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The Story of Technologies for Learning 2020-21


Tom Hey, Head of Technologies for Learning, Library and Student Services.  With contributions from Rianne MacArthur, Digital Learning Service Manager.  August 2021

Top 3 Digital Lessons Learned during a global pandemic

Reflecting on the period from February 2020 to July 2021 isn’t a straightforward task, nevertheless I intend to try. I’m going to summarise my key digital learning reflections at the start of this piece for those who prefer to skim read the rest (I understand, we’re all busy) but you should know that I wrote them after the rest of the piece. They are:

  • Our colleagues (School and Service) are by far our most valuable contributors to success, and their passion and dedication shine through in every achievement, both pre and during the pandemic. Our colleagues are open to digital approaches, and they would like more guidance and support in developing their digital capability. This support must be sustained to achieve perpetual digital confidence.
  • Face to face learning and teaching is a vital and substantial component of the student experience, although technologies can support new/different approaches and provide a range of benefits for both students and staff. We should maximise the benefits of both in designing a blended future, and regularly evaluate and tweak the balance to ensure that it works well for everyone.
  • We need to establish mechanisms for proactive and reactive discussions between academic and digital colleagues about pedagogic requirements, the use of technology and digital approaches. There have been a great many challenges this year (some avoidable, some not) for which we have started on the back foot. Finding better ways to communicate in this respect is the only way we’re going to get on the front foot.

Introduction

The period from February 2020 to July 2021 has encompassed enormous global, national, local, organisational, and personal upheaval and change. The most challenging year of my working life by a country mile, and I know I’m not alone in that. In starting to write this piece, I struggled to encapsulate everything that’s happened, what our service did, the near misses we had, and how we felt – mainly because so much of it was a blur of meetings, pressure and deadlines. For the movie buffs among you I’d liken it to Rocky IV, in which Rocky is continually pummelled by a strong, fast, relentless opponent and yet despite being punch drunk, somehow manages to pick himself up off the canvas and eventually starts to make headway in the fight. Sound familiar?

When in February 2020 it first seemed possible that a period of lockdown may be on the cards, The Library’s Technologies for Learning team and our colleagues in the Centre for Learning and Teaching, Distance Learning Unit and IT Services suddenly found ourselves front and centre in an urgent move to plan for digital teaching and service continuity.

Thankfully, we didn’t come at it from a standing start. I’ve been involved in Digital Learning provision at Leeds Beckett in one way or another since March 2012, and I’ve seen significant adoption of digital approaches and growth in digital capability. Our staff and students have grown used to the incorporation of technology into learning and teaching, and our digital tools have grown in response to their needs. A relationship that by its evolving nature eludes equilibrium between functionality and digital capability, thus requiring us to nurture a supportive and understanding approach.

It won’t surprise you to know that technology colleagues at Leeds Beckett and throughout the sector sprinted at top speed to keep pace with the emerging and ever-changing technology landscape of 2020-21.

In 2020, without the technology we already had at our disposal, would learning and teaching have taken place at all? If it had, it would surely have come with a risk to our staff and students’ health. Despite the many immediate and imperfect adaptations we’ve all made, I’m glad we had the people and the technology to enable learning and teaching to continue and minimise the risks.

On the physical / digital teaching mix, I’ll simply say that the people in Technologies for Learning and throughout the University are vitally important, that technology has its place in supporting learning and teaching delivery, and that we look forward to discussing Schools’ plans for the future and the role of technology in them. What is for sure is that some of the short-term measures we’ve all implemented to ‘survive’ are unsustainable, and we now have an opportunity to synergise pedagogy and technology from a ‘battle-tested’ inclusive perspective.

Who are Technologies for Learning (TfL)?

TfL, part of Library and Student Services, comprises two teams – the Digital Learning Service and the Digital Library Service. While this article focuses predominantly on the work of Digital Learning, some of the Digital Library team’s work is represented to provide complementary insight into this vital area.

The Digital Learning Service provide support and provide digital tools staff development for MyBeckett, Collaborate, Turnitin, PebblePad, Google and more. They’re mostly externally facing i.e. their service is aimed at course teams (direct) and students (by referral) although they do support a range of professional services too. As well as delivering an email and phone support service they; offer a range of tutorials, training sessions and web-based guidance; maintain, test and administrate many of our major learning technologies; work on enhancement projects relating to these systems and on interdependent cross University projects; and work with course teams to investigate and pilot learning and teaching technologies new to LBU.

Digital Library provide a similar service for our Library systems. You may not have heard of some of these by name and they underpin our electronic information resource access, library account management, reading lists, library website, copyright, and research systems e.g. Symplectic and the University publications repository. Some of the team’s work is externally facing e.g. to academics, some students, some researchers. The rest is internally facing within the Library, providing vital support to other externally facing teams - Academic Support, Library Services and Operations and Learning Resources.

20/21 Timeline

I’m typing this in July 2021, using my childhood desk which is just about suitable for work purposes, and in my spare bedroom which since Christmas 2020 has been my ‘office’. Casting my mind back to the beginning of lockdown in March 2020 evokes memories of reading Doctor Who novels in the evening and weekend warmth, working from the kitchen table while sitting on a frankly painful kitchen chair, using an aging device with a small, very flickery screen and trying to concentrate while next door’s kids spend all day on their trampoline. While the spare room setup isn’t perfect, my environment has come a long way since then. It’s amazing what difference a large monitor, working device and office chair can make to your comfort levels and productivity. Thankfully my connectivity has been reliable and stable throughout, excepting the occasional brief blip that we’ve all come to regard as an occupational hazard. I don’t know if my experience is that of the ‘average’ home worker over the period, but I know other people have had it worse – especially those living in remote locations, sharing houses / bandwidth and those with caring responsibilities. You have my sympathy and my respect.

Below is my recollection of the key work in the year that followed, with the caveat that it can never encompass everything we did.

January – March 2020

Academic Continuity

In early 2020 we sensed what was coming. I didn’t think there’d be a full lockdown, nor that it would last this long. But, for the avoidance of risk and potential impact (because we’re sensible like that) we began to plan for all eventualities. Digital Learning worked with the Centre for Learning and Teaching (CLT) to produce the Academic Continuity guidance on the TeachLearn website.

We’ve had the TeachLearn website for around 6 years. It replaced other websites and web pages following a successful project run by the Library (with CLT and Distance Learning) in which we collectively decided to unify our pedagogy / technology guidance.

Since then we’ve refreshed and significantly expanded it, so for the last few years we’ve had a lot of guidance available in one place. This meant that again, we had a good starting position during a crisis. Nevertheless, we recognised from the queries coming in that we needed to enhance signposting to advice and guidance, so we worked with CLT to do that. We placed it under the ‘Academic Continuity’ banner and it involved listing actual or anticipated query types and flagging quick links to specific tools and guidance around them e.g. “how will you communicate with students?” We always try to consider things from the point of view of the academic or the student, rather than from the point of view of the technology.

The Academic Continuity banner lasted a good 6 months before being phased out later in 2020 when it became clear that we had moved beyond academic continuity scenarios. We then incorporated the advice and guidance back into other aspects of TeachLearn to aid the academic pedagogy / technology decision-making workflow.

In respect of this workflow and the advice on offer - did you know that Digital Learning offers regular staff training sessions to support the effective use of MyBeckett and integrated technologies, and that you can get in touch to request a bespoke session for your team? Recent examples include sessions focused on Turnitin’s marking and feedback tools, how to gather information from MyBeckett’s module reports and learning analytics, and how to improve the accessibility of content that you are creating in MyBeckett.

Cross Service Collaboration

We’ve always had a good working relationship with CLT, Distance Learning, IT Services and the Library student IT teams among many others, but what immediately became clear was that we would need to cooperate as never before in order to ensure our University community had the technologies, the support, the guides, the training and the benefits of joint effective communication to help them make it through the teaching year.

It would be fair to say that we had these things in place and working well pre-pandemic, but not unexpectedly they were tested to the limit during scenarios we had not foreseen. We learned what worked and what didn’t as the year progressed, and we evolved a set of cooperative working practices which are now (we think) much more robust. At least until the next unexpected crisis.

The University created a Digital Tools Working Group (DTWG), drawing members from key digital service areas. This was enormously helpful as it enabled us, on a University-wide basis, to evaluate our existing core digital learning and teaching tools, identify which ones worked best for which scenarios, identify gaps that we’d need to plug by licensing new tools, and to rationalise and simplify guidance e.g. mapping tools to learning and teaching tasks and visualising who supports what.

This group was complemented by the Development and Training Working Group (ambiguously also DTWG) which worked to simplify access to staff development and provide a range of sessions throughout the year. One of the outputs from this group was the ‘one stop’ overall training programme featuring digital training offered by various University digital/IT services.

We made improvements to internal referrals. Like many people, when I call ‘customer services’ for support, I find it annoying if I get passed from ‘pillar to post’ before someone takes responsibility for my needs. Across our services, we have a strong aversion to giving anyone that kind of experience although we understand it does sometimes happen despite everyone trying to avoid it. When it does happen, we use the learning from that experience to improve our processes.

Redoubling our efforts - the Library (including Digital Learning) and IT Services established a cross-service Microsoft Team to share knowledge / expertise and help each other resolve digital queries. We later added CLT and Distance Learning members. One of the key drivers for this kind of ‘virtual back office’ conversation is that the range of digital support required across the institution is so vast that no one person or team can know it all (mentioning this to digital colleagues draws a wry smile because our job means our family members think we know everything about IT).

Add to that the fact that for the duration of the pandemic, Digital Learning weren’t sitting in offices sharing knowledge over the top of a computer, which does diminish collaborative effectiveness to some degree. Teams has been an important mitigating factor in what I call the lack of ‘crowd problem solving ability’. It’s not a like for like substitute, and that face to face interaction is really important, but it has enabled us to internally source a more complete answer and find out which team deals with something before getting back to whoever asked the question.

Computer Says Y/N

Pre-pandemic, Technologies for Learning had recently refreshed its two-year plan, so we had a framework for identifying, progressing, and prioritising objectives in line with University strategy. This plan focused on core priorities, sustainability and maintaining / enhancing the educational experience. It enabled us to be agile in our reprioritisation of existing work e.g. fast-tracking, slow timing, delaying, or cancelling as needed, as well as adding emerging work with an appropriate priority level.

One of the early decisions we faced was – do we continue with high profile University projects e.g. the new Library Platform, for which we have been allocated capital budget? It would have been very easy to say “sorry, big pandemic, lots of extra work, we can’t do these right now.” Full credit goes to our team members who remained positive and found ways to work on these projects digitally, including on the University’s first full series of digital tender demos which were very successful. Many thanks to IT Procurement for their support with the tender.

April – August 2020

With the bulk of the planning over, during this period we began to settle into a new pattern. That pattern was FULL. ON.

Support Service

On average, the number of digital learning queries was double what we would normally expect, and during peak periods was more than four times our usual level. As of August 2021, we are still experiencing more than double the pre-pandemic number of queries.

As a result, there were some things we had to say no to, and when there is no ‘fat to trim’ those things can be painful. We prioritised service support, digital capability training and vital projects. Lots of very useful ‘quality of life’ or ‘system maintenance’ things were ‘benched’ and we are still finding it difficult to get back to working on them.

Digital Learning also had to reduce the team service standard as it simply became impossible to respond to 97% of queries within 3 working hours (our previous standard). The revised service standard is to respond to (not necessarily resolve – that can take longer) 100% of queries within 24 working hours (service hours being Monday – Friday 09.00 – 17.00).

Our colleagues have been understanding throughout, recognising that our sustained workload increase and our capacity to tackle it means we have to be very careful about saying yes to a new service or project (because saying yes to a new thing might diminish our core service support) and that we don’t always immediately have the answer to what is sometimes a new problem.

If anyone’s wondering ‘how did you do it?’ the answer is ‘by not doing a whole lot else besides providing user support’. That’s manageable in the short term but isn’t a sustainable solution because the Digital Learning team do much more than provide user support. For example they manage all of the updates and enhancements for MyBeckett, and during the pandemic they’ve set up two new integrations (Collaborate and Ally), tested monthly software releases from Blackboard, and installed the latest versions of several other plug-ins to optimise system performance.

Support, training, testing, maintenance, and enhancement all bleed into each other and without that interconnected continuous improvement approach, the service would be much less effective. E.g. a hypothetical scenario in which an academic wants to assess students in a particular way, the system supports it, but we haven’t introduced the functionality yet because we haven’t had time to test and implement it, or write guidance. We can’t just switch it on - what if it causes some unanticipated problem (a web browser issue or an error message) that’s worse than not having the functionality? The result is the ideal solution exists but can’t be used, so a ‘fudge’ is needed. This creates extra work for the academic and for our team, adding to the support burden. Bottom line – we need more time to proactively understand learning and teaching needs, and proactively introduce new functionality that enhances learning and teaching. Given current support demand, more time seems unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Reliable Systems

6-7 years ago, we made a strategic decision to move away from hosting our major learning and teaching technologies on Leeds Beckett ‘on campus’ servers. Instead, the suppliers provide the infrastructure and the University pays them to maintain it.

Since making that decision, reliability and stability of these key systems has been on a positive trajectory. We put MyBeckett in the cloud in 2019: a big piece of work of the type where, if it all goes well, nobody notices. The result of the work being that we get bug fixes, security patches and enhancements on a monthly rather than annual basis. Also, we don’t have to take the whole system down to do it. This has been an absolute winner during such a digital year.

This year and in fact for the last 3 years, although there have been periods of unavailability for MyBeckett and Turnitin, the vast majority in terms of instances and hours relate to underlying infrastructure e.g. authentication or network services, among others. While this shifts the problem to some degree it does mean that the challenges have moved on from the systems themselves to the underlying infrastructure. Digital Learning are working with IT Services to tackle these challenges going forward.

Now, I suspect that no one will claim any system is invulnerable to downtime, witness one Fastly customer unwittingly causing internet connection issues by quite legitimately updating some settings.

This brings to mind an incident several years ago in which one of our academics took down MyBeckett by leaving their cursor in the MyBeckett login box and a book accidentally wedged against their keyboard, so the keys continued to register an input. Eventually the login box got so fed up of taking an input from said keyboard it crashed the system. When we figured out what had happened there were mixed emotions – frustration that something so simple caused user impacting downtime, yet also we couldn’t help but laugh because – that’s life, you can plan for every conceivable eventuality but then stuff (an inconceivable eventuality) happens. The poor academic was mortified but as usual we provided reassurance and our suppliers implemented a fix that was developed in response to the incident, so it can’t happen again.

In summary despite a few bumps along the road, key University learning and teaching systems have held up very well during the pandemic.

Despite this, we do sometimes encounter an overriding perception that specific technologies ‘aren’t working’ or ‘are unreliable’. Speaking from many years’ experience, the source of this perception is often not what the user thought it was and is often (but not always) something that impacts a relatively small proportion of our University community. Causes can include: A full system is unexpectedly down, part of a system is unexpectedly down, a system is down for planned maintenance but the user didn’t know that, a system is intermittently unavailable, one specific piece of functionality isn’t working as intended, the system / functionality is working as designed but not as the user wants it to, the user configured something incorrectly, the user chose the wrong tool for the job, the user made a mistake, our team configured something for one set of requirements with an impact on another set of requirements we weren’t aware of, and many more.

I list these things not to blame anyone, I think we’re all doing our best in imperfect circumstances and our best is fantastic. I list them merely to highlight the complexity of understanding what caused an issue with an entire system, or part of it, and the importance of investigating, resolving, and communicating the cause both in the short and long term. Perhaps we don’t promote the good work that we do in this respect. Perhaps it’s not interesting, and the main thing is that it gets resolved. I’d like to reassure everyone however that we do take system availability, contingency, bug fixing and enhancement requests seriously. Sometimes, we must play the long game with these things, which is as frustrating for our team as it is for our users. Nevertheless, we have been heading in the right direction for several years now, and we’ve no intention of stopping.

I’d like to also take this opportunity to thank the major suppliers our Digital Learning team works in partnership with – Blackboard, Turnitin, Pebble Learning (PebblePad), Google, Eesysoft, the Copyright Licensing Agency, OCLC, Talis, 2CQR, JISC, PollEverywhere, Respondus, Inspera, Qwickly and Springshare. All of them stepped up to the plate this year and have prioritised the right things, listened to the sector, and provided our team with the support we needed when we couldn’t resolve something ourselves. Some of them made additional functionality available for free, some of them fully or partially absorbed ‘pandemic costs’ themselves rather than pass them on to us, and the staff that work for those suppliers have been their usual friendly, helpful selves despite the many personal and professional challenges they have also faced.

Exam Support

After the initial challenges presented by the emergency move to online teaching, the focus swiftly turned to assessment. While many assessment types (particularly written assignments) have been digitally submitted, marked and annotated with feedback for several years, a new challenge for this year was - “what do we do about sitting exams when clearly that can’t happen in a physical space?”

Where possible, Schools opted to change exams into timed assessments which, with a rigorous approach to academic integrity, were supported by existing workflows. However, for courses with Professional, Statutory and Regulatory Body (PSRB) mandated requirements for an invigilated / proctored exam, we quickly needed to expand our knowledge of digitally enabled exam solutions with remote proctoring, and do our best to support courses in using those solutions. Suffice to say that given our competing priorities, this was not an easy endeavour.

With digitally enabled exams there are some time savings for School colleagues in terms of automatic marking for multiple choice questions and general exam management, but there is an increased time commitment for our service in supporting students to install, test and then use remote proctoring software on their personal devices and home internet connections.

Support calls on exam days ranged from issues that are relatively simple to resolve, such as a student needing to move to a location in their home that is closer to their router, to those that are more time consuming to diagnose and resolve, perhaps relating to webcam drivers or specific settings on a student’s device. We have seen that these issues can be reduced, but not eliminated, by encouraging students to test their device and seek support before the day of their exam.

Enormous credit must go to School and TfL colleagues involved in this vital work for adapting to new technologies and ways of working, keeping the show on the road, working through system and process snags and supporting our students, many of whom were using this type of technology for the first time and should also be credited for their adaptability. One interesting piece of learning from digitally enabled exams is that contrary to concern in the sector, our students were satisfied with the process of being remotely proctored, and practical about the necessity of it.

It is clear that more digitally enabled exam technology, or greater use of that technology requires academic and digital support to scale along with it, and this is difficult to sustain. We should therefore consider the question - “are there pedagogic and student experience benefits to assessing students in different (better?) ways, where possible?”

Examples of our digitally enabled exam work with Schools are:

Law

During 2019-20, Digital Learning worked with colleagues in the Law School and Distance Learning to convert a set of PSRB mandated LPC exams to an online format, with a requirement for remote proctoring. There were specific requirements, such as the inclusion of documentation that students needed to refer to as part of the exam questions, as well as forms that students would have previously completed on paper.

This project involved identifying and testing a technical solution within a short period of time, the course team seeking approval to proceed with it, and then applying and supporting the solution (Respondus Monitor with MyBeckett tests). The work took place during the first UK lockdown, enabling students to complete their exams remotely whilst meeting PSRB requirements. The LPC team have now switched to a different tool called Inspera, following an Inspera pilot on other Law School courses. During 2020-21, Digital Learning assisted with a pilot of the Inspera digitally enabled exam and remote proctoring platform. Law had already successfully piloted this in 2019-20 with specific courses, seeing an increase in student satisfaction with assessments. In 2020-21 there was a real drive to build on that success using the lessons learned from the previous year to find efficiencies and support different workflows. For example, Digital Learning assisted the LPC team to migrate their PSRB mandated exams into Inspera, worked with the team and the supplier to design exam workflows and provide technical support for students. More than any other platform supported by Digital Learning, students often sought exam support outside of the team’s traditional 9-5pm Mon-Fri support hours, which was extremely challenging to deliver and reliant on the good will of Digital Learning colleagues. Most of the time, we were able to help students, but that level of support is unsustainable. The Inspera pilot has now officially ended, and Inspera has transitioned into a live platform supporting PSRB mandated exams.

Nursing – Health and Community Studies

The LPC exams highlighted that there may be other courses facing the challenge of PSRB mandated exams with a remote proctoring requirement. This proved to be the case for the Nursing course teams, who needed a solution that would enable access to an external exam provider called Safe Medicate, whilst preventing the use of other websites.

We were able to build upon the valuable experience of supporting LPC exams, to help our colleagues in Nursing to facilitate their exams using the same software (Respondus Monitor with MyBeckett tests). We did need to purchase extra licenses, which was approved due to the PSRB requirement. We’re currently evaluating (with the course team) the success of the technologies used in the Nursing exams.

Staff Development and Training

TfL normally delivers an annual staff development programme via a range of face to face and digital methods. As the last 18 months have not been ‘standard’, we adapted our approach. This involved delivery of more webinars and new self-paced online training modules and quickly preparing content to support the launch of Collaborate and Ally.

Alongside other University services, Digital Learning moved their booking system to Eventbrite (for consistency) and added listings to the overall staff development training programme led by colleagues in CLT. All live Digital Learning sessions were delivered via MS Teams and Collaborate. Happily, we had already delivered some training in this way pre-pandemic, so it was simply a case of scaling it up.

It was great to see so many people attend these sessions and receive such a positive response from staff. We saw more attendees in the first few weeks of Teaching Block A (almost 400 people) than in the entire previous academic year (just over 300). It’s looking like we will have about 600 attendees in total for the 2020/21 academic year, so thank you to everyone who has joined us.

Changes to the structure of the academic year and an increase in extensions and mitigation presented a challenge in knowing the best times to schedule staff training and ensure that people have an opportunity to attend relevant sessions at a convenient time. We’re pleased to have been able to deliver several bespoke training sessions to support the needs of specific teams over the course of the year.

In future we hope to be able to deliver more bespoke staff training sessions, so please do get in touch if this is something you would like to enquire about. This helps us to tailor our content to subject specific requirements. Equally, if there are topics that you would like to see featured in our regular MyBeckett and Digital Learning staff training schedule, please do let us know.

September 2020 – June 2021

With the first six months of restrictions under our belt, most of us had figured out how to survive the year and were expecting to need to do the same again in the 2020-21 academic year. By September 2020, it still wasn’t easy and lots of the same challenges still applied, but we had spent what planning time we could on improving the range of digital tools, functionality, support, guidance and training available to our colleagues and students from September 2020.

Blackboard Collaborate

Digital Learning worked with the Digital Tools Working Group to identify gaps in our digital classroom tools’ functionality. While Microsoft had breakout room functionality on their MS Teams roadmap, there did seem to be some risk that this would not be available in time for the start of Block A. There was a Teams workaround, and this worked fine for some, but our support teams felt it wasn’t as streamlined as it could be. Meanwhile, Adobe Connect did offer breakout groups, but we could only have 100 named users. After reviewing the available options in respect of a range of criteria (breakout rooms being just one) the University made the decision, based on Digital Tools Working Group’s recommendation, to purchase Blackboard Collaborate. This meant that in-product breakout rooms were available to all colleagues at the start of Block A when needed. Microsoft have since added breakout rooms to Teams of course, and they work well too.

While Teams and Collaborate are broadly comparable, there are some nuanced differences which mean either could be suitable dependent on different learning and teaching requirements. It’s an important point, because on the one hand – we can’t afford every tool on the market, but on the other hand – having just one tool does tend to box us all into a corner if a specific piece of functionality is missing. I’m really pleased that Digital Learning, CLT, ITS and Distance Learning were able to work together to evaluate the options and make a recommendation. We know it’s made a difference too – I really like Teams, we have all our team meetings in Teams, we’ve delivered training in Teams, but Collaborate also has its place as a digital classroom (we don’t advise using it for meetings). Our colleagues and students have spent 35 million minutes of their time in Collaborate sessions in 2020-21 with five Schools creating over 900 sessions each (three of which created 1,100+ sessions). Collaborate handles Mac audio particularly well, and as it’s web based it does eliminate any questions about whether everyone is on the same version. On the flipside, the Teams application has better captioning and is less bandwidth intensive, so can work better for those with variable connection quality / speed.

Digital Learning are in regular communication with our software suppliers, as well as a network of peers at other institutions, working together to provide feedback that helps to inform product roadmaps. In recent months this helped Blackboard to prioritise new features in Collaborate, such as improved whiteboard functionality.

Blackboard Ally

Alongside Collaborate, we were able to source the budget and approval to purchase Ally. This is a web accessibility enhancement and reporting tool that enables our students / staff to download a document uploaded to a MyBeckett module in a different format to the one it was uploaded in. E.g. course team uploads a Word document, student clicks a button and downloads that Word document as an audio file which can then be read to them. This has obvious benefits for those with visual impairments, but is also generally useful if you learn better by listening than reading, or if you want to have the material read to you while driving, or on public transport, or while you’re drifting off to sleep. Alternatively, if you find your device handles PDFs better than Word documents, you can simply download the document in that format.

Ally also flags up web accessibility issues to course colleagues so that they can act upon that automated feedback. An academic colleague can see an accessibility indicator next to something they’ve uploaded, and it will tell them if there are any severe, major, or minor accessibility issues they need to address. An example of a severe issue would be uploading a GIF file which may induce seizures. Ally spots this and highlights it to the academic, who can delete and replace it with something more suitable. Although such instances are few and far between, we can see from the institutional view (only available to our team) that people have added (and then quickly deleted) flashing GIFs. So, we have here a piece of technology that may prevent a member of our University community from experiencing a seizure. Ally helps make many other web accessibility related quality of life improvements too, I just wanted to highlight this extreme example.

Bottom line on Ally – the University is working towards enhancing web accessibility across the board. Before adding Ally to MyBeckett, the overall accessibility of materials in MyBeckett was 64% (based on a WCAG 2.1 AA comparison). One year on from adding Ally, it’s 77%. We know from our conversations with Blackboard that 77% is among the UK HE sector leaders in respect of their client base. 13% is an enormous increase in one year, attributed to features of Ally itself, some training our team delivered, and the conscientious efforts of our course colleagues in reading the Ally feedback and acting upon it. In a year in which more digital learning and teaching took place than ever before, web accessibility is an important factor in creating an equitable learning experience and I believe that while there is still work to do, we’ve taken a big step in the right direction.

Curveball – MyBeckett Storage

In any year there are pieces of work that emerge as necessities, often from unexpected sources. You may not know that there is a limit to how much ‘stuff’ – documents, images, audio, video we can store in MyBeckett, but there is. More storage = more cost for the University, and high quality, resilient storage isn’t cheap. There’s also a legal Data Protection aspect to how long we keep content for, and in this respect Digital Learning use the University data retention schedule to inform annual archiving / purging work.

Pre-pandemic this was all ticking over, albeit we had one longstanding question about an aspect of our storage. It took a good deal of investigation by Digital Learning and some clever development work by one team member to resolve an existing pre-pandemic challenge, with a potential cost impact for the University of £150,000 per year had we not done so. I highlight this to recognise the importance of some of the unglamorous (but vital) work we do. Much is often made of initiatives that increase income, and it is perhaps less headline-grabbing to say ‘hey, we just saved the University from having to pay an extra £150k per year’ but hey, we did. Our detailed investigation also taught our supplier something about the way storage was being used across the sector, and they’ve informed their other clients. There’s a good chance we’ve saved the sector upwards of £1 million this year.

So that was all fine, known about and under control. However, during the pandemic, our users added a lot more content to MyBeckett. We predicted that, and it was glaringly obvious that it would happen, but what we didn’t predict was that there would be a big increase in the numbers of video files being uploaded to MyBeckett. We expected that other platforms would be used for this purpose e.g. Replay (Panopto), Teams, OneDrive and Collaborate. As a result, the storage of videos in MyBeckett has doubled, resulting in our need to bolster our guidance and address the file size of some of those stored videos. Work in this respect is ongoing, and the early signs are that our colleagues are thankful for the additional guidance with some stating that we’ve saved them a lot of time, and that we’ve helped them to improve the student experience (it’s easier and better for students to download and view a video when it’s stored on a suitable video platform, rather than MyBeckett.)

Additionally, due to pre-agreed prioritisation of our support service, we were unable to perform our usual annual archive and purge, so this compounded the storage challenge. We have made a lot of progress despite everything, but there’s still some way to go before we can state that our annual archiving and purging work is ‘Business As Usual’ again.

Use of our Platforms – 01/08/2020 – 24/06/2021

Use has grown since our last full ‘normal’ year. No surprise there, although it’s important to say that use of MyBeckett, Turnitin and PebblePad and their functions has grown year on year for the last eight years. Some statistical highlights:

  • MyBeckett average unique users per week in 2020-21 – 19,011 (this includes holidays and periods of lower use – the teaching week average was around 22,500 which is not far off being all of our staff and students). This is an increase of 11% on the 2018/19 figure (16,975)
  • On average our staff and students spent 3 hours a day using MyBeckett in 2020-21 (1 hour 30 minutes a day in 2018/19)
  • Turnitin – 146,043 student submissions (125,347 in 2018/19, increase of 14%)
  • Turnitin - average of 1,275 active staff per month (1,151 in 2018/19, increase of 10%)
  • Turnitin – 814,694 total feedback comments (728,111 in 2018/19, increase of 11%)

These and other data show that in terms of general trends, use of our digital tools has increased in volume by 10-15% in the last two years. What is particularly interesting is that during the pandemic, the amount of time our users spent in our systems has doubled, compared to a non-pandemic year.

This tells us that our users are engaging a bit more often with our platforms and engaging for much longer periods.

Library Platform

While one half of Technologies for Learning was inundated with support and digital development requests, the other half has been working to implement a new Library Platform (and other projects) alongside all of its Business As Usual work.

The existing Library platform, phased out at the end of July 2021, was 20 years old. As the project mandate identified, it was no longer keeping pace with sector developments and was constraining our plans to develop our digital library services. With this in mind, colleagues in the Digital Library Service set about evaluating various products in the marketplace and procuring a new one. The new platform, among other things, makes it easier for students to find information resources, enables us to provide a better service by using technology to simplify processes (reducing steps) and saves the University some money. It’s worth mentioning that the cost of the software licences generally increases by roughly 3% per year as our suppliers put their prices up. While this can be offset to some degree by negotiation and multi-year deals, that only delays the inevitable. Costs go up. This means we need to be ever smarter / efficient about the way we spend the University’s money, and we need to use careful judgement to prioritise tender exercises and the purchase of new platforms that will make a big difference while also managing the pace of change. I.e. we must keep a laser-like focus on getting ‘bang for buck’.

By August 2020, we’d already completed the tender exercise, evaluated the marketplace and chosen a preferred supplier. The plan for 2020-21 was to secure IT technical approval for the chosen solution, sign the contract and implement by end of July 2021. Those who have been involved in the budget, negotiation, IT governance, legal and information governance aspects of such projects will no doubt agree that a thorough approach to these things takes time. And so it was that after much necessary paper writing, approval and contract drafting, we signed a contract on 18 December 2020.

Implementation therefore began in January 2021 and has largely proceeded smoothly. We’ve needed to reschedule key tasks to work around the availability of single points of expertise in both the Library and IT Services, as is the norm on such complex projects. The secret to success here is regular communication with all relevant colleagues at all levels. It hasn’t always been easy, there have been days / weeks in which it seemed the challenges were stacking up, but those working on the project have worked very hard; have persevered. Just as it seemed the challenges were reaching a concerning level, we kicked down the barriers, pushed on through and the project plan snapped back on course, albeit with a little less time for testing.

Perhaps this seems scary to those not regularly involved in such projects, but those of us with that experience will know this is all pretty much par for the course, and if you can reach the implementation deadline on or under budget and are able to go live then you can consider the project a success.

I would once again like to thank everyone involved in this project for their hard work, perseverance and management of competing priorities in their personal and professional lives.

Everything else 2020 to 2021

  • Even this isn’t an exhaustive list, it’s just to give you a flavour
  • Implementation of Research Data Repository to share our Research Data on Open Access.
  • Piloted contract cheating insight and analysis tool - Turnitin Authorship Investigate with 5 Schools
  • Prepared for ‘End of Life’ on two previously supported tools – Blackboard Open Education and Adobe Connect
  • Worked with Library colleagues to migrate all Skills for Learning (SfL) content from the old SfL website to the Library website, alongside other Library material
  • Piloted a Research Impact Evidence tool (Altmetric) with the Business School
  • Implemented StudySmart digital skills module with Library academic support colleagues
  • Developed a Learning, Library and Research technology ecosystem model which helps us all to understand what we have, how it could be better used, and what we need for the future
  • Collaboratively authored an Electronic Thesis (EThesis) policy which goes live from August, enabling our students to deposit and share their theses in our electronic repository
  • Updated the staff and student versions of the extension policy in relation to failure of electronic submission systems
  • Ongoing data audit and cleanse work in line with Information Governance requirements Implemented a new book scanner which will support our library materials digitisation and alternative formats service
  • Refreshed and updated the MyBeckett portal, reflecting adjustments to service delivery during the pandemic and simplifying access to key information for staff and students
  • Provided vital data and statistics to Library teams and other University departments
  • Continued to provide access to digitised readings and delivered copyright advice, updating guidance in line with Copyright Licensing Agency adjustments
  • Supported University researchers and the Research and Enterprise service with our REF submission
  • Continued to provide a Library research tools (including research publication deposit) support and advice service
  • Maintained and enhanced the research profiles integration between the University website and our Current Research Information System – Symplectic
  • Made several key adjustments to our Library systems to ensure that Library users were treated equitably and fairly in respect of pandemic adjustments e.g. loan periods, fines, booking study space, click and collect
  • Continued to support and enhance the use of PebblePad, updating workbook templates to reflect new standards set by regulatory bodies for placements during the pandemic
  • Worked in partnership with course teams to redesign immersive learning scenarios that would have taken place on campus, in preparation for online delivery
  • Supported the rapid transition to online assessment alternatives, with a large increase in video submissions, timed essays, and online presentations
  • Worked with colleagues in IT Services to implement the Microsoft Teams integration for MyBeckett
  • Completed the annual archiving and deletion of older content in MyBeckett (2016/17 modules and course groups)
  • Shared our experiences across the sector via conference presentations, user groups and online forums
  • Tried our best to maintain our own learning, because our experience tells us that knowing about the current and future needs of our University, and the current and future capabilities of our technologies, enables us to deliver a great service

Our People

So there you have it. The story of TfL’s last 18 months. I think it’s fair to say that I and many of our team have struggled with the workload this year and perhaps some of us have struggled with our personal lives and wellbeing too. It’s a mark of the character of the service and the individuals within it that despite this, we have persevered and delivered so much.

I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly thank (as I have privately many times) the Technologies for Learning team who frankly have always been amazing as evidenced by the work we do and the many items of positive feedback we’ve received from colleagues and students over the years. During the pandemic especially the team have been innovative and dependable as ever, responding stoutly to every challenge thrown at them and solving lots of new and unique problems along the way. I’m sure (from feedback received this year) our course colleagues would echo my feeling that the team have made a massive difference to our staff and students throughout the pandemic and I’m very proud of everything we’ve managed to achieve together, particularly in the circumstances.

Much of this comes from team culture, the building blocks of which are:

Wonderful camaraderie, friendly and supportive, ’can do’ attitude, clever, multi-skilled, great communicators, continuous improvers, efficient, organised, innovative - willing to try new things while covering off the risks, thought-provoking, holistic thinkers, effective prioritisers, collaborative spirit, problem solving, student and staff focused and finally they really, really care about each other, their work, and our University community!

Step forward, therefore, and take a figurative bow:

Digital Learning Service

  • Rianne MacArthur - Digital Learning Service Manager
  • Mandy Barrow, Tony Bilny, Bob Croft, Jack Gilbert, Malcolm Hawkins, Jon Maber – Learning Technologists
  • Donna Easton, Suzanne Halkyard, Andy Key, Alex Pritchard, Claire Ryan – Senior Digital Learning Advisors and Digital Learning Advisors

Digital Library Service

  • Debbie Morris – Digital Library Service Manager
  • Nick Andrews – Web Developer
  • Helen Blomfield – Digital Library Advisor
  • James Fisher – Information Services Librarian
  • Mike Ford – Electronic Information Developer
  • Tom Guest – Administrative Officer
  • Rachel Thornton – Copyright Clearance Officer

Everyone else

I’d like to thank our colleagues across the Library service and across the University services for their support in decision-making and with emerging challenges, as well as our course team colleagues for their understanding, patience and their many thank yous and positive feedback.

Feedback

Here’s a selection of feedback we received over 2020/21, which feels like a good place to end:

  1. “I would just like to say thank you very much indeed to ALL of you for your support this year. This year has been a technological challenge for all of us and all of you have been superb. You are all knowledgeable (we kind of expect that) but you are all, also, kind, helpful and extremely supportive.” – A lecturer
  2. “Yesterday we launched the ABCD evaluation with Leeds City Council. It was an important event with [Councillors] introducing it. 320 people attended – across Leeds, LBU, other parts of the UK and even someone from Australia. There was a massive interest through social media too. This followed the Kings Fund presentation at their ‘Community is the Best Medicine’ conference last week. This all really showcases LBU’s research and also the collaborative relationship with Leeds City council. Thanks to the repository staff, this is truly a ‘behind the scenes’ job – but you’ve been so great at getting back to us and sorting links. Having reports publicly accessible is really important when so many people want to access the work.” – A professor
  3. “I just wanted to express my sincere thanks for the help one of your team gave me yesterday. I was struggling with sending a group announcement through MyBeckett and she was unlucky enough to take my call! I must have been on the phone to her for over 40 minutes yesterday afternoon in two calls in which she helped me with my initial query and then helped again when I’d done something wrong. This second call went way past 5pm when she could have reasonably expected to be going home. I thanked her yesterday for all her help, but also wanted to let her manager(s) know how grateful I am.” – An Academic Services Team Leader
  4. “I just wanted to say a massive thank you to all of the Digital Learning Team for the fantastic work they do to support academic colleagues. During the switch to online learning you answered so many questions and were patient and understanding whilst we began to navigate new systems. Thank you so much - your support was and continues to be very much appreciated!” – A lecturer
  5. “We have been very grateful for the thought, the care and the professionalism that the team has approached this project with, coming together at very short notice in already difficult working circumstances. Thank you so much.” – A Head of Subject
  6. “I also extend my thanks and gratitude to all the digital staff for their previous and continuous help and support. They go the extra mile to help and they make sure they resolve the problem, not losing their patience. We are lucky here at Leeds Beckett to have such dedicated, excellent and professional digital learning support staff. Thank you infinity.” – A lecturer
  7. “Many thanks for a fabulous session, we can take these points forward to our staff planning day in June, and beyond.” – A lecturer
  8. "Thank you both very much indeed for an informative and thought-provoking session. Excellent - as always.” – A lecturer
  9. “Many thanks for helping me out. It is appreciated. You cannot understand how much this is important to me. I am grateful.” – A lecturer
  10. “This was an excellent session:  a model of best practice in running an engaging online session: so very informative but also not too fast and very supportive of people like me who are needing to learn fast about Digital Learning! The resources are so important too in allowing us to concentrate on what you are demonstrating rather than trying to write it all down.  Now I can practice too and learn from the FAQs. Thank you very much indeed.” – A Head of Subject
  11. “First class, helpful, clear, knowledgeable, friendly and everything one could wish for when contacting a member of staff. Absolutely brilliant.” – A lecturer
  12. “[Colleagues] have informed me about the E Portfolio for ACPs that you and [a colleague] have developed in partnership with HEE and fellow West Yorkshire Universities and NHS Trusts. I would like to thank you for the work you have put into this project. [Colleagues] have been really grateful for your commitment to this project which will benefit ACPs across West Yorkshire. We are particularly grateful for the way in which you have supported this project with consistency and enthusiasm. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your talent with us.” – A Dean of School
  13. “We had two PebblePad sessions yesterday, one for L6 and one for L5 (Employability), and [your team member] was brilliant. He embraced both sessions from the perspective of the very different assessment for these groups and also provided a nuanced approach for my smaller group of Level 6 students allowing them to feel held and appreciated as final year students.” – a Senior Lecturer
  14. “I'm a mature student at LBU doing a PGD in Counselling and Psychotherapy. I ran into the problem uploading my assignment today on Turnitin. I was very quickly put in touch with [one of your team]. Can I just say how fantastic he was, professional, friendly, and super-efficient. He went above and beyond to sort the problem out. I work as a midwife in Sheffield, and I know how valuable feedback is. Leeds Beckett is lucky to have him as an employee. He's a digital wizard!" – A student

Page last updated: 15/10/2021

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