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Mapping the Learning Environment at Sheffield Hallam University

The integration of virtual and physical learning environments presents some interesting opportunities and challenges for campus-based universities. In 2001 Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) established its e-learning@shu Project with the aim of establishing a culture where appropriate use of technology is made to complement campus-based activity. This article charts the emergence of a distributed learning environment at SHU since this date. It looks at the evolving programme of staff development that has accompanied the uptake of e-learning at Sheffield Hallam.

Part 1: Development and support

Sheffield Hallam's e-learning@shu Project was charged with overseeing the piloting and implementation of a virtual learning environment (VLE), a key objective being to establish a culture where appropriate use of technology is made to complement campus-based activity. Between February – June 2001 a VLE pilot was run using Blackboard, with full production of the service beginning in September that year. Alongside the necessary investment in hardware and software to support the VLE, significant investment has also been made in offering staff development opportunities.

During the early stages of Blackboard use staff development efforts were focussed on infrastructure and functionality, to enable staff to become acquainted with the technology relatively quickly. For example, a series of institution wide events was held in May 2001 which aimed to raise awareness of Blackboard and its potential uses. Alongside presentations from staff and external visitors who shared experiences of Blackboard use were sessions that engaged people in issues such as course building and design.

Institution-wide events were just one element of a programme of development opportunities that were available. They were complemented by:

  • a regular newsletter, Newsflash, which was tailored to topical issues in response to queries received by members of the Project. For example, the first edition was produced as a 'Health Check', designed to ensure that staff had gone through the basic necessary steps before their Blackboard courses went live with students;
  • academic secondments to the Project, which were used to promote local networks of users within the schools, enhancing engagement among groups of staff, and acting as a local first point of contact for staff who were uncertain about using Blackboard;
  • 3 ‘at elbow’ advisors who offered dedicated drop-in sessions for staff, providing additional support. The focus of these sessions was largely functionality based;
  • online support including a Project website containing FAQs, useful resources and contact details, and a Users’ Forum on which all Blackboard instructors were automatically enrolled. The Forum complemented the website and other aspects of the support by offering practical guidance and online discussion for staff across the institution.

The individual elements of the development were organised as distinct activities which, together, produced a coherent programme of opportunities. While offering the necessary support for staff to become confident Blackboard users, they allowed staff to develop without creating an overdependence on centralised support.

Beyond the basics

As staff became more comfortable with the VLE, development efforts shifted into a new phase which encouraged them to progress beyond the basics. This meant enabling them to engage innovatively with Blackboard, helping them to create pedagogically meaningful learning and teaching activities. Support for this continued to be offered through a variety of channels but, whereas earlier opportunities had focussed on getting up to speed with Blackboard’s functionality, attention now turned to enhancing and advancing pedagogy. This resulted in more focussed developments such as workshops and mini-conferences that explored specific topics in depth. The one-to-one support was also reconfigured, offering targeted weeks of support on particular issues, and the Users’ Forum was relaunched as a self-enrol site offering advice on how to progress with courses that had already become established.

A programme of practice-oriented research and evaluation had begun in March 2002 which, as an integral part of the Project, was closely tied in with staff development efforts. The research investigated cross-institutional issues relating to the impact of Blackboard on the learning and teaching experience, and used the findings to support and inform internal developments. Because the data used was collected from within the institution, staff were able to see the immediate relevance to their own practice. Additionally, the fact that it addresses campus-wide rather than course specific issues allowed them to explore additional aspects of practice that they hadn’t yet considered. Some of the ways in which the findings have been used internally are outlined below:

  • workshops and advice sessions run for groups of staff across the institution make reference to the findings of the research, eg, what do students tell us about the effectiveness of particular approaches?; how have SHU staff incorporated Blackboard into their learning and teaching?; what are the benefits and drawbacks of these approaches?;
  • written guidance (including online advice, newsletters, and a series of leaflets entitled ‘Beyond the Blackboard Basics’) includes references to research findings alongside good practice guidance – a specific leaflet, Ten things not to do with Blackboard, was developed from the findings of one phase of the research, and gives good practice tips to maximise the benefits of Blackboard courses;
  • findings are included in the Users’ Forum and an accompanying site contains an overview of the research and evaluation project;
  • specific workshops looking at students’ views of online resource use have been run for Learning Centre staff, and the outcomes taken to Learning Centre committees to inform their development plans.

Uptake of Blackboard

Since the pilot of Blackboard in 2001, uptake of e-learning has been driven by significant buy-in and enthusiasm from academic, academic support, and administrative staff. Figure 1 illustrates the growth in usage since 2001, showing the number of students enrolled on at least 1 Blackboard course at key stages.

Figure 1

The staff development activities that have been offered over the course of the Project encouraged innovation, but without fostering an over dependence on centralised support mechanisms. As staff progress with their use of e-learning, and adapt to the changing environment, support and development continues to evolve in line with varying needs. What continues to be popular with staff is the opportunity to share experiences with their colleagues across the institution, and tailored "show 'n' share" events are run frequently.

The impact that the uptake of Blackboard has had on the experiences of teaching and learning are discussed in Mapping the Learning Environment: Impact on Staff and Students which can be found under Student Matters.

Part 2 – can be found under Student matters

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Author: Liz Aspden

22 January 2005

VLE: Blackboard

 


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