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Supporting part-time students using the Communication Tools in Blackboard - Discussion Boards and Email

Supporting part-time students using the Communication Tools in Blackboard - Discussion Boards and Email

Students on Built Environment programmes are supported using blended learning techniques at Belfast Institute. Those supported include students on programmes such as HNC and NC Estate Management, HNC Building and HNC and NC Town Planning. They attend the Institute one day per week based on a traditional “day release” structure but the students on these courses are, for a large part, however geographically dispersed across Northern Ireland and often tend to be out on site during their working week. This can make telephone contact outside college time with a tutor difficult. Part-time students in the past on such programmes reported that they found it difficult to study in a focused way outside the college environment due to work and personal commitments and spatial separation from their peers and lecturers. Since 2000, however, the provision of directed on-line learning materials and communication tools have assisted in overcoming such constraints. An additional benefit is that a number of students off due to long-term illness have also been supported through Blackboard enabling them to complete their HNC and HND qualifications. However, a structured induction into Blackboard is essential; students learn best how to ‘e-learn’ in an ongoing and supported way.

The sense of isolation as a result of geographical separation has been greatly reduced by the development of a sense of community and ongoing support through the use of Blackboard’s communication tools, especially email and Discussion Boards. Each module has a corresponding Discussion Board. A face to face induction session to familiarise students on using this tool as well as on “netiquette” is essential with links listed to sites such as and as part of my initial posting. New threads are set up each week for the topic covered in the traditional programme of delivery. Students continue discussing issues raised in class and the lecturer facilitates to correct or direct as appropriate. Students are encouraged to generate suitable links found as a result of their own research and to disseminate these to other students through the Discussion Board. Students thus learn from each other through this means of personal contact as well as from tutors. The key benefit, however, is down to the asynchronous nature of the Discussion Board. Students can log in from work and home at a time that is convenient to them, yet still be part of the cross-fertilisation of ideas and resources process.

During “face-to-face” time at the Institute, in-class exercises using Blackboard are employed as a way of directing and focusing learning. As a tutor in subjects such as Property Economics, Planning Practice and Building Law, I usually begin by delivering the underpinning theory in a traditional lecture situation. Students then access PCs. Co-operation among students can be formal and informal. In one situation, one group of Planning students are directed to research different methods of public participation in the planning process in the UK using URLs detailed in Blackboard. Another group concentrate on new methods emerging from the USA, again based on URLs tutor-evaluated in advance. Another example is where groups of construction students review a range of
case studies on sustainable construction. In both instances group discussions areas are used to record their findings in a permanent way. This fosters the development of student analysis, evaluation abilities and peer review. These sessions also assist in the development of evaluation and presentation skills and facilitate team building as well as reinforcing the material delivered in class. Additionally, collaborative problem solving is also encouraged.

Email is another key Blackboard tool that aids the learning and support of part-time students. The ability to select a range of options such as tutors, groups and individuals benefits both the learner and the student. Tutors direct entire classes through key URLs by email the week before a particular lecture so that they can trace the history and development of key topics such as
sustainable development which embraces social, environmental and economic aspects of development. Students can thus have an understanding of the topic before the lecture. Initially, where students have assignment related queries, email is primarily on a student-to-tutor basis but, as a class develops as a learning community, email activity then becomes student-student. Additional reading materials are included in the Course Notes area in order to facilitate further study.

Where tutors are using discussion tools, emails and web resources within Blackboard, we feel it is essential to provide students with guidelines and structured activities in order to identify the purpose of the task and then define roles for separate groups. These create an appropriate learning environment and nourish conversation and discussion. Creation of learning teams is another key dimension of fuelling participation and maintaining interest. Adding tutor comments to the Discussion Board also fuels debate. As a tutor, I need to recap and weave together those strands of the discussion that may have become fragmented. New entrants to this style of learning require additional support. Organising an Induction programme specifically related to using Blackboard is now a core part of the traditional student orientation programme. I use the tracking tools to monitor participation and those who are merely browsing are given a personal email to encourage them to contribute to the online discussion. In many instances, however, I have learned that, as a tutor, I need to “go with the flow” as students unearth resources and engage in collaborative learning with limited supervision after only a short period of time learning in this way.

My personal experiences and student feedback have indicated that delivering this type of active learning is not merely about providing just the knowledge or information. Tutors also provide the opportunity for communication and reinforcement of learning through reflection within an interesting environment that facilitates collaborative activities. Ideal online learning material extends beyond provision of material if it is truly to become a ‘virtual classroom’. In essence, using Blackboard encourages students’ active participation in their own learning and learning is based on effective examples - i.e. those that are contextual and authentic case-based examples. Formal and informal evaluation is demonstrating that the isolation felt by part-time students has been largely overcome and that online communities are now emerging.


Like most working mothers, finding time for anything other than work and family is almost impossible. I can honestly say that I would not have been able to continue with the course if it had not been for the Blackboard facilities both in providing information/support and providing links to useful and relevant websites. Being able to access Blackboard from home means that I can make the best use of my time through using Blackboard discussion boards and e-mail to correspond with lecturers and other students

Part-time Property Student

Blackboard has been a useful tool. I was absent for a number of weeks and
it enabled me to keep up to date with things. I especially found it
helpful that websites and useful documents were posted onto the Blackboard site as these were useful for research and assignments.

Part-time Housing student

Blackboard has been a very useful tool in helping me with my coursework. It is very quick and easy to use and has helped me research information for assignments from home as well as in college which has been very convenient when time is limited.

Part-time Housing student

The up to date material made available was very useful in completing my Economics of the Construction Industry units. It allowed me to explore current issues which I can revisit in order to assist with new units this semester. The fact that the material could be accessed from work as well as collage was very important to me as a part-time student.

Part-time Building Student

I feel that the using Blackboard has been a great advantage in my learning. It lets me access information at home or anywhere outside college. Blackboard has provided me will all relevant up to date information on property and surrounding issues. I feel that Blackboard is a vital part to my learning at Belfast Institute.

Part-time Property Student

Blackboard is very useful. It allows me to work from home on a regular basis and provides me with much of the info that I need for my studies. It has helped me manage my time and it has given me useful links into other websites and has been made very user friendly.

Part-time Property Student

Author: Lorraine Lavery

23 April 2004

VLE: Blackboard



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