Thoughts on the Blackboard Teaching & Learning Conference 2013

Most of the week for me has been taken up by the Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference. This was my first visit, and – a red wine and whisky-induced hangover on Wednesday morning excluded – was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The conference was held at Aston University in Birmingham, a very nice venue, apart from the utterly confusing room-numbering system in the main building, which managed to baffle pretty much all of the conference delegates. Apologies to anybody who at any point was attempting to follow me in the misguided belief that I knew where I was going. In fairness, I never really have much of a clue where I’m going, but this is a personal flaw only exacerbated by a building where you can go in a lift that takes you to the fifth floor and, upon exiting, find yourself facing a staircase that leads upwards to the fourth floor. I have visions of there still being some delegates wandering around the corridors now, searching for an East Wing lecture theatre that is actually in the West Wing.

Anyway, aside from getting hopelessly lost on several occasions, I also presented a workshop with the help of two colleagues, Nicola Randles (she’s @tweet_nicola on Twitter, though she never tweets) and Rob Oakes (he isn’t on Twitter at all). The workshop focussed on planning the integration of your student records and other systems with Blackboard via the SIS integration tool. This is a relatively new means of interfacing Blackboard with other systems; it’s pretty good, being remarkably powerful whilst very simple to set up. We didn’t cover the tool itself in a great amount of detail, concentrating instead on the thought processes behind organising an integration in the first place. As such, we dealt a lot with stakeholder analysis and data mapping, but didn’t delve too much into the intricacies of how SIS works. I need to spend some more time investigating it, particularly the abstraction layer that seemingly lurks in the midst of it, as the thinking behind that is going to help inform some of my own design work over the next few months.

Our workshop was well-attended and we got some good feedback from it, which is always nice. Thanks from me to both Rob and Nicola for all the work they put in, and of course to everyone who turned up and participated. If you want to view the presentation or the resources that we used, you can visit the companion website we put together at http://www.staffs.ac.uk/bbtlc5aday/ .

Elsewhere there was a lot of concentration on increasing mobile usage, both in the sense of phones and also tablet-style devices. This is obviously pretty much par for the course across the whole of the IT world nowadays, but it was at least rather encouraging to see that Blackboard are trying to think about how best to ‘do mobile’ (if that even means anything) rather than just doing it. Speaking as someone coming from an IT perspective rather than a teaching and learning one, I can see the potential benefits that mobile can bring but trying to shoehorn it in for the sake of doing it is ultimately self-defeating.

One thing that I did find particularly interesting was a talk by Blackboard’s Emily Wilson (@emilyalexwilson) where she spoke about the importance of native apps on mobile devices over mobile-optimised websites. This is backed up by research I’ve seen over recent weeks indicating the amount of time users spend on the phones within native apps as opposed to within a browser. It rather flies in the face of how I expected mobile to go, though, as I’d anticipated that the same kind of trend that has led to Google Drive and Office 365 would lead to mobile web applications becoming the norm, particularly with the advent of HTML5. That’s me proven wrong, again.

Native apps can be a lot better in many ways than mobile apps, of course, though I’d argue for many things most users wouldn’t notice the difference (and the vast majority of people don’t care about the distinction between the types). I’d never once try and argue that the user experience isn’t typically better in a native app, just because it can use the interface common to the device. The problem I can see is that, from the perspective of businesses and organisations trying to produce applications, it has great cost and time implications since you really need to be producing at least two separate products, one for iOS and one for Android, in order to make sure you’re hitting the vast majority of the mobile marketplace. If you add Blackberry and Windows Phone into the mix it’s even more of a problem, not to mention the fact that all the platforms have version and hardware fragmentation in them, especially Android.

To me it seems that a good way for smaller-scale development teams to try and cope with this is concentrate on the back-end with a SOA approach, shifting the majority of all the business logic to the server end so that the interfaces are just that: lightweight points to access a write-once service layer. By following this method, it’s possible for dev teams to reduce the amount of time that producing and maintaining multi-platform mobile applications. If you’ve not got the in-house expertise or environment to produce an iOS app or similar, you could contract this out whilst still maintaining control over your business rules.

Away from mobile, another common theme that went through a number of the workshops and presentations I attended was data integration and presentation. Everything’s becoming more interconnected nowadays, and the era of enterprises having multiple small or large systems with semantically common yet asynchronous data-sets is slowly being consigned to the past. Now we’re in a world of increasingly homogenised information, but what I think we’re still struggling to get to grips with is how to present this in ways that are comprehensive without being overwhelming, and concise without being over-simplifications. I’m going to be thinking quite a lot about this over the next few months and will try and document my thoughts here as much as possible.

All in all, then, Blackboard TLC 2013 was a very rewarding experience, and something I’d love to repeat in the future. I usually find that such things are good if they spark off thoughts and ideas in the fetid recesses of my brain, and the conference certainly did that. What would really top it off, of course, would be winning the free trip to Las Vegas…

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