Cris Bloomfield's Professional Blog

UK-based IT Professional working in the Higher Education Sector

Nordic EdTech

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Being innovative in an information governance era

Last week I attended the inaugral Nordic EdTech conference hsoted at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). It brought together startups, Education professionals and through leaders in the outskirts of Copenhagen. For me it was a great chane to meet and engage with leaders in Nordic Edtech and visionaries in education. Critically it was a chance to see and explore the latest in Edtech straight from the startups that are innovating education – some of the Silicon Vikings.


As I listened to thought provoking speakers I realised that there were some significant differences in our approaches, largely due to greater or lesser extents of state support for Higher Education. It was an opportunity to discuss the future of education with like minded educational visionaries and the impact of new legislation that will affect us all, notable the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

I delivered a talk on how through some critical path analysis and understanding the operational context it’s possible to deliver positive change through the introduction of new technologies despite a raft of information security and data protection challenges that seem to encompass the deliver of new technologies to support teaching and learning processes.


This generated some interesting audience responses including:

  • How will the new EU directives on personal data will impact universities?
  • All this compliance/governance seems to introduce huge friction in getting amazing new tools in the hands of teachers and students – is this not a problem?
  • Surely innovation is not always expensive. Are we not underestimating teachers bringing in innovation through the amazing free platforms we have seen and know
    Edtech Companies love crunching student engagement and activity data. Can we crunch ‘yours’ or will the governance obstruct ‘real’ adaptivity in the future?
  • How can we make it easier for teachers to test new edtech in their courses?

The answers to each of these will vary by institution depending on a range of circumstances. The reality is there will still be a way to deliver change and tangible benefits, it’s just more complicated and needs good stakeholder engagement, collaboration across institutional silos and forward planning.


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Turnitin Changes

Like many Higher Education Institutions, Durham University users Turnitin as a technology to support teachers and students. It provides tools in the online environment to detect plagiarism, provide a grammar check and offers grading tools.

At the moment Turnitin are working on changes to their systems that will replace their classic interface for the Similarity (originality) report and the GradeMark toolset with a new interface  now called the Turnitin Feedback Studio. Here at Durham University we are planning on activating this over summer 2017.

Testing by the Learning Technologies Team has shown no significant change in the functionality that can be used to provide feedback and grades. There are however significant changes in the interface to access those tools. Durham staff are encouraged to take time and explore Turnitin’s Feedback Studio interactive demo.

Turnitin are working to improve and add features to Feedback Studio.  Currently they are investigating improving the style of rubric they provide, which may look something like the wireframe below: 


As the sketch of the new style of rubric shows, this gives both the traditional table (with optional scores) and a free text comment area for more personalised feedback.  Staff feedback on this is being requested via the IT Servicedesk.

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Transforming Perception

It seems simple to suggest that if you give people access technology that allows them to save hours of their time and simultaneously saves their employer money that such an idea would be popular. This has been a long standing argument for the use of video conferencing and more recently desktop conferencing collaboration solutions like Skype for Business.

Unfortunately when it comes to how we  interact with people, there is a common preference for face-to-face engagement because various tangible and intangible benefits are associated with in-person contact. Furthermore, if the technology can be a bit clunky to use, isn’t intuitive or delivers an experience that is not immersive and which distorts engagement in a manner that emphasises the physical disconnect, then driving user adoption becomes much harder.
If you look at the state-of-the-art in video conferencing there are several studio type solutions that are addressing some of these challenges. Solutions like Polycom’s RealPresence Immersive solution offer life size replications of participants at a distance and provide a more ‘in the room’ experience. The technological solutions tend to be complicated, requiring multiple video conferencing units to be operated synchronously and the cost for implementation can be eye watering. The results however are impressive.

Video Conferencing Studio

I have been looking for a solution that allows us to revolutionise how we facilitate student and staff collaboration and engagement across distance. this has been driven by identified requirements based on my work to support our doctoral training partnerships. There is also a growing desire within broader academic teaching initiatives and professional support functions to allow the perception of distance and barriers to engagement to be reduced.When the art of the possible is compared to a traditional view of a video conferencing call the difference is stark:

A common video conferencing view

York-based Saville Audio Visual recently facilitated a demo for us of the innovative video conferencing solution from Array Telepresence. This US-based firm has developed some very clever camera and encoding technology that allow the traditional video conferencing view to be transformed. Through the use of a proprietary camera technology that sits on the bezel between two flush mounted screens it offers an eye-level user experience and the life-size representation of participants when coupled with a suitably large screens.

Array Telepresence Equal-I Video Conferencing

The magic in Array’s solution is around the depth perception. The person 2nd in from the left is 15ft away from the 1st person in from the right, but when viewed in the call the illusion is that they are near equidistant. A person can stand up in the room and pace around the back of the seating area and still be in full frame which keeps those members included in the call. The solution is tested and proven with up to 20 delegates in view and that limit could probably be pushed further. There’s better photography and more technical information on the Array website.

This is in my view one of the biggest innovations we have seen in this space in recent years. It is a game changer and the cost is very attainable in comparison to far more complex and replicated hardware based solutions. The  experience of the Array technology is further enhanced with the use of a bridge table and clever furniture design to bring the screens down to table level height. How many video conferencing facilities do you use where the screens are hung high up on the wall? Once you’ve experienced a well-designed alternative you appreciate how unnatural this is.


Bridge Table and Integrated AV Wall

Clever design like Saville’s bespoke in-house created solution pictured above allows the room to be used for normal non-video meetings too. It’s when it’s used for the video calls it was designed for the investment is realised – participants are optimally distanced and a sense of continuation of the desk between venues is achieved. Considered in the round with subtle sound deadening, complexion enhancing backdrops and designed lighting it’s an impressive package and the psychological difference it made was far greater than I had considered.

Many thanks to John Andrews for facilitating the demo. For more information contact Saville AV.

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Getting Connected at Durham University

Each year shortly after the start of term I provide some insight into device usage stats. As a re-cap Durham University runs Get Connected surgeries for students during the start of term and the stats collected from the surgeries as well as from Bradford Campus Manager (BCM) are used to compile some stats that we track.


  • 38,383 student devices connected to the network safe and authenticated, protecting the integrity of the network and giving visibility of which devices the students are using and who owns these devices.
  • This is an increase of 5,433 since April 2016 and an increase of 1,645 from October 2015.
  • 39% of everything connected to the student network is an iPhone and in total Apple products make up 65%.
  • Usage is tied between Android and Windows, both at 17%.
  • For the first time there are now more Mac devices (6,440) than Windows devices(6,402) connected to the student network.



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Browser Trends

Some recent trends have prompted the Learning Technologies Team to consider what web browsers are being used on mobile and computer devices here at Durham University to access our Blackboard VLE. The analytics extract below shows some of our user demographics since the start of term (3rd October). It’s interesting to see the breakdown of the top 10.  For infrequent analytics users remember that the numbers don’t represent numbers of users but hits by device.

browser usage stats

The interesting thing from these stats is that although over 66% of the device we see on the wireless network are Apple devices, by far the most popular is chrome on windows with 24%. Apple’s flagship browser Safari is close behind it, with our Blackboard users choosing to learn via their Mac with 21%. An additional 15% come from direct access via iOS. These are users choosing to access Blackboard via their browser rather than in the student app. A perhaps surprising figure is the number of users choosing Chrome  as their Apple Mac browser at 12%.

The takeaway for the team is that this makes Safari a far more important browser to our users than had been imagined.  Consequently we might want to think about this when we consider our testing and feature rollout in the future, along with more emphasis in our guidance and support.  It will be curious to see how this breakdown changes in the next few months and again after Christmas when lots of the students come back with shiny new kit.

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MoCOW in Black*

*other colours available.

In mid November I delivered a presentation to the IT Space Managers Group conference at Dundee University on our current work with MoCOWs. I’ve blogged about these before so if you want the background you can read more in earlier posts.


The presentation focused on the development of a teaching space equipped with MoCOW units which followed discussions within the University Learning Resources Management Group (sub-group of Education Committee), where it was agreed to create a pilot innovative flexible learning space as part of refurbishment during Summer 2015.

The pilot was outlined as best suited to a 20 capacity flat floor seminar room with flexible furniture and AV equipment. Following internal discussion we identified the School of Education as an ideal partner for adoption and a way forwards was agreed with Head of Department.

Durham University is long-established provider of initial teacher education and has been training teachers since the 1830s. It provides three full-time programmes leading to qualified teacher status (QTS):

  • Three year BA (Hons) degree in primary education with QTS
  • One-year primary PGCE
  • One-year secondary PGCE

It’s also a department with a good track record of research in the use of technology to support learning. Research interests include:

  • Effective use of information and communications technology (ICT).
  • Digital technologies for learning in schools.
  • Understanding how children’s thinking and reasoning develops.
  • How teachers can be supported in developing the quality of teaching and learning in their classrooms.

The design phase for the work led to a decision to create a default room position configured for group work and following a primary education theme to tie in a colour scheme based on Red, Green, Blue, Yellow colours with coordinated furniture and finishing. In the end we opted for TopTec Plectrum Tables and Ikon Chairs. The room was ready for the start of teaching in October 2015.


The end result is a teaching space where as one of the academics using it said “nothing has been taken away and [we] have added value” and capability to enhance student teaching and learning. The true extent of the possibilities are something that the academic department are coming to terms with and we are excited to see how they develop this potential in the coming months and use the technology and innovative software including Xest which we think is another UK first.

In addition to the five MoCOWs in the pilot seminar room we introduced a further five units in black finish across campus to support a variety of small learning and meeting spaces and the feedback has all been extremely positive, particularly noted was the mobility and collaborative functionality of the devices which has transformed the use of some spaces. Three of the MoCOWs are available as resources in Microsoft Exchange and can be reserved for use to support staff users in their events.


Work is now underway to consider how we might further expand our herd of 12 MoCOWs to further support the ambitions and requirements in the next academic year.

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The OneNote Advantage

Based on recent observations over the academic year to date, I am now convinced that the use of Microsoft OneNote is transforming the way in which the University learns, advances knowledge and manages more effectively. For years our students and staff have used a range of tools to make notes relating to taught classes, research activities and management meetings and decisions. I’m including myself in this. In the last two years I’ve used six different software platforms to keep work related notes with varying degrees of success and regularity.

After a brief campaign to raise awareness of our existing institutional OneNote capability, what we are now seeing now is a step change in adoption. OneNote offers a tool that allows the notes belonging to an individual to be logically organized, tagged with meta data and classified using taxonomies, accessed across a range of desktop and mobile devices, integrated into our Microsoft based IT estate and securely backed up. The feedback from students and academic staff is compelling – in back to back comparison with other note taking software, OneNote is emerging as a go to solution and is being openly recommended through peer group interactions.

Don’t just take my word for it, have a look at this back to back comparison with one of the mainstay systems in use in many Universities, Evernote, by Catherine Pope. For a view on the comparison with one of Apple’s native Apps (Notes), Jason Cipriani over at Macworld has this covered.