Fusion 2014 – Unconference and Day One Recap

Instead of a big post I’m going to break my experiences up into three distinct posts because a) it’ll get me to post more frequently, b) that’s something I want to do and c) no one wants to read a monolithic block of text.

So I flew out of Buffalo, and it was an interesting time crossing the border where I got the fifth degree about where I was going and what I was doing. I think they thought I was being paid to speak at a conference, next time I’ll have to change the language I use to say something like attending a conference. After the border and the pornoscanners at the airport. I arrive in Nashville. Now, I’m not that worldly, but I’ve been to a few places. Nashville is not one of my favourites, not because the city is particularly terrible, it’s not particularly walkable, and it has well, public transportation issues. Outside of those quibbles (which are big problems for me) it’s a fine city with some fine people.

The Unconference

One of the best things that happens at Fusion for the last 5 or 6 years is the Unconference. I missed the first few because I was never able to actually get to Fusion, but the last couple of years I’ve been able to go, this was the event kick-off that was fun, social, and often leads to previously undiscovered ideas and new ways to break D2L. I didn’t stick around for the full discussion because I was a bit tired, but the one thing that I did learn was that VHS (Virtual High School) use Javascript to develop interactive elements of courses. Now that’s not a particularly shocking example, but combine that with the Valence API and maybe you could do some in situ testing and push results to the gradebook. Later a few of us went out for a nightcap and a good time was had by all.

Fusion Day One

Typically the first day has a ton of beginners and introduction sessions in the morning, so I ended up meeting with my co-presenter to go over our session the next day. The sessions I did attend were incredibly useful for me and I learned a ton about how other places develop in-house solutions. In fact most of my attendance was in sessions that were around External Learning Tools or the Valence API.

Keynote

So John Baker’s keynote threw the audience a little, the big takeaway was that Desire2Learn is now D2L, and the Learning Environment, or the LMS, is now called Brightside Brightspace. I guess there’s a thinly veiled jab at the competitors being the dark side, but I can’t say that I understand the need to change names. Lots of people at the conference have suggested that Desire2Learn seems a very 1990’s thing, reminiscent of the dot com boom/bust. I can’t say that they’re wrong. However, it would’ve been nice to have been told that officially. I’m a bit of a smartass when it comes to names, so my immediate nature is to shorten this to it’s logical shortform, BS. Not necessarily flattering. I don’t think D2L is big enough to have gotten out in front of it to shorten it to B, which in and of itself is not a good acronym either (B product? B movie?).

I’m not the only person who’s looking for a short form for it either. Considering I don’t know the difference between Brightspace and the LE (so is the new version called Brightspace version 1?) or if the existing products are called the LE 10.3 still… so many questions. None of them answered.

I’m sure many will talk about Chris Hadfield’s inspirational speech, it was great and all, and I certainly appreciate what he’s done. I just don’t see the connection to the conference that he brings.

Integrating Neat Tools and Activities into your Course through LTI

This session was all about External Learning Tools – which we’ve had a summer of dealing with so far. This particular session talked about integrations between SoftChalk, SWoRD and TitanPad. I’m familiar with SoftChalk through a series of courses I’m taking at Brock University and I can say that I’ve never been particularly impressed with the product – perhaps that’s the way that Brock is using it, or the way the course was developed, or a limitation of Sakai, Brock’s LMS. Either way, this session demonstrated the connection between SoftChalk activities hosted in Content then connecting to add grades into the Gradebook – certainly a more interesting way to deal with whatever you design in SoftChalk.

SWoRD was a particularly an interesting case – although I don’ t know how robust or deep the integration was (I suspect D2Lwas merely passing enrollment data to SWoRD). SWoRD is a peer assessment tool that might be an alternative to something like PeerScholar.

I’m always happy to see Etherpad clones, and TitanPad was used as an example, but if you’ve hosted an Etherpad clone at your institution you can pass user names to the Etherpad for auto tracking in the document. I’m not sure how robust Etherpad is for say, classes of 600+, but that would be an interesting experiment.

One thing the D2L presenter said was that in the configuration of the external tools, when you check the option to send User ID, it means sending the anonymized version of the username, which is interesting because the language used in the external tools dialog would benefit from adding this tidbit – we’ve turned it off in most cases (and seem to have no issue with students/instructors logging into the external tool) because we thought it would violate our University privacy rules.

The Secret to APIs

The second session of the day for me was around the use of Valence (D2L’s API) to create personal discussions in a course with enrollment of one student and the instructor. The big takeaway for this was that in courses that have enrollments set, you can save a ton of time by writing a script to do the repetitive boring stuff like create a group of one, enroll a student in it, then create a discussion topic and restrict it to that group. Was interesting to see C# used as the middleware programming language – I thought that C# was out of favor but maybe not? PHP would’ve been easier, and PERL/Python might’ve been faster to complete the task. Either way, this is the work that earned Ryan Mistura the Desire2Excel award in the student category. Cool stuff

Solution Spotlight/D2L Year Recap

Nick Oddson and Ken Chapman handled the recap of the D2L year, focusing on the extensibility of the platform. They did point out that there is a 40% faster time to resolution because they’ve increased their support and SAAS service teams. Which is good, because their service was slow before. I have noticed that their support turnaround is probably the best it’s been in years.

The looking forward part of their talk was interesting – it seems like they talked a lot about either 10.3 improvements (that were already announced last year, and available now), or stuff that we can’t see yet. Perhaps a chart:

10.3 Feature Unreleased to the Public
  • Wiggio
  • Discussions (Grid View restore)
  • Binder – Windows 8 support
  • Quizzing UI/UX improvements
  • Content Notifications
  • Student Success System
  • LEaP – Adaptive Path learning
  • Course Catalog (currently being used on Open Courses)
  • Visual Course Widgets (customization, I presume at a cost)
  • Built-in practice questions in Content (contextualized learning)
  • Gamification built into the Learning Environment (I assume 10.4/LSOne/Brightspace)

I suspect that the amount of talk about predictive modelling is something they want to build primarily for remedial use, and for online courses primarily. As a market strategy, that makes some sense. Some of D2L’s bigger clients are primarily online universities.

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