going to fill in what school I went to or complete your profile on me (yes I know why you want that info). My network either know or at this stage in my life don’t care. Some of the ones I took time to populate – and these were work related – are no more. RIP Vizify, I did like you but now you are just a snapshot in time.  LinkedIn, well again I did update about a year ago when my employment status was unclear, but I’m a pretty passive user.  About.me I had forgotten about, but after doing my own visitor and resident online mapping remembered. I like it a lot and in many ways I think it is the closest thing I have to an active personal portfolio.

So if a reasonably digitally literate and tech savvy person like me is a bit fuzzy about my own use of online profiles, how do we support others, particularly our students? Perhaps this is an area where we really can work on some co-creation with students as we are all really just exploring the really effective use of portfolio/profile tools. I know of at least one new course here which is going to be doing exactly that.

I did say this morning that I wasn’t going to write a ranty blog post today, but after a huge twitter uproar (well 4 tweets), I had conceded. So, here comes the mild, ranty bit.  As you’ll know dear reader, I have been experimenting with sketchnoting/visual note taking. I’m enjoying it a lot, it makes me listen and think in a different way. But it is challenging me in terms of visual representation and drawing, and also making me “write” not type on my ipad. Like many people, my handwriting has got increasingly illegible as I tend to type more than write.  @louisegault   pointed me to this report about the use of minecraft in schools and the implication that no-one needs to hand write any more.  Well unless you want people to write like the examples in my notes below, I think we should still be encouraging our children to learn hand write, it is still a skill we need, even if at time it seems we don’t use it that much.


June doodles
some doodles from this week






#cetis14, feeling a bit lost in the forest . . .

#cetis14 was a slightly different experience for me this year, as for the first time I attended as a delegate not one of the organisers, and someone who wanted to find out about what I should be looking towards in terms of innovation and key trends.   As the conference theme was  “Building the digital institution” I was particularly looking forward to insights on that and how it fitted with my thinking on that area.

Last week we hosted one of the Jisc Digital Student consultation events, in her summary of findings so far, Helen Beetham highlighted the importance of “space and place” to students at university.  During his opening talk, Paul Hollins showed a video his 12 year old son had made about his vision of a digital institution, and I was struck how important “place” (even if it was virtual) was to him too. His simulation centered on distinct buildings,not that dis-similar to many current university campuses (minus the holo-decks).   However it was a different kind of space that has left me feeling a bit bewildered about innovation and the future developments.

Giving a Cetis keynote can be a bit of a challenge. It can be a bit of a “tough crowd”, so Phil Richards, CIO, Jisc who gave the first keynote had his work cut out for him.  Jisc has been “evolving” and restructuring for a couple of years now.  Part of that restructuring has seen Cetis evolve too from a fully funded Jisc Innovation Support Centre, to a self funding centre. I was looking forward to hearing what and how Jisc will be working with the sector.  However, I am still a bit confused.

I know that the “old” funding mechanisms at Jisc weren’t perfect, but I’m not sure almost 3 years later Jisc still need to be referencing the Wilson report so heavily to justify changes. The million seeds left to flower analogy was used, and again I agree that in the past, some Jisc funded projects were much more successful than others and some, despite lots of funding did wither and die. Now it seems Jisc have been thinning the trees, and are now concentrating on maintaining a more manageable forest. There will be a nursery but just now there will be four large seeds (research, analytics, student information systems, and digital leadership). These have been decided through a process of  co-design with key stakeholders.  Through this process over the next three years Jisc will be developing its Product Catalogue and then we (the sector) can sign up to the new subscription model.  Well I think that’s what he said. . .  I’m still a bit confused about how the co-design process is extended to the sector, or how for example I could tell my PVC of Learning and Teaching how we can become involved in the process. I really like the idea of co-design, the most successful Jisc projects have always had that element in them.  I’m just still unclear how it will actually work in the “new” Jisc context.

In terms of innovation, it was useful to revisit the innovation, service, commodity cycle but again I was left feeling that if all services eventually become commodities then what is the value propositions of developing shared services just now if someone else will be able to provide them cheaper than we as a sector can . . .   Again I agree light touch specifications like LTI are really good, but they need to be nurtured too – and someone usually pays for that.

This is my visual note of the session (apparently there were unicorns somewhere but I missed them, and they are quite hard to draw)


I also went to the Developing Learning Analytics Strategy for HEI session.  Again more head scratching. I suppose I was just hoping someone would tell me what to do ( I know, nothing is that easy!!). Actually trying to map out the steps of developing a strategy was useful. Even if it did just confirm what a huge job that is. Being pragmatic for me I need a quick win, to get Senior Management buy-in and then we can start thinking about strategies.

So once again I am thinking about time. Jisc seem to be spending lots of time wandering around their forest, but where are the entry paths/sign posts for the sector? When will they open the gates? What will be in their product catalogue? How much will it cost?  Where do I look to for the fledgling seeds of innovation?  Will I have time to wait for the new seeds in the nursery to flower?  I was sorry to miss day 2 of the conference and Audrey Watter’s keynote, but I’ll catch up on that via twitter now.

Thanks to everyone at Cetis for organising the conference and bringing such an interesting and inspiring group of people together.  My final thought – are Cetis conferences now our equivalent of pop-up innovation centres?




Jisc Digital Student Consultation Event

This week we hosted the latest in the Jisc Digital Student Consultation events. Nearly 40 colleagues from across the Scottish HE and FE sector came here to GCU LEAD to share and discuss current and future developments around students changing expectations of their digital learning environments.   There are some really useful findings coming through from the consultations so far, which were summarized by Helen Beetham and Sarah Knight over the course of the day. Helen’s recent post gives a very comprehensive overview too.  Being part of the Blended Learning team here at GCU,  I was particularly struck by the use of “branding and blending’ of institutional provided digital services and resources and ones students either bring with them or start using during their studies. The idea of core learning and teaching provision is one I’ve been an advocate of for a long time, like many others I’ve been inspired by the work Mark Stubbs and his team have been doing at MMU around this.

We also streamed the talks from the day and the recording is available online if you would like to catch up with the presentations.

As well as joining in some thought provoking discussions I took some sketchnotes during the day too.

(Click on the image to see larger version)


Jisc Digital Student Consultation Event, 10 June 2014




Open education practice, luxury item or everyday essential? #openscot

Early this week I attending the ALT Open Scotland meeting at the University of Edinburgh.  It was a really though provoking day with a great range of speakers from government, FE, HE and the school sectors.

As a result not only of the presentations but the wider discussions before, during and after the event, the cost of open practice has been swirling around my brain.  There’s been a lot of war/battle analogies used about open education. I can see why, there is a struggle, and sometimes it does feel like being in some kind of war like situation with ever changing battle lines being drawn/redrawn. However, as I reflected early this year, not everyone actually realises that there has even been a war let alone realise that it has been won.

As I am only too well aware,  the wider (non open education specific) battles in our education sector have seen a lot of casualties – not least for some of our boldest soldiers. In that context, I am one of the lucky ones. After Strathclyde University decided not to extend the Cetis contract, I did manage to find a permanent job.

However, in terms of analogies in the open education context I’m now actually thinking more around a supermarket one. The reason is due to one word I heard a being used over the day in a number of  different contexts. That word is “luxury”. I used it in my own presentation, when talking about developing open education practice at GCU, and my own experience. I think I said something like “I have had the luxury of being able to develop my open practice and be supported in doing so”.  So is open education practice a luxury item or an every day essential?

Now it’s only really in hindsight that I can use the luxury word.  I experienced plenty of “struggle”, but being part of a nationally funded Innovation Support Centre I felt that developing and being as open a practitioner as I could was almost an unwritten, partly self imposed, part of my raison d’être. I was also fortunate enough to be involved at the start of lots of open education initiatives.

But other people and institutions have been/are in quite luxurious positions in relation to developing open practice too.  The University of Edinburgh invested £5million in developing online education which has helped with their MOOC programme and research.  To their credit, they have been very open at sharing their findings and practice. Other universities in the FutureLearn club, which are by and large the Russell Group,  I’m sure have had quite substantial amounts of funding and/or staff time given to developing their involvement.  Other institutions (including my own) don’t have that luxury.

In terms of community building, the Open Scotland Initiative is in some ways the antithesis of top down, big money projects. It is very much a bottom up, community driven development. And without Lorna Campbell’s continuing (unfunded) support it wouldn’t have evolved the way it has over the past year.   So I found it rather odd to hear at the meeting that the Scottish Funding Council (SFC)  have given the Open University quite a substantial amount of money (£1.3 million) to look at open and online education in Scotland.

Despite the promise of engagement, community building etc, I have very “bad feeling” that this comes about at the same time as I hear that Grainne Hamilton – who has pretty much single handily created  and promoted a very active community around open badges in Scotland, has not had her contract renewed at the SFC/Jisc funded RSC due to funding cuts and is going to work with Blackboard.  Who will carry on that work? The rest of her colleagues are flat out providing the other areas of community engagement and support that is vital in our community.

Open eduction, sector capacity building capability – nil  : commercial, open when it suits them companies – 1.

Being a bear of very little brain at times, I can’t figure out why money is being given to the OU to carry out community engagement in open and online education and at the same time money is being taken away from people who have been doing exactly that. Now I know that the world of funding councils can be very complicated, and there very well maybe moves afoot to distribute some of this money to organisations like the RSC and Cetis.  But it does seem to me that the SFC have gone straight for the shiny, luxury option.  The OU gets the money, the “ancients”, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Strathclyde get a place on the steering group, but what about the rest of us? Do we just wait to pick up the crumbs off their table?  Why not a funding programme that would give those of us who don’t have a spare couple of million to spend on developing MOOCs a bit of support to buy out a bit of space and staff time to explore how open online education could really make a difference to the widening participation agenda here in Scotland? What about relatively tiny bit of funding to continue to co-ordinate and strengthen the OpenScotland Initiative via Lorna and Cetis?

They do say that money follows money, and we all know that open doesn’t = free, there is a cost and we all have to pay the bills which means sometimes we just can’t afford to be involved in open education.  I fear that with this type of funding decision the gulf between those who can afford the luxury of open education and those of us who can’t is going to increase.  Whilst I, and my colleagues can do what we can to develop open practice within our institutions, we do need wider support in terms of community engagement too. That’s where the RSC and Cetis come in. I don’t see them as luxuries, they provide a vital role for our community in terms of the development and sharing of practice. They are a the everyday essentials the sector needs. The SFC and other funding bodes strike them off their shopping lists at their peril and to the detriment of the continued growth of the sector.

Where Sheila's been this week #openscot , ALT Scotland SIG meeting

Another very successful ALT Scotland SIG meeting was held a the University of Edinburgh yesterday. There was a really good mix of speakers, representing all sectors of the education system, and a range of open activities.  I was a last minute stand in speaker as Natalie Lafferty was unfortunately unwell and couldn’t make the event. Here are my slides.

Once again I tried to take some more visual notes of the day, which I hope give a naive overview of the sessions. (Click on the images to see larger versions).

visual notes from alt scotland sig meeting

visual notes from altscotland sig

visual notes from altscotland sig