I recently spent six days at two major LMS (or VLE in the UK) conferences. There were some remarkable differences, and some significant similarities between the D2L Fusion (Brightspace) conference in Vegas, and the InstructureCon (Canvas) conference in Keystone Colorado. However, there was little to compare either with our very own PebbleBash North America and the annual AAEEBL conference which I attended between the big LMS events. Our reflections on the ‘Bash and AAEEBL will be landing here very soon. First to our reflections on the D2L conference, Fusion, authored by our very own Holly Lewis (Director of Operations for PebblePad North America).
As I sit on the plane on the way to Portland, Oregon for the PebblePad MiniBash (and then the AAEEBL Annual Meeting), I finally have time to reflect on the conference I’ve just left - Fusion 2017. As my role at PebblePad is not a technical one, I wondered what meaningful takeaways there might be for me.
Looking back on my session reflections (in my PebblePad personal learning space, of course) there is a definite theme – expectations, specifically the expectations of the learner. In their spotlight session, D2L showcased their new-look interface. Daylight is now HTML5, slick, appealing and looks the same on every device. In my notes, I flippantly wrote ‘obvs’ (short for obviously). I can’t say that at the time I really considered why I wrote it, but on reflection it has become clearer. As a learner, I expect the technologies I use to look beautiful and work seamlessly on any device - nodding as the D2L presenters urged other partners to improve their own learner experiences, I realized again, this is something I expect - full HTML5 and nothing less, obvs!
PebblePad is HTML5 and works on any device
PebblePad V5 (HTML5) was launched in September 2015 and we haven’t looked back since. The customers I work with in North America have only ever known v5, but I know from our customers in other territories, and from what I heard at this year’s UK MiniBash, that the move from v3 has really accelerated the speed of uptake of PebblePad and dramatically reduced training and support time. Although we got caught up in somewhat of a flash-based groundhog day with v3, I now think we’re leading the way in easy to use, institutional (yet highly personal) platforms. We knew when we set out to rebuild PebblePad that regardless of whether learners are interacting with PebblePad on a laptop in a classroom, or reflecting on their phone halfway up a mountain while studying abroad, they expect the same experience.
LIFELONG LEARNING & OPEN STANDARDS
The question we were asked most by delegates visting our booth was whether students could keep their PebblePad portfolio once they leave the university. The short answer is yes, absolutely. The slightly longer answer is that they not only get to keep all of their portfolios but they can also keep their account and continue to use all of the PebblePad tools at no additional cost to the university - it's all part of our ethos that support for life-long, life-wide learning really matters.
D2L Fusion got off to a flying start with the team inundated with questions
The other question which cropped up in most conversations related to interoperability or integration. I guess simple, seamless integration is another perfectly reasonable expectation of today's practitioners. As partners with many of the major LMS providers, we are committed to open standards (see our Open Standards and Integration blog) and we were the first LTI portfolio provider to achieve LTI 2.0. Currently, our integration with D2L is single-sign-on, however, thanks to D2L continually developing its LTI provision and the partnership between PebblePad and D2L, from October, our D2L customers can expect …
- SSO including the ability to launch the PebblePad assessment space (ATLAS) and create workspaces
- Synchronizing memberships to ATLAS
- Passing grades back from ATLAS
- Adding content Item resources
A big shout-out to Jordan from the D2L team for his responsiveness and the advice he’s provided to our teams about working around LTI and using the D2L API’s when they offer a better fit for what we’re trying to achieve.
Finally, it was great to see some familiar faces at the conference, and great fun catching up with James from Urkund. Obviously, we were also delighted to catch-up with some of our biggest customers – McMaster University (Canada), Portland State University (US), and Nottingham Trent University (UK).
And now, back to Shane ...
FROM VEGAS TO KEYSTONE
So, it was from glitzy, glamorous Las Vegas to the beautiful Rocky Mountains of Keystone, Colorado (via Portland for PebblePad MiniBash North America and AAEEBL). We seem to have a lot of Canvas customers, and a lot more who are becoming Canvas customers … and a lot of Canvas customers who are moving to, or actively looking at PebblePad. So, as you might imagine a lot of interesting conversations were held over the course of the two-and-a-half day spy-themed event. And there were a lot of people to have conversations with. Over 2300 people attended this gathering in the mountains – up 500 from last year, and a real indicator of the inexorable rise of the Canvas platform.
Lots of awesomeness on the spy-themed event Twitter feed
KNOWING HOW VERSUS KNOWING WHAT
Our interest was (is) in higher education, but we had many conversations with K-12 educators who were very enthusiastic about PebblePad – until we said that we didn’t sell into that sector. Turning down a sales opportunity is an anathema to Americans who are so much more commercially inclined than we seem to be. Silicon Valley is a clear testament to their entrepreneurial spirit. My answer to their incredulity – “we’re just not expert in that field”. There’s also something to be said for not over-stretching ourselves. I think we do a pretty good job of keeping our current customers happy, but there’s always more to be done, plenty of ideas still to be realized, and heaps of opportunity in higher education where there really does seem to be a swing away from knowing what, towards knowing how - and we’re well positioned to support that move. This message was uttered by me throughout the two days I was at the conference using the following as supporting 'evidence':
- The diminishing value of facts as they are only a 3 second Google search away
- A global trend towards enhanced learning experiences like work placements and study abroad
- The increasing prevalence of student-centred approaches.
Generally, I’d say the above to see what kind of response it garnered; a way of surfacing the inclination of the person I was speaking with, and deciding which direction to take the conversation in. I was very pleasantly surprised though to find that in the majority of cases my assertions were met with enthusiastically nodding heads. Though, perhaps that was because people were keen to stay on the right side of the over-sized vendor with a tableful of water pistols at his disposal (or squirt guns if you’re from that side of the pond).
THE EPORTFOLIO & THE LMS
Like our experiences at Fusion, there were many questions about interoperability – in fact, many, many more, simply because many, many more people at InstructureCon were genuinely interested in providing a lifelong, lifewide learning platform for their learners. And yet, there was a a strange contradiction for some people I spoke with, in conversations that went something like this ...
Delegate: Does it integrate with the LMS?
Me: Well, there’s SSO, assessment Space syncronisation, passing of grades and content item launch
Delegate: But how do I grade the eportfolios in the LMS?
Me: You don’t need to. We provide tools specially designed to review portfolio-like stuff. Tools designed to provide feedback on portfolios under construction, the means of involving external reviewers in the process, and we can pass grades back to the LMS
Delegate: Oh! But students can save the work they do in PebblePad into the LMS. Right?
It’s interesting how the LMS vendors are (or at least claim to be) making their platforms more and more open – Canvas in particular wants to be a world-leading LMS which is extensible through LTI and its own APIs - allowing educators to integrate the best of breed quizzes, surveys, wikis and eportfolios. And yet, some of the people I spoke with have a fully LMS-centric view of the world. Integration is great as long as the LMS is still home for everything. In many ways it confirms the original design of LTI – pop up an add-on tool, use its functions, then pass a result back to the mothership. This is a model which needs to change if we are to accommodate the rise of platforms which work alongside, rather than inside, the LMS. For some students on some programmes, PebblePad is used more than the LMS
I would point out to whoever was listening at the time that there’s an inconsistency between providing a lifelong, lifewide learning platform like PebblePad whilst having everything the user works on saved to the LMS, in further conversations which went something like this ...
Delegate: Well, it could be saved to the LMS and PebblePad.
Me: But what about work in progress? What about using previous feedback and grades to reflect on, and used to improve future performance, indeed used as evidence of a learning journey?
Delegate: We can get that data from the LMS
Me: You can. But what about the learner, encouraging self-regulation, enabling the integration of learning beyond the institution into my formal studies?
Delegate: No, I’m sorry, we want everything you’ve got, but we want it inside the LMS.
Me: What about when the student graduates and wants to carry on telling and re-telling their personal learning narrative?
Delegate: They can export everything from the LMS!
Whilst I had several of these kinds of conversations they were (thankfully) in the minority. Many more people I spoke with loved the idea of a closely linked but independent personal learning space. Luckily, some influential people also support this notion. The irrepressible Melissa Loble who is the VP of platform and partnerships at Instructure has helped us deliver our best LMS integration yet, and is “super keen” to help us do more together.
For example, there are plans afoot in both camps to make our platforms LTI consumers and tools. What does this mean? Well, the usual relationship between the LMS and other tools has been alluded to above. The LMS is the mothership (the LTI consumer) and supplementary platforms are called LTI tools. The consumer launches the tool to enact a particular function and then consumes the resultant data from the tool. By making PebblePad and the LMS both tool and consumer we can enable simple journies between both platforms. At the moment we can only launch PebblePad from the LMS – what about users who are already in PebblePad adding to their competences, reflecting on an experience, composing a new blog post? We can’t currently launch them into their institutional LMS because it’s a consumer, not a tool. So, they have to log in separately. Until we can achieve this simple feat we can’t begin to think about using LTI’s Content Item to launch users into a notification, message or task that they might see replicated in their PebblePad dashboard – let alone direct them from a custom template to a specific course or piece of content in the LMS. These are the kinds of things we’d love to do, as well as opening up the user’s ‘store’ in the LMS so that they can link to their quiz results, their discussion contributions and their uploaded assignments. And, with the help of people like Melissa and her colleagues at Canvas I have more optimism than ever that we’ll get there.