Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Month: January 2019

Improving reuse of design knowledge in a LMS

In October last year I started a new position at Griffith University. A role designed to help improve the quality and quantity of use of the institutional learning ecosystem. An ecosystem that includes Blackboard (both 9.1 and soon Ultra), Office365, PebblePad, Echo360 etc. Pretty early on it became apparent that there was some problems with reusing design knowledge. A problem that had some initial solutions. But these solutions weren’t built upon. The following tells the story of those problems and how I’ve be playing with an old idea of scaffolding, context sensitive conglomerations (aka constructive templates) to help.

The example itself is not earth shattering. However, IMHO it does identify the long-term inability of higher education to create a teaching environment that actively helps improve the quality of learning and teaching while reducing the cost of doing so (you/I could argue institutions have been better at/focused on solving the latter by cost shifting, than the former).

The initial problem – “ugly” text

Most of the current digital course learning environments are in Blackboard Learn (9.1). The Blackboard interface hasn’t changed much since I last played with it in 2007. Institutional practice is such that most course sites have a menu option Course Content that links to what Blackboard calls a Content Area  where students are meant to be able to find the main learning resources and activities for the whole course. At best (arguably), most courses have a Content Area that looks like the following.

Blackboard 9.1 Card Tweak - Before

This is from a test course I’ve set up. A page like this consists of a list of items (four in the above) of various types. Each item has a heading and some HTML text. Depending on the type of item the heading might be a link to another resource/service.

“Boring” versus “bad”

The image above shows an interface that is perhaps more boring and old school than bad. However, there are many examples of pages like this that break basic web design principles (e.g. many different font types and size due to copy and paste, reliance on some truly horrendous colour choices etc). For old timers like me these bring back memories of geocities. (If that and the image below don’t mean anything to you have a read of this)

While perhaps not as bad as many Geocities sites what has been done with HTML within Blackboard (as with many other LMSes) leans in that direction. It’s so common that this thread in the Blackboard Community site contains quotes from around the world that include words such as “monstrosities”.

Note: the thread mentioned explains how Blackboard’s “next gen” environment – Ultra – prevents the monstrosities by preventing the use of HTML, let alone Javascript etc. While this solves the monstrosity problem, it also means that none of the solutions and innovations discussed below are possible in Ultra.

Generic versus specific

The Content Area feature from Blackboard provides a flexible tool that can be used to implement a variety of designs (i.e. anything HTML). It’s that flexibility that causes the “geocities” problem. But there comes a time when you need something more specific. At all the universities at which I’ve worked the idea of a course site has included a feature going under labels such as study schedule, course map or course overview. The following is an example from a course I taught in Moodle


This type of interface is intended to help the learner (and teacher) understand the shape of the semester. What will be happening and when will it be happening.

Blackboard doesn’t provide any specific support for this type of resource. Hence it is left to the course teaching team to develop something. As a result, many do not.

Those that do are typically creating the study schedule in Word and either: uploading the Word document into the course site; converting it to a PDF; or, copying and pasting the Word document. None of which works all that well. One of the problems with this is that such tables typically include mention of Lecture 1 but rarely actually link to Lecture 1 resources. i.e. it’s only on the web, not of the web (at a very simple level).

The other alternative, is that they have some specialist design the study schedule themselves. This approach raises questions of sustainability (not many institutions have the resources for this) and turn-around time (any change typically requires the services of the specialist).

Surprisingly, my current institution actually had another solution to this (and related) problems.

Tweaks and the course theme table

The solution is called Blackboard Tweaks. A building block for Blackboard written by folk from the Queensland University of Technology. Once the building block is installed in a version of Blackboard you are able to choose from a range of tweaks that will modify your normal Blackboard Content Area. For example, the Dynamic Unit/Course Map Table can be used to generate a course map/study schedule that looks like the following.

Sample Unit Map produced by Blackboard Tweaks (source).

This Tweak allows you to supply part of the table above as one of the items in a Content Area. Some of the elements in the table can be left blank. You then make sure that other items in the Content Area (e.g. lecture resources) are named a specific way. When someone views the Content Area, the Tweak uses Javascript to read the other content items and populate the table with appropriate vales.

This tool has been quite successful. A fairly large number of the courses that I’ve seen make use of this functionality.


Contemporary, responsive and mobile?

But it’s still so old school. Tables? Ugly HTML? Responsive? Web design is evolving.

One of the tasks I was allocated was to help with the design of the digital learning environment for a brand new program launching this year. This program is focused on helping develop creative entrepreneurs. The program is edgy, innovative and creative. IMHO, a 90s/00s table doesn’t align real well with that intent. What to do?

Designers design – the wrong approach

Sounds like a job for a web/graphic designer. Get a designer in to talk to the clients and then go away and design a bespoke and beautiful course map. Draw on the design knowledge of the designer to provide something breath taking.

There is nothing wrong with this approach in terms of the quality of what is produced. The problem is that it’s not scalable. The group I work with (one of five at the institution) has hundreds of courses. Even if you take a program approach the numbers are still significant. Especially if you factor in consideration that a course map is at its most useful when it is an appropriately live and dynamic document. A document that can respond quickly to changes in the learning design and intent of the course. i.e. an approach that supports the teacher(s) to re-configure the course map easily and quickly.

Constructive templates – a better approach

This was exactly the problem facing the hypermedia community back in the 1990s. Nanard, Nanard and Kahn (1998) suggest that

Reducing the design and development cost of new hypermedia documents while improving their quality is an important challenge for the information industry.

(p. 11)

One of the solutions that Nanard, Nanard and Kahn (1998) talk about is constructive templates. A concept developed in response to the difficulty faced by content providers in developing hypermedia structures that followed the known principles of interface and hypermedia design. Constructive templates helped content experts to create well designed hypermedia by capturing and reusing design knowledge (Catlin, Garret et al. 1991). By separating content from hypermedia structure and presentation constructive templates allow the content area expert to provide and change content without needing to understand the the specifics of structure and presentation.

The Blackboard Tweaks approach a form of constructive template. The tweaks allow the teaching staff to provide content in a fairly simple form. The tweaks then use Javascript to transform that into a more appropriate structure and interface.

The problem we face is that they haven’t been updated, suggesting that…

Introducing the Card Interface Tweak

Inspired by the Blackboard Tweaks I’ve written the Card Interface Tweak. A bit of Javascript+HTML that when inserted into a Blackboard Content Area with specific content will translate this “boring” content

Blackboard 9.1 Card Tweak - Before

Into the following responsive and somewhat contemporary interface.


Or perhaps you’re on your mobile phone doing a bit of learning

Mobile view of the card interface

Or perhaps you’d like the cards to be arranged vertically.

vertical card interface

This is what the Card Interface Tweak helps you do.

How do you do it?

Well, all you do is (see the README for some more up-to-date detail)

  1. Add an item to your existing Blackboard content area and copy and paste into it some Javascript.
  2. Add another item to your content area called Card Interface.
  3. For each of the existing or new content items you’d like to turn into a card, you add a line that contains
Card Interface:

Once that’s done the Javascript will insert into the Card Interface cards for each of the content items you’ve so identified. (While this will work at the moment. It does rely on another Javascript file currently residing on my server. If you use this tweak in anger, then you should stick this file on your own server and modify the initial Javascript).

If you’d like to add an image, associate a date etc with a card. You can add a couple of other lines. For example, here’s one content item that will be converted into a card.

card date label

The Javascript will convert this into the following card.

Card 3

Early experiences

While this is not an earth shatteringly innovative application of educational technology destined to transform learning, it’s gone down well so far. The program I’m working with seem to like it. Other members of the group I work with like it. Someone with only the barest of introductions to the earliest iterations of the tweak has been able to use it. It’s also been possible to modify this Tweak to provide new features quite quickly.

As of yet, no students have had this interface inflicted upon them. Their experience will be key. But what else is missing

What’s missing?

As it stands this is a very simple and limited example of constructive template. It is limited in terms of support for

  1. A more pedagogical important learning design (more learning, less content).
  2. Distribution across multiple systems.
  3. A more forward-oriented notion of design for learning.

More learning, less content

The course map example is pretty much focused on information distribution. On giving an overview of a course and its contents. It’s not likely to have a huge direct impact on student learning outcomes, but perhaps may have some affective benefits.

What would be interesting is to see if and how this approach could be used for a specific learning design. For example, wrapped around a Blackboard discussion forum to support use of the forum for a debate (or role-play etc).

Distribution across multiple systems

As it stands this works in Blackboard. My current institution – as with many others – no longer use a single application (the LMS) for its digital learning environment. We live in a brave new Next Generation Digital Learning Environment (NGDLE) world. In this world, learning/teaching won’t be occurring in a single application. It will be spread across multiple. This will raise new challenges.

Way back Light et al (2001) identified the differences this type of change would generate. For example, they identify that “Integration of applications is time consuming” (Light et al, 2001). It’s important to realise that their focus was largely on the efforts required by the IT professionals supporting an organisation’s systems. This will be a difficulty faced in developing something like the tweaks that bridge across systems.

But at the same time, it’s possible that such tweaks will become even more needed because in an NGDLE world designing learning experiences will require the ability to integrate across different systems. This will be much more difficult than designing learning experiences within a single system, suggesting that the need for constructive templates will be required all the more

A forward-oriented approach to design for learning

Dimitriadis and Goodyear (2013) argue that design for learning needs to be more forward-oriented. This means that when engaged in designing for learning proactive thought needs to be given to what features will be required configuration, orchestration, reflection and re-design.

For example, orchestration is seen as “providing support for the teacher’s work at learntime” (Goodyear and Dimitriadis, 2013, pp 4). In the context of the Card Interface Tweak it could be useful for the teaching staff to be aware of who is accessing the different cards or perhaps their progress through the activities within those cards. To support this, the Card Interface tweak could be linked with the analytics and when cards are viewed by teaching staff display an appropriate representation of use.

For example, redesign is thinking about what changes will need to be made at a later date. In a university context teaching typically occurs within a semester, trimester, quarter or other fixed time frame. These time frames are defined. Courses are often taught in multiple periods. The card interface includes dates. Teaching a course in a new period will involve changing the dates. Rather than have someone manually change the dates, it should be possible to offer the change to map cards to specific times in a period and automatically change the specific dates based on the defined period.


Catlin, K. S., & Garrett, L. N. (1991). Hypermedia Templates: an author’s tool (pp. 147–160). Presented at the Proceedings of the third annual ACM conference on Hypertext, ACM.

Dimitriadis, Y., & Goodyear, P. (2013). Forward-oriented design for learning : illustrating the approach. Research in Learning Technology, 21, 1–13.

Goodyear, P., & Dimitriadis, Y. (2013). In medias res: reframing design for learning. Research in Learning Technology, 21, 1–13.

Light, B., Holland, C. P., & Wills, K. (2001). ERP and best of breed: a comparative analysis. Business Process Management Journal, 7(3), 216–224.

Nanard, M., Nanard, J., & Kahn, P. (1998). Pushing Reuse in Hypermedia Design: Golden Rules, Design Patterns and Constructive Templates (pp. 11–20). ACM.

“Trying out” needs agency and control

This post is test of some technology and an opportunity to save the following quote from (Solomon and Black, 2008)

In order to ‘try out’ new ways of thinking, we need to perceive ourselves as having some agency in or control over what we are doing. As long ago as 1976, Barnes identified a ‘performance climate’ in many classrooms (1976: 111) which detractce from such agency, creating a dynamic which disempowers pupils and prevents them from reflecting on their own thinking and pre-existing knowledge in order to relate new to old. The loss of collaboration with teachers in negotiating learning causes pupils to lok only for the answer that a teacher wants: ‘When a teacher assess what his pupils say he distances himself from their views, and allies himself with external standards which may implicitly devalue what the learner himself has constructed’ (1976: 111). In contrast, ‘when a teacher replies to his pupils, he is by implication taking their view of the subject seriously, even though he may wish to extend and modify it` (1976: 111): such interactions attribute a higher stats to the learners’ contributions, underlining their ownership of the learning that is going on. It is the dialogic quality of such interactions – questioning to invite surmise and the reorganisation of ideas, and (most importantly) collaborative discussion which picksup what is said and extends, modifies or even challenges it – that enables genuine construction of knowledge.

Green shoot growing out of a power pole

Meso-level practitioners and generative technologies?

Happy to see the end of 2018. Time to figure out what 2019 holds. This is a first step.

I start 2019 as a meso-level practitioner in a new university. Hannon (2013) describes meso-level practitioners as the “teaching academics, learning technologists, and academic developers” (p. 175) working between the learning and teaching coal-face and the institutional context defined by an institution’s policies and technological systems. In my case, the institutional/technological vision (macro-level) that has decided to shift to Blackboard Ultra and to push the broader concept of a broader ecosystem of applications (Pebble Pad, Microsoft Office,…). i.e. it’s not just the LMS anymore, there’s a raft of technologies that can be drawn upon.

My position is meant to be focused on helping the micro-level make the transition to this new vision and hopefully improve the quality of learning and teaching. In the few months I’ve observed how a diverse collection of different actors – including existing meso-level practitioners – are working to understand how and what can be done to help.

My big question is what is it that we can be doing that will actually help make this transition into something that will actually help enhance or perhaps transform the quality of learning and teaching? Is it even possible? Perhaps a good starting point is simply observing and understanding what is currently being done?

Generative versus sterile technologies

A lot of the concern about the shift from Blackboard 9.1 (Learn) to Blackboard Ultra appears to arise from the shift from a generative technology (Blackboard Learn) to a sterile technology (Blackboard Ultra).

Zittrain (2008) defines a generative system as having the “capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences” (p. 70). How generative a system is depends on five principal factors: (1) leverage; (2) adaptation; (3) ease of mastery; (4) accessibility; and (5) transferability (Zittrain, 2008). A sterile technology is closed and cannot be modified.

Blackboard Learn as generative

A significant part of Blackboard Learn’s generativity arises from it’s reliance on web technologies. Meaning it is possible to embed HTML, Javascript and CSS into Blackboard course sites. This makes it possible to modify the appearance of a page in Blackboard from the following.

Blackboard 9.1 Card Tweak - Before

Into something a little more contemporary.


The above just happens to be one of my tasks over recent weeks. You can find the code here.

And it’s not just me. This approach is inspired by work at QUT to develop a building block for Blackboard Learn that implements “Blackboard Tweaks Tools for Academics, Designers and Programmers”. A tool that uses another main generative capability of Blackboard Learning – building blocks – to simplify this process of transforming the standard Blackboard interface into something a little more useful. Blackboard Tweaks uses the building blocks to spread the ability to use the generative capability of HTML, CSS and Javascript.

The Blackboard Tweaks building block is something quite liked by other meso-level practitioners around here.

Blackboard Ultra as Sterile

Blackboard Ultra is meant to provide a contemporary, mobile first interface. But at the same time it removes any capability to use HTML within that interface. Let alone use CSS or Javascript. Removing the generative capability.

Bridging the gap through generative technology?

Hannon (2013) identifies a gap between technology and pedagogy that needs resolving. The absence of such resolution is likely to lead to problems that result in limited improvement in learning and teaching. Offering professional development opportunities to academics (micro-level) is one of the methods of doing this. Another is using technologies to fill those gaps. Having appropriate access to generative technologies seems to be one way of doing this.

However, as Zittrain (2008) argues the very capabilities that make a technology generative also create problems. The open nature of the Internet creates issues from a security perspective. This thread on the Blackboard Community site discusses Ultra’s lack of HTML generativity. It includes numerous folk – largely meso-level practitioners – bemoaning this absence. A few provide examples – much like my work above- about how they’ve used this generativity. However, the thread also includes discussion of the “monstrosities” that are produced by some people who get their hands on HTML’s generative capabilities. Capabilities that are said to have done “more bad than good” and which have led Blackboard to explain that they’ve gone the more sterile route in order to address some of this “bad”. Other contributions to the thread suggest a middle ground by providing the ability in Blackboard to give appropriately trained and trusted users with the ability to use HTML.

I also observe a fair bit of other software development occuring outside of Blackboard. Increasingly digitally capable people using the generative nature of contemporary technologies (Excel, Amazon Web Services etc) to develop software to bridge the gap. Development that would incite condemnation from central Information Technology folk if they became more aware of it because of concerns about sustainability, scalability, security etc. Again the tension between generative and sterile

IMHO, generative technologies appear to be necessary to be able to bridge the gap, but also to enable innovation to arise. But they do have their challenges, especially in an increasingly corporatised university. How can they be used effectively?

Needed more in a distributed ecosystem?

But that’s just the LMS. The institution is also pushing the idea of a distributed ecosystem of learning tools that can be selected for use. In essence the institution is moving from a single, integrated system model (the old LMS provides all the tools) to a best-of-breed model (choose the best tool for a specific purpose). Light et al (2001) provide a comparion of these two architectures, a comparison that is explained in more detail in this blog post.

One of the identified challenges with the best-of-breed model is that integration between applications from different vendors is time consuming. Rather than having a single system already integrated, time and effort has to be expended ensuring that each of the separate components work together. While standards and technologies like LTI and xAPI help enable this integration, they don’t make integration easy or seamless. There are often gaps in functionality. For example, I know of one academic who has refused to adopt an external tool that provides an educationally effective feature because the integration with the marking system places too much of a load on causual teaching staff.

Suggesting that the gap is going to be larger.


Hannon, J. (2013). Incommensurate practices: sociomaterial entanglements of learning technology implementation. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 29(2), 168–178.

Light, B., C. Holland, et al. (2001). “ERP and best of breed: a comparative analysis.” Business Process Management Journal 7(3): 216-224.

Zittrain, J. (2008). The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It. Yale University Press.

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