1. Operational Issues

Purpose: Demonstrate both understanding and use of learning technology. ‘Use’ might include the development, adaptation or application of technology within teaching, training or the support of learning more generally.

1 a) Development of the PORT VLE

Requirement: An understanding of the constraints and benefits of different technology



The approach for the learning technologist differs depending on whether training is to be provided online, face-to-face, or via a mix of the two (blended learning). My role at the School of Advanced Study (SAS) focuses extensively on the first of these; the development and re-deployment of learning materials for online sharing to a national postgraduate cohort.

In 2013, SAS agreed to my proposal to develop new online research training resources for use by cohorts of postgraduates studying in all the disciplines encompassed by the arts and humanities and for use nationally and internationally for free. The case for this type of resource was strong as the 2012 HEFCE review had noted that the School needed to enhance its national role by making significant contributions to the sustainability and dynamism of UK humanities research and that the School should:

‘…create, promote, and foster opportunities for enhanced collaboration and exchange both within and between discipline areas’

SAS runs a variety of unique, introductory and/or specialist research training events each year intended for postgraduate students from across the UK, but these generally require travel to London. One of the core remits of HEFCE funding to SAS is that it facilitates research on a national scale.

EVIDENCE: HEFCE 2012 Review paper for SAS (page 18)

My argument that the development of online training resources enables SAS to better fulfil that role confirmed the case for its development.

What I did

My task was to decide upon the best technology to use for the new development which I outlined in a preliminary document to the sub-committee.

EVIDENCE: Online Research Training Preliminary document presented to RT sub-committee (Jan 2014)

In summary, I endorsed a VLE approach using the open source Moodle system. I further argued that this should be non-tutor supported so that users could complete materials on their own in their own time and would, therefore, not require extensive staff support. The new VLE should incorporate the existing research training courses and guides from the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) and Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) as legacy courses. It should also be flexible and manageable for development of new content and to encourage other staff members to contribute.

Offering training content for free using Moodle did offer a variety of benefits it did also offer several significant constraints which I had to either rectify or, help minimise. For example, although Moodle can offer guest access many of its features are designed for registered users only. Interactive elements would not work. Part way through the development it was discovered that Moodle does not work well with search engines, which proved a problem for findability of our resources. I have talked about these issues and how I helped to resolve them in several blog posts.

EVIDENCE: Sixteenth Century Scholars – Using Moodle to create a publicly facing online training website

EVIDENCE: Talking Humanities Blog – Creating interaction for training tutorials online [This blog post is not yet realised as it is awaiting the launch of the first bytesize tutorial on PORT].

The VLE, which would become known as PORT, began development in January 2014 and was launched in December 2014 (and first advertised in January 2015).

Reflection My reasoning for supporting a non-tutor based Moodle VLE was firmly entrenched in my understanding and knowledge of the technological capabilities of Moodle, its ability to enable SAS to sustainably and visibly develop its online training provision, and its flexibility for a variety of training resources envisaged now and in the future. The requirements included:

  1. Ease of use for staff members not usually working on VLE’s
  2. To enable SAS staff to re-use existing content where possible
  3. To encourage the development of new content
  4. To create a variety of content myself
  5. To encourage funding bids to support course development

Through my experience of using Moodle for History SPOT, I knew that Moodle could satisfy these requirements well. The learning curve to use Moodle is relatively low leaving largely pedagogical challenges to be addressed in the development of new content. Moodle offers easy registration and varied user profiles to enable any and all staff members to gain enough access rights to develop and manage content. Whilst working on History SPOT I was involved in various funding bids that were won partly because we already had a working, viable, and sustainable platform for online training content (see Operational Issues, section C).

There were several other benefits for using Moodle rather than Blackboard or taking a MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) approach.

  1. Moodle is open source and therefore costs are reduced to server space and support.
  2. ULCC, our service provider, has strong expertise in Moodle support, but not Blackboard
  3. All but one of the legacy courses were already on a Moodle instillation (History SPOT) making transference of courses quicker, easier and cost effective.
  4. Moodle is a lead-supplier of VLE’s and is therefore regularly updated and offers sustainability and security.
  5. Plugins and external tools can be incorporated for more flexibility and expansion.

I was also aware that utilising Moodle did also have its drawbacks. I have learnt over the last five years that Moodle is less flexible than other systems (such as Drupal), in terms of freedom of design and structure. Its inbuilt tools, whilst useful, are often limited by the need for user registration, which we were trying to avoid in this instance. As the project developed, other limitations became apparent. Some of these were related to our chosen design and our basic requirements, whilst others were general issues with Moodle. For instance, fairly late in the development ULCC discovered that Moodle would not support a fully-working search engine, making access to internal content more difficult – this has proven to be a large drawback and it is an item still on my list to redress. Moodle is also not set up for multiple categorisation of courses and content. SAS required categorisation by discipline and by institution. I therefore had to use my imagination by using the sub-page tool on the front page as a means to manually create categories. Whilst this is far from a perfect solution, it does work.

I believe and maintain that with a bit of creative thinking, Moodle was by far the most appropriate technology to develop a new training website quickly, cheaply and efficiently. I feel that Moodle offers ease of use for staff members – this is necessary to future participation and the continued development of the website – and I feel that Moodle also offers a straight-forward means for students to engage with the content that we create.

That said, if I were to do this again I would consider other VLE and website systems as an alternative platform. Since the development of PORT I have learnt about various alternatives and realised that there are now stronger interactive tools in existence which makes a good deal of the Moodle system unnecessary, or might do in the near future.

This is something that I will need to keep a close eye on and to consider when developing materials. I believe that my choice of Moodle was the correct one at this point in time, especially as we already had legacy courses in this format. However, I also believe that it would be shortsighted of me not to at least consider alternatives in the future and – going forward – to consider both the base system that we use as well as alternative means to present and share training content.

1 b) online course creation

Requirement: Technical knowledge and ability in the use of learning technology


Description/Evidence  Introduction

As day to day operational manager of first History SPOT and now PORT, my role requires that I create as well as manage the design of research training resources. To be successful I need to maintain a strong technical knowledge of the tools available to me and an understanding of how best to use learning technologies to present training to users.

What I did

In 2010 I undertook training in Moodle to ensure that I was able to make the best use out of the VLE system. I have also self-taught myself using online tutorials and articles and through practical application of tools.

Over the last five years I have primarily created learning content on Moodle VLE’s using a combination of the Book activity, pages, videos, and quizzes. In many cases I have been working in collaboration with others. Sometimes, another expert has written the content and I have only inputted that content onto the Moodle system – structuring and redesigning it where necessary – on other occasions, I have written and designed significant elements of the content myself.

Databases for Historians

Dr Mark Merry (IHR) wrote the content. I inputted the handbook into a Book activity and for the chargeable course helped structure and input the various elements of content.

InScribe Palaeography

Dr Francisco Alvarez wrote the content. I provided technical and pedagogical advice for the project and aided in the discussions and development of a specification for the transcription tool for the designers at Kings College London Digital Humanities division. I also filmed and edited the videos for the modules.

EVIDENCE: InScribe Palaeography video tutorials playlist

Example video:

EVIDENCE: Example page from Transcription Tool

Digital Tools Tutorials

Most of the content was written by Jonathan Blaney, Dr Mark Merry and Matteo Romanello. I created the module on Introduction to text mining. I also inputted all of the content onto the Moodle VLE and designed the structure and look of the course.

Data Preservation

The content was written by the ULCC digital technologies division. I inputted the content onto the Moodle VLE for them and created SCORM packages for the reuse of the package. As Moodle does not itself create SCORM I had to learn how to use the eXe open source application to re-package the content.


Managing your Research

I managed and coordinated the development of the course and the partners involved in the project from start to completion. All content was inputted by me, although large portions were written by partners at the University of Hull and University of Sheffield. I edited the video content from raw footage and filmed the IHR segments myself. I also wrote significant portions of the final course.

EVIDENCE: Managing your Research video tutorials playlist

Example video:

EVIDENCE: Meeting2 Hull – 23 April 2013 [sample minutes from partners meeting]

Qualitative Methods

All content was written by Dr Doug Brown. I inputted all the content into Moodle designing the structure of the course around the content.

A PORT for Modern Languages

Pre-existing content from a legacy course developed initially on Drupal. I re-deployed the content onto Moodle re-structuring it where necessary.

EVIDENCE: Case Study – Converting a training course from Drupal to Moodle

EVIDENCE: Video Showing how I converted the course:

Video 1 – Converting a course from Drupal to Moodle.mp4

Blogging for Historians

This is a blog that I developed out of a scholarship from the Social Media Knowledge Exchange (SMKE) which investigated best practice in History blogging. As part of the final package I developed a short training tutorial on the blog and wrote a variety of posts about how to write and use a blog.

EVIDENCE: tutorial on Blogging for Historians

Reflection When I first started I had only used Blackboard as a tutor (using it as a data repository). When working on History SPOT I inputted most of the content although I only wrote or created small portions of it myself. At first I envisaged only handbooks with text and images, but as I learnt more about the technological capabilities of Moodle I advised creators to offer more complex training exercises, pushing for the use of video as well as interactive elements. This meant that I needed to learn how to film and edit videos myself. Although I requested video training, this was not immediately forthcoming and therefore I learnt how to create these videos on the job. Some of them I would say have come out well, others are not so well done either due to my lack of filming ability or due to the editing process. There remains an ‘amateur’ nature to them.

If I were to create these courses again I would move away from their focus on ‘text’ and attempt to offer the training through videos, quizzes, and interactive diagrams. The most successful early course is InScribe Palaeography, largely because of the interactivity it offers through its transcription tool. When coming to design Managing your Research I learnt from this fact, by opting to incorporate a data management plan at the heart of the course, so that users would use the tutorials to write up their own plan. This made the course immediately useful and practical.

In general, I am happy with how each course has come out but I am now realizing that the older materials are beginning to show their age as technology has progressed. I would therefore do them differently now to work with the latest technology but also for pedagogical reasons. Through interaction with staff and students I have realized that some online tuition works best in short ‘bytesize’ pieces that can be completed successfully in a very short period of time. This approach is now something that I am experimenting with for new content and, in time, re-purposing of old content.

1 c) Funding Bids

Requirement: Supporting the deployment of learning technologies

Description/ Reflection  What I did

As both History SPOT and PORT provide free research skills training online, as a means to part fulfil the School of Advanced Study’s national remit as outlined by HEFCE, there are no direct financial returns. Although indirectly our online tutorials and courses might encourage participation in face to face training and SAS events, the development of new courses require a stream of money beyond what SAS can dedicate to it. I have therefore led or taken part in a variety of funding bids to enable course development and expansion of the learning technology.

Most of these have met with success, but not all. In 2010 I attended a two-day residential course at the Missenden Centre on developing funding bids. This was extremely useful in enabling me to write clear, coherent and successful bids in collaboration with various colleagues and partners.

EVIDENCE: Documents from Missenden Funding Bid Training

The table below shows the funding bids that I have been involved in. For AHRC bids I was not able to officially participate as the Principal investigate even in cases where that would be my actual role (i.e. the History DMT bid). In all cases I was either involved in the writing of the bid or wrote the bid myself (this is noted in the table [unavailable in this version of the eportfolio]).

EVIDENCE: Space In-between – Interdisiplinarity Funding Bid

EVIDENCE: History DMT Funding Bid

EVIDENCE: AHRC funding acceptance email


Reflection  I had never written a successful funding bid before the Missenden training, although the bids that I had made were for funding of my own degree training. I remember being quite nervous about writing bids in the beginning and the training helped me to overcome these fears by guiding me in the right direction. I have since learnt a lot more about writing bids through experience, but I am still conscious that I have a lot to learn in this regard. Writing successful funding bids is a specialised discipline in its own right.It has now been a while since I have written or co-written a significant funding application and I do feel that I need to brush up on my knowledge again, and pay closer attention to the funding environment, as I will now need to cater to different needs and requirements, than I might have done five years ago, when I received training.

One thing that I did not do well in the past was to share the funding application more widely when writing it, to gain more opinions and ideas. I usually shared the file with only a few individuals. This, I now feel, is a mistake. The applications would have benefited from additional eyes. I have only really gained this insight recently, as a by-product of working more closely with a variety of institutes and people in the School of Advanced Study.

Obtaining funding for discrete training modules is not only important in getting them created in the first place, but also for thinking through exactly what the training should be (and why) and in offering opportunities to work collaboratively. Through successful funding bids I have worked with ULCC (University of London Computer Centre), the University of Hull, University of Sheffield, CRASSH Centre, University of Cambridge, the University of Kent, and the Museum of London, and several other partners. This has been a useful experience in itself, offering up opportunities to offer students using the PORT courses a variety of expertise and viewpoints. PORT is more diverse and inclusive because of these successful bids.   

Core Areas