Posts by: simonthompson

annotationHypothesis is browser based annotator which runs in Chrome and Firefox browsers.

It is excellent as:

  • A personal web annotation tool
  • A group annotation tool
  • A peer feedback tool*

Groups are easily created and can be named freely as each group has a unique ID to avoid common names being used up!

*Before getting over-excited, I should caution that Hypothesis really only works on pages (or PDF files) that are not protected by a login, which will reduce the number of scenarios it might be deployed in.  However, sharing PDF or image files through an ‘Anyone with the link can read’ type permission is reasonably secure and very, very unlikely to to picked up by Google as a search result. There’s also no moderation, so peer review needs to be limited to individuals who can engage with the process sensibly. NILE does allow us to create a mechanism to control the deployment of annotation links through groups and adaptive release.

It’s also possible to collect page annotations together through an RSS feed or your own Hyphothesis account – if these are printed to a PDF, this could be used as part of a portfolio of evidence or assignment.

There are some very useful educator resources on the Hypothesis web site and more information (including a short video demo) on the NILEX site.

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screenshotOne of the most important roles of a Learning Technologist is in mediating between users of technology and the technology itself, so providing technical support is a critical factor in the acceptance of technology by teachers and the satisfaction of students. It has a direct effect on perceived ease of use and usefulness (Sánchez et al, 2010).

Academic staff require a variety of levels of support, given that their approach to using a new VLE (or previously unused features of an existing one) will vary from trial-and-error experimentation to a desire for formal training. Support within a VLE usually consists of searchable alphabetic lists of help items or by categorising common activities, often consisting of text supplemented by video clips (either of these formats appears equally effective, so a combination of the two would seem the best approach). As technology acceptance seems to be positively related to the ease of completing a task (Rienties et al, 2014), improving access to support material should be a priority. There is little doubt that a good student experience is directly linked to the configuration and use of VLE tools, but there is a similar need to ensure that they are confident in the use of those tools too.

As maintainers of the VLE ‘container’, we need to be aware of the need for help and make it clearly available in a form that users can elicit appropriate material easily. Students react positively to relevant support information and their learning is enhanced, though they might not access it as regularly as we might think and may not wish to explore subsequent links to further resources. Operative instruction (“click this, then this”) would appear to be more effective than functional instruction (“you can use this tool to discuss topics with your peers”) for simple tasks, but the opposite is true of complex tasks. Help is more likely to be accessed when some prior knowledge of a task exists, so users new to a VLE must be a high priority to be directed towards it. Making material:

  • Context sensitive
  • Simple to understand
  • Of good quality (both text and multimedia)

appear to be significant to the value of help material (Aleven et al, 2003).

We have been aware of the shortcomings of access to our NILE help material for some time (even if the help resource itself is excellent). The lack of a search facility within Blackboard Learn had previously limited us to a set of thematic links for students and staff (these referenced a number of different resources, from single page PDF files to full-blown support sites) and an alphabetic listing of single issue topics. The former were perceived to be useful, but the latter proved difficult to both use and maintain. The relatively high number of dead links that remained unnoticed and unreported in the student help tab would seem to suggest that few of them were actively used. Indeed the access and use of individual help items was impossible to judge, though we had introduced basic analytics tracking to the staff and student help pages in September 2014.

For the 2015/16 academic year we have, therefore, completely changed access to help material by using a MyPad (EduBlog) site to act as an electronic index. As systems administrators we are able to use categories as a tool to cluster and filter individual blog posts into thematic groups and providing tagging filters that can modify those clusters and construct tailored help searches. Users can also directly access tagged items through the ‘most used tags’ word cloud.

While we have control over the thematic links, the standard search function that exists within Edublogs is very basic and produces results which are solely ranked upon recency. This does mean that we are required to identify important posts and manually adjust their date on a regular basis to ensure they are ranked most highly. The lack of any sophisticated parsing of a search query is a further problem – a natural language query is likely to result in no hits but one or two common words with return a high number of hits, again plagued by the poor ranking.

However, this may not be too much of a problem providing that the number of blog posts remains relatively small and it many respects this is desirable. We have seen examples of Edublogs based help systems which contain high volumes of disparate content (going well beyond the core VLE functions) that results in very poor search results. When our new help system was created, it used approximately 90 entries to re-create the thematic and item links in the old help pages and it will be our aim to keep the total number of active posts under 150. In this manner we should reduced the number of excessive search results while keeping the maintenance of entries manageable.

screenshotPerhaps the greatest advantage of the new help system is that we now have access to anonymous analytics to inform us about which items are being used and the flow of access to each item. We can also see the text used in search requests that fail, so for the first time we can add new posts or editing existing ones to achieve a ‘hit’ in the future. The range of these search requests can be surprising – within a week of the system being used we needed to add entries to capture searches for ‘timetables’ and ‘examination results’, a need we would have been totally oblivious to last year.

Despite the wide range of help requests, our aim is to keep its content tightly focused on NILE core and arranged technologies, signposting requests for which we are not the best contact point to the highest level of appropriate contact (such as the Student Help desk, IT Services or Skills Hub). Wherever possible, we avoid linking to specific pages on an external site content as links we have no control over have an unpleasant habit of changing. Our main exception has been Blackboard Learn’s online help, which benefits from a robust (and predictable) URL convention but has very confusing generic advice at its top level. To aid our maintenance, you will see that links are colour coded – Black for external Blackboard Help, Blue for other external resources and a ‘heart’ for material created or managed by LearnTech.

Post content is kept deliberately short and task oriented, uses additional ‘how to’ videos whenever possible and restates the issue using variety of different terms to improve search results. We have a significant amount of extra work to do though and intend to improve thematic (such as marking assignments and providing feedback) and task (‘How can I make a video?’) orientated access to related material progressively. LearnTech’s Iain Griffin has already produced a more specialist help site for PebblePad that provides an excellent model for these some of these application or task related mini-sites.

As of now, we see a very similar number of ‘hits’ on our help page to that of a year ago – we look forward to providing a more detailed report on facts and figures and progress in developing the site later in the year.



Aleven, Vincent, Stahl, Elmar, Schworm, Silke, Fischer, Frank, & Wallace, Raven. (2003). Help Seeking and Help Design in Interactive Learning Environments. Review of Educational Research, 73(3), 277-320.

Rienties, B., Giesbers, B., Lygo-Baker, S., Ma, H., & Rees, R. (2014). Why some teachers easily learn to use a new virtual learning environment: A technology acceptance perspective. Interactive Learning Environments, 1-14.

Sánchez, R. Arteaga, & Hueros, A. Duarte. (2010). Motivational factors that influence the acceptance of Moodle using TAM. Computers in Human Behavior, 26(6), 1632-1640.

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Affected NILE pageMany instructors have commented that the menu on their NILE site has vanished – or become black text on a black background – which makes navigation a little tough for students! Sadly this is a bug that has been around for a long time (see ‘Who turned the lights out‘ from September 2013).

Our advice (if affected) remains pretty much the same:

1. Open the Site Manager, Customisation, Teaching Style menu item and scroll down to the background colour and text colour pickers.

2. Edit the background colour and chose a very light contrasting background or type in ‘ffffff’ (‘f’ six times) into the code value box for a white background.

3. ‘Submit’ to save changes

Alternately, you can also select the ‘default’ theme, which fixes the issue too.

We strongly advise NOT using themes in any case. The vast majority lack high contrast colours and make the menu difficult to read. You may also be unaware that themes add an image to the lower left that can be totally inappropriate for your subject content and appear rather ‘childish’. Always use the Student Preview to check what your site looks like to students.

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XerteThe long awaited upgrade to Xerte has arrived, with a new look and plenty of new features. This includes a full text editor, improved media gallery and new page templates. For the first time you can change the style of your learning unit using themes or create your own CSS.

A new support and training plan is currently being prepared, but we do have a very quick guide for impatient users available.

There are a couple of small bugs to contend with, the most obvious (yet trivial) is that regular Xerte users may need to refresh the screen using Ctrl-F5 once they have logged in to see their projects. As ever, make a copy or archive of a valued project before experimenting!

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It’s that time of year when ‘My Sites’ are being edited to reflect next year’s modules, so we are seeing a number of reports about a script warning that pops up on NILE – ‘Batch already begun’ when visiting the home and Sites & Organisations tab – it fires as organisations load.

It appears that this is a ‘known issue’ (sigh) with Blackboard Learn. What it doesn’t like you doing is hiding sites you’re enrolled on and using the ‘group by term’ feature at the same time.

Probably best to just turn off your ‘group by term’ for an immediate resolution using the settings cog. If you do wish to group by term, the only way around this would be to un-enroll from  courses you didn’t want to see listed. Do this on the Sites & Organisations tab, using ‘Manage your NILE Sites’ – click the module you want to escape from, select yourself from the instructor list and ‘Submit’. There isn’t a quicker way for us LearnTechs to do this for you en masse – sorry!

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checkmarkNILE sites will be sampled by the Quality and Partnerships team from 1st August 2015 in readiness for QAA so it is important that sites comply with the baseline standards which were approved at University Student Experience Committee on 16th June, 2015. In addition, there are a number of common problems that could have a negative impact on student experience and generate avoidable requests for assistance from you and other teams supporting students.

LearnTech have been asked to provide some simple guidance on preparing your 2015/16 NILE sites to ensure they meet foundation level at the very least.

We have managed to condense the main points down to one page, which you can download here. Following these simple guidelines should help to save time once teaching begins.

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copying a manuscript

The preparation of sites for the 2015/16 academic year is now starting in earnest and you may find yourself copying material from last year’s sites. Usually this is fairly easy using the ‘copy’ dropdowns, but one section that is a little more difficult is ‘Contacts’. It isn’t possible to copy individual contacts from one site to another, but you can copy the whole Contacts folder even if this isn’t immediately obvious. Especially as you probably only ever do this once a year!

One advantage of this full copy process is that you can create a ‘Master’ contact list to import into all your modules with every contact, then just delete those you don’t need on a particular module.

We have created a quick one-page guide to jog your memory and  help you speed things up. The same principle can be applied to large content areas with lots of content. Rather than copying items individually you can move across all the content of a menu item on the left side. Just select that item instead of ‘Contacts’ for the Export and Import content.

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We have heard of some synchronisation issues with the Turnitin iPad app, particularly when large numbers of (or very large) student submissions are being handled. Joe Mills of LEAP at Hull helpfully identified that the problem can arise when an iPad ‘sleeps’ during synchronisation – this will prevent the process from completing, resulting in missing papers on your iPad. So, while marking with Turnitin, Joe recommends:

1. Go to Settings>General

2. Scroll down to Autolock

3. Turn Auto-lock to OFF (your iPad will not now go to sleep unless you press the power button)

4. Plug your iPad in to a charging source (you need to make sure your iPad does not run out of charge)

5. Open Turnitin App

6. Go to your class

7. Touch the ‘i’ icon top right to bring up the information about the class

8. Turn “Sync submissions” on

9. Press on screen to come out of the “i” panel

10. The submissions will now start to sync

11. This will take time…!

12. Do NOT switch to another app, open another app or generally do anything that puts the Turnitin app in to the background.

Joe also points out – rightly – that you will need enough space on your iPad to ensure that you can complete your downloads. Check ‘Settings’ / ‘General’ / ‘Usage’ to see your available storage. As a general rule of thumb, 1GB+ will probably be fine. You can use ‘Manage Storage’ to identify any apps that are using a lot of space.

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A number of old themes are being retired in MyPad in June and have already been replaced with a new set of responsive designs that will work well on mobile devices. If you use a MyPad site for teaching or personal use it is worth checking whether you are using old themes (you will be prompted when you log in) and updating them or just consider one of the new themes to freshen up your site and make it smartphone friendly.

The NILE External Resources Site (NILEX), which lists free applications you can use to create content for use in NILE,  has undergone such an update and continues to expand – there are now over 50 resources covered.  Latest posts include Canva (an online graphics and infographics creator) and AppSheet (which creates free IOS and Android data-driven apps using Google Spreadsheets).

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The tablet in three of its four configurationsAs part of the University Institute of Learning and Teaching funded Parklife project, Nick Cartwright has been piloting the use of a hybrid laptop. The project involved students working in open spaces of their own choice with Nick’s support, so a device capable of taking notes and sharing information with small groups of students was considered worthy of inclusion to support the process.

The device used – a Lenovo Yoga 2 11.6″ – was selected on the basis that it was capable of using the University’s common applications installed on staff and student PCs and that it appeared to offer flexibility in its physical use – it has a touch screen and can be used in stand, tent and tablet configurations, along with a standard laptop layout.

As many of the activities Nick would be carrying out mirrored some of the potential practices that might be used at the new Waterside Campus, LearnTech agreed to record Nick’s experiences to share with Waterside stakeholders. This is the first of a number of reviews we intend to publish – though we are not recommending the University or members of staff purchase this or any other particular model of laptop. We are just seeking to identify the strengths and weaknesses of such devices in the workplace and classroom.

The Yoga has been used to record notes and observations during Parklife sessions but – in practice – it has been relatively little used to share information with small groups of students. While Nick was impressed with the ability to be able to hook it over a chair back as an informal display, in practice the small screen didn’t make it practical to share with more than two or three students.

Aside from general web browsing and Office applications, Nick found it an excellent device to prepare Prezis with but found Turnitin did not respond well to the touch screen. That said, he did complete all his marking using the Yoga successfully. Its particular strength seemed to be that he could quickly move away from an area of disturbance to a quite corner with minimal disruption. Battery life was acceptable – enough for 3-4 hours and a fast one hour recharge was useful. Ultimately, Nick would like to be able to dock to a large screen with a full keyboard for more intensive text work but has found that almost all his work has been possible on the Yoga.

Its main drawbacks are the small screen and weight when used as a tablet – compared to an iPad (around 500g), 1.4 Kg would be uncomfortable to use for a long period – but the flexibility may well be worth this if the device is used in more than one mode. Some reviews suggest that the 802.11n only wireless connect might be an issue, but Nick has noticed no significant wireless connection problems. The mini-HDMI port is the only physical way to connect to an external screen or projector, so this needs to be borne in mind when considering use cases and the available infrastructure. But the fact that a colleague purchased the larger screen version of the Yoga 2 for herself after trying this machine over a period of time is a clear indication that this is a useful device.

Nick is continuing his evaluation in his Law teaching and hopes to try out Panopto at some point as the included web camera appears to be of very good quality.  We will follow up on his experiences later in the year.