UCISA 2013 Pt2



So when I was plotting these blog entries originally I was thinking “trilogy”. Turns out that may be Douglas Adam’s idea of a trilogy – i.e. a number greater than 3…

After a quick break for exhibitor swag grabbing (the Desire2Learn moose I nabbed was a hit with my daughter) it was time for the University Showcase sessions – presentations on notable projects from the staff actually involved in them.

I was right back up the front again (while everyone else seemed to congregate towards the back – something I ate?) for Stuart Lee’s talk on Engage: Social Media Michaelmas. Along with Tony Brett, who was in attendance, it was strange to see some faces from my dim and distant past at Oxford.


Engage was a 3 month course designed to help academic staff develop and make the most of an online presence. Delivered on a shoestring, it provided online materials (a blog, Twitter, Facebook and Podcasts) supported by a series of talks and workshops. Full disclosure – my wife did a session on using social media to engage with alumni!

As much as possible the “offline” material was delivered by non-IT staff, the thinking being that by doing this they would get greater engagement with academics that would normally be dismissive. A sound theory in my opinion – academics are more likely to listen to academics! By putting up some “headline acts” like Professor Marcus Du Sautoy, incorporating current training courses (such as Audacity, podcasting, writing for the web etc.) and linking into existing academic seminar series (the Balliol Social Media and Health Talks series featured Dr Ben Goldacre in Week 8) a fairly comprehensive programme was presented with little new content really being required.

The numbers who took part didn’t sound that exciting, given the academic headcount at Oxford, but the kinds of feedback they received suggest that if they keep running it, it might become a significant part of Oxford’s already impressive training programme. The project won the Amber Miro Memorial Award for Innovative Use of Technology – an award well deserved.

The presentation began with a quote from Jesse James Garrett, a user experience expert and not a noted outlaw as I first thought. I can’t find confirmation of the quote online, so this is a snippet from his “Elements of User Experience”

The presentation began with a quote from Jesse James Garrett, a user experience expert and not a noted outlaw as I first thought. I can’t find confirmation of the quote online, so this is a snippet from his “Elements of User Experience” (click for link)

Afterwards I took a stroll along to the ominously named “Hall 13” for a presentation from University of Sussex on “Why user experience matters”, which described their journey as they evaluated their existing VLE (Moodle-based) interface, paid for some professional usability assessments, hired a developer with some interface design experience and carried out a substantial redesign.

Sussex’s E-Learning Team blog has some excellent entries on their experiences with this project, as well as some fairly detailed explanations on Moodle wrangling, right down to the icon design if that takes your fancy.

They shared their lessons learned, which included:

  • Know your users, their goals and context;
  • Use existing design patterns, don’t reinvent the wheel;
  • Encourage desirable outcomes with clear calls to action;
  • Cross platform, responsive design;
  • Build it into procurement (though they didn’t explain how – i.e. as part of tender requirements etc. – or how you’d measure that as part of an evaluation).
An extract from an Sussex E-Learning Team blog on dashboard design.

An extract from an Sussex E-Learning Team blog on dashboard design (click for link)

The feedback received after the redesign sounded very positive. For me the main takeaway points were:

  • Like Oxford’s Engage project this was one achieved with time (i.e. staffing) and not big capital investments;
  • There’s nothing wrong (and potentially a lot of good) in getting a little professional assistance (usability testing in this case – check out their blog on the results which we were assured were painful to experience!);
  • Students wanted structured content from the academic community;
  • “Call to action” is a cool phrase.

Finally, I stuck around in an increasingly warm and stuffy Hall 13 to catch Sheffield’s Chris Sexton & Chris Clow talking about “Being Creative” – a session on establishing a creative media centre that was as much a lesson from me in reading presentation abstracts (as I wouldn’t normally have been interested in that topic) as it was a genuinely interesting insight into the surprising ways that video is being used by students as part of their studies.

At the very reasonable cost of £30k, Sheffield have kitted out a number of rooms with (principally Apple) computers for media production/editing, set up an equipment hire scheme for cameras etc. and provide at-desk support and training to students using the facilities during office hours – introducing a new, up-to-date facility to replace facilities of varying quality that previously existed across the University.

What made this interesting (aside from the fact this kit is in a building accessible 24/7, yet with minimal security!) is the way that the service evolved and how it appears the students are using it.

One of the biggest puzzles the team faced was fitting the requirement for larger than normal data storage (i.e. for video) with the cost of storage and the need for students to collaborate. Rather than expect students to use their own credentials (which they would just share with other students if they wanted to work together) they set up separate accounts with a 6mth expiry which the students could share amongst themselves, attached to 30Gb (a figure settled upon after some experimentation) of storage.

Some of the key bits from my notes:

  • Equipment is in kits – feedback was very good for kits vs. individual items, kit contents are reviewed periodically;
  • Suites/services can be booked online by students, but not staff
  • Somehow, they haven’t lost any of the loan equipment yet!
  • 30Gb of student storage might represent the “sweet spot” – I’ll certainly be looking at figures around this if/when we’re able to up our student allocation;
  • Just putting the kit out there won’t cut it, you’ve got to provide the training too.

One of the most interesting points revealed was who was using the suites – not the arts/media students you might expect, but Chemical Engineers who had been taking equipment to video experiments and then present them for assessment.

Towards the end one of the slides featured a picture of garlic bread. I can’t tell you what the slide said I’m afraid, by that point I was starting to get hungry (and quoting Phoenix Nights) and I wasn’t the only one.

The theme I felt ran across all 3 of the sessions I saw was that the cost in all of them was moderate, and largely in staff time rather than any big capital expenditure (Sheffield cost £30k, but that’s dwarfed by the cost of the staff in the team who provide the real value). Perhaps this is a result of my own bias (conscious or otherwise) when I chose those sessions – it’s my preferred approach – but it may also be indicative of the more challenging times we work in.


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