How did you get started in Learning Technologies?
I studied software development and began my career at the ANU IT HelpDesk and then took over the change management of their Learning Management System transition from WebCT to Moodle 1.9. I came to Macquarie in May 2011, so have been here 7 years.
What problems do you enjoy solving in the work that you do?
I enjoy solving the problems that people don’t want to have. I want the really curly problems. I want something that makes me have to dig in and think and use a lot of logic and problem solving skills. The thing is that I only want to have to do that once. I always joke “you don’t want to see my name on a ticket” because that means the problem’s a big one.
I also enjoy are the bigger projects, the work that impacts everyone. e.g. new features, major upgrades. We’ve got one coming up early next year. That stuff’s really good, because instead of it being, “I’m solving a problem”, it’s
how can we improve people’s use of our system, performance improvements or just making things a bit nicer.
What has changed in the world of Learning Management Systems in the last 7 years and where are things going?
More mobile usage, more mobile-first ideas. There are some actions that are now more readily available on mobile. On a mobile, I can now more easily look something up, I can read a forum post, I can access readings. But you wouldn’t want to do your full assignment on mobile, so it’s about having options. We want the content to be where the student is. So if you’re on a train, you’re riding home, why not watch a lecture recording, why not look at your forum posts, why not read some readings.
We’re now seeing systems that are less monolithic. As opposed to the LMS having everything inside it, we’re seeing more services outside of the LMS that integrate back into it. Usually that’s in the form of an LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability), for example Echo360. LTI allows us to add an outside system, without the need for a plug-in going into the iLearn system itself. Plug-ins have deeper links into the LMS but that comes with the cost of installing and testing. With an LTI, iLearn is generally left alone, but you click through iLearn (through the the single sign on) to the other system. Data such as grades might be fed back into iLearn, but all the processing or work happens in the other system.
The next wave would be very thin systems where everything links outside of it.
Rather than reinventing the wheel and creating specific programs within the LMS, why not use a program that exists outside it? We can use apps that are very good at what they do and are targeted to solve a particular problem, rather than having Moodle have to create the solution to all the problems/activities.
The death of the LMS is something has been thrown around for a while but doesn’t appear to have happened.
What makes you passionate about working with an Learning Management System?
Education in general is something you can get behind. It’s obviously something good for the world, so you can feel good about supporting that. When you read articles about how students are going in their studies and what services this university provides them, you can go “yeah, we’re a part of that”, you’re on that journey with them.
We’re not involved in the classroom teaching, and in the history of teaching, but yes, we’re a foundation of sorts, at least of the online stuff. You need a good foundation, but the other people (the educators), they build the pretty house, they build the architecture, produce the beauty of it.
You don’t necessarily think about the foundation until it crumbles and the house falls over. That’s where I see us – you don’t want to see my name on something, but you want us in the background, plugging away.
What aspect of Learning Technologies are you looking forward to in the future?
The elephant in the room is always analytics. I’m still unsure of what that really means in a lot of cases. Some of the things I’ve seen and the ideas on paper of what you can get out of it seem exciting for convenors, and potentially for students. But I think there are still some large questions to be answered. What I’m excited to see in iLearn is probably some better video handling, in assessment, better video options in iLearn. That’s a project we’re currently working on.
Can you tell us about the major upgrade that’s coming at the end of the year?
We’re getting 2 years’ worth of upgrades so there will be lots of improvements.
Some of the features we’re looking at are some new dashboard features, mostly around progress of active units and siphoning off completed units. It’s like a front page look of what you have coming up, you’ve got so and so number of quizzes or assignments due in the next week, or month or whatever. Also to be able to retain access but siphon off your last session’s units, so you don’t get that long scroll of study periods that we currently have on the front page. Other non-teaching units, the Wise units, student support, training and community units, will be able to come up on that active front page as well, instead of siloed below a current study period.
How does an upgrade work?
We’ve already starting picking dates and looking at what is coming in the 4 versions of Moodle we’ll be gaining as we move forward.
Generally we will do the first round of testing instances around September/October. Usually it’s very broken, not necessarily from the Moodle side of things, but because we have a lot of customisations. We usually do about a month of testing, we spread it out to most of the team and some learning designers, around the faculties, and run through test cases. Last time we had around 400 test cases.
We pick up and fix any issues, errors or bugs and then go through a second round of testing and bug fixing. Once that’s all working we go into a staging process, which is effectively a close representation of our production environment. That will take us to around January, over the Christmas break. Once we sign that off, in early February we go into production. Once the upgrades go through, usually on the weekend, we do another full day of testing, and final sign off verifying that the system works.
What wouldn’t people generally know about the work that you do?
Probably how little time I spend in iLearn. A lot of my time is spent looking at our databases (AMIS or StudentOne) or other systems to compare with what we’ve got in Moodle. E.g. Looking at AMIS and comparing it with iTeach to see that enrolment issues are both effecting iTeach and ILearn. I spend a lot of time finding answers for iLearn but not from iLearn.
And for the monthly releases I’m usually working on our development and staging instances so not looking at production to the very end. We do monthly release – they’re point releases, which usually means bug fixes, minor improvements, and maybe adding in a configuration change, we might change the default for a tool.
Are the changes made from client feedback?
Feedback from end users usually goes through Faculty Learning Designers and we have a Change Advisory Board, where we review the feedback, and look at the impact of changes.
We may look at, say if a default is changed, how do we find out how this default impacts some users and what is expected by others.
What would you wish more people knew about iLearn?
I’d say look at the suite of tools we have in iLearn, and revisit different features occasionally.
We’re adding new tools all the time, we’ve got pilots going on, so if you’re interested, look out for those and any feedback we get on those is vital.
Talk to your Faculty Learning Designers if you think something is missing in iLearn, if you think there is something wrong, let them know.
We are very happy to make changes based on user feedback (provided they make sense and we have the resources!)