Monday, 14 February 2011

Innovative practice with elearning (Part 1)

In Week 2 of H807 we are exploring a series of case studies published by JISC which provide examples of the tangible benefits of elearning. We are required to individually select four of the case studies (from the total of 37) and consider these in some detail. We are then required to publish blog entries detailing our findings.

This posting covers the first two of the case studies I have selected. A second post will cover the other two.

Case Study 1: UNIVERSITY OF EXETER: Online Economics Texts

This case study described a project in which full time undergraduate economics students in their second year of study were provided with access to online resources to support their studies. The resources included case studies, videos, online exercises, multiple choice questions and so on, and were intended to reinforce the material covered in lectures.

The modules had previously been delivered via 2 x 1 hour lectures plus a 1 hour class each week. The online exercises effectively replaced the 1 hour class, whilst the lectures were retained. Students on the modules were required to purchase a set text and in doing so they received access to a publisher's website on which could be found all the online resources. Each lecture was linked to an associated online exercise which students were instructed to carry out. In the case study described there was no compulsion to participate, though it was suggested that in future the online exercises may form part of the assessment for the course.

The benefits cited in the case study did not seem to be very substantial. Pass rates on the modules were said to be "equivalent" to the traditional modules, though it suggested that retention rates were high. (The case study did not make clear whether retention rates had also been high on the old modules). It was suggested that the project enabled staff to get involved in elearning, though this was not really explained, since staff input seems to have been minimal. The most tangible benefits seemed to be the savings in staff time and the space savings achieved by reducing the number of classes.

Personal commentary

I selected this case study because my first impression was that it was going to describe an innovative way of linking online texts to the taught material. Having examined the case study in much more detail, I feel that it is hardly an innovation at all. All the online materials are developed and hosted by a publisher, with no input at all by academic staff at the university. All that has happened is that students are told to buy a set text and this gives them access to a website containing various resources. The face-to-face classes previously provided for students have been replaced by online content which is provided by the publisher. The university has saved considerable staff time and achieved space savings at no cost to itself at all. The case study, in my opinion, does not provide any significant evidence of consideration for the students and their learning in the design of the project. The overwhelming impression I am left with is of a team of academic staff who are too busy with their research to be seriously bothered with teaching undergraduates, and this publisher's resource provided a convenient way of providing resources to students without requiring any input from themselves. Having implemented the project it seems somewhat disingenuous to dress this up as an innovative elearning initiative.


Case Study 2: LEEDS METROPOLITAN UNIVERSITY: Use of WebCT in a blended learning approach to multimedia design skills

This case study described an initiative by an enthusiastic and committed member of staff to adopt a truly blended learning approach to the delivery of a module about web authoring. Blended learning is a widely used term which can be applied to any situation in which traditional face-to-face delivery is combined with online support. In some cases this can simply involve the provision of digital copies of learning materials on a VLE to reinforce the content of lectures. However, in this case study the author used the VLE to provide a whole range of online facilities which integrated with the face-to-face sessions. These facilities included online assignment materials, image databases, discussions, quizzes and so on. An interesting aspect of the case study is that the author did not feel that the standard VLE interface (in this case, WebCT) was adequate to satisfactorily integrate the various online components. Consequently he used an HTML authoring tool to change the interface. In doing so he completely altered the user's experience of the VLE by using images of a sailing ship to provide a "metaphor for the delivery of a learning journey".

Although the initiative did not have a significant impact on assessment grades (though there was a marginal improvement in the pass rate), it was evident from student feedback that students clearly valued this innovative approach. The students' interest was maintained, and they appeared to like the practical nature of the module.

The author notes that the initiative was borne out of his own enthusiasm, but that this enthusiasm began to wane when he realised that his university did not appear to willing to invest in the resources required to provide support to other staff who may be interested in adopting a similar approach but do not necessarily have the requisite skills.

Personal commentary

For me there are two aspects to this case study which stand out. Firstly, as is so often the case with this type of innovation, the impetus came from an enthusiastic member of staff who saw an opportunity to improve the learning experience of students. Unlike the previous case study, the member of staff involved was actually prepared to invest considerable time and effort to ensure that the students benefitted from the project. This commitment occurred without any support from the university and it is sad that this lack of support ultimately led to the person involved losing enthusiasm.

The second interesting aspect relates to the use of a standard VLE (in this case WebCT). It was evident that the author did not think that the standard interface of WebCT provided sufficient flexibility to be able to adequately integrate the required content. This strikes a chord with me, and the constant frustration I experience with using Blackboard (another 'off the shelf' VLE). I find the interface on Blackboard to be very limiting and I would love to have the web authoring skills of the lecturer involved in this case study to be able to adapt it.

1 comment:

  1. Case study 2: What a disappointment for the lecturer involved: to have put in so much effort and demonstrated that the resource was effective at maintaining interest and commitment among students, and then find that your institution does not value it enough. So often innovation is led by an enthusiastic individual, and spreads, as this should do, by osmosis. I too was impressed by being able to change the VLE interface. My first experience of a VLE was so badly designed – by a company that were not really in education – that after beating our heads against a wall for a term, it was abandoned. Perhaps if institutions were less geared towards handing over large sums to providers of – expensive – commercially developed VLEs, there would be more funding for training individuals.