At the recent ASCILITE’2019 there was a common refrain throughout the conference, which started with the original keynote as captured in the following tweet

While I get the intent – the ultimate goal is good learning, not good technology – “how you use it” is much more than pedagogy. How this is translated into action within higher education has always troubled me. The following is an attempt to explain some of that and the “more” that is required. It’s also a reason to show off a screen capture video that I couldn’t show at the conference.

Higher education has a long-term (and growing) interest in “improving and measuring quality in higher education” (Ryan, French, & Kennedy, 2019), but it has “an under-developed capacity to analyse and explain” (Ellis & Goodyear, 2019, p. 239) the processes used to achieve it. Much of what currently happens in higher education is focused on identifying principles etc. of good pedagogy, disseminating knowledge of those principles, and measuring whether or not they’ve been adopted. Far less attention is paid to how to implement said principles in a sustainable way. In particular, little attention appears to be paid just how difficult and time-consuming implementing said principles can be.

My argument is that the activity system – the complex combination of learner, teachers, curriculum materials, software tools and the physical environment (Greeno, 2005, p. 79) – involved in “using it” requires much more attention. I’d argue that most of these activity systems are incredibly broken and subsequently it’s no surprise that there are concerns about the quality of learning environments, experiences and outcomes. My belief is that improving these activity systems will lead to improvements in learning environments, experiences and outcomes.

Authoring online course modules in Blackboard – Integrating Word & OneDrive/Sharepoint

(The title I’ve given this section could be easily seen as focusing on the technology. Boo! Hiss!. The important word is integrating. Integrating into these technologies into the stupid existing activity system for producing online course modules in Blackboard. Figuring out how to use the technology to make it easier for others to use the technology to effectively achieve the desired “pedagogy”.)

Part of my work for the last year has been paying attention to the activity system within which online course modules are created and maintained. This work has been seen in earlier blog posts and in the ASCILITE paper. Part of this was embedding the production of online content for Blackboard within the broader authoring practices of academics. i.e. allowing them to write content in Word – thereby drawing on facilities such as citation management, track changes, grammar checking etc. – and import it into Blackboard.

Until recently, the importing into Blackboard was a bit too manual. The video below illustrates the new process. It’s an example of an on-going improvement to the activity system.

It shows:

  1. Original Blackboard module content.
    The video starts showing a Blackboard module. The top part of the page shows the module content within an accordion interface. This is what students interact with. At the bottom of the page is an item titled Tweak code. Only teaching staff see this section. This item includes a link that will open up an online version of a Word document containing the module content. Ready for editing. It also includes a green button that will update the Blackboard module content.
  2. Converting Word document to HTML.
    Clicking the green button opens up a new web page that retrieves the Word document from OneDrive/SharePoint and converts it to HTML. If successful another green button will appear that when clicked will copy the HTML content into the clipboard and open up the appropriate Blackboard edit page.
  3. Editing the Blackboard content.
    At this stage, the normal Blackboard edit process for HTML commences. The content is updated by clearing out the old HTML and pasting in the newly converted content. Save these changes and the module has been updated.

What’s the impact?

Don’t know. What’s shown above has only been completed in the last couple of weeks and is currently being rolled out. Anecdotal feedback from people working with the more manual Word/Blackboard integration has been largely positive. Though there have been comments made about the extra steps involved in the manual integration. This new and more direct integration will hopefully help.

Given the following types of comments about authoring in Blackboard

relying primarily on the Blackboard Content Editor to post materials in the course shell as HTML is a time relatively consuming process (sic) …maintaining these courses too technically challenging

There’s some hope and expectation that this will have some positive impact.

Adding more context by focusing on pedagogical model activity systems

As it stands, the above is talking about a more general online content authoring activity system. But we can do more. It’s possible to adapt the above approach to customise the Word template and the HTML conversion process in response to specific contextual needs. For example, if a particular pedagogical model (Conole, 2010) has been adopted in a course, we could develop a specific Word template/HTML conversion process to offer explicit support for elements of that pedagogical model. Moving beyond the generic content authoring activity system and to focus on an activity system specific to the chosen pedagogical model.


Conole, G. (2010). Review of Pedagogical Models and their use in e-learning. Retrieved from Open University website:

Ellis, R. A., & Goodyear, P. (2019). The Education Ecology of Universities: Integrating Learning, Strategy and the Academy. Routledge.

Greeno, G. J. (2005). Learning in Activity. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences (pp. 79–96).

Ryan, T., French, S., & Kennedy, G. (2019). Beyond the Iron Triangle: Improving the quality of teaching and learning at scale. Studies in Higher Education, 0(0), 1–12.

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