Saturday, 26 September 2009

"Getting Started": A New Approach

The short version: I haven't previously blogged much about the training we do but I thought this was mention-worthy, and the patient reader (or impetuous scroller) will be rewarded with a link to some resources at the end.

The less short one (in two parts):

Pilfered from Blog with a View at, found via Google ImagesMy workload seems to have gone beyond crazy this week (and it was already twitchy, drooling and rabid).

One of my colleagues, Robyn, has been getting ready to leave our Team recently, and Richard (the other guy on the e-Learning Team) has been on leave. That's left just me to deal with all the email queries about courses on Blackboard that have been pouring in. Next week it's Freshers' Week and everyone has obviously either just got back from holiday or has just woken up to the fact that things need preparing.

Meanwhile, I've also had two workshops to deliver with my colleague Paul Janota from IT Services. They were both "Getting Started with Blackboard" training sessions. We tend to run perhaps five or six times of these a term and they're internal, so the first one at least didn't involve too much preparation. But the second...

Normally, Paul takes everyone through their first steps in Blackboard with the aid of the Netskills guides produced by the Newcastle University. Once he has spent half an hour doing this from the front, he then gives them the same amount of time to follow the guides themselves while we go around giving individual help to anyone that needs it. Then about an hour into the session, once they've got a good idea about the basic functionality and limitations of the system, I talk about our Good Practice courses. These are example courses, copied from actual courses that were selected on the basis of their demonstrating good course design and making innovative use of tools within Blackboard (or the Web generally) for teaching and learning purposes. Once I've spent about ten minutes presenting some of these and showing people how they can access them in their own time, they all resume following the guides, while I go around asking if anyone needs specific courses setting up (though Richard sometimes does this bit).

And that's what we did on Monday. As usual.

However, yesterday, in our second session, we decided to take a different approach.


Over the summer, Robyn and I have been working on a new online Help system. The new help information is presented on a wiki within Blackboard (we use the Learning Objects Expo LX tool). Preparing this has been a long and painstaking task: detailing every step needed to, for example, post an Announcement or Assignment, ensuring the information is thorough but not too dry or boring, and trying to keep the pages from being too technical despite all this. We've tried to put each tool in a teaching and learning context but at the same time keep the pages concise. We don't know if we've succeeded (we're pretty sure in some areas we haven't had the time to) but the idea of putting this information on a wiki was to make it easy to change and not just for one member of the Team but all of us and, if need be, people from other areas too. So we're not really expecting it to be "finished" as such - ever, let alone by next week.

As long as the information is comprehensible, relatively accessible and easy to navigate, we'll be happy (and relieved). And it very nearly is.

Except a couple of weeks ago, having returned from foreign climes and possibly still a little affected by the sun, I thought it'd be great if we could make these online guides print-friendly too. That way, we could use them in place of our Netskills guides during workshops, thereby cutting out some of the what we'd always thought to be unnecessary stuff and also making them more specific to Reading.

So on top of all the firefighting, I spent a sizeable chunk of time this week, perhaps even a clock's worth, going through the guides, making sure they followed on from each other, and changing links so they were not just user-friendly but paper-friendly too. I met with Paul halfway through the week and we agreed on what other changes should be made.

Then Friday came. After a punch-up with the photocopier, I arrived at the workshop and rather apprehensively distributed the new guides. I basically had to run through the whole session with a new outline because the order in which tasks were done had changed slightly. I was a little nervous because I wasn't sure the new guides would compare and, although Paul had brought the old Netskills guides as back-up, it would've been embarassing for us and confusing for the attendees, switching halfway through.

Thankfully, it all seemed to go well. There were, unfortunately, a couple of steps missing from the guides and a couple of spelling errors (for which I apologised) but the participants seemed able to follow the guides just as well as previous participants had the old ones. I shouldn't have worried I suppose; Paul and I were breaking a pattern that we were used to, but the attendees had by design never come to a "Getting Started" session before, so they weren't about to make comparisons, favourable or otherwise.

The feedback we received was very positive so I'm glad I put the time in. Now I just have make all the more advanced-level pages print-friendly and we'll have a whole set of new resources to use.

We've started to promote our new Help System yet: we have a few changes to make to the tab in Blackboard before we're ready. Hopefully these will done by Monday evening and I'll get my weekends back and live a peaceful life once more. However, the wiki pages are already available publically at this address -

If you're using Blackboard and you're struggling for help guides, then you might want to use these. Feel free to copy and modify as you see fit, though some credit would be nice where possible! And let us know how it goes, if you have time.

In summary: (1) We've made some new resources, (2) we're very nearly proud, and (3) I should write shorter blog posts (but see point 2).

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