Wednesday, April 29, 2009


The last 48 hours I have been working on a so-called RFC proposal for an extensive e-Learning solution. Together with a colleague, almost completely separated from the real world, we have struggled trough over 300 questions, not only yes/no but also quite some open text questions. I get the idea that the number of requests has increased, maybe because nowadays it is quite easy to create a web environment that supports the complete workflow to submit a proposal. The problem I have with this approach is that the request process has become completely anonymous: no possibility to have an intake interview or a kick-off session where you can ask questions and find out what the really important issues are. That may help to address some issues more or stress some of the strong points of the solution you may provide. The anonymous 300-list gives no clue about the weight of each question or even category of questions. It feels like a shot in the dark, because you don't know where your target is. It also feels that there is no solution that can cover all the requirements asked. Moreover, you really don't know what instructional design principles the customer wants to apply, so you might be able to argue which requirements are more important than others. Most questions are strictly limited to availability of functionality: can your solution provide it or not, yes or no. An alternative reaction could be: why bother, why submit at all, do I stand a chance at all? On the other hand, if you don't reply you're out of the process for sure. Of course it's not feasible to submit to any RFx that passes by. Based on experience a quickscan can help to get a rough estimate whether or not it's worthwile to go through all the trouble of filling in the question details. In most cases RFI's and RFP's have a very strict time schedule, so as a potential vendor you have an idea when the process will be finished. The case which urged me to write this blogpost did not have a time schedule at all, only a deadline for submission, but no time schedule whatsoever for any (if any) follow up steps taken by them. Anyway, we were quite pleased with the result: proposal finished and submitted before the deadline. Now the waiting starts.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Bb World Europe 2009 – Day 3

The third and final day of the conference included some more interesting topics than the day before. I selected a couple of sessions in which collaboration, communication and use of (recorded) video were the main subjects. The first session I attended was about the Wimba collaboration suite, which claims to provide the answers for the social dimension in 21st century education. An engaging environment in which students can interact and collaborate. The presentation was strongly product oriented and unfortunately suffered from some performance issues because of the slow WiFi network at the conference site. It was not really rocket science that was presented to us. A lot of functionality, such as content- and application sharing, videoconferencing, voicechat and instant messaging is also available in other tools as well (e.g., MSN, Skype, Adobe Connect). The interesting part is the full integration of some components with Blackboard. Wimba Pronto provides an instant messaging tool (looks a bit like MSN Messenger) that can be fully integrated with Blackboard. This means that your organization structure can be mapped onto Pronto: see who’s online for all classes you follow, see if someone is available at the student’s servicedesk, etc. An instructor can organize virtual tutoring sessions in which the students who are enrolled can participate.
After this I went to a Blackboard Product Management session, which was not very good by the way. The focus was on how to get to Bb9. It was more or less a listing of upgrade scenario’s and the resources you can use as a client:
o (preview account, webinars)
o (license keys, documentation)
A somewhat disturbing part of the presentation was the repeated ‘advice’ (at least 5 times during the presentation) to move to Bb managed hosting services. No word whatsoever on the technical issues that were found at some client sites and the need to release a service pack before the summer.
After a great Mediterranean lunch I was curious about the session of AndrĂ© Rosendaal on the virtual cutter of existing video material. I have used previous version of the virtual cutter so I wanted to know about it’s current status. The virtual cutter adds a begin- and endpoint to existing media. Only the part within the defined timeframe will be played. It’s online av-editing without creating a new media file. The nice thing is that it is available as a webbased software service, free to use (in English, Dutch and Spanish) and open source:
The virtual cutter can provide three types of output: copy link, URL or embedded object code to paste into your HTML editor. At first glance this provides interesting opportunities to use video clips in your Bb courses. However, this is not always possible. The WYSIWYG editor in Blackboard is not suitable to include full HTML-markup. The HTML is changed upon saving. In Bb9 it’s even worse: the code is rewritten when saving it: ‘embed’ tags are removed, which makes that the video clip does not play, or plays with limitations (depending on the browser you are using). Rosendaal argued that Bb should provide a real ‘add streaming content’ function to the WYSIWYG editor.
Another (research) presentation was on the use of Echo360 at the University of Birmingham (recording of video lectures), a product comparable to Mediasite or Presentations2Go. The interesting part of the presentation was not on the product itself, but on some findings that confirm my own experiences when I just to work for the University of Twente. The presenters also found that the attendance % was not systematically influenced upon the introduction of video lectures. The student see is as a supplement, not as a substitution. Students believe it to be a course enhancement and a means to improve their results. The results also show that students are highly selective when downloading a video lecture. The majority only selected 1 or 2 video lectures from a list of 10 available lectures. A remarkable conclusion is that members of the university staff are less positive. Staff members think that video lectures:
o will be a threat to student’s attendance,
o are not a engaging as face to face;
o cannot provide the right pedagogical quality;
o may threaten their job position.
The final session by the colleagues from the University of Avans was inspiring and highly interactive. They introduced a 4-quadrant model based on two axes: transaction versus interaction and virtual versus analog. The participants were invited to join 1 of 4 subgroups (representing 1 quadrant) and discuss the challenges that have to be faced in that quadrant. The results have been collected and will be published (and further discussed) at:

On a scale of 1-10 I give the conference an overall rating between 6 and 7. The presentations had very different quality levels. Remarkable: we did not receive any evaluation forms! There were plenty of networking opportunities, that was good. From an organizational perspective I missed a sort of closure or closing reception. As a matter of fact the information market was closed directly after the lunchbreak. People were tearing the information boots down, while the 3 afternoon sessions were held. That’s probably why quite some people left early because it gave an atmosphere that the conference was over. At the Avans session there were probably only 15 participants. On the other hand the session proved that you don’t need a very large audience to have an inspiring debate with each other.
When the session ended at 5PM I directly went off to Barcelona El Prat airport to catch an evening flight back to Amsterdam.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Bb World Europe 2009 - Day 2 (2/2)

The second morning session was entitled "Making the grade with Bbv8: Practical measure", which was somewhat misleading because I was expecting some practical issues and/or experiences about the use of the Grade Center. Basically the presentation was about how to instruct people on using the Grade Center, because this is the biggest change when migrating from Bb7 to Bb8. The university of Tennessee Knoxville seems to have some interesting tutorials on using the grade center. The main problem with this kind of tutorials is that nobody wants to read! For this reason the American University of Sharjah reduced the number of tutorial pages, but in such a way that instructors and students still can find the basics. Ron Ray listed the following recommendations when developing instructions for the grade center. Obviously, most of these are rather familiar and can also be applied for instruction on any other application. His list includes the following recommendations:
o Keep it basic, achieve a working grade center
o Hands-on training configuring an actual course, then use copy course function for settings)
o Lead faculty into the grade center incrementally
o Keep instruction materials simple and limited
o Provide instructions tailored only to the most commonly used options
o Provide other instructions only on a on-request basis
o Confirm that totals are calculated correctly
o Download Grade Center instances and confirm calculations in Excel
I found the two last recommendations a little bit odd, since you may expect that such an import function as the grade center will calculate correctly.

The next presentation I joined was given by Beatrice Lacomte from the University of Liege (B). There is not very much to write about, you should take a look for yourself at the eDemos portal (URL subject to change) they developed. In their vision on autonomy and self-directed learning the e-Learning team provided some online courses showcases as examples and good practises of e-Learning. The portal will be available outside ULG. The first release will be only in French but Beatrice promised there will be an English version too.

Besides attending sessions an important aspect of this kind of conferences is meeting with people. There was plenty of time for this during the (lunch) break and during the early evening client appreciation party. One more day to go here in Barcelona, strange idea that in 24 hours from now I expect to be landing in Amsterdam again.

Bb World Europe 2009 - Day 2 (1/2)

Today was the first day with a full programme of (parallel) sessions. In general I found the presentations a little bit disappointing. Only traditional powerpoint-led lectures, some questions at the end, but no interaction at all. This makes the sessions not very inspiring so far. However, there my hopes are on the guys of Avans who will present tomorrow. They promised to have a highly interactive format in which the audience will be set to work.
This morning started with a keynote by Dirk van Damme from OECD. From a research perspective he focused on issues that determine the context of change. Utilisation of human capital is important factor for (future) success and driver for innovation. We need more diversity to address the heterogeneous demands of the future. However, curricula have not really changed to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Van Damme mentioned two critical issues here:
Issue 1:
Success = being able to appeal to diversifying provision and offering higher added value in an increasingly competitive market. Technology will be part of the answer

Issue 2:
Will Higher Education Institutes (HEI) be able to sustain their role as dominant producers of knowledge, skills and qualifications? HEI exist because they provide institutional arrangements and provide powerful learning environments.

As a threat we see an increasing number of competitors:
• More alternative providers
• Direct skills assessment
• Why is a university grade so important? As a company we can assess them ourselves!

HEI's even may have to face the threat of disappearing. Technology adoption in HEI’s is there, but not into the heart of teaching & learning. In general one may say that the institutional potential for change is underused. Institutes and employees may have a drive for innovation and will bring some change into their organization, but this needs to be recognized and supported. Of critical importance is the institutional commitment to change! For more information and publications of OECD you may want to visit their website.

Later more...

Monday, April 06, 2009

Bb World Europe 2009 - Day 1

After a long trip with quite some delays, today I arrived at Bb World Europe 2009 in Barcelona. In order to clear my head a little bit, I made a small afternoon walk in the immediate surroundings of the Fira Palace Hotel. Quite nice, sunny and around 20 degrees. At 5 PM the conference started with a Blackboard opening keynote by Michael Chasen (CEO Bb Inc.).

A main part of his talk was focused on the roadmap, which he organized around three main issues:
o Learners at the centre (“engaging the student”)
o Leveraging the community
o Expanding openness

As examples of engaging the student Chasen mentioned some features of Bb 9 such as the drap&drop functionality of dashboard items, personalization of the dashboard also by students, choices for different notification settings (RSS, e-mail, SMS alerts) and the possibility of blogs as a reflection instrument. However, if you consider blogging as a tool which is especially interesting in informal learning situations, it was a little bit surprising to hear about the reviewing and grading functionality in relation to blogs. Why formalize what people may write as their personal reflection?
In relation to community aspects Chasen was proud to announce the in-built Enterprise Instant Messaging (based on Wimba) functionality. Well, you might say why bother to offer another IM tool in Blackboard? The first reason he mentioned was not very convincing to me: to get rid of all exotic IM aliases that people might have. Isn’t this contradictory to the trend that organizations are wondering if they should provide an institute e-mail address to their students? Other reasons that are more interesting is the possibility to have the IM function organized across institutions, around the courses in which you are enrolled. E.g., you can see who’s online for each of your separate courses. Moreover, there is a trend towards enhancing all sorts of content sharing, including assessments.
On a different level Chasen mentioned the Bb Connection site where Blackboard users of all sort users can collaborate and share best practices and deepen their knowledge and expertise in all things eLearning
The final subject was related more openness: Bb 9 has an open API in order to deploy multiple VLE’s: the Bb portal may display links to e.g. Moodle or Sakai courses or announcements from a Moodle course. Clicking the link will lead the user immediately to this environment without the need to logon again. A similar example was given for a Blackboard Learn add-on for your Facebook profile: see if there are any announcements or grades published in your Blackboard environment.
After the opening keynote I joined the welcome reception and met a lot of people from the Dutch Bb community. Nice to see them all here. Tomorrow the conference will move ahead with a full programme starting at 9 am.