If you're in the Community, chances are, he's following you. I had the pleasure of chatting with Matthew Deeprose, the Virtual Learning Environment Manager at the University of Southampton, in England. He has been in his present role for the past 16 years, and started with 0 users, 0 courses, and 0 students. Now, anything that involves Blackboard, he's at the center of it. Read on to see how his surprising academic background shaped a unique and successful path.
Rachel Reiss: For starters, tell us where you work?
Matthew Deeprose: I work at the University of Southampton (UoS), in the South of England near the coast. We are apparently one of the top 15 universities in the UK - I say "apparently" because there are all sorts of surveys with different criteria to judge this. See Reputation and rankings | University of Southampton for more info.
RR: What do you do at UoS? As in, what is your official job title?
MD:: My job title is "VLE Manager", or Virtual Learning Environment Manager. In America, you don't use the term VLE, you say LMS, but essentially it is the same thing. My colleague Sam and I support our Blackboard VLE here and do all of the support and training, project manage upgrades, resolve technical problems, and lots more. When I started, they were looking for someone to introduce the Blackboard service to the University, and it has become so important that it is now mission critical. Meaning, if the system goes down, the phone doesn't stop ringing until it's up again.
RR: You seem to love what you do - and are very good at it. What's the most challenging part?
MD: It's a system that so many people rely upon, but also what some people love to hate. I think our customers here can be very demanding and expect the best, though we can't always meet their expectations. In general, however, I think we provide an excellent service. We try to prove that by publishing how many tickets we resolve against our Service Level Targets on our blog: .
RR: How does your institution use Blackboard? Would you say they stick to more of a traditional lecture with virtual course access, stay mainly virtual, or support a blended learning style?
MD: The majority uses it in a traditional sense; so as ad-ons to face-to-face teaching. There is a lot of blended learning and the flipped-classroom model. We have a very small number of distance learning courses, and a few remote teaching locations - small campuses in China, Malaysia, Singapore, and Spain, who all use Blackboard. Each year there is a Blackboard course competition on campus where students can vote for their favorite course. This has brought in an element of competition between academics who want to be the best. So there's lots of different types of use, but the majority of students are in traditional lecture-style classes.
RR: Is this popularity of traditional lecture-style teaching just unique to your institution? Or prevalent throughout the UK?
MD: The majority have traditional-style teaching, but over the next 10 years, I think this will change as we move away from this model. Universities can be quite slow moving to pick up at these changes, so it certainly is an interesting time to be working in this sector. We gave a training course last week and everyone was happy experimenting and clicking away without any prompt from us, whereas 10 years ago, people would be waiting for us to say "click on this", "click on that". As new instructors come into the institution who are younger, they are much more confident about computer use. But that also means their expectations are going up. People expect things to develop and be as reliable as Google or Facebook. But that's a good thing because it means we have to continually grow and improve. My old boss used to say "if you're not growing, you're dying".
RR: Tell us a little about your work life. What's your work environment like?
MD: Here's a picture of my desk [pictured below]. I'm in a small team of 5 people, the managed learning environment team. We're based in the Central IT Department of the University. But, to give you a good picture, let's speak about what I've been doing over the past week. I really like that in this job, I get to interact with people at different levels of the University. Last week I was giving a presentation to what we call "pre-sessional" students, students from overseas who come onto campus early to learn English and start their degree. So I was giving an IT introduction to them. And later, I was preparing a presentation for senior members of the University who want to open up all Blackboard courses for guest access.
I'm often working with our database team or enterprise systems team resolving tricky technical problems. I've also been talking with two different publishers about integrating their resources into Blackboard, because some academics use their books. So the great thing is that because Blackboard touches many areas at the University, I get to interact with those areas and every day on the job is different. Academics, professional staff, students, and so on.
RR: I noticed you have an academic background in Russian and Russian studies. How did you end up in the tech world?
MD: Good question! I've been interested in technology since receiving my first computer as a birthday present when I was 8 years old. I've also always been keen on learning about the culture and language of other countries and after studying lots of languages at school, I went on to do a degree in Russian. This was in the late '90s when the Internet was starting to become more popular but still very few of my peers were using it.
I was using usenet to ask questions about translating obscure Russian terms, chatting with random Russian people on ICQ, typing all my essays in Russian having set up my computer on the Cyrillic alphabet, and streaming Russian TV and radio.
This made me very enthusiastic about the benefits the internet could bring to education and after I graduated and went back home to Southampton, the University here advertised for a "specialist in virtual learning environments" and I applied - the rest is history.
RR: What is your go-to page on the Community site?
MD: Not really a page, per se. I use the inbox the most. But I believe this only works because I'm following everyone who is a member of the Community site. What I found was, you see the activity of everyone you're following. I like to see what's happened across the whole site, so I don't need to look in all the different places.
RR: Yes - we've noticed you are unique in that you follow everybody. Is that why?
MD: Precisely. People may find it a bit creepy, but it's possible because I've been on the site since August last year. Although I'm interested in more of the system admin site, knowing what is happening in all spaces keeps me connected.
RR: What would you like to see changed/added to the site?
MD: Having a view of everything, a bit like a Twitter feed. It's really important to keep up to date because the problem someone else had last week is the problem I'll have this week. Early warnings of problems or opportunities will save a lot of hassle. So it's just a thing to check each day.
RR: To end with some inspiration: what is your favorite quote?
MD: I find myself saying these two things a lot:
1. "No one notices when your service is perfect."
If your service is running really well and you don't hear anything from people, it's not necessarily bad. But as soon as something goes wrong, they'll let you know. Because when things are perfect, it's the norm. When I talk with colleagues, I try to show them that perfection is what we should be aiming for, but encourage them to be happy if they aren't hearing anything from customers.
2. "Feedback is a gift."
Say you have a grandmother who gives you a really awful jumper at Christmas. It's a gift. You don't have to wear it, but accept it gracefully, do what you like with it. The same goes for feedback.
Thanks again, Matt! Since he's probably following you, be sure to follow Matt back here