Blogs and Workflow: behind the screen

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Welcome to CLTAD, the UAL Centre for Learning and Teaching in Art and Design. Responsible for the development and support of staff, the centre also develops online tools: at the centre of which is Moodle, the core of the new Virtual Learning Environment.  Whilst you are probably familiar with Moodle, CLTAD also develops and maintains other tools that not only support teaching but also enhance the UAL students’ learning experience.

Sarah Kante had a chat with Mike Kelly, who is responsible for the development and maintenance of the myblog.arts and Workflow platforms. From the development of custom e-learning tools, to implementation and feedback from the users (you!), Mike takes us behind the screen.

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So, why does UAL develop and maintain virtual tools and platforms when existing ones are already available to anyone with an internet connection?

Some students will create Facebook groups to share their work or combine resources, but I think they [students and staff] still expect to have an area with a degree of professionalism where they can have an appropriate academic discourse.

Mike takes us through both tools that are there to answer this expectation.

The open source solution

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The two tools that Mike talked to us about are based on open source software.

People would say, ‘we’re a big institution why don’t we go away and write our own software?’  However, it is sensible to go with an open source software package: there is a very big community of people developing it and there are many hours of development already in there. We have really limited resources in terms of development, and these are very large-scale projects. It’s better to start with something that is already fairly mature and to customise it. We can’t realistically develop something so complex with the resources we have. The decision was taken to go with something that was as close to what we needed as possible, and then to tweak it.

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Myblog.arts is based on the WordPress software, Workflow is based on Mahara, but that does not mean that Mike and the CLTAD team’s work is done once they’ve installed the software and deployed it across the University: Unfortunately, you can’t just set it up and leave it running. With open source software like WordPress, it’s a bit of a victim of its own popularity. So many people use it that it might be a target for hackers.  We continually add updates and try to improve the security.  We also try to keep up with the development of the software: it develops at a fast rate! So it is about continual updates to keep up with the latest versions.

Myblogs.arts and the UAL community

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Having a UAL platform for blogs may seem a bit pointless. After all, we’ve all heard of Blogger, Tumblr etc. Why bother with a UAL blog space?

There was a requirement for some people to have a medium for reflective practice and to discuss their work, but also to have some kind of custom web space, which they could customise in a way that lets them say something about their own creativity,y and their own practice and personality.

We settled on WordPress for technical reasons and the fact that it is open source. That would let us customise it to meet our requirements, and there was also a precedent – which was helpful when I was trying to get the system set up – with other universities using WordPress, notably Harvard.

We also had all these social features: we could have a directory of the different blogs, messaging, seeing people’s activities, creating groups…

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The UAL community is something that is very important and at the centre of the tools that CLTAD works on. It is about a community of practice, and a safe environment for students and staff to develop, share, communicate and give feedback.

We’re trying to create UAL communities, and instead of having our content all over the web, it’s really useful for everybody if they can see all that content in one place. It has practical implications for staff, as it means they don’t have to go searching all over the web for a student’s work. The fact that to access these services you have to have a university login and password means that you control who gets to see or use those services. For some people who are new to university and don’t want to go completely public with their work and to have a degree of privacy, it is very important that they have a safe place to develop. Having this community, which is limited only to members of the University, provides this kind of safety for people.

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One of the things Mike worked on for the myblog.arts platform is the urls. In a WordPress community, the urls of your blog are members’ usernames… The idea behind that was to make it a bit more personalised, give people a sense of ownership, let people take possession of the tools, and be enthusiastic about using a resource that has their identity stamp on it. So this was some necessary custom development I did. People can have five blogs, or more on request. 

This kind of development cannot be undertaken by Mike alone. Whist CLTAD is not the IT department, they do rely on IT for resources and for implementation of technical requirements, such as the urls, or a profanity filter on myblog.arts.

Workflow: a virtual studio

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Workflow was almost called studio.arts. The name of the platform is a direct reflection of the work Mike did before even setting up the platform.

I researched e-portfolio tools, but at the same time, I went around the Colleges and spoke with staff, and asked student groups to tell me about their expectations and what they would find useful in an e-portfolio platform. From a student’s point of view, an e-portfolio is a direct analogy to a physical portfolio: somewhere to showcase the best of your work, a potential marketing tool.

But that was not what CLTAD and Mike had in mind at all.

The idea was to support something called HEAR (Higher Education Academic Records), which is a recommendation in Higher Education. The broad idea is that people could leave education with a more detailed record of what they’ve achieved.

The new e-portfolio was supposed to document the process and evolution of the students, not the best, shiny, finished work that could be showcased somewhere else, like Showtime or Jotta (other UAL resources).

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That directed us away from using the term portfolio when we were setting it up and sharing it with people. To try and emphasise that it is about process and about sharing process, we called it Workflow. It is a virtual studio, not a virtual gallery: it is not just about the end result.

Having defined what the tool was meant to do, the process of tweaking Mahara to fit the UAL requirements and the special needs of its staff and students began.

Early on students and staff  explained that they wanted the interface to get out of the way and the work to be the star, as much as possible: the term ‘blank canvas’ came up a lot.

I have software development skills, so I tweaked Mahara and changed the look of it a bit. I also tried to improve its usability, and make it more appropriate for our own institution. For example in the original software there was no real way to browse through other people’s work, so we added all that side with quite a big emphasis on the visual.

I also did work on making pages a bit more customisable, in the way that you can design them. And a lot of these changes have gone back to the Mahara community and have been re-integrated into the official version.

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Because Workflow is a virtual studio, it is used as a tool for reflective practice and formative feedback: a virtual environment for crits by peers and tutors.

The great thing about Workflow is that it is again, a very user-centric resource, you have a lot of control about who gets to see what, it’s a selective publishing platform: you can publish your pages to a lot of people, or to the web, or to one tutor or peer group, so that gives it a lot of flexibility.

And again, it gives a safe learning environment for staff and students to develop and evolve, to share and even collaborate (through the Skillshare tab).

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Feedbacks and Integration

Myblog.arts and Workflow have been developed and deployed across the University for a couple of years now, so aside from keeping up to date with security and software updates, we asked Mike what was on the agenda for the future.

One of the things I’ve been working on recently is a more integrated approach between the different tools: facilitating logging into the blogs directly from Moodle, and also having a link from Moodle to people’s blog pages. We’ve got a prototype version of that. We also have a new thing: users can populate their blog using the membership of a Moodle course, same thing with Workflow group. It’s about making these connections between the different systems and trying to provide convenience for people.

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We are trying to fit things into the overall picture of the e-learning offerings that we have. And there is an emphasis on raising awareness, running workshops…

I think we neglected the communication side a little bit, but we do now have a communications team for the e-learning tools. In fact we have been running staff training sessions at CSM recently, and plan more for the Spring Term.

Let’s not forget, these tools are here for UAL staff and students to use and enjoy. CLTAD is staff-facing, but the end users are students, and the students’ experience is always at the centre of the tweaks and developments the team implements.

Our services are evolving and we try and respond to staff and students requirements. It’s frustrating for me when I see someone ranting on the blogs, saying ‘it doesn’t have the theme that I want, so I’m going to go and use Tumblr instead’. They should feel able to communicate with us and tell us what they need. We want people to tell us what works and what doesn’t.

But before you send an angry email requesting a thousand new themes for myblog.arts, remember that the reason behind the existence of these tools is the UAL community. What is useful for one person might just be clutter for most of the other users.

Myblog.arts and Workflow are CLTAD tools that promote teaching and learning art and design practices in a safe, virtual environment where sharing and communicating with the UAL community is very important. The tools are always evolving and the process is ongoing, like your practice. Using them to document and reflect on your evolution means that as a UAL student, you have a safe, easily accessible virtual studio and gallery that can be shared with your peers and tutors.

But if you really need that theme, Mike tells us: I think we are going to establish a more regular rota of getting feedback, consultations in terms of where to go in the future.

 

FURTHER READING

http://www.arts.ac.uk/study-at-ual/learning-and-teaching/

http://process.arts.ac.uk/category/project-groups/cltad-teaching-development-projects