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Mapping the Learning Environment at Sheffield Hallam University: The Impact of Distributed Learning on the Staff and Student Experience

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 uses research findings to explore the impact of distributed learning on the staff and student experience.

Part 2: Distributed Learning

What impact has the uptake of Blackboard had across SHU? The final part of this article looks at some of the findings from the research and evaluation project which address the impact on the learning and teaching experience.

The overall aim of the research was to investigate the impact of the VLE on the student experience. Rather than evaluating the technology in isolation, the research looks at how the online and offline components of the student experience link together. It deals with issues at the campus-wide - rather than course specific - level, and has allowed the user perspective to guide the specific areas to be investigated. To date the research has been through a number of distinct but interrelated phases, including the following:

  • case study investigation into the staff perspective of using Blackboard (looking at motivation, aims, activities, impact on teaching, etc);
  • observations of students working with Blackboard, combined with semi-structured interviews;
  • reflective learning activity diaries completed over 2 weeks, followed by interviews;
  • online surveys of new and returning students’ expectations of a supportive online environment.

Each phase of the research has built on the outcomes from the previous stages, and the Project has built up a complex and contextualised picture of the learner experience. What follows is a brief summary of some of the headline themes that have emerged.

1. Flexibility of the Blended/Hybrid Approach

The additional flexibility offered through a blended approach is an important issue for staff and students alike. Staff understand that students have various commitments that prevent them from spending long periods of time on-campus, and online provision of resources, communication channels, etc, facilitates continuing engagement beyond the confines of the campus. This engagement is also felt to increase in-class effectiveness, encouraging more effective preparation. For students, it helps extend the sense of belonging beyond the physical setting of the institution, and increases the flexibility of the learning environment. For example, they can complete some of the more routine activities remotely, which allows them to take advantage of the social nature of on-campus study: the half hour break between lectures becomes an opportunity to socialise with peers rather than, for example, searching for resources. In-class time can also be used to complete activities that are best suited to the face-to-face situation, giving a more valuable learning and teaching experience.

2. Student autonomy

Students working in more flexible environments are also able to take more control of their own learning, for example, online self-assessments help to "channel" independent learning. Part of the analysis of students' reflective diary accounts involved mapping learner activity over time, which reveals an emphasis on self-directed learning activities that students organise for themselves either individually or as a group.

3. Peer to peer learning

Both staff and students feel that the use of Blackboard allows learners to broaden their peer support groups. Whereas students might only share additional resources within their immediate friendship group in a face-to-face situation or via e-mail, they are prepared to share them with the whole class in the "closed" environment offered by the VLE. They also appreciate the different viewpoints that they are exposed to in online discussions about a topic, and are reassured by the fact that their peers are experiencing similar issues with their studies. Students also see the online discussions as formalised social networks, allowing them to support - and be supported by - students who they often don't see on campus.

4. The Learning experience is rarely neutral

There were some areas of mismatch between staff and student perceptions. For example, because the case studies were collected relatively early on in the Project ( April - September 2002) some staff were concerned that student enthusiasm for Blackboard would wear off once it became a mainstream activity. In fact, students rarely have a one-dimensional opinion of Blackboard use, stating that it is the purpose and value of individual courses that determines how engaged they are. This is perhaps best summed up in the quote from one student who, in general, was very enthusiastic about Blackboard: "some bits are good - some bits are great - but some bits are really pointless".

5. Students high expectations

What is clear is that student expectations of online provision are very high and, as they get more accustomed to being able to access necessary learning activities online for one module, their expectations continue to rise. Even where they are not exactly sure what they will be doing online, they expect that the internet will be vital to their time at university to support their studies, their lifestyle, and their future plans. Students recognise that their learning is becoming more distributed, and that formal, planned experiences are just one element of their overall experience.

Part 1- The staff development approach taken by SHU to support the implementation of Blackboard – can be found under Staff development matters

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Author: Liz Aspden

22 January 2005

VLE: Blackboard



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