Blackboard Thinks They Know How You Teach

In November of last year a blog post by Blackboard was making the rounds. A Blackboard study documented how instructors use their system which was somehow conflated as being equivalent to knowing how teachers teach. We could talk about how terrifying this blog post is, or how it’s devoid of solid analysis. Instead I’d like to turn over a new leaf and not harp on about privacy, or a company using the aggregate data they’ve collected with your consent (although you probably weren’t aware that when you agreed to “allow Blackboard to take your data and improve the system” that they’d make this sort of “analysis”), but just tear into the findings.

Their arbitrary classifications (supplemental? complementary?) are entirely devoid of the main driver of LMS use: grades, not instructor pedagogical philosophy – students go to the tools where they are going to get marked on.  Social? I guarantee if you did an analysis of courses that value use of the discussion tool (note, that’s not about quality) as greater than 30% of the final grade, you’ll see a  hell of a lot more use of discussions. It’s not that the instructor laid out a social course, with a student making an average of 50 posts throughout the course (which if you break that down to 14 weeks of “activity” that works out to 3.5 posts per week – which is strangely similar to the standard “post once and respond twice” to get your marks – it’s that discussions are the only tool that give some power to students to author.

Time spent is also a terrible metric for measuring anything. Tabs get left open. People sit on a page because there’s an embedded video that’s 20 minutes long. Other pages have text which is scannable. Connections are measured how? Is it entry and exit times? What if there’s no exit, how does the system measure that (typically it measures for a set amount of activity and then if none occurs the system assumes an exit)? Were those values excluded from this study? If so, how many were removed? Is that significant?

Now Blackboard will say that because of the scale of the data collected that those outliers will be mitigated. I don’t buy that for a second because LMS’s are not great at capturing this data from the start (in fact server logs are not much better), because there’s very little pinging for active window or other little tricks that can only be really assessed using eye tracking software and computer activity monitoring. Essentially garbage-in, garbage-out. We have half baked data that is abstractly viewed and an attempt is made at some generalizations.

Here’s a better way to get at this data: ask some teachers how they use the LMS. And why. It’s that simple.

If you look at Blackboard’s findings, you should be frankly scared if you’re Blackboard. Over half of your usage (53% “supplemental” or content-heavy) could be done in a password protected CMS (Content Management System). That’s a system that could cost nothing (using Joomla or any of the millions of free CMS software available) or replicated using something institutions already have. The only benefit institutions have is that they can point at the vendor when stuff goes wrong and save money on outsourcing expertise into an external company.

If you take the findings further, only 12% of courses (“evaluative” and “holistic”) get at the best parts of the LMS, the assessment tools. So 88% of courses reviewed do things in the system that can be replicated better elsewhere. Where’s the value added?

Why Can’t Students Opt-Out of Data Collection in Higher Ed?

You know, for all the talk from EdTech vendors about being student centred (and let’s face it, LMS’s and most of the other products are not student centred) and all the focus on data collection from student activity – why don’t products have an easy opt-out (being student centred and all that) to not allow data to be collected?

What makes matters worse in many ways is that the data collection is hidden from student’s view. For instance, in many LMS’s they track time spent on content items or files uploaded. This tracking is never made explicit to the student unless they go and dig into their own data. And doing that is incredibly difficult and you don’t get a complete picture of what is being collected. If I was a more conspiratorial minded person, I’d suggest that it was done on purpose to make it hard to understand the amount of total surveillance that is accessible by a “teacher” or “administrator”. I’m not. I honestly believe that the total surveillance of students in the LMS is really about feature creep, where one request turned into more requests for more information. LMS’s on the other hand want to keep their customers happy, so why not share what information they have with their clients, after all it’s their data isn’t it?

Actually, it’s not. It’s not the client’s data. It’s the individual’s data. To argue otherwise is to claim that what someone does is not their own – it reduces agency to a hilariously outdated and illogical idea.

The individual, human, user should be allowed to share or not share this data, with teachers, with institutions or with external companies that host that data in an agreement with an institution that probably was signed without them even knowing it. There’s an element of data as a human right that we should be thinking about. As an administrator I have a policy I have to adhere to, and a personal set of ethics that frankly are more important to me (and more stringent) than the obscurely written-in-legalese policy. An unscrupulous, or outright negligent LMS administrator would mean that all bets would be off. They could do things in the LMS that no one, except another administrator, could track. Even then, the other administrator would have to know enough to be able to look at all the hundreds of different changelogs, scattered across different tools, across different courses and do essentially a forensic search that could take a good long time to undo any damage. That lack of checks and balances (a turn of phrase that appears purposefully as I think we’ll see what a lack of checks and balances will be like in the US the next few years) which could be implemented as part of using the system, but aren’t, leaves education in precarious situations.

The idea that the data locked in the LMS without the students being able to say, “I only want my data shared with my College” or “I only want my data shared with company X for the purposes of improving the system” shouldn’t be hard to implement. So why hasn’t it been done? Or, even talked about?

In my opinion, the data that gets harvested (anonymously of course) provides more important information to the company about how people use the system than the optics of having an opt-out button. It allows Blackboard to say how instructors use their system. We could talk about how terrifying this blog post is (instructor use is a proxy for how students use the system because LMSs give power to instructors to construct the student’s experience), or devoid of solid analysis. I’ll deal with the analysis later, so let’s just consider how this is entirely without context.  Blackboard hosted sites have been harvested (probably with the consent of the people who signed the contracts, not the instructors who actually create things on the system, or the students who engage in the system) by Blackboard to tell you how you teach. In one of the cited pieces, Blackboard says that they used this data to improve their notifications. If I put this through for ethics review, and said I’m going to look at notifications improvement and then released a post about how people used the whole system, it may very well be in their rights (and I suspect it is) but it is ethically murky. The fact they’ve released it to the public allows the public to ask these questions, but no one really has? Or if they have, I missed it.

The fact that Blackboard can do this (and I’m talking about Blackboard because they did it, but there’s a similar post from Canvas that’s making the rounds about discussion posts with video being more engaging or some such idea) without really clearing this with any client is chilling. It also constrains how we perceive we are able to use the LMS (it sets the standards for how it is used).

Learning Technologies Symposium 2016 Recap

McMaster University holds a Learning Technologies Symposium every year and this year’s event was spread over two days just after (Canadian) Thanksgiving.  I have a bit of a biased view, as I’ve been one of the organizers over the last four years so unlike my other recap type posts where I share the things I’ve learned attending the sessions, this one will document the things that I did and the things I learned.

A few days before, we had some session cancellations so I, being the diligent jack-of-all-trades offered to run a few sessions to fill in the gaps. The first was on using PebblePad as a peer-review platform, the second was a session I co-presented with a colleague on WebEx, our new web conferencing tool and lastly I ran a quick introduction to digital badges.

I also had to dip back into my history as a media developer to help sort out (with the help of our current digital media specialists) how to get a video camera (actually two video cameras) with HDMI outs into a WebEx broadcast of our keynote (the answer was that it’s best to run it through a video mixer, in this case a Roland VR-50HD). It came together fairly well, without the caveat that WebEx is persnickety when you don’t connect devices in the correct order (ie. it accepted the video feed fine, but didn’t switch audio to match, a quick audio reset fixed the issue).

So I missed most of Barbara Oakley’s keynote, which dealt with a lot of scientific research into how we learn and pay attention, and a lot of the discussion that followed as I was busy with the setup and breakdown of the streaming rig.

The first session I attended was one I was presenting for 15 minutes about peer review – the other session was about Individual Assessment and Personal Learning – in the context of an Italian language course (which as an aside, uses an open textbook). Unfortunately, no one showed up. It was great to catch up with Wendy, who was presenting in the same slot as I, and we chatted about all sorts of educational technology things.

Onto day two… I missed the first block of sessions working on preparing for my own session on WebEx (and catching up on e-mail from the last week, when I was off). The WebEx introduction session went really well, people were happy with the visual fidelity and audio quality. They also seemed intrigued with the testing option, but who knows if anyone will actually take it up. I’m really hoping we could do something with it – maybe review classes at the end of a semester could take advantage of it?

Day two had a series of presentations on some of the VR/AR work that’s being done on campus right now, which is new and exciting even though I’m not involved in it. Every project I’ve heard about is using the technology in a way that makes sense and should enhance learning (unlike in the past where technology is used for flash and wow, without any consideration for it making any sense). I wish I didn’t present twice on day two, because those sessions would’ve been great to see more than for a few seconds.

At lunch David Porter (who I didn’t know I was following on Twitter) new CEO of eCampusOntario (our version of BC Campus) did an overview of how he sees eCampusOntario developing and essentially threw a job recruitment pitch out there as well. We’ll see how the latest round of funding for research and projects goes, because the call was very specific and rigorous – so that vision is really well defined. I did start a proposal, but of course, it was due on October 31st, and I was in Texas watching my favourite band play their last show (NSFW), so I was a little busy.

After lunch I did a presentation on digital badges (do we need them?) that was a brief introduction to digital badges and tried to answer whether we need them (the precis is no, we don’t need them but you may still want to use them in cases where you want to explicitly assess skills or document experiences – transcripts and portfolios can handle the rest). This was paired with an instructor who uses our LMS for exams, in a relatively unique way. The exam is a paper based math exam, mostly generating matricies. The students complete the exam using pencil, paper and calculators, then are given half an hour to transcribe the work into D2L. The instructor then uses the auto marking feature to grade exams using fill-in-the-blanks. It’s a pretty clever way to make marking easier.

After closing remarks – and a giveaway – it was all wrapped up for another year.

 

 

A Buffet of Educational Technology Thoughts

If you’ve read anything in this blog, you know that I’m subject to “oh look, shiny!”, constantly distracted and going in one hundred directions. This post will get as close to the way my brain works.

First up, we’re scrapping Blackboard Collaborate as our web conferencing tool and installing WebEx. As a conferencing tool it’s light years ahead in terms of usability and functionality. I’m sure some of our more advanced users will find the quirks, but hopefully we can manage to stay one or two steps ahead of them. We had been Collaborate clients for years, migrating over from a self hosted Elluminate install.  Over time, the product, and it’s terrible Java interface, caused our users issues. We did integrate it directly with our D2L installation, which solved a lot of the interface issues, but then we’ve been hit with conversion errors that can’t be fixed by the user but prompt a ticket to Blackboard support. While Blackboard support have been excellent in this particular case, they haven’t been great over the years. Combine that with the fact that Blackboard has been promising a lot, and not producing a whit of evidence that they’ll be able to pull it off. If they weren’t so big, I’d be calling all their promises vaporware, but I fully expect they’ll be able to deliver eventually. It’s the eventually part that’s the problem.

Second, I’m working through how we can roll out blogs effectively to faculty who want their students to blog, but want a campus install to do it from. I know WordPress Multisite is the way to go, but it’s going to be a slow going process as we need to work with other groups on campus to make this one happen. I personally think that having an academic blog is an important piece of the process of going to University and becoming an academic – how else do people disseminate their findings to the public without the filter of a news organization? How else do academics form their own personal learning network? I’m a huge believer in blogging as a form; and I see it as a reflective practice more often than not. It’s also a space that I can use to see how ideas sound, and it helps me articulate ideas better (by slowing my brain down to typing speed, which is much slower than my mouth goes).

Third, is the upgrade to Turnitin, will practically force us to convert our existing connection between D2L and Turnitin to the new LTI connection between the two parties. As always, this is a last minute addition to our semester startup, so it’s an added complexity that we didn’t really want to think about but will have to consider over the next few days. While Turnitin is forcing everyone to upgrade, there is an opt-out process, but from what I know (and I’ll know more later this week when we chat with our academic integrity office) we don’t know what that really means? How does opting-out effect us? Can we revert if everything craps out and nothing works post-upgrade?

Fourth, I’ve been asked to sit on a portfolio advocacy committee, that will push portfolio use to “the next level” campus wide. I have a few ideas, but I’ve never been fond of sitting on committees, more fond of the work that needs to get done out of the committees. I guess it’s progress when you have someone who knows what it takes and whether it can be done currently, rather than facing down the fact you can’t do what you had proposed due to technical feasibility. My boss is sneaky good at eliminating my ability to point the finger at other people’s decisions, so I guess this one will partially be on me.

PebblePad (Academic) Year One

So as we round out another academic year, now seems to be as good a time to talk about my view of PebblePad.

In this first year, I created 9000+ accounts, who logged in to the system a total of almost 39,000 times (I only count for 319 of those!), working on a total of 8700+ workbooks, or one of 12,500+ templates; creating 9700+ portfolios and submitting almost 7300 things for assessment in 99 active workspaces (PebblePad’s language for a course space). Personally that resulted in 37.5 hours of overtime, 30 consultations with at least 20 different faculty and 30 presentations to students from as few as 20 to as many as 200.

PebblePad has received one major upgrade (and one forthcoming in a few weeks), and a couple of minor patches. The upgrades were smooth as silk from an administrator perspective, because they happened in the wee hours of the morning and were usually done by the time I logged into the system as part of my morning ritual.

How’s it been? Busy. The work in the previous paragraph has been enough to keep me busy were it my only task, but in this time I’ve also had to support the LMS, and bring badging online (that, alone is another story that will be blogged about shortly). I did crunch some numbers and I spent approximately 75% of my time on ePortfolio related work – whether that be documentation, consultations or working with the tool itself.

The administration of PebblePad is dead simple because there’s very little beyond the initial configuration (in fact, I’ve only been back to look for the Turnitin linkage and to run monthly reports). The only glaring thing missing is that the system can’t tell you how many people logged in during a month long period – but I can get that information by looking at the last 28/30/31 days activity page, on the first. It’s not exact, but it’s close enough for now.

I did notice throughout the year that there was very few inquiries from students about how to do anything. They didn’t contact me anyways. They might’ve gone to instructors, but anything complex that had to be done usually had accompanying documentation or a video. I do know that most of my support requests were about getting their login credentials (the system was not connected to our central authentication system for the academic year – due to technical issues we’ve been having that’s mostly out of our control). That issue will be out of the way this month, so it should be clear sailing for folks next year.

We had people use PebblePad (well, Pebble+ specifically) for the sort of thing you’d expect a portfolio platform to do – collect disparate experiences, assemble them into a coherent statement about the experience or themselves and submit it for assessment (or credit for an experience). We also had people use portfolios as a way to assess (and have students self-assess) against programatic outcomes. We also had a few rogues use the peer grading capability of Atlas (the assessment piece of PebblePad) without using the portfolio piece at all, which is great that people are pushing the envelope so early. We had a group use PebblePad as the platform rather than the LMS as they had previously done. We have a group using PebblePad to replace existing paper based workbooks with digital ones. All good foundational work in our third year of ePortfolio/Learning Portfolio initiatives on campus, and the first year of PebblePad.

What could I have done better?

Well, I think I could’ve pushed for more help to ensure that some of the things I did were done the right way. For instance, I ended up doing too much work for faculty, instead of them being trained on how to use the system well and then letting them configure and play. Part of that was the late starting date of the system (September 2nd) – part of that was me trying to make things easy for people – so they could focus on teaching rather than the technical stuff. I wonder if I’ve set a terrible precedent for taking on too much work, which will make the sustainability of what we do, untenable?

I could’ve asked better questions about why students were doing this, rather than getting on with the work – I do that in other aspects of my job, so why I didn’t really challenge people with portfolio work is a bit puzzling. I suppose it could’ve been that there was just so much to do, that I didn’t want to get into it with many people. That has to change. Even though I’m not an Instructional Designer, sometimes I’m the only person (along with my colleagues who hold the same title) instructors will come to with their ideas about using technology.

 

Technology Has Missed Education During the Internet Age

Holy crap! My entire life is a sham! The whole Web 2.0 thing we’ve been writing about for years, didn’t exist! OK snark over. I’d like to point out that this, very slanted to favour the current VC funded educational technology movement, written by a guy who could profit greatly from moving cash out of public education into his privately controlled hands (and we can talk for hours if that’s a good idea or not). I would’ve responded there, but TechCrunch requires you to sign in with your Facebook account, and that’s my personal life attached to that service, not my professional one. Oh well, the flame wars would’ve been epic. Here’s the first juicy quote…

Despite its importance, education seems to have been missed by the Internet revolution. When I walk down the hall of a middle school, not much seems to have changed since I was a student some 15 years ago.

OK, the halls won’t tell you anything. The halls are going to be the same. Although if you were there when students were in the halls you would notice the very common sight of a smartphone or even the odd tablet. But you’d actually have to look for that. However, if you look in the K-12 classroom, you’ll see a lot more instructors using different types of technology. The most interesting change will not be in the schools at all, but in the student’s home, where they connect to the school board LMS, or look up things to help them understand on the Internet at their teacher’s request. Some more advanced teachers (and you can look squarely at Google’s Teacher Academy and awards, Apple’s Certified Educator, Microsoft’s Teacher Academy to see evidence of the contrary). If that doesn’t really hold water for you, what about TeacherTube, EduBlogs or any of the other K-12 friendly sites that have existed since the mid-2000’s?

Luckily, that is changing. There are a growing number of entrepreneurs working to reshape education. Every year, thoughtful new solutions come online to solve a piece of the problem. Innovators are working hard to create students who can learn how to learn, who can think critically and who can lead.

Correct, things are changing. Entrepreneurs trying to reshape education is a real threat to education, much like how hypercapitalism is a threat to our sovereignty. Entrepreneurs will only seek to reinforce the common pedagogies – ignoring those who are working in collaborative or communal modalities. Capitalism likes behaviourist, didactic pedagogies as they’re easy to replicate in a software environment. Thoughtful solutions? No. Profit opportunities? Yes. And 99% of them fail. Look at the first EdTech boom (circa Web 2.0, or 2005) and how many of those companies have lasted? Very few.

But before we can talk about the future, let’s review the past…

Sure, but I don’t trust you to get it complete, right or even anywhere close to objective. Ignoring that just over half of the graphic deals with pre-industrial revolution, and ignores the Gutenberg Press; why do we need to know about pre-industrial revolution information, as education was a privilege of the rich – it could be argued up until the 1950’s but that’s an entirely different blog post – and a radically different thing? Oh, the cherry-picked examples (much like what I’m doing here) are problematic at best, misleading at worst. In between 1996 (when the White House offered 1 billion dollars for computers in schools) and 2006 (Khan Academy) nothing happened.

Except a whole lot happened. There’s this thing called the LMS that happened. Video taping lectures (a practice dating back to the 1970’s) and digitizing them on CD-Rom, then DVD, then on the Internet, happened. Several ePortfolio companies started. Oh yeah this thing called WordPress. What about Wikipedia? Yeah, nothing important there. Open Source software doesn’t really work in a venture capitalist world.

…and the current edtech landscape.

Misses so much that you’d hardly have time to write out what it misses.

Luckily, there are some great companies who are working to change this by focusing on helping parents give their children a solid educational foundation. The space is dominated by apps and gamification, which appeals to children’s natural curiosity and provides research-driven cognitive and non-cognitive activities to help facilitate development. On-demand app-based learning is a great supplement for families who cannot afford pre-K.

It’s not luck, it was a gap that is perceived by startups, and a few companies made a few apps that were decent for pre-K. I don’t know about pre-K efficacy, but I do want to question the idea that poor people are using apps because they can’t afford pre-K. I’d suspect that poor people aren’t using anything because they can’t afford the devices that apps run on, nor the monthy fees (if they exist). So the people using these apps are probably those who would be able to help educate their children, pre-K or no pre-K.

Also the space is dominated by apps because there’s no organization to sell enterprise level software to.

The common school was built for everyone. It was open to all races, classes and backgrounds. It taught a common curriculum to every student. It was designed to process thousands of students and get them to a base level of competency. It was the era of mass production’s answer to educating a mass of students to prepare them to enter the workforce.

While it was built for everyone, it most certainly was not open to all races (uhhh, segregation?) or classes (often the poor chose to send no one to school because the farm needed workers). This whitewashing of educational history needs to stop. Mass production didn’t start in the post-civil war era, it is commonly associated with Fordist principles, which coincide with the factory assembly line in 1910’s. Also, this whole passage glosses over the societal uses of school – socialization, networking, collaboration.. of course it does.

But the era of the assembly line is over. We are in an age of mass customization, fueled by technology. Seth Godin recently asked, “What is school for? If you’re not asking that, you’re wasting time and money.” We need to question the traditional approaches to education and embrace new modes of learning to help create the next generation of leaders.

To create the next generation of leaders? Leaders develop themselves. We don’t need to target leaders, we need to target the other 99%. Seth Godin sucks. You have to ask what is school for to understand what purpose it serves in society (hint, it’s not to create leaders), not to use time well or earn money. At least one thing is right here, mass customization is here, but if we’re just swapping UI interfaces over the old teaching methods, are we really improving things? I don’t think so.

Students are going to university because it is “the right thing to do,” often without a thought to the ROI on their education or the work opportunities after school. Only 19 percent of full-time college students graduate in four years, which dramatically increases the cost of their degree.

Why does education need to have a ROI? It’s not a business, it’s an education. The graduation in four years trope is problematic yes, but it’s mostly because students are working more than previously, just because of the cost of education, and can’t afford to not work. Part of that is the privatization of schools, part of that is the outsourcing of public funds into the hands of profit motivated companies, part of that is the rising costs of administration and part of it is the slowness of universities to adapt to a five year model rather than four. None of these problems can be fixed with an app.

Over the past several years we’ve seen the rise of the modern edtech industry. There have been massive investments in the space, and the success of these firms will dictate the future of the edtech landscape.

More successful exits (like Lynda) will help to propel the industry forward. Investments in the first generation of edtech have also made it difficult for the second generation of companies to attract investment, as investors have been watching this first cohort closely to gauge results.

You do know that Lynda started in the mid-90’s right? You know in that gap you illustrated between 1996 and 2006? It’s “exit”, to which I can only assume means the purchase of Lynda.com by LinkedIn as a value-add to users of LinkedIn, which hasn’t worked out quite so good for them. If you believe that the purchase was meant to prop up the value of LinkedIn’s stock, like some do, then really it’s not about education at all, but finance.

 

D2L Badging

So, I’ve been poking around with D2L’s badging/certificate since it was unveiled in September (and actually writing this blog post since then!) on our test instance and it’s been a fun thing actually thinking about and configuring a new tool. It’s been so long since I’ve actually spun something new up – that I had to really work the part of my brain that frankly hasn’t been worked in a long time – the “what if?” part. What really stinks is that with badging we actually don’t want to have every instructor available to create badges. That simply means controlling access to the tool via Navigation Bars (which we don’t allow our instructors to change) or creating a new role. Either way is a bunch of manual work for me.

The one big problem, and this isn’t by any means a knock against us, is that I haven’t had time to properly configure this on test in a way that makes testing easy – I’ve just been too busy working with ePortfolios and PebblePad to take the time. Thankfully there’s documents like the Assessments Administrator Guide on the Brightspace Community that help a lot when working through the user permissions (which frankly are poorly documented) and what used to be called DOME variables (now Config Variable Browser). So we’ve slowly got the technical side working and we’ve run into a huge issue that could conceivably cripple the whole damn thing. Issuing a certificate or award (or digital badge) means that we’re giving power to instructors that Registrar’s previously held very closely to themselves. So, we’ve devised a way to do this without ruffling institutional feathers – and with a way to control how the badges are used.

We really want to avoid badging as another way to give grades or learning outcomes. There is already a wealth of tools in the LMS that do this (uhhh, Grades and Competencies/Outcomes) so do not recreate what you already do and add a pretty picture to it. That is useless, and students will inevitably find badges useless in that context. More importantly, external parties will find badges useless, which if you really want badges to hold some value, then you will need external people to value them. Giving a badge that says you got an A in a course, is frankly useless (as useless as the A is in determining what a person is capable of or knows).

So as an institution we are looking at ways that we can ensure that people using badges are using them in ways that actually contribute to the student experience, by either awarding badges that have no representation elsewhere (like experiences that could make up a part of a co-curricular record) or awarding badges for skills that are not explicitly found within the core curriculum. Students already have a transcript that uses grades as a way of communication ideas about broad topics. Students should have learning outcomes that syllabi tell them are the important aspects of those courses. Don’t bother recreating the wheel – higher education already has a few that work well enough. Focus on what doesn’t get communicated already.

Our initial plan was to have training help people through this process and when they complete the training, they can then issue badges within their courses context. We’re still doing that – but with an added wrinkle. By the end of the workshop, instructors have designed at least one badge, thinking through the visual design (and sketching it out), the implications of what a digital badge means, how this badge might connect to external groups, what criteria or release condition will issue the badge and finally, how they might value badges coming into the course from other sources.

All of this on paper. Then people can have a serious thought about how it’s technically going to happen. Essentially it’s a two hour enforced planning session.

What will inevitably come up is that some forward thinking instructor will ask “what if we want to have students give each other badges?” and the answer will be “they can’t (providing that the student role is configured in a typical way that controls access to courses)”. It’s a huge gap that’s not a problem with the tool, but with the design of the LMS.

 

First Month (and a bit) of PebblePad

It seems that the basic uses of an eportfolio platform are easy as pie for our campus. We’re now at the mid-to-highly complex uses that I thought we might see before this – which begs a question. Is it that no one wanted to push the boundaries of the older system, or was it that the boundaries weren’t worth pushing? Or maybe we weren’t ready to push? I’ve often said I’ve built a career out of workarounds and getting systems to do what they weren’t meant to do. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder to do that – with LTI and ubiquitous acceptance of embed codes from social sites – there’s not a lot of need to bend systems.

However, getting acquainted with a new system (full caveat I had access to the older version of the system for almost two months before PebblePad was turned on September 2nd), while trying to wrap my head around some of the complex asks has been challenging for an old brain like me. For instance, wanting peer marking, peer review and feedback, but not allowing other peers to see the graded assessment or the graded feedback, yet allowing for a commentary feedback to exist on the item, and the assessor can provide a final grade based on the accumulated individual feedback from other students. In a class of close to 80 students. Turns out, not a problem. Even with some initial missteps, it was relatively simple to setup and have working (with some significant help from PebblePad support).

Flexibility for what students can do in the system? No problem. We’ve got one class that’s given workspaces to all their project groups giving them full access to that area to configure how they like. They just can’t remove managers (the instructors) or give grades. They could if their role was configured for it, and the instructors wanted that. That kind of power in a system is really something I’ve missed with the major LMS vendors (and believe me, I’ve asked for the power to give instructors the ability to give students a sandboxed area to add their own content, create their own assignments, etc. etc.). We’ve got another doing peer review. We’ve got another doing typical portfolio stuff – where the student assembles a portfolio and submits that to a lone marker.

I don’t want to sound like a pitch man for PebblePad, but honestly, in a decade plus of working with learning systems, putting in tickets and generally working with educational technology, I’ve never had better service than I do with PebblePad. Tickets are answered intelligently within 24 business hours, most often resolved within that time. Now maybe that’s me, finding easy problems to solve… but only one ticket has lasted longer than a week, and it was to do with the iOS app that was mostly waiting for Apple to approve the app’s update. Which is a huge testament to the people working at PebblePad.

With that said, we’re working with version 5 of PebblePad, and I’m starting to get at some of the limitations. The first one, is that you can’t embed anything into the system except YouTube videos. Students just don’t use YouTube – in fact many use Vimeo, Prezi, Slideshare, Vine and any number of other sites would be nice to embed that right on a portfolio page rather than link it. Now, having spoken to them about it, they’ve stated that they will look at it and see if there’s something they can do to branch out from just YouTube (I suggested adding Prezi, Vimeo, Slideshare, and a couple other ubiquitous sites). There was some security concerns about rogue embeds, but I’m sure they can figure out a solution. Most of the limitations I’m seeing currently will be gone when version 5 and 3 have parity in February – and some were addressed in the November 15th update – again a good thing to see with a company.

So over a month in, I’m really, really impressed. I don’t often get ebullient with external companies (in fact I’m usually very critical of edtech capitalism), as I’ve seen companies grow and what that growth means for the clients,  I hope the future is as bright as the present.

Full disclosure: I was invited to attend a week’s advanced training at PebblePad HQ in the UK. My work paid for the flight, Pebble Learning paid for a week’s accomodation as well as meals and drinks. I don’t think that my opinion can be bought with a week’s accomodation and food (we did have a lovely time), nor change my opinion of the product. Your opinion and mine may vary.

Digital Marginalia 2 – Electric Boogaloo

Digital Marginalia is an infrequent blog post series that captures some links I’ve retweeted or looked at, grouped into a theme, and commented on.

Disrupting Education/Learning – Whatever that Means

There’s two related bunch of links that are tied here; the first being the onslaught of Richard Branson, Disrupting Education:

http://www.virgin.com/richard-branson/disrupting-old-education-models

http://www.virgin.com/richard-branson/education-outside-the-classroom

And the response:

http://blog.edtechie.net/uncategorized/what-disruptors-really-want/

http://cogdogblog.com/2015/10/05/richard-branson/

It’s strange because I understand what Branson’s saying, and yes, education needs more flexible education. But to criticize something he doesn’t really know, because he didn’t go into it forty years ago, and isn’t part of it now, and clearly doesn’t get that in fact, higher education does do a lot of the things he says it doesn’t. Business schools basically train their graduates to be startups. Many, many MBA programs have that as their overarching theme. Our Master’s level Engineering program is based on a business project model with real clients. We aren’t unique in this. Our Geography department have several trips to real world places to do the work that they will do post-graduation. When I went to community college a decade ago, we took several entrepreneurship classes, because they knew that software designers would likely be their own bosses. Should things be more flexible? Yes. Often the reason things aren’t flexible is because someone, somewhere along the line bought a student information system that can’t schedule things in less than three hour blocks, or doesn’t understand that a course isn’t 14 weeks. That’s the sort of flexibility that the private sector brings you. Get real, Branson. Martin Weller said it better (first link under responses) so go read his post and give it some love because it’s so terribly spot on.

https://www.lrng.org/

“LRNG redesigns learning for the 21st century so that all youth have an opportunity to succeed.”

Really, I don’t have any non-vulgar words… OK here’s a fact you may want to consider, YOU CANNOT REDESIGN HOW I LEARN. I control how I learn. YOU control how you communicate information to me; I control how I receive that information. If you do not agree, then you are working on a paradigm that reinforces that students are empty vessels that need to be filled with knowledge. Again, I agree with connecting someone’s passion with learning, doing it through an online medium, sure that’s awesome. I love the Cities of Learning program, I really do. Just “redesigning learning” is like saying you’re “redesigning eating”.

Closing of the Open Web

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/oct/06/reddit-upvoted-launches-aggregated-news-site–with-no-comments-allowed

http://motherboard.vice.com/read/im-on-twitter-too

Commenting, whether you think it valuable or not, is one of the best features of the world wide web. The amount of time I’ve found something in the comments of an article that links to another great thing is staggering to think about. The Vice thing is kind of delicious, in that after years of cultivating this vacuous audience (looks directly at Dos & Don’ts) they now want a civilized discussion. I guess people can grow up, but instead of turning off comments, why don’t you do like many other places and cultivate the commentary by moderating it. That way, you approve the good stuff and your audience doesn’t have to change the way they interact with the site.

Privacy

http://campustechnology.com/articles/2015/09/28/deep-learning-privacy-research-gets-google-go-ahead.aspx

Google and privacy? Uhhh, the jokes write themselves.

http://motherboard.vice.com/read/how-to-see-what-facebook-tells-advertisers-about-you

Undoubtedly, not all of what Facebook tells itself about you.

Manditory watching. Glenn Greenwald is one of the most important journalists of our time. Seriously undervalued/rated.

 

 

 

 

 

First Week of Using PebblePad

A little preamble.

We’ve been looking at bringing on a second ePortfolio platform since January. We’ve used the D2L ePortfolio platform for two years, with some significant gains, but with quite a few growing pains. The tool doesn’t seem to be getting much focus from D2L – instead they seem to be looking at mobile ePortfolios the last few years. While that’s great, and the app is very, very slick, the way we authenticate to our LMS prevents us from using any of the D2L developed apps; Assignment Grader, ePortfolio, Binder, Pulse, none of them will work for us because of the way we authenticate. Changing our authentication process is on our list of things to do, but isn’t going to happen soon (think: one to two years).

While ePortfolio is a good tool for individual use in context of classroom activity, it doesn’t really do co-curricular stuff well without a bunch of workarounds, like creating a course to house the co-curricular activity. It works well in a mentorship situation (where the mentor is an instructor in a class). It also doesn’t allow people to collaborate effectively. You can share a presentation, giving the other person full rights to edit, but for some weird design reason, you cannot edit anything that exists in the presentation. Even with permission to edit the underlying artifact. This was a deal breaker for a few faculty in large classes. Critical reflection in a social space is something our faculty want, our students want and the literature suggests might be more effective at challenging underlying fundamental thinking.

So we started looking at options.

I tried to advocate for a Domain of One’s Own style project using WordPress as a base for how students could construct a “portfolio” – but too many people felt that it couldn’t adapt to a curriculum based approach where an instructor type person could securely grade and provide individual feedback. People that have used WordPress understand that you can in fact, do just that, but it take a little more work. All else fails there’s e-mail right? Honestly, I didn’t think this option would gain much ground, it’s too radical for our campus, and not necessarily a perfect, easy fit for our needs.

We looked at other providers, Known, Digication, Mahara (and holy crap if you think D2L ePortfolio produces elderly looking portfolios, Mahara looks like warm garbage strewn across an empty strip mall from the 80’s) and a number of free solutions (including Pathbrite). Nothing really did all of the things that we wanted – we needed a pretty broad tool that could do many different things (including co-curriculum uses, personal uses, group/shared uses, curricular uses and finally, a mentor/mentee communication tool).

After putting the others through the review process, we ended up selecting PebblePad and began planning. Negotiation took a bit longer than we liked, but all in all, we turned on the system on September 2nd. We didn’t have time to do single sign-on, or connect the Student Information System to it, or our authentication system. Basically we have a link in the LMS that takes the student/user to the login page and they authenticate to an account I’ve created (to date, 7260 accounts). It also means that the assessment areas in PebblePad – called ATLAS –  (which are distinct from assessment in the LMS) were created manually by me (about 40 so far).

The fact that we turned on the system and did some minor configuration and started running within hours (albeit in a hosted environment) was pretty pleasant. There’s been no major issues (so far). There’s been no real questions come in to ask about “how do I?” – mostly about “can I get an account?” I’ll update in a month or so how things have gone to that date in the future.