It’s been a big year for our VLE, Blackboard Learn.
We have had Learn at University of Edinburgh for a long time. VLEs are not a particularly new technology, they’ve been around for more than 20 years. In other countries VLEs are known as LMSs: learning management systems. In the UK virtual learning environments (VLEs) suffer from a branding which often makes them sound more immersive and dynamic than they are.
Given the size and scale of our curriculum Learn does a lot of heavy lifting which may have gone largely unnoticed by the majority of teaching staff until this year. Every course has a place on Learn to manage learning materials and groups. The learning platform is integrated into other core systems and the timetable. It draws together data from across the university to ensure that the right people have access to the learning materials and communication tools that they need. Every year in June it rolls over and all the course spaces are replicated, ready to be filled with new materials for new students. The older course spaces stay put and students retain access to the materials and discussions from previous years to aid their revision and progression. Many of our library resources are lisenced only for course groups and Learn makes it possible for us to make those available to select groups.
The history of VLEs at Edinburgh is characterised, as with so many areas of the university, by a proliferation of local solutions which were unsustainable and confusing for users. In the past our distance learning courses were offered on 13 different platforms, each with their own technical teams and support requirements. As the platforms aged Knowledge Strategy Committee recognised the risk of this technical debt and and in order to sustain the online distance learning activity which brings the university thousands of learners each year we have migrated all that distance learning to Learn through our VLE consolidation project. We are now able to support this aspect of university business through a single helpdesk and the 70+ online distance learning masters level courses are now delivered on Learn.
The work on the VLE consolidation project occupied all of the effort of our ISG technical teams for several years. This left us frustratingly far behind other institutions which have been investing in their undergraduate VLE. That began to change in 2019 when we embarked on our Learn Foundations project in an attempt to tackle the aspects of confusion and inconsistency which were badly impacting our students’ experience. The Learn Foundations project now involves 21 Schools and we have worked closely with local learning technologists, teaching offices and student interns to deliver this change. 4,000 students have been involved in our user research and 40+ interns have worked to map, analyse and improve course areas online. The work has been shared in reports, presentations and posters at University of Edinburgh Learning and Teaching conferences and has won awards within the global community of Learn institutions.
In the last 2 years we have engaged with thousands of Edinburgh students in the biggest co-design exercise the University has ever carried out on its VLE. We have built up a very rich and detailed picture of what students and staff need to do in Learn, and why. The detailed UX work we have done as part of our Learn Foundations project has given us a hope of being able to optimise our support services to support a broadly similar template. The schools who have been part of that project have benefited from support in migration, accessibility and training.
We moved Learn to ‘the Cloud’ before the pandemic and I hope to move it to the next version (Ultra) soon. This year the amount of activity in the VLE has grown considerably and both the license and storage costs have increased. It is even more important now that colleagues ensure that they consider course design to make the best use of the platform for teaching. Training in all aspects of using Learn is available to all and we offer a bespoke programme of support for ‘An Edinburgh Model of teaching online’.
If we were ever to move VLE it is this work on Learn Foundations which would make that even possible. I hope that in the near future we will have support from across the university for a more root and branch overhaul of our main teaching platform. It would be a huge, multi-year project involving every course leader, every school office, every local learning technologist, large IT teams, changes to all the training, integrations, helpdesks, student handbooks, support pages and changes to teaching practice, but I think that the lessons learned from teaching this year and the institution-wide work on curriculum review will be a great place to start.
If we were ever to move VLE. It would be expensive. And it would take years. We’d be running systems in parallel for years, so its hard to see this as a cost effective option. We would need to be sure that there are tangible pedagogical benefits and improvements to the work our VLE does for us now.
‘Letting a thousand flowers bloom’ results in technical debt for the future.
Back in the day there was not central platform, in an attempt to encourage and support innovation schools were given pots of money to build locally the tools they felt they needed. 13 local VLEs were spun up by the groups who were delivering distance learning with Distance Education Initiative (DEI ) funding. It was a worthy strategy of supporting local innovation but it resulted in a huge technical debt which was later transferred back to Information Services and we have spent years (are still) sorting out. Over the last 5 years those 13 local VLEs have decayed and failed, and in order to sustain the activity the university has invested heavily in migrating that distance learning to Learn ( VLE consolidation project) .
The roll-out of Learn across UG teaching wasn’t managed consistently either. Every course leader and school did their own thing, leading to years of user confusion from students as they moved from course to course. In the last 2 years we have engaged with more than 4,000 students in the biggest co-design exercise the University has ever carried out on its VLE. We have built up a very rich and detailed picture of what students and staff need to do in Learn, and why.
This year, more than ever, our new and returning students need to know we care about their learning. Edinburgh is in a strong position to respond to the challenges ahead whilst maintaining a quality learning experience.
We have recruited dozens of students to work with us over the summer, and did I mention that our VLE teams just won another award?
The Learn Foundations team has won the 2020 Blackboard Catalyst Award for Student Experience.
The award recognises those institutions whose educational and administrative innovations have markedly improved the total learner experience.
The Learn Foundations project is transforming the online learning space at Edinburgh by providing students with everything they need simply, quickly and efficiently to minimise time spent searching and maximise time spent learning.
By redesigning Learn, our biggest Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), we are providing our 40,000 students with easy access to lecture recordings, online reading lists and all their course related materials. And for those students who study across courses, these improvements are being implemented institution-wide to ensure consistency of student experience.
What with the new digital accessibility legislation coming into place, I am gathering together a list of things/projects/initiatives and services we offer in Learning Teaching and Web Services to support accessibility online. We have a support service in ISG which provides practical testing and advice on meeting the requirements of legislation. At a strategic level we take a broad view on accessibility and inclusive learning.
We will be presenting the University of Edinburgh experience as an institutional case study at UCISA.
A working knowledge of accessibility is a key knowledge set for learning technologists and web developers and I’m very proud of how well we do in this area. I am often asked to support colleagues when they are writing up their CMALT portfolios and describing the policy environment in which they work, it is important that we reflect on what is quite a nuanced area of work.
I wrote my initial CMALT application in 2008 about the policies which shaped the context of my work. At that time those were: The new HEA UKPSF framework, the University of Leeds strategy and vision towards 2015, the HEFCE e-learning strategy, SENDA legislation on accessibility, copyright and emerging Creative Commons and CETIS -led technology standards. Back in 2004 I employed one of the first institutional web accessibility officers at University of Leeds. The second edition of our book about designing accessible learning is due out any day now…
University of Edinburgh has a huge corporate web estate so, as a central team, we are taking what we believe to be the most pragmatic and effective way forward toward improving accessibility, and thus reducing overall risk.
University Website, MyEd, Web Search and our content support widgets have all accessibility statements published reflecting on our capabilities and access to support and report inaccessible content etc. What really helped was the use of EdGEL consistently across our services.
We will proceed with our ‘Future Web Services’ project, in conjunction with a migration to Drupal 8. We will take a stringent approach to accessibility throughout design, development and testing, considering both the end users’ experience and accessibility needs. We will proceed with a content audit with a view to decommissioning and archiving portions of the estate as appropriate and rationalising the remainder, redeveloping content as needed and with accessibility in mind. We will target agree key user journeys giving us a prioritised backlog for more in-depth accessibility assessment. Our web teams will develop, adopt and communicate policy, standards and guidelines around accessibility as part of our continuing development of our digital governance.
We attend every year, the UK webmasters conference the event typically covers a wide range of topics or relevance to this sector including digital transformation, website/digital governance, university strategy, digital strategy, UX, accessibility, design, development, user-journeys and tasks, team management, leadership, content, measurement and analytics, change management, student recruitment and retention, tools, technologies and communications.
Accessible VLEs and platforms
Our VLE and media platform teams have been battling to get our accessibility statements and roadmaps straight. Karen’s team have been working with colleagues across the sector to gather best practice guidance for Learn. Some of our platforms are cloud hosted and vendor supplied which makes things challenging.
Accessible course design of our VLE
Our EDE teams offer advice on how to deliver inclusive and accessible technology enhanced learning. We are currently working with six Schools and a Deanery to implement a new site structures in Learn. The new site structure is being rolled out to Schools with the support of a team of student interns during the summer break to create consistent courses within Learn in preparation for the start of the 19/20 academic year. The aim is to create a new site structure that will provide a consistent student experience by making course specific materials easy to find as well as supporting staff in delivering rich, online courses. It will ensure courses are more accessible and inclusive and the terminology used relating to learning and teaching is more consistent. We are finding a huge range of lefthand menu options being used, as many as 400+ in one school.
Digital accessibility is a particularly strong example of the universal benefits of inclusive practice. Students enjoy more usable and flexible learning resources, listening to lecture recordings or podcasts while traveling on the bus, or using heading styles to go straight to the important part of the course handbook. An inclusive approach allows all students to learn in ways that suit them best. If we can respond effectively to these regulations, all students will benefit from a better experience.
Accessible content in the VLE
The student interns are working over the summer to complete accessibility audits of course areas with a view to reporting back to heads of schools. They are sampling course materials and producing accessibility scores. This work is gaining a lot of interest from VLE support teams in other Universities. If you are interested in talking to the project team or looking to find out more information regarding the project contact the Learn Foundations team and we are presenting about it at ALT Conference in early September.
The University provides a selection of assistive software to staff and students. One such piece of software, and one which we are excited about is called SensusAccess . We believe this is a really useful piece of software for staff and students using the VLE. SensusAccess allows you to convert electronic documents into alternative versions of the document – such as audio, e-book or digital Braille formats. It even tackles less accessible documents such as image-only PDFs and PowerPoint files. It is quick and easy to use, and free to students and staff of the University. You upload the document you wish to be converted to another format to the software and it is then emailed to you once the conversion is complete. You can then upload this version of the document to the VLE. Students can also use it themselves to create a version of the document which suits them best.
Accessibility and equality compliance: Links to relevant documentation
Written resources are available in alternative format on request, as indicated on each resource. Resources are all available online.
Slides and visuals used on our learning events are designed with accessibility in mind.
Training rooms in Argyle House are installed with hearing loops and have a height-adjustable desk in each room.
All videos developed in house can be viewed at different sizes and have captions.
An Equality Impact Assessment (EqIA) has been carried out on Lynda.com.
Promoting universal design
We have specialists in our LTW teams who promote and train in universal design, whether that is design of digital materials, web sites, communications, rooms, spaces, signage or AV kit. Neil’s team have led the development of the new look for MyEd designed for mobile first, making it easier to use on any device, wherever you are. The menu-based navigation makes it easier to find content, and avoids the need to load content-heavy tabs, making it faster to get to the content that you need.
Our LTW graphic design teams offer expert advice on accessibility in print and design. With design for print, we always do our best to comply with University standards and where we need to, we will add the accessibility strapline to printed materials. Design for print often requires a balance of aesthetics with accessibility and Sonia’s teams have to carefully consider the purpose of the thing that we are producing. Finding that compromise is always a challenge that we do our best to make as a design team. We endeavour at all times to ensure that we are following best practice in terms of accessibility. This may be through looking at the following guidelines or consulting directly with experts from the very start of the project at the initial design consultation. Here are some of the links we may refer to for our information.
We also ensure that our newsletters and graphics are available in a variety of accessible formats. We make sure to check that our LTW comms officers understand about accessible and inclusive communications.
When writing a blog, it is easy to forget that some visitors have vision impairments and disabilities that can come in the way of their reading experience. It is our responsibility to make our websites as accessible as possible so we don’t discriminate against any of our users. Anne-Marie’s teams offer advice on how to write an accessible blog on our WordPress serviceAccessible data
Through our wikidata projects we are sharing data sets online and making them accessible to the world to use, adapt and interrogate in creative ways.
Increasingly users interact with internet content via voice interfaces such as Siri and Alexa and text based chat bots. In LTW we are leading in the development of conversational interfaces for student support. We are running training sessions for students and staff.
The Subtitling for Media Pilot was established to investigate the feasibility, viability and cost of a student-led transcription service, alongside improving the digital skills of staff and promoting a culture change in our approach to delivering accessible content. The team subtitled public-facing audio and video content within Media Hopper Create, with a focus on content that was embedded in the main University website. Automated subtitling services are notoriously inaccurate and require checking before publication. In the pilot, subtitles were automatically generated and the student team acted as human mediators, checking and correcting the subtitles and drawing on their own knowledge and expertise of Edinburgh and University life. As a result of the pilot more media content is open and accessible to all users and new training courses are available for staff and students on DIY subtitling, aiming to move to a position where subtitling of media is standard practice at the point of creation as far as possible. Following the pilot, we’ll be establishing this as a service in 19/20. In the pilot service, subtitles were automatically generated and the student team acted as human mediators, checking and correcting the subtitles, drawing on their own knowledge and expertise of the HE sector in the process. Automation is effective at quickly processing large amounts of content; people are good at ensuring the right meaning is conveyed and that accurate sector–specific terminology is used.
In this project we subtitled 228 media [a total of 53 hours, 07 minutes play time] during the 12-week pilot. We established average times to subtitle, and identified things that will impact the time taken (accents, technical/scientific words, sound quality) and shared these finding with the sector. We produced a style guide that can be used as a subtitling aid for staff and ran four 2-hour workshops to develop University staff skills in subtitling, developing a successful format for ongoing training provision.We published two videos and five blogs to disseminate information about the pilot .
Accessible work experience and workplace
In designing our projects we think carefully about how we employ students. We are interested in whether digital work is the kind of work that might be attractive to students, specifically those who need some flexibility in hours and location of work. We are aware that this kind of work might offer opportunity for employment for students with caring responsibilities, who have disabilities, or who prefer solo working, and so we make sure to design these job opportunities with this in mind.
We have a number of staff in LTW who have visible and invisible disabilities and we listen to their feedback on how to ensure we have an inclusive workplace.
Professional Development and training for colleagues
We offer role-based training of staff, including webmasters, developers, designers, content creators, instructional designers.
Our University of Edinburgh PgCap Learning and Teaching includes a session on “Building accessibility & inclusion into your teaching & learning with technology”. We are going to develop this into a stand-alone session, and we’ve talked about developing a baseline e-accessibility resource (either on the open website or as a self-enrol course in Learn). We have recruited Tracy as an accessibility expert to our learning technology team.
Our course on Effective Digital Content (Writing for the Web) is mandatory if you need access to edit EdWeb. Bruce is our expert in web accessibility. It is open to all staff and students and available online or in person. This editorial training course covers good practice in writing and structuring information for the web. Nurturing a community of practice can help build leadership in and commitment to IT accessibility. That community of practice can and should reaches across unit and campus boundaries. Institutional challenges require institutional responses and our trainng includes guidance on data protection, freedom of information issues and improving performance in search engine results.
Things 5&6 in our ’23 Things’ course are diversity and accessibility and our collection of online digital skills courses offers dozens of courses on accessibility and these are available for free to students and staff including ‘Accessibility: Creating Accessible Documents in Microsoft Office’ and ‘Creating Accessible PDFs’. We run 2-hour workshops to develop University staff skills in subtitling and a range of courses in creating accessible media and learning content.
For many students the most useful thing colleagues can do to make the content of their lectures accessible is to use the microphone. The microphone in the room is linked to the induction loop which is essential for students with hearing loss and is the best way to capture high quality audio as you talk. We provide advice on how to wear a microphone and pack with a dress and on a lanyard. We’ve learned from our rollout of lecture recording that the best quality and most accessible recordings are produced when the most suitable microphones are used.Whether you have a loud voice or small group, all microphones will pick up only the closest speaker. Lapel mics work best for presenters, handheld mics and Catchboxes work best for audience interaction. In the largest teaching spaces, there will be a throwable microphone called a Catchbox. In rooms without Catchbox or a handheld microphone, you should repeat questions to ensure they are picked up on the recording. Find out more about how lecture recording can support accessible and inclusive learning.
Accessible online courses
Our distance learning and MOOC platforms have very clear and rigorous rules about the ways in which content is presented. We recognise that some of our learners will have particular needs and circumstances and we will strive to identify and respond to barriers to participation in our courses so that these can be reduced or removed. We view the diversity of our learners as a resource that enhances their learning experience and the experience of other learners.
The University of Edinburgh University Accessible and Inclusive Learning Policy is due for a review, not least to reflect the technology environment on campus which has changed significantly in the past 6 years and to include the fact that we have online courses and students to whom the policy would also apply. Much of the technology referred to in the policy is owned by LTW and since the policy is out of date it no longer reflects the technology we provide. Policy development meetings are well underway with contributions from web, AV, online learning and digital library teams.
Teaching excellence exemplars
We are working closely with the assistant principals responsible for reviewing the promotions criteria for academic teaching and developing exemplars of excellence to include digital and accessible teaching.
Three weeks ago, while preparing my presentation for e-learningforum@ed conference I was musing on the similarities between ‘technical debt’ and what one might call ‘ copyright debt’.
I was thinking about institutional risks of not being open. Institutional risks are sometimes legal, sometimes reputational, sometimes financial. Mostly, at IT directors’ meetings we talk about the need to mitigate risks early on, and avoid risks in the future.
Generally, the risks of not engaging with open practice are reputational: Other institutions are doing it; we might miss out on this good thing; we should be seen to be bold in digital education and leading edge in our open research. There is a risk to our reputation if colleagues do not seem to be up to-date-on licensing and refer to online materials or data as ‘open’ when they are not. But most of those risks are easily hidden under a smear of open-washing and a vagueness about the definition of open in different contexts.
These are not risks which will ever convince a VP Finance and Resources to invest.
If you want to convince an IT director or a CIO to invest in systems which have built-in open-licensing workflows, protecting the institution against the risk of expensive copyright debt may be the way forward.
My definition of ‘copyright debt’ is based on my understanding of ‘technical debt’. Technical debt is a metaphor often used in IT to explain why it costs so much to replace IT systems. I use it to explain why rather than spending my budget on new exciting learning and teaching functionality, I am having to spend it to replace something we thought we already had.
You can ready about technical debt on Wikipedia. It’s the cost of not doing something properly in the first place. From the moment you build a system poorly, without due attention to software code rigour and process, you begin to accrue debt and then interest on that debt. From the moment you don’t fix, patch and maintain the code, the same thing happens. At some point you are going to have to go back and fix it, and the longer you leave it the more expensive it will be*.
From the moment a colleague tells you that they don’t have time, or don’t care about the copyright licensing and metadata on their teaching materials and load them up into a VLE, online course environment, departmental website, online course-pack, lecture power-point slides, whatever, you start to accrue ‘copyright debt’.
Someone will have to go back to those materials at some point to check them, figure out who made them and when and check for 3rd party content. The longer time passes (or staff change) between the original materials being uploaded in to the VLE the harder it will be to find the original source.
The cost will hit at the moment that you migrate from one VLE to another, or from one website to another, or from one media asset management system to another. At that point lecturers and departmental administrators will be asked to confirm that they have copyright permission for the materials they are migrating, and they will say ‘ I have no idea, in fact I don’t even remember/know where all the bits came from’.
They will suggest that someone in a central service (usually the library) should do the checking, and that is where the cost hits. No-one in the library is super-human enough ( unless you pay them a lot) to check all the hundreds of teaching and learning materials in your VLE, so most of it will just be binned and colleagues will be outraged that they have to make it all again.
I’d suggest the common causes of copyright debt include (a combination of):
Business pressures, where the business considers getting something released sooner before all of the necessary copyright searches are complete.
Lack of process or understanding, where the businesse is blind to the concept of copyright debt, and make decisions without considering the implications.
Lack of flexible components, where materials are not openly licensed, the re-use permissions are not flexible enough to adapt to changes in course content.
Lack of time, which encourages colleagues to do quick google searches and take materials they find without checking the license.
Lack of metadata, where content is created without necessary supporting metadata. That work to create the supporting metadata represents a debt that must be paid.
Lack of collaboration, where knowledge of open practice isn’t shared around the organization and business efficiency suffers, or junior learning technologists are not properly mentored.
Parallel development at the same time on two or more VLEs can cause the build up of copyright debt because of the work that will eventually be required to move content from one to another. The more content developed in isolation without clear licensing , the more debt that is piled up.
Delayed reformatting – the formats which were used for creating learning objects quickly becomes obsolete. Without clear permission to make adaptations it is hard for older TEL materials to be converted to new formats. The longer that reformatting is delayed, and the more content is written to use the older format, the more debt that piles up that must be paid at the time the conversion is finally done.
Lack of alignment to standards, where industry standard features, frameworks, open technologies are ignored. Eventually, integration with standards will come, doing it sooner will cost less.
Lack of knowledge, when the content creator simply doesn’t know how or why to use open materials.
The challenge in all this of course, is that the individual academics making the materials don’t care about the longer term cost to the central services of this debt. This argument won’t persuade them to take the time to change their practice, so we must build rigour for open practice into the workflows of our enterprise-wide systems and services as soon as we possibly can, making it easy for colleagues to make positive choices.
Or else we risk a whole heap of copyright debt.
*Basically it is the software equivalent of ‘ a stitch in time saves nine’.
(While I was doing this thinking, I bumped into a session at #OER15 called ‘the cost of not going open‘ by Viv Rolfe which also looked to quantify costs. Viv’s approach is to look at costs and savings around academic time spent creating materials, which complements my thinking rather nicely.)