Sam Cole presenting at Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference (BBTLC) Europe, with Matt Deeprose sitting alongside him.

Recently, Sam Cole, Matt Deeprose (both from the Managed Learning Environment team) and I travelled to Newcastle for the European Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference. In short, it’s always an engaging and inspiring conference with a wide range of attendees from learning designers and technologists to developers and academics.

We were at the conference for three days, so instead of sharing everything, I’ve decided to share some highlights of the conference.

Blackboard Corporate Keynote

Senior managers from Blackboard shared a range of statistics to show the changes that Blackboard has embraced over the last three years. Many clients have moved away from self- or managed-hosting to SaaS (software as a service). This theme ran throughout the conference with several institutions (including our hosts, Northumbria University) discussing the challenges that it had presented as they acclimatised to a new way of working with frequent regular updates. My impression was that for most European universities the conversations are about when they will move to SaaS, rather than if.

Blackboard Ultra

At the University of Southampton, we use a version of Blackboard called Learn Original. Blackboard still supported Learn Original, however, they also have a newer product Blackboard Learn Ultra. Anyone can preview this at 

There are many positives with Ultra. Blackboard designed it with mobile usage and accessibility in mind. It includes embedded analytics. However, my personal opinion is that some aspects are not as good as our current version. (For example, there is limited customisation). On the other hand, one feature that I do like, is the ability to have a modules page where a learner’s Blackboard courses are shown in a tiled view. This gives a much more visual view of what a student is studying and looks more like the learner dashboard available in most MOOC providers.

Blackboard’s roadmap for development

A key part of the presentation was to share Blackboard’s latest roadmap for development. Some features that may be of interest to you are:

  • attendance monitoring tools
  • more responsive design (so it’s easier to read on a mobile device)

A change that I’ve noticed over the last few years is that Blackboard seem to be much more responsive to the needs of customers. This was evident in some of the final slides of their presentation where they listed ways that you can get in touch with them:

Enabling student success through innovation, technology and partnership working – Prof Peter Francis, Northumbria University

As the host institution, Northumbria University delivered a keynote about how they’ve improved their position in a variety of league tables. In summary, there are four pillars to their education strategy:

  • Research-rich learning
  • Employability through learning
  • Assessment for learning
  • Technology Enhanced Learning

This year Northumbria have moved to Blackboard Ultra with the aim of having a ‘best-in-class VLE’. From October 2019, they will be using student attendance monitoring for all of their UK-based students. Consequently, this data will be used to inform their educational analytics and improve support, progression and retention. With their students, Northumbria University have co-created a student-facing analytics app that gives students access to their academic data as well as tracking their well-being and engagement.

Students report a POSITIVE impact on their student experience due to the ability it gives them to plan and manage their personal and academic goals.

Over 14000 students consented to personalised learning at Northumbria University, which included 2000 ‘at risk’ students. Consequently, there has been an increase in the uptake of specialist support and improved retention figures. (For example, there was a 284% increase in sign-ups to library skills sessions).

The Student at the centre – a Copernican shift and a 2020 vision – Kevin Bell, ProVC (Digital Futures), Western Sydney University

Western Sydney University is one of the few Australian universities that I know a bit about. In recent years it has had a massive rebrand. WSU faces a particular set of challenges as many of its students come from non-traditional backgrounds and may not speak English fluently. It has more immigrant students than any other university in the country. Kevin Bell shared this video as an example of one of their students’ backgrounds:

WSU have invested in ‘learning studios’. In other words, locations where any member of academic staff can go to create short (~6 minute) videos, branded as ‘Western One Stop Studios’.

Bell’s talk focused on how it’s possible to change learning spaces, but that doesn’t help if people’s behaviour doesn’t change. An example he gave is that they decided to build fluid learning spaces instead of tiered lecture theatres. However, as academics didn’t change their practice the student experience was worse as they were attending lectures in flat rooms.

Handling data rather than accumulating it

The talk progressed to explain that since the 1970s theorists have discussed the importance of handling data rather than accumulating it and how this impacts on education.

The world economy no longer pays you for what you know; Google knows everything… The world economy pays you for what you can do with what you know. – Andreas Schleicher (Head of PISA, OECD)

In the past, a university timetable was similar to a television schedule whereas nowadays students see their education more like Netflix where they can pick and choose to fit their own schedule and demands on their time.


Kevin Bell talked about how a university education has a story arc with the resolution being ‘to get a job’. Students aren’t interested in activities that aren’t relevant to that narrative. Subsequently, there was a discussion around what skills are relevant to contemporary students.

WSU use Faethm, an AI analytics platform that uses “data to predict the impact of emerging technology on any job, workforce, company, industry, location or economy.” For example, it identified that the skillset required of cybersecurity experts is similar to that of accountants. WSU use this to help people gain the skills required if they’re at a turning point in their lives.

Taking the community along a journey of change in the Digital Learning Environment – Matthew Mobbs and Lizzy York, University of Leicester

The first part of this talk was about Leicester’s move from being an institution where Blackboard was implemented in an organic way where arbitrary courses were set up at the request of academics (rather than all modules being provisioned with a Blackboard course each year). As that’s something that already happens at Southampton, it wasn’t relevant. However, the second part about the introduction of templates was much more relevant.

Leicester’s new template has been created with NSS in mind, so specific terminology has been adopted. Panopto content has been labelled as ‘Reflect recordings’ to emphasise that this is where students are being presented with an opportunity to reflect on their learning.

Supporting staff use of a template

Guidance is embedded within the template. It can be seen by both staff and students, so students are encouraged to get in touch with staff who have not populated their course. For example, in a content area, there is a content item called ‘In this section…’ The text accompanying it states ‘This Learning Materials section is where the main learning and teaching activity for this module’s Blackboard site takes place. This could include materials from teaching sessions, other learning resources and other activities’. This is made to stand out by adding a highlight to the item and adding a red icon.

Leicester are also using ‘reusable layouts’ based on the eight learning events model (Verspoorten, Poumay and Leclerq, 2007).

NSS focus

Matthew Mobbs gave specific examples of how Blackboard can be used to improve the students’ experience:

  • Staff are good at explaining things – include short talking head videos
  • I have received sufficient advice and guidance in relation to my course – include directed activities; indicate how long to spend on an activity
  • My course has provided me with opportunities to explore ideas or concepts at depth – signpost extension activities
  • The course is intellectually stimulating – Ask stimulating questions from the outset of a module and explore them throughout. Enable students to challenge the content and bring ideas.
  • I feel part of a community of staff and students – use interactive features such as discussion forums to encourage a feeling of community
  • My course has provided me with opportunities to bring information and ideas together from different topics – Use collaborative features for learners to co-construct knowledge
  • My course has challenged me to achieve my best work – use formative/self-assessment features
  • The criteria used in marking has been clear in advance – use rubrics to explain how assessment is marked
  • I have received helpful comments on my work – use online/inline marking – reusable comments are efficient

Revolutionising the STEM feedback and grading experience with Gradescope – Salvador Jimenez, Turnitin

Staff at MIT developed Gradescope. Turnitin have now bought the product. It was designed for the efficient marking of handwritten paper-based maths exams, which need to be scanned and then marked. (It would be possible for students to submit files that had been handwritten on a device).

When handwritten scripts have been scanned, Gradescope is easy to use. The marker creates the rubric as they go along. Any changes that they make automatically apply to all of the papers that have already been graded. Artificial Intelligence groups together matching answers so that these can all be graded together.

Gradescope is available on a freemium model.


The final day of BBTLC was Global Accessibility Awareness day, so many of the talks were referring to the 2018 Accessibility Regulations and Blackboard Ally (which has had 37 updates since last year!)

The Unicorns Get Bullish – Why the Website Accessibility Legislation is a Breed Apart – Alistair McNaught, Independent Accessibility Specialist

Alistair McNaught’s talk gave a clear overview of current legislation and its potential impacts. I particularly liked his analogy of a VLE tree growing in an institutional forest. There are three elements to a tree:

  • Roots – technical compliance
  • Trunk – information and guidance
  • Canopy – pedagogy

For it to grow, it needs the right basic ingredients: technology, training and an inclusive organisation.

McNaught discussed the barriers to someone accessing the VLE, including passwords, navigation and reliability. He also explained that people need training, access to supplementary systems (e.g. ebooks on the library system) and also access to assistive technology.

Roots/Technical compliance

McNaught recommended some practices to ensure that content is as accessible as possible:

  • Ensure text reflows when magnified
  • Have a strong colour contrast for both visited and unvisited links
  • Use heading styles
  • Consistency in menu headings makes them easier to navigate (especially for people who use a screen reader or who have dyslexia, short term memory issues or ADHD)
  • Have a clear strategy for navigation pathways (don’t have many different ways of getting to the same content!)
  • Write meaningful descriptions for hyperlinks
  • Remember to add Alt text to images (unless they are purely decorative)
  • Use accessible templates for PowerPoint and Word

Trunk/Information and guidance

McNaught said that accessibility and accessible features need to be made explicit.

For instance, he asked how do students know about accessibility features. How do they know they can:

  • navigate by mouse OR keyboard?
  • magnify without spilling off the screen?
  • personalise PDFs and Word documents?
  • use browser plugins to change contrasts, read text, navigate long documents?
  • access assistive technologies?

McNaught also recommended making services joined up by asking ‘How easy is it to get from a course assignment to:

  • Study skills advice?
  • E-books and journals?
  • Lecture capture?
  • Previous grades?’

Canopy/Pedagogical practice

Pedagogical practice covers the:

  • accessibility of the resources you add
  • way you use them
  • scaffolding you provide
  • challenge you offer
  • activities and assignments you set
  • model of teaching and learning you embrace

McNaught gave examples of good practice that he had witnessed. For example,

  • Regular use of announcements
  • Scaffolding via Need to know or Need to do files
  • Good use of multimedia including introductory podcasts or links to relevant videos
  • Personal reflection opportunities built into assignments
  • Effective, context-sensitive cross-referencing to wider opportunities (e.g. placements, employability support etc)
  • Purposeful tasks and clear requirements

Consequences of not making resources accessible

Previous legislation was about making ‘reasonable adjustments’ for people with disabilities. However, legislation has never defined what constitutes a ‘reasonable adjustment’. The new legislation goes much further and says that everything has to be accessible. Failure to make resources accessible leaves an institution vulnerable to litigation.

In conclusion, this is just a taster of some of the sessions that were available. If you’re interested in the next BBTLC Europe, you may want to sign up for updates on the BBTLC Europe website.

Blackboard Teaching and Learning Conference BBTLC2019

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