Photo Jonathan Knight, IT Systems Administrator at Keele University

How Keele University’s IT Services Team is Improving the Student Experience



Article originally published on E-Learn Magazine on June 07, 2018 – Click here for the Spanish version

Keele University, in the United Kingdom, maintains its learning environment at the most recent release when they upgrade every summer. This might not mean much to its end users – the students – who might not be aware of its importance. However, this is what allows the institution to keep systems testing to a bare minimum, making their work more agile in deploying security fixes, and keeping up with the latest developments. All these actions combined is what maintains the digital learning environment working smoothly for everybody, having a positive impact on campus.

This approach has only become possible in recent years. Prior to that, the university’s IT team needed four to six months to test each of the new releases. There were also scalability issues with the older releases once they were installed, as Keele University’s IT Services Manager Jonathan Knight recalls.

 “There would be a series of problems you found as the systems went under load at the start of the semester. That meant that we were cautious about installing releases until they’d been fully tested,” says Knight, who spoke at TLC Europe 2018, in Manchester, UK, this past April.

Even though Keele University is self-hosted, these types of issues disappeared when managed hosting and SaaS became available. “When the SaaS versions of Blackboard Learn were released, I gained the confidence that the releases were sound and wouldn’t have scalability issues, and it was safe to install the self-hosted versions on release,” the manager points out.

The key to testing is to focus on the parts of Blackboard Learn that are not tested by the SaaS and Managed Hosting clients.  By focusing on the parts that are only used by self-hosted clients you can reduce the amount of testing that is required. This way, work that was previously done within a six-month period can now be finished in one afternoon by one or two team members.

Why Faculty is Not Involved in the Testing Process

Knight’s team avoids asking lecturers to do extensive testing, as they are not really “keen on doing it” and have other important work to do. Even so, they are invited to get familiarized with new versions on the university’s test system. This way, faculty can feel more confident that the Blackboard Learn implementation process is going strong.

“I invite our learning technologists to test new versions of our learning system on the test system as well, so that they are aware of the new functionality that’s coming up in the next upgrade,” Knight adds.

Upgrades must initially be approved by learning technologists and then reported to Keele University’s Learning Technologies Committee for final approval, except for emergency upgrades.

3 Tips to Minimize Testing

1. Make small changes to the CSS (Cascading Style Sheets).
2. Use the software’s stock colors
3. Create extensions with single-sign-on or LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability) systems

Online Assessment and Grading Make a Huge Impact

The move to online grading and online assessment is something Knight considers would have been “difficult” to achieve without Blackboard’s products, which the university has been using since 2005.

“In terms of trying to implement online assessments, faculty knows that much of the course is already created, and all they must do is create the assessments, which is very simple. Of course, we could do it with other tools, but I think that’s the biggest thing Blackboard has done for us,” Knight says. One notable example of the way Blackboard has positively impacted Keele University is through their lecture capture system where students can log in to one system and have access to all lessons, online assessments and recorded lectures in one centralized place.

Students seem to appreciate the use of technology to enhance their learning experience. Although the university has never conducted their own survey around student perception about the learning environment, Keele University has achieved a high score on Britain’s National Student Survey, and received a Gold Award in the Teaching Excellence Framework last year.

“Students tend to complain when things are not well, and they become quiet when things are doing fine. Currently, they have been pretty quiet,” Knight concludes.

Photos by: AFP – Oli Scarff