02 September 2020

Learning new ways of teaching

When I was a student, teaching was a lecturer and a pile of overhead sheets, and your grades were published by pinning a hand-written A4 to a notice board. Things have changed! We nowadays rely heavily on what is known as a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Bangor University uses 'Blackboard'.  All modules have a website; that has all the module information on it, and the grades, and the lecture slides, and the lecture recordings afterwards, and the 'folders' the students submit coursework into. They really are the go-to place! Everything is there. And in the coming academic year, we were scheduled an upgrade: Blackboard had launched 'Blackboard Ultra' and we would swap over to it. So in the middle of the pandemic, we had to get our heads around that new VLE. And then it came with two additions: Blackboard Ally and Blackboard Collaborate. More to get our heads around!

Blackboard Ultra is mainly more accessible than the 'old' Blackboard. But you work it in different ways! It takes a bit of getting used to. 

Blackboard Ally is especially for accessibility; it checks all your content on how well you can access it with a screen reader, for instance. It doesn't like PDF as it is so inflexible. When you put a PowerPoint presentation up, it checks whether all images have a description attached, whether all slides have a recognised title, et cetera. Sometimes it can't be avoided that it disapproves of your material! I have some example dissertations on my module website, for instance. These are just going to be PDFs. Not much choice there! 

Then there is Blackboard Collaborate. That is pretty much another version of Teams or Zoom or any of these other platforms you can use for video calling and such things. It's nice to have that attached to your modules! We are expected to do all our synchronous teaching that way. It had some snazzy features; you can, for instance, split a group into smaller groups and send these to another 'room', and call them back whenever you want, and you can add polls; that sort of stuff! We did a teaching staff meeting that way. It was the first time using that platform for most! It was a hectic meeting, We tried the break-out rooms, we tried the polls (can you see a poll started in the main room also in the break-out rooms?), we wondered if there was a way of stopping the various people on the screen from moving around all the time, whether there is some timer to show the people in the break-out rooms how much time they have left until they are called back (if that is timed), who can see messages you send, and more things like that. It was very illuminating! Be it a bit chaotic. We will soon use that like now we use a pencil. Practice makes perfect, after all! 

I suppose the university had been leaning on us to make our teaching more modern for a while. Now, suddenly, that has accelerated! We can't procrastinate anymore. We will have to jump on this bandwagon like there is no tomorrow! Just to make sure there actually still will be high-quality teaching tomorrow... 

Not pretty, but accessible: Blackboard Ultra

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