Saturday, 19 February 2011

Innovative practice with elearning - case study 2

My next case study from the JISC Tangible Benefits publication was

Newcastle University Case Study: Use of a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) to deliver a 'regional' medical school

This case study describes an initiative by the medical school at Newcastle to collate their learning resources online and organise them in format linked to the medical programme. There were a couple of key drivers for this, but the most notable was the pre-VLE reliance on paper-based resources and the requirement to better meet the needs of a dispersed population. In particular, students in years 3-5 of their training are not physically located at the campus, but were required to return to the medical school for a day a week in order to collect paper notices and resources. This scenario seems almost unimaginable these days, but it’s hard to tell when this project was dated. Elsewhere in the case study they refer to the predominance of dial-up Internet, broadband not yet being widely available - does this date it to somewhere pre-2001-ish? In addition to the constraints on uploading materials implied by dial-up, they also expected initial staff resistance and a slow take up given the significant change from current practice.

They had a number of fundamental philosophies in the design and integration of the VLE, including:
  • data is entered once and re-used as far a possible
  • the VLE should provide a user-friendly content management system, accessible to non-technical administrators
  • non-technical users are empowered to independently manage their content online
  • open-source software should be adopted whenever possible
  • presentation and content is customised for the individual, based on their role.
The first version of the VLE was rolled out as an additional tool to existing working habits. Users were not forced into the change, but allowed to familiarise themselves at their own place, in additional to student and staff training sessions. Functionality of the VLE was gradually expanded, allowing users greater support/tools without being an overwhelming start. Within a short space of time the VLE grew to become and integral and embedded component of the degree programme.

Staff uptake was initially tricky, as expected. However, initial ‘champions’ were vital in the system’s success, promoting it. Students quickly adopted the VLE and were grateful for it, putting pressure on other staff to contribute to it. Unexpectedly there was a conceptual barrier in that some non-technical staff could not initially understand the service the LSE could provide.

Tangible benefits included:
  • significant improvements in student learning, assessment, pass rates etc. Attributed to 24/7 access to VLE and scope for independent learning
  • significantly improved student satisfaction with the learning process
  • significantly improved staff satisfaction with elearning - and the services and feedback provided has motivated staff to improve their resources. This in turn has let to staff empowered to upload, manage and maintain their own material and to more general improvements in staff performance, widening participation etc.
The case study reports the VLE as being something of a victim of its own success, with new features expanding the horizons of users resulting in them demanding more. High usage at peak times also necessitated the purchase of a separate server. However, both of these are good problems to have!

My thoughts:
  • Rather like the first case study, this initiative was about making resources available online, although with different intentions.
  • The clearly articulated underpinning philosophies appeared very useful in guiding the development of the project, and combined with the stakeholder development group, ensuring the needs of various user groups were understood from the outset, allowing development of the ‘right’ tool
  • Unexpected lack of conceptual understanding among staff is similar to the previous Exeter case study - underlines importance of ensuring all involved know why the development is occurring
  • Students rated the VLE highly - I find it hard to imagine a university relying on paper in the way this previously did, and suspect that as schools and colleges also adopt VLEs, that students will now assume to have this type of provision as standard.
  • This was another ‘putting things online’ example, but it demonstrates significant benefits, not least because of the difficult distributed working environment before the VLE initiative. There were low expectations and experience to start with, but this grew very positively in acceptance and outcomes.
  • Providing content on a VLE isn’t that innovative now, but the radical changes it made to the geographically dispersed population in this study shows it was genuinely innovative at the time. Perhaps this also illustrates a good test of an innovative solution too - that it was not just a passing fad, but is now a recognised, even expected, way of doing business.

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