Fusion 2016 Recap

So, as always, D2L’s Fusion conference is a good time. I always learn a lot, but I always have a good time as well. Usually, I like to fly out of Buffalo airport, but the way things worked out I was flying out of Toronto Island Airport (not Pearson, which is the big one that most people use). It was a great experience, but different. I am always really early for flights, and prefer to pay in cash, and at Toronto Island you don’t have to be two hours ahead, and you can’t pay for anything in cash. Oh well, I’ll know for next time. I did run into a ton of people who were going to the conference, including people from Ryerson University, Conestoga College, and the University of Guelph. Jason, a co-conspirator in provocative thinking (or a troublemaker and a friend), was on the plane, and gave me the best compliment on my readiness to get through customs; “you’re such an organized anarchist”.

I knew this year’s conference was going to be a get-up and go quickly kind of affair; the whole deal itself started on the Sunday night, so I had a whole of 6/7 hours before it started to get in some record shopping, a meal, and maybe see a sight or two (I don’t really sight see, I’ve been to New York City half a dozen times and have never gone to the Statue of Liberty, seen a Broadway play or gone up the Empire State Building). Having never been in DC, I scoped out their record store selection (in hindsight Joint Custody was the best of the bunch, but none of them were what I’d call “bad”) realized it all stemmed from U street, and head off that way. I didn’t really get a chance to hunt down some Go Go, but that was due to a lack of time.  After a stop at Ben’s Chili Bowl (doubling for my sightseeing and a meal, because the importance of the restaurant cannot be understated) for a half-smoke (no onions) and a bit of history, records scored, it was time to get back to the hotel, and get situated for the evening conference welcome.

The conference welcome started, I ran into Barry, who I have this kinship with, so we typically hang out as much as possible (which isn’t as much as I’d like) when you consider the scope of this sort of thing. Also getting odd photos with former Premier of Ontario seems to be a thing for me:

After a brief night out, I returned to the hotel, and noticed that I had missed shaving a chunk of hair on the side of my head right above my ear. How did I go through the whole day, talking to people I know, in two different states and a province, with no one saying, “hey, your barber missed a spot”? At a quarter to midnight it was off to the 24 hour CVS to get some disposable razors. My friends are a bunch of jerks. OK, not really. It also allowed me to catch a ton of Pokemon on my stroll, so it was all for good.

Day One

For whatever reason, perhaps it’s my inner competitor, I always like playing D2L’s event games. This year’s app was well built and a neat motivator for me to fill in feedback. I know, judging from how many people stuck around for codes at the end of the presentations, that I’m not the only one.

I was early for the breakfast (getting up at 6 AM for some ungodly reason), so I wandered around the vendor displays and talked to Kaltura and ReadSpeaker about their products (Kaltura we have as a streaming solution for our department needs, ReadSpeaker we have looked at for a while but haven’t had any group on campus suggest they want to foot the bill for).

The opening remarks were good enough – sales pitch for how good D2L is really – but that’s to be expected. I was really interested to hear about some of the success stories that D2L has had over the last year in different areas of the world and education sector. It seems that they’re really pushing into the corporate training space, and an LMS (especially when you consider the work being done in outcomes that they’re investing in) makes sense in that context. I wonder if that diversification of clients is something that will make getting higher education’s needs met harder? Will D2L spread themselves too thin? I guess we’ll find out over the next few years.

Getting Started with Brightspace Data Access

I always try to attend Valence API (now called the Application API) sessions even though I’m doing zero API work – one of these days I’ll get back to the programming stuff I used to do (just in time for my outdated skills to be even more outdated…) because there’s some need to do it. In addition to the Application API, D2L is opening up it’s Data API, so you can access the data storehouse for custom queries rather than using the Application API to periodically collect that data yourself. It only works with Brightspace Data Platform, which is hosted by Amazon Web Services. There’s still some questions floating out there about what exactly is stored in Amazon, and from this session I gather a lot of it is just transaction stuff – so the code to call the data, but not the data itself. If there are data points stored, they would have to be obfuscated. They also mentioned a Data Hub, which allows you to get data extracts (if you’re an Insights/Analytics customer first) in CSV format, so hopefully that means we can run some networking analysis on how people use the system based on extracted data.

Magic Brightspace Widgets

Again, another session that I went to that wasn’t about what I’m doing currently. This one detailed how you can use jQuery and the DOM to scale through D2L’s design of the system to create widgets that change how the entire course looks and feels. Essentially you create code in the middle – which wouldn’t work at scale – but on the course level might be useful. Some really impressive stuff – too bad I couldn’t find the Prezi online anywhere, I’d like to take another look at the examples that Ms. Milanovic at Deakin University showed.

Who’s Got Game? How Badging and Certificates Drives Learner Engagement

Matt Murphy of D2L ran this session, and I wanted to attend as I’m co-running a workshop on Tuesday about badging programs – and I wanted to see what he had to say about badges. Thankfully, he covered a lot of the groundwork about what badges are (using one of the same images I used in my slides!), when to use them and a lot of the foundational work that we didn’t have time to cover in our workshop. Big high fives to Matt for laying the groundwork for us to be able to be successful. And introducing me to Untappd, an app that documents the beers you consume.

Valence Possibilities: Demonstrating Automated Course Setup and Enrollment Applications Supporting Distributed and Centralized Curricular Models

This was an interesting session about how one university uses the API to manage course creations in creative ways (essentially copying from Master courses or Sandboxes on creation). Most of their code was in C#, so that’s not a lot of use to me, but the principles are always good to have a look at.

Keynote by Sir Ken Robinson

I will say, Sir Ken Robinson’s talk was fun, thoughtful, but lean on content. Essentially he riffed on the nature of individuality, and how creativity is a context specific idea, for an hour. An entertaining hour, yes, absolutely. I didn’t learn anything from it that I didn’t hear from his TED talks, or other sessions. I imagine he’s a great guy to get a pint with, and mull over ideas with, but this talk didn’t exactly set my heart ablaze. It was good, and maybe I was expecting that feeling the first time I saw the original TED talk about the ways systems (not just educational systems, but all systems) handle individuality (or creativity in some contexts).

A Night at the Newseum

It was cool to see a piece of the Berlin Wall. Other than that, it seemed very american-centric, and I guess that’s not really a valid criticism as it’s in Washington DC, but I was hoping for insight into how news exists elsewhere. Meh. Back to the hotel to grab a decent pint (as much as I like free beer, Amstel Light as the best beer of the bunch, requires a follow-up with something a little more full bodied) and then head up to finish up some last minute touch ups to the presentation, documents, and other stuff for the workshop tomorrow.

Day Two

Got up, did some last minute touch ups to the presentation part of the workshop for today, reviewed my bits and was early for the Technical Account Manager breakfast. Now we have good relationship with JP, or TAM, so it was neat to have some of the other TAMs around as well to see who else is one. Solution Spotlight was next, this year they announced that they’re giving YouSeeU to all their clients – although we’ll have to see where the data is hosted, what the terms of the integration are, and what the specifications of what we’re getting is. I did note, that this might impact our WebEx offering, or maybe not – depends on which product our faculty and students gravitate towards. Off to sessions.

Reimagining Portfolio Practice: An Audience Led Exploration of High Impact Portfolio Practice

Originally, this was intended to be our Learning Portfolio Program Manager co-presenting with Shane about PebblePad’s flexibility to provide portfolios of different types for different uses, but she retired and Shane from PebblePad asked me to be in the audience should there be a question about integration between D2L and PebblePad. It was a good whirlwind tour of different ways to use portfolios.

Start Your Badging Program Today!

This was the session I co-ran with Lavinia Oltean, who I often introduce as the younger, smarter, better looking, less mustachioed, more organized version of me. This may be the first time in my life I’ve left a session feeling really, really good about it. We hit all our timings (it got bumpy towards the middle) but we got through the bit of an introduction, let them get to work and we had great interaction. I think people came away with a good sense of what could be done with badges, and had a good start in working through what a badge could mean in their context.

Writing Your Own LTI + Combining It With Valence Calls = Solving Unique Problems

I missed the start of this as the end of our presentation leaked into the break and conversations were too good to abandon. The part of the session that I got was that they created a widget that used the API to create a test student account and LTI to connect their API use to Brightspace. I’m not sure why they didn’t simplify it a bit and just use the API to create and enroll the test student account (for faculty to use to view a course), but as a proof of concept it’s pretty cool.

Maximizing the Power of Brightspace: How a College is able to Generate Official course Syllabi from the Learning Environment

Again, I was late for this one as I was chatting with folks that I knew I wouldn’t see again until the next time at Fusion or at the regional conference. La Cite College have an external site that contains their course outlines, and have used the Application API (aka Valence) to read that external database and create a PDF course outline for faculty, automatically included in D2L. This was by far, the slickest idea I saw using the API at this Fusion. Really nice work.

What’s All this Buzzing About Next Generation Digital Learning Architecture?

Rob Abel from IMS Global gave a talk about how the people who help faculty learn about technology will move from an IT support sort of role, to a strategy consultant role as a result of the move from the monolithic LMS to a more distributed, next generation learning environment. His talk was wide ranging, and I’ve found it’s available here: http://demo.desire2learncapture.com/139/Watch/3688.aspx

Keynote by Angela Meiers

I only could stay for 15 minutes because the concierge suggested that we take public transit rather than a cab to the airport. Jason and I decided to go together, seeing as we’re on the same flight and need to be there at the same time. Basically, you matter is what I got from the brief time in Angela’s talk.

The Way Home..

So I admit, there were less interesting run-ins, weird moments, funny things occurring that I’m used to at a conference. And then there was the way home. It got good once we got on the express bus to Dulles. Jason got called a Tom Cruise look alike, I had to get him back on the bus when he got off at a parking lot just outside Dulles (in his defense, everyone was getting off the bus, so it seemed logical), the driver laughed at us, and we had a great chat the rest of the way.

That’s not the end of it. After clearing through TSA in what felt like record time, we were both starving and having an hour before the flight boarded, thought a meal was in order. Of course, the restaurant we choose doesn’t move fast. You’d think that perhaps airport restaurants understand some people might be in a hurry? No? Me either.

Needless to say, Jason settled up (I had cash so no need to wait!) as I ran to the gate, to get on the plane. A minute before the doors closed, he got on the plane. It was a bit of a last minute dash.

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.


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.