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.


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.

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.