Photo of The Royal Veterinary College, Camden Campus

A week in the life of… Sarah Sherman, The Bloomsbury Colleges

Photo of Sarah Sherman
Sarah Sherman, Service Manager for the Bloomsbury Learning Environment (BLE)

Bloomsbury Learning Environment logoLike many others in e-learning, no one working week for me is ever the same; unlike others though, even my place of work varies daily. For nearly five years, I have been the Service Manager for the Bloomsbury Learning Environment (BLE) – a shared e-learning service for five federal colleges of the University of London: Birkbeck, Institute of Education (IOE), London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) and the Royal Veterinary College (RVC).As well as sharing a VLE (I am currently managing the overall migration from Blackboard to Moodle), I support the development and implementation of a number of other shared services including web-conferencing (currently under review), lecture capture and a digital media repository. I tweet a lot (as @BLE1), originally as a way of keeping the BLE Technical Team of learning technologists updated about what I am up to – but now, I am a little addicted. Although my week is usually jam-packed with meetings across the Colleges, I never have too far to travel.


Photo of The Royal Veterinary College, Camden Campus
The Royal Veterinary College, Camden Campus (c) Stephen McKay licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licence

I usually start off my week at the RVC’s Camden campus; the E-Media Unit has a weekly team meeting, so it is good to check in with them to see what is happening. Today, the RVC’s new VLE Manager, Ben Audsley has started; Ben has no easy task, as he will be thrown straight into supporting the RVC with their imminent migration from Blackboard “Classic” to Moodle 2, which they are branding “RVC Learn”. Like the other Bloomsbury Colleges, Moodle will be in full use at the start of 2012-13, and I am managing the overall transition, assisted by the BLE Officer, Yanna Nedelcheva.

@BLE1: Uh oh – the new VLE Manager at the RVC is a Chelsea supporter. And I thought I’d interviewed him so well… #qpr


Bloomsbury Media Cloud logoLater on, I am interviewed by Stuart Bowness, the CEO of MediaCore; MediaCore provides a digital media platform that the Colleges are starting to use to store, manage and distribute video and audio content. Branded the “Bloomsbury Media Cloud”, it was initially funded by a JISC grant and is now in the process of becoming a part of the BLE service. During the interview, I talk about the growing use of video content, lecture capture and mobile devices observed across the Colleges.

@BLE1: Video-shoot with @stuartbowness for @getmediacore is complete. Hope I said something useful! Now back to editing our Moving to Moodle videos!

During the afternoon, I make a stab at editing the first in a series of five videos that the BLE has produced (in conjunction with the University of London Computer Centre (ULCC)) regarding the migration to Moodle. A few emails, some invoices processed and a couple of phone calls later, and I am finished for the day.

@BLE1: Leaving work in the sun + just seen a performance by Cuban dance company Ballet Revolucion at St Pancras station. The summer is coming!


Photo of The Royal Veterinary College, Hawkshead Campus
The Royal Veterinary College, Hawkshead Campus (c) RVC

The RVC’s Hertfordshire site, known locally as the Hawkshead campus, is one of my favourite places to work. Based on acres of lush green land with a working dairy farm and animal referral hospital, the Hawkshead campus couldn’t be any different from vibrant, noisy Camden Town. With cows, horses, sheep and dogs on site, it is a lovely place to work.

@BLE1: My office rocks. One of the guys has brought in a birthday cake. And it’s not even anyone’s birthday!! :)

I spend the morning editing three of the five “Moving to Moodle” videos – “Why”, “Getting Started” and “The Challenges”; only two left – “The Advantages” and “Top Tips”. For the videos, we interviewed local academics and course administrators, who have been early adopters of Moodle this year, and members of the BLE Technical Team about their Moodle experiences so far. As well as being a useful resource for our own staff, who will all be using Moodle in the next academic year, we hope the videos will be of interest to the wider community.

During the afternoon, I attend a meeting for academics involved in teaching the BVetMed course – the largest at the RVC. The purpose is to discuss progress in building the new course site in Moodle, the process by which learning materials will be added to the site and the new functionality that can enhance the students’ learning experience. To help put the move to Moodle into context, the project’s academic champion, Jill Madison, describes her own Moodle learning journey by using the analogy of a house, where:

  • The gates = the front-page of the site;
  • The house = a course;
  • The windows and doors = how students will access course content;
  • The rooms = the location for course content;
  • The interior design of the room = the structure of the content;
  • The soft furnishings = the course content.

The aim of the meeting is to address and alleviate the academics’ concerns and anxiety about what the move entails by demonstrating Moodle’s intuitive, user-friendly interface.

@BLE1: An academic addressing other academics about how easy-to-use Moodle is “Really, we’re not dumb”.

@BLE1: Love how RVC academics are also real-life surgeons. Someone’s bleeper has gone off + they’ve had to leave. Hope it’s nothing serious…

@BLE1: Discussing the structure of a Moodle course and there’s a lot of reference to diarrhoea… Vets…!

To support staff across the Colleges, I am coordinating an academic showcase event to help highlight the change in VLE. At the event, which will cover the use of Moodle for Distance Learning and for enhancing face-to-face teaching, case studies will be provided by academics who already have some experience using the platform.


Today, I attend the Echo360 Community Conference to find out about the latest uses of the service at other institutions and to see what developments are coming. The event also provides the first opportunity of an outing for my iPad! I am using Evernote for my notes, Twitterrific for following the Twitter back-channel (and sending a few tweets of my own); plus I take the odd cursory glance at email and Facebook. I find the use of Twitter at conferences a mixed blessing – it is a great way to keep a record of pertinent points that are raised and to keep updated about events that you are not attending. I also use my tweets and those sent by other attendees to complement my notes. There is however a real skill in making a 140-character note whilst paying attention to the speaker’s ongoing presentation. The back-channel that Twitter providename=”closedpostboxesnonce”

9here is always the danger of less-than-favourable comments about speakers being openly shared. This open, social commentary that Twitter provides is a real culture shift for the British stereotype of politeness and restraint. These days, anything you say in public is open for discussion, exploration, debate and criticism.

Royal Veterinary Podcast logoReturning to today, the Bloomsbury Colleges have, to varying degrees, flirted with the implementation of Echo360 for lecture capture. The most successful deployments have been at the RVC and LSHTM. The RVC has been recording their lectures for many years now – originally managed by a team of students who used MP3 recorders provided by the E-Media Unit. They “topped” and “tailed” the recordings using Audacity (a free audio editor) and then manually added them to the relevant course in Blackboard. The RVC now has Echo360 running in six of its main lecture theatres, which automatically record the audio and whatever is displayed through the projector (i.e. PowerPoint slides or a visualiser). With the use of scheduling software, the recordings are automatically added to the relevant Blackboard course. Similarly, LSHTM has installed their two main lecture theatres and two large classrooms with the Echo360 hardware. Their feedback from students has been extremely positive, and suggests they are mainly using the recordings for revision.

A selection of tweets from the conference:

@BLE1: Successful Echo360 implementation must be supported by dedicated staff #cce2012

@BLE1: “Deeply entrenched naked hostility” felt by academics at QMUL regarding Echo360 #cce2012

@BLE1: Wow. 176 Echo360’d teaching rooms set up in 6 months @ Georgetown University #cce2012

@BLE1: There’s a danger of making Echo360 too collaborative without deep integration with the VLE. Too many places to go to access content #cce2012


I start off today working at home, which involves catching up with some email correspondence over the BLE academic showcase to confirm the speakers. I am pleased that over 30 people have already reserved a place at the event despite the agenda not having been circulated; Bloomsbury-ites seem to have faith in me that it will be worth attending! There is also an email exchange about keynote speakers at this year’s ALT-C, which I am co-chairing with Julie Voce from Imperial College London and Jonathan Drori, Director of Changing Media Development.

Photo of London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine © David Hawgood licenced under licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licence

At midday, I am at LSHTM for the monthly BLE Steering Group meeting. The BLE Steering Group is my management board, consisting of a representative from each College. The members cover a range of constituencies – electronic media and learning technologies, academic development and IT. Items on the agenda include Moodle migration progress across the Colleges and any issues that they are facing; discussion about the BLE annual budget; update about the BLE web conferencing review (we are evaluating Blackboard Collaborate, which we already use, and Adobe Connect); and the progress of the Bloomsbury Mobile App Working Group (we are exploring the potential use and possible solutions). This meeting provides me with the opportunity to report back about my own activities and raise any issues that the BLE Technical Team may be facing.

Photo of Senate House
Senate House, University of London (c) stevecadman licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licence

Straight after this meeting, I cross over the road to Senate House, HQ of the University of London (also used as The Ministry of Truth in the film version of “1984”, Bertie Wooster’s residence in the ITV version of “Jeeves and Wooster” amongst others!). I am a member of the University of London International Academy’s (UoLIA) Systems and Technologies Sub-Committee, which is meeting today.

@BLE1: In a UoL ICT meeting of a dozen people where I’m the only woman…

Items on the agenda include a look at UoLIA’s new online enquiry system, updates about a project regarding the scanning of exam scripts and e-marking, and an update about a showcase event being planned about mobile learning.

As soon as that meeting is over, I hotfoot it to Birkbeck, which is next door. There, I meet with Katharine Bock, the coordinator of the Bloomsbury Colleges, who is responsible for overseeing all the joint Bloomsbury initiatives and acts as secretary to the Bloomsbury Heads of Administration and Colleges Groups. Recently, I submitted a briefing paper to the Heads of Administration regarding the Bloomsbury Media Cloud, so I wanted to see how that was received. The Heads have also taken a keen interest in the migration to Moodle from the beginning and indeed took the overall responsibility for making the final decision back in May 2011. A BLE Migration Programme Board, which provides a layer of governance to the project, is chaired by one of the Heads of Administration. He feeds back to the group formally, but it is useful to update Katharine about the progress so far, and I realise that a briefing report to the Heads would not go amiss.

At 5pm, I pop upstairs to say hello to the e-learning team at Birkbeck and catch up with Leo Havemann, one of the learning technologists, over a cup of tea in the canteen. We end up chatting to a student who is about to go to a class (most of Birkbeck’s courses take place in the evening). She is in the third year of a History degree, something she is doing in her retirement, so her studies are not for a career move but purely for her own enjoyment.


@BLE1: Brrr. It’s chilly and looks like snow… :/

Meditation at SOAS
Meditation at SOAS © Colin Smith licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licence

This morning, I have a meeting with one of the finance managers at SOAS to get some advice about better management of the BLE accounts. We end up talking about my days as a primary school teacher and how I ended up in the world of e-learning (much more interesting than finance for him, I suppose!). It was serendipitous, really – I left my teaching post when my husband and I decided to move from southeast to northwest London. Whilst looking for somewhere to live, I started temping before heading back to teaching, as I intended. I ended up working at JISC for three years on a temporary contract before moving on to the JISC Regional Support Centre in London as the e-learning adviser for Higher Education. I was then offered the BLE Service Manager position, which I have been doing since 2007.

Photo of pizza vending machine at SOAS
SOAS’ pizza vending machine © Sarah Sherman licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licence

For lunch, I decided not to have a pizza from SOAS’ vending machine (as tempting as it sounds), and grabbed a sandwich before sitting down to work at one of several Bloomsbury hot-desks available to me. One of the tasks of the Moodle migration project is to consider the Blackboard legacy data – information that we will not be able to easily access once our licence terminates. A lot of data will be retained in the archive of a Blackboard course but without Blackboard to drop the archive into, the archive is not very useful. The archive contains many XML files that are near on impossible for the average course administrator or academic to interpret. The other tricky thing has been identifying exactly what legacy data is required by the Colleges – a task hard enough for one institution to do, let alone five. As we are amongst the first to be migrating from Blackboard “Classic” to Moodle, little documentation and few tools exist to support us; part of the reason we are keeping track of our processes via our migration website and blog, and releasing the video case studies.

In order to help with task, I head to Senate House’s cafe towards the end of the day to meet with a few non-Bloomsbury colleagues (Stephen Vickers, a freelance consultant specialising in educational technology and Julie Voce, who have both been attending a WebPA (peer assessment tool) special interest group meeting at ULCC) for a cup of tea to get some ideas from their perspectives. My short-term strategy is decided: to get the BLE Steering Group members to provide definitive advice over their retention policies and the period of time that a student has to appeal their grade (some of which I already have) and demonstrate to them what is actually possible with the archive file.

So, that concludes another long week in the life of me. I love my job, the extended team of people with whom I work and the varied activities in which I am involved. There is never enough time in the week to do everything I need to do, and I often accidentally find myself catching up at the weekend – but without resentment, as I know another similarly busy but interesting week is on its way!

Sarah Sherman
Bloomsbury Colleges

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