Friday, 18 February 2011

Innovative practice with elearning - case study 1

My first case study from the JISC Tangible Benefits publication was

University of Exeter: Case Study: Online economics texts

My initial thought was that “online texts” sounds like an example of the repository-of-static-texts building that we so often lament when it is argued to be elearning. (I’m not claiming that online texts are not a part of elearning tools and strategies, but that to limit oneself to that one kind of implementation is to miss the wealth and variety of practice that elearning can bring). So, I wanted to see what had been done here which was interesting, valuable, and even innovative.

This case study, although undated, appears to report an initiative from 2006/7.

The School of Business and Economics at the University of Exeter has moved towards the provision of online formative exercises for several modules. Motivations for this include:
  • increased student numbers with very diverse mathematical background on some modules - raised pedagogic issues they needed to address
  • a need to increase the amount of formative assessment and associated feedback
  • a need to cater for international students and students from outside the School
  • a need to have core modules which can be delivered by a number of people including temporary lecturers
Most students in the Business School are between the ages of 18 and 22 and enter with three high grade A levels. They are generally available to attend all lectures and classes and do not have family responsibilities. The School has already found the use of WebCT invaluable in ensuring that all students are able to access materials in advance of lectures.

However, some classes had attendance at 60-75% - lower than desired. Students were often not preparing exercises in advance of class, reducing the value of this contact time. While retaining lectures as the primary learning/teaching tool (in order to meet institutional expectations), the School introduced online exercises to be undertaken between lectures. They linked each lecture to an exercise in order to reinforce both elements. This allowed contact time to be used more productively on discussions, presentations, etc.

They anticipated a number of challenges, including:
  • student expectations of weekly classes/seminars etc
  • students not familiar with e-learning as not used in previous modules
  • buying the set book was required in order to access the publisher’s online resources
  • resources were not embedded within WebCT, where students might have expected to find them
  • largest anticipated challenge was whether the students would actually do the work each week
Students and staff were trained on using the materials at the start of the modules/term. The activities were provided by the text book publishers and so were linked to the academic content of lectures. They included accessing case studies, videos and completing exercises such as multiple-choice, essay or graphical questions. Results were sent to the lecturers.

During the modules, the numbers of students logging in and completing assessments were recorded. Informal feedback from students was sought during the module and more formally afterwards. A record of log-ins was compared with exam results. There were concerns over the number of students completing the assessments each week, although numbers/percentages are not given. Students apparently did not cite unwillingness to buy the book/access code as a reason for not completing the assessments. Problems were identified in the dissemination of the approach to support staff, some of whom told students that 'There aren't any classes, just lectures', suggesting that the online classes were not proper. This issue was addressed in stuff training for the following year.

Tangible benefits were noted as including:
  • pass rates/ average marks equivalent to the pre-elearning implementation of the module
  • high student retention - i.e students progressing to next course
  • staff reporting enthusiasm for elearning - previously they had been concerned about the cost of designing materials, and use of publishers’ resources avoided this
  • e-resources mean all students on the module have access to the materials - and can access them at their own pace, revising if necessary
  • savings in staff time (reduced tutorials) and space (reduced classes)
  • the publishers’ materials were extensive - more than they would have had capacity to design and produce in-house
My thoughts:
  • Requiring students to purchase a book in order to use e-resources doesn’t sound very progressive. I appreciate however that this is a stipulation of the publisher, and that academic publishing more widely hasn’t yet figured out how to monetise the provision of online content in the way it can books or paper journals.
  • Case study states that staff will meet to reflect on the approach, but doesn’t report the outcomes of this.
  • No discussion of any correlation between recorded log-ins and exam results.
  • Some students said that they worked in pairs and so only one name was recorded - therefore records of participation/activity completion may be inadequate. Also, if students are penalised for not having an activity recorded in their name (the study does not suggest that they were) this would be anti-collaboration.
  • This does seem to be a case of just putting activities online, although they were integrated with face-to-face teaching.
  • The use of publishers’ materials doesn’t sound particularly innovative, but by sourcing pedagogical sound materials, and not attempting to re-invent the wheel, they were able to provide materials more extensive than would have been possible in house, and without putting off staff who were uncertain about the costs of implementing elearning - in fact they were convinced of its benefits
  • There was a mention that there were concerns that interactive discussion opportunities wer being lost as the class was replaced with online activities. However, apart from the fact that the lack of discussion in classes was one of the reasons for moving to online activities, I wondered if the new online approach could have been modified to include discussions or interactive/collaborative activities.
  • Generally this seems to be an example of a well planned and carefully supported implementation, which brings tangible benefits without the need to be revolutionary. Using publishers’ materials is not particularly ‘innovative’ (surely publishers wouldn’t be going to the trouble of producing them if no-one is paying?) but it demonstrates good practice in the successful integration of quality elearning materials and activites into existing lecture courses.


  1. Hi Alice,

    I chose this one as well - mainly because I work for a publisher - a direct competitor to the two publishers mentioned in the study.

    >>>academic publishing more widely hasn’t yet figured out how to monetise the provision of online content in the way it can books or paper journals

    I think this is absolutely true - our entire business model is based around print materials. Admittedly, I work in the ELT textbook division of the company, which is behind the US and UK college textbook divisions. From a publisher's point of view, there are a few reasons why they like online components:
    1. Teachers ask for them, and they differentiate your product from a competitors similar product, and,
    2. Single-use access codes are a great way to reduce the resale value of expensive textbooks, and force students to buy new texts rather than cheaper secondhand ones.

    When you say that "using publisher's materials is not particularly innovative", why do you think that? I'm not arguing with you, just curious why you think publishers can't be innovative.

  2. Hi Derek,

    Thanks for your comment. I didn't mean to imply that publishers can't be innovative - quite the reverse, I'm sure. Rather, what I meant was that just using their materials didn't seem particularly innovative to me - I wouldn't call using a new textbook in class innovative for example, and felt that just using some else's resources was similar here. Of course , the sepcific type of interactive materials used in this case might have been innovative, and the blended online/lecture design was also new for this group.

    Thanks for the opportunity to clarify :-)