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Approaches to staff development for Blackboard at Northumbria University

Since adopting the Blackboard VLE in 2001 Northumbria University has experienced a massive take-up amongst academic staff with approaching 90% making regular use of the system in teaching and learning. There are three key strands which have underpinned this success; management of innovation, of cultural change and a comprehensive approach to staff development (see BbMatters October 2004).

This article will focus upon the third of these and explore how our approach to staff development for eLearning which has underpinned this success.

McNaught (2002) highlights, in a time of rapid change, that staff development should be “flexible, appropriate and adaptable. It should make sense to staff, be linked to practice and be appropriately timed.” (McNaught, 2002).

Staff development sessions

A variety of staff development sessions were set up and led by Academic Advisers from Online Services. These included:

  1. “How do I...?” driving lesson sessions
  2. Topic-focussed sessions
  3. One to one support both face to face and by telephone
  4. Sessions specially designed for teaching teams and staff subject groups
  5. The whole team approach including all staff involved with a programme or course
  6. Working alongside colleagues in the classroom
  7. Focussing upon pedagogy (Andragogy?) and not just technology

These different types of staff development have advantages and disadvantages:

1. How do I - Pros – these sessions provided a gentle introduction for academics given by academics.

Cons – this is something of a scatter gun approach. For the most part the staff who signed up for these sessions did not represent coherent groups but, rather, individuals from assorted disciplines

2. Topic-focussed sessions - Pros – because of the focus on a specific topic, it was possible to engage in consideration of pedagogic issues.

Cons – once again the scatter gun syndrome arose. These sessions were predominantly attended by individuals from assorted disciplines rather than coherent groups of people from specific courses.

3.One to one - Pros – this approach addresses local needs, provides local delivery, is less threatening (especially for those of the technophobic tendency) and is helpful in generating a collegiate approach. People feel more able to expose their lack of knowledge in the security of their own environments.

Cons – by its nature this is an isolated approach which, as a consequence, has only limited impact on other staff in the member of staff’s division or teaching team.

4. Working with programme teams or staff groups from the same discipline – Pros - the experience for staff was much more meaningful because they were able to discuss issues relating to their discipline and programmes.

Cons – One of the problems that did arise on occasions was the antipathy of two groups at the extremes. Those with limited ICT skills found the new technology a threat, those already familiar with web-based learning resented having to use the system in preference to their own “cottage industry” web-sites.

5. The whole team approach - Pros – this type of staff development encourages a coherent, consistent approach to the use of Blackboard.

Cons – unfortunately this relies on people being team players and being prepared to work together.

6. Working alongside colleagues in the classroom - Pros – this advisory approach has numerous spin-offs. It can enable engagement of the whole programme team, highlight problems which may then be addressed in an institution wide response and aid the identification and dissemination of good practice.

Cons – the major negative aspect of this approach is that it is very time-consuming and resource intensive and as such is not something which can be offered to all programme teams.

Finally it’s important to note that focussing upon pedagogical issues is only possible once the “ICT interference factor” is overcome…that is once the technology no longer gets in the way.

7. More than just sessions

However, we recognised that setting up a programme of staff development sessions on the effective use of Bb was insufficient on its own. Consequently Northumbria developed a whole support structure.

Online Services, a multidisciplinary support team of academic, administrative and technical staff was set up, all working from the same office. This team has a synergistic relationship – all developments receive input from all three strands – and this has provided a sound basis for the innovation.

We have adopted a number of proactive approaches – questionnaires, cold calling, help lines, e-mail help address, focus groups, discussion forums – mirroring a business approach in an educational setting. This allows us to be quickly and efficiently responsive to our “customers”.

Our team has brought together expertise in a range of areas including eLearning, distance learning, IPR, data quality, copyright, technology, pedagogy, structures and systems, QA and plagiarism. This means that we are creating a “one stop shop” for programme developers.

Integration with other support structures and staff deliverers has been crucial. Close releationships have been developed with other support structures including library, IT services, Learning & Teaching support, human resources, academic registry, student support, marketing, our european and international office, students’ union, etc. This means we are able to address all aspects surrounding the development of effective eLearning programmes.

Progress is measured against business objectives – the university has a strong L&T strategy and all schools are required to provide robust Academic Development Plans outlining business development. This allows us to identify objectives and measure our progress against these.

We believe that what we have is an enterprise-wide solution developing a business perspective and taking a business-like approach.


McNaught, C. (2002) Views on Staff Development for Networked Learning. In S. Steeples and C. Jones (Eds), Networked Learning: Perspectives and Issues (pp 111-124). London: Springer-Verlag

Further reading

Collis, B. & Moonen, J. (2001) Flexible Learning in a digital world – experiences and expectations. London, Kogan Page

Kirkpatrick, D. (2001) Staff development for flexible learning. The international Journal for Academic Development 6 (2), 168-176

Author: Malcom Bell

18 January 2005

VLE: Blackboard



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