Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Digital Commons Retreat - Mistakes & Creativity

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”
                                                                                  Henry Ford

A few weeks ago, lots of colleagues from around the university joined in an intensive two day 'Digital Commons Retreat'. Academics come to the retreat with a specific learning & teaching problem, and supportive teams are formed with expertise from around the institution - such at the library, careers service, 301, CiCS, University of Sheffield Enterprise etc. The teams are tailored towards the aim of the individual learning and teaching problem, but it's really useful to have such a broad range of experts available in one room, and typically there is lots of cross - pollination between teams.

This video gives an insight into the inaugural Digital Retreat in 2016

What I personally find really interesting about this exercise is how quick and (easy!) it is to make mistakes, learn from them and move on - often coming up with creative solutions to the problem. 

Working with such a relatively short lead time ensures that problems and failure points are quickly identified. Typical fail often, fail fast concepts are often associated with software development, or startup companies, but I think this approach shouldn't be underestimated when it comes to sparking creativity in a whole range of fields and professions. 

These concepts reminded me of a talk I recently attended by TV executive Wayne Garvie, who spoke about how failure can inspire creativity. It struck me that we shouldn't be afraid to make mistakes. 

Wayne is the Chief Creative Officer at Sony Pictures Television, and has been involved in phenomenally successful TV shows in his career like Top Gear, Strictly Come Dancing & The Crown.

What was most interesting though was how candidly Wayne discussed his failures - pointing out that "most times in TV we fail". Wayne said what's really important though is "using this failure to spark creative renewal"; using failure as a motivation to try something different next time. This concept of failure being a key ingredient for creativity is quite familiar in the TV & Film industry, and is something that Pixar President Ed Catmull has discussed extensively

I think the Digital Commons Retreats are a really effective, low stakes environment to experiment with new ideas, experience failure and look for creative solutions to problems. 

Keep your eyes peeled for updates about the latest Digital Retreat projects over the next few months - we will share some of the outcomes on this blog. 

I'll finish off with another thought from Wayne - he said "we typically analyse our failure, but do we analyse our success.....?" 

Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference 2017

A few weeks ago myself and Danny attended Blackboard Learning and Teaching conference in Milan. The conference took place at Università Bocconi who are a relatively new customer to Blackboard.

Below is a summary of some of the sessions I attended over the 3 days:

The honest Journey to full e-submission and feedback using Blackboard
Rob Howe - The University of Northampton
Rob talked about some of the learning and teaching systems used at Northampton before going through the story of implementing widespread online assessment. At Northampton all staff undergo training & retraining around online assessment and a number of trials have been undertaken around audio and video feedback. By 2012 a widespread consistent process was in place at the university. Rob then discussed some of the benefits and challenges of the initiative. He also gave some tips around other institutions who are wanting to implement widespread online assessment and talked about how consistency of sites really helped towards the success. Northampton are now 2% above the sector average for assessment and feedback satisfaction in the NSS.
The slides from Rob’s session can be found here.

EMA - Herding cats and Drinking Horses
Mark Gamble - University of Bedfordshire
Mark explored Bedfordshire’s move from Turnitin to the use of Blackboard’s assessment and feedback tool. Whilst the tool has been successful for them be did outline some drawbacks to the tool such as the delegated marking tool which allows random groups to be setup, but can leave students out, if there is more students than groups made.
He also talked about the inflexibility of not been able to add in feedback without a mark in the Blackboard assessment tool for more formative activities.
The move overall worked for them and they still used Turnitin in some areas but this was done as an instructor process uploaded to Turnitin in bulk, but only to produce the originality reports for staff.
No! Don’t put that there! (Improving the student Experience)
Tim Smale - Keele University - United Kingdom
Tim talked about how Keele have implemented a school template to their Blackboard courses and how staff need to adhere to certain elements of the templates, particularly around assessment. The student response has been positive where the template has been applied correctly. He then explained how javascript code can be used to change the appearance of Blackboard and add/remove certain options to support the templates.
Tim’s slides can be found here.
From Desk to Desktop: Making online exams work
Danny Monaghan - University of Sheffield
Danny’s session looked at how we have implemented online exams here at the university. Looking at the growth, logistics and challenges, whilst giving people some practical advice along the way.

Gamification - with Blackboard
Malcolm Murray - University of Durham
Malcolm’s session looked at how elements of gamification can be created in Blackboard. He showed how leaderboards were added into Blackboard and how content released using adaptive release can be associated with a gamification model of learning.

The downside to this is that much of the content doesn’t work on the mobile app, so this produced some severe challenges. There was also a bigger question posed around does points based gamification actually increase the quality of learning or do students rush through content to gain more points?

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Active Learning in the Department of Landscape

Increasing students’ participation in the learning process is meant to foster critical and creative thinking (Rocca 2010), and students in the Department of Landscape have been using an innovative treasure hunt app to enhance their field trips.

The University of Sheffield purchased a site licence for Actionbound in 2016, and the Department of Landscape has been creating interactive treasure hunts, or 'bounds' to be used across a number of modules. Treasure hunts can include maps, compass directions, text, images, videos, team challenges and quizzes for students to complete. The app is freely available to download, and students use Actionbound on their personal devices. Actionbound can also take advantage of GPS locations identified by the device - delivering learning materials at specific geographical locations.

Actionbound also allows students to submit video or images as part of their treasure hunt. One fun example in the department saw students submit selfies in front of key landscape features.

A more pedagogic outcome enabled submissions of the sketches drawn on location. This proved to be an excellent way of capturing these drawings, but demonstrated there is still significant value in a pen and paper.

image of a sketch drawn by student

Paul Buck, I.T. Officer and Graphic Design Instructor in the department said:

There were a few teething issues but the feedback was generally positive, with students saying they enjoyed it and it motivated them to engage with the site. They also appreciated by the air of competition the app created. 

You can read more about the Department of Landscape's use of technology in fieldwork on the Sheffield Landscape Blog.

Glover (2013) talks about learning as a participatory process, and suggests that there could be significant benefits from incorporating games concepts with education. Students in the department have said using Actionbound has really encouraged them to make the most out of field trips, and have really enjoyed the competitive nature of gaining points for completing tasks within the treasure hunt.

This extra level of engagement that Actionbound has the potential unlock resonates with Galliard & McSherry's (2014) findings using a similar technology. They describe how students take charge of their own learning process—transforming them from passive actors that are merely involved in the learning, to actively engaged participants.

If you would like to find out more about Actionbound, or to gain access to our site licence please contact 

Gaillard, J. C., & McSherry, A. (2014). Revisiting Geography Field Trips: A Treasure Hunt Experience. Journal of Geography, 113(4), 171-178. Available from: [Accessed 12th April 2017]

Glover, I. (2013). Play as you learn: gamification as a technique for motivating learners. Available from: [Accessed 12th April 2017]

Rocca, K. A. (2010). Student participation in the college classroom: An extended multidisciplinary literature review. Communication Education, 59(2), 185-213. Available from: [Accessed 12th April 2017]

Monday, 20 March 2017

Digifest 2017

Last week I attended Digifest at the ICC in Birmingham. There was a packed programme spanning over 2 days, and also a DigiLab area where you could try out new technologies.

The first day began with a debate on what a digital revolution of learning and teaching means. Questions were asked of the delegates before the session and the panel discussed the findings. 
Jisc Digifest 2017 - Day one plenary and welcome from Jisc

Next came a session on Robots and AI - "Loving the Alien" by Jisc Futurist Martin Hamilton. This was an interesting presentation packed full of different uses of Robots and what this could mean for us 
The other highlights from day one included a session by Lab Skills on their media rich resource for Science students, and a presentation from Mark Clements (University of Lincoln)on how virtual lab simulations can be used in practice. After this I had a conversation with Labster who provided the platform for these VR lab pre-sessions to take place, and there were some interesting ideas on how VR sessions and online resources could prepare students better for lab work, allowing them more quality time in the labs.
Trying the HoloLens
There are a couple of ideas and technology that I hope to be able to bring to this years this space

Loving the alien - robots and AI in education from Jisc

Day 2 began for me with a talk by Earle Abrahamson about different ways in engaging staff and students with Turnitin, and ways that more student interaction with Turnitin can improve their work. He also gave away a couple of his tricks - including using music in his audio feedback.

I then visited the DigiLab, and tried out the HoloLens.
This was an interesting merge of AR and your environment - the ability to have an AR experience, whilst also being able to see the environment around you. This could potentially allow users to wear these headsets for longer, and they can freely walk around and interact with their surroundings. It also has a great use for looking at historical sites, and using AR to see what it was like before. 

Friday, 17 March 2017

Uses of social media in learning and teaching

A couple of weeks ago myself, Simon and Pete attended a session in Social Sciences focussing on social media in learning and teaching.
Julia Davies started the session with an overview of what social media is, looking at some of the tools available and challenging some of the common misconceptions around social media.
Simon then explored how social media can be broken down into different areas based around the task which the tools perform. This was supported using the Conversation Prism which shows a wide range of tools, many of which wouldn’t necessarily be considered traditional social media tools.

We then had an activity where we broke the room into groups to look at the social media they currently use and thinking of ways they could use social media in their context. We gave each team a template to support the task. Which you can see here.
The main existing uses of social media we found are Twitter for disseminating useful information and Facebook for facilitating group discussion. There was some use of Google+ communities to facilitate discussions too.
Some of the issues that were discussed was around the openness around some social media and fear of students leaving a negative digital footprint. Whilst this is a genuine concern and students should be reminded of this, in balance the fact is that an open network can reach individuals you otherwise may not.
There was some use of social media as an alternative to MOLE discussion boards. This can have positive impacts because students are already using these technologies but similarly some students may not want to mix social media, often seen as a personal tool, with their formal learning. In any tool that is used it’s important that it is task orientated and students have prompts to encourage conversation from their tutors.
Another issue discussed was around student expectations e.g. will students expect 24/7 responses on social media and do staff feel obliged to. This, as with many asynchronous tools, needs to be managed and letting students know from the outset what they can expect in terms of how often it’s monitored and encourage students to help one another.
We are currently trying to collate some stories of use of social media in learning and teaching so if you have a story to share we’d love to hear at

Monday, 13 March 2017

ELI 2017 - Virtual Reality and More

This year I attended and presented at the international (US Based) annual 2017 ELI conference. A jam packed learning technologies event, which I would describe as the US equivalent to the annual ALT conference. On the final day of the event the NMC Horizon Report is launched, which outlines emerging technology trends which are likely to impact teaching and learning. This year responses from the ELI 2017 Key Issues is Learning Technology report was also announced.

Trying out Snapchat Spectacles
Amongst the highlights of the event included a VR playground, which showcased a variety of uses of VR in education as well as demonstrations of technologies that are enabling VR. Amongst the technologies included the exclusive Snapchat spectacles, which until more recently could only be purchased via the snapbot (essentially a ‘pop up’ vending machine), see how surgeons are using them to take pictures during live surgery. I was also able to try out the Microsoft HoloLens, see how Case Western Reserve, Cleveland Clinic have been using HoloLens to interact with 3D models.

This poster presentation from Washington and Lee University and Davidson nicely summarises workflows for creating VR experiences.

My own presentation focused on: Designing Virtual Reality Experiences in Education. The presentation focused on the pedagogy underpinning VR in education and outlined a number of ways that VR is being used at the University of Sheffield and the off-the shelf technologies that can be used to create these experiences. A lot of the VR examples that I saw throughout the conference focused on using out of the box VR experiences (such as Google Expeditions) or high end solutions that take time to create and can only be viewed with expensive headsets. Instead, I focused on how creating bespoke, simple VR experiences that can be created with a 360 device combined with online editing software and Google cardboard (to view the experience). The presentation highlighted how VR can be achieveable option, whilst considering the limitation of these simpler expereiences. You can take a look at my presentation slides below:

ELI has many networking opportunities and it was interesting to hear about the similarities and differences between approaches and priorities in the US and UK. As with in the UK, many institutions have been reviewing their VLE (or LMS as it is referred to in the US). I noted that Sakai was a lot more popular in the US than it has ever been here and that a number of institutions appear to recently have made transitions to Canvas and Desire2Learn.

Some other session I found useful looked at:

There was also a showcase of different Learning Space equipment, which was available throughout the conference in one of the seminar rooms. This gave delegates the opportunity to try out different equipment during the sessions that were being delivered in the room. I also learnt about the learning space rating system, a tool developed by leading community experts for rating formal learning spaces to determine how well their design affords and encourages active learning.

This year the conference bought back their game which was designed to be played alongside the conference, using Goosechase, which was used last year and inspired our use of it during TELFest 2016.  The game involved delegates being set a number of challenges to complete, these challenges varied and encouraged you to network, reflect on sessions attended and the conference themes. A real time leaderboard told us how many points we had scored and our rank, the top 7 were awarded a prize. Whilst many appeared to complete activities, there didn’t seem to be as many highly active participants as the previous year. For me, the novelty had worn off, this could have been because many of the activities were the same as last year, so I didn’t have to think so much when answering questions. Last year I came 2nd and put a lot of effort in making that happen, this year I came 7th and put a lot less effort, but was still one of the top 7 winners. This year we won’t be using Goosechase at TELFest, but we will have another exciting game running alongside the event.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

MOLE Exemplary Course Programme

Final session course presentation
We recently completed the latest MOLE Exemplary Course Programme (ECP), with attendees from across a range of departments coming together to work to improve the content and layout of their MOLE courses in use as part of their teaching.

The ECP has been running for several years now, and aims to improve the quality of MOLE courses using simple techniques and ideas coupled to a framework based on a peer reviewed rubric in use by Blackboard Learn (the system MOLE runs on) round the world. We have adapted this rubric to form the basis for the structure of the ECP so anyone using MOLE can get involved and see improvements.

Feedback from previous attendees to the ECP has been very positive, and students who have used courses that have been 'exemplarised' have fed back that the improvements were very beneficial to their learning.

We offer the ECP to everyone across the institution, but we can also focus it to a more specific area if it needed. For example we are planning that the next ECP could focus more on purely online delivered courses.

If you are interested, get in touch and we will give you more information.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Online Exams in MOLE

Computer room in The Diamond
The Autumn exam period has just recently finished, and once again we have seen an increase in the number of them being run online in MOLE.

In partnership with the Student Examinations Team, we have had a total of 30 exams running, with 3137 students involved. This is almost a 50% increase from the same period last year, and if we see a similar number increase in the Spring exam period, then we will certainly increase the total for the year from last year when we had 4250 students sitting in 79 exams.

A number of the exams this time have been run for the very first time in MOLE, and we have also had an increase in the variety of assessment methods in use. Alongside the more standard multiple choice type test questions, we have had essay based exams, the use of audio and video and file submission.

All this activity has run very smoothly, thanks to the MOLE exam procedure that we have worked hard on to make MOLE exams no different in most ways to traditional paper based exams. that is not to say that there were no hiccups along the way, however with Chief Invigilators having been trained in the delivery of MOLE exams and the TEL Team on call to step in if needed, we were able to ensure that all the exams completed without many incidents.

It's exciting to see this growth in the use of MOLE, and the feedback we are getting from staff and students is that MOLE exams are a positive experience and something to build on.

Friday, 10 February 2017

White Rose Learning Technologists' Forum, February 2017

Last week saw the latest White Rose Learning Technologists' Forum, bringing together practitioners from around the Yorkshire Region. This time it was the turn of the University of Huddersfield to host, providing thevenue for an afternoon of presentations and discussion.

The event began with a workshop presented by James McDowell, Director of Learning & Teaching at Huddersfield's School of of Computing and Engineering, on the theme of Certified Membership of the Association for Learning Technology (CMALT). Discussion revealed the importance of CMALT for both personal development of staff working in learning technology, and professional identity of practitioners. The potential obstacles of undertaking the portfolio-based process were also recognised, not least of all time, and lack of line management buy-in and securing associated funding. However a strong case was made for the benefits of CMALT, and its ability to create a network of practitioners across the region.

Up next was The University of Sheffield's Ian Loasby, Learning Technologist at the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, continuing the theme of professional development. He gave an account of his successful completion of Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA), which he described as one the most rewarding things he'd undertaken in his professional career. Learning Technologists were encouraged to go for Senior Fellowship, as our work mentoring, supporting and influencing the learning and teaching of others covers many of the competencies of the programme that some academics may find difficult to evidence.

Finally Ros Walker, Huddersfield's Assistive Software and Accessibility IT Trainer, gave an update on the University's implementation of lecture capture (using the Panopto software), and in particular work on addressing its accessibility for D/deaf students. Solutions have included using an iPad as a second camera to record BSL interpreters more clearly, which the Panopto app will automatically add to the main presentation, and investigating Panopto's built-in subtitling system. The latter is pertinent to the University of Sheffield, as our soon-to-be implemented digital media hosting solution will have similar captioning capabilities. While lecture capture is hugely beneficial for many disabled students, it was illustrated in Ros's talk that it isn't a one-size-fits-all solution for the needs of all learners.

A great afternoon with engaging speakers and useful discussion. Thanks to all at the University of Huddersfield for their warm welcome at a great venue.


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