Blackboard - the first steps: a general overview of the first stages of VLE implementation in a large FE college
One question that has nagged at us since we started the VLE route is how to not only make it usable but also to have a strong repetition factor, so that students and staff would want to come back to it. It has challenged our way of seeing what learning was about. Trying to achieve this has been a large factor in each of the courses we have run. The look of page remains an essential ingredient in our creative process. We might even argue that it is the key factor. To engage the students the presentation has to provide a distinct alternative to books, handouts and whiteboards.
Aware of the notion of learning styles currently pervading FE we wanted to connect with those who were not drawn to conventional book learning. Strong use of images was the first building block. We removed from our BlackBoard pages the sense that this was text merely presented in electronic form. Each page was given a background and had at least one image. To add to the non-text idea there were several links to external websites. With this development we have tried to utilise the idea that students do not always learn in neat, progressive steps. So our websites have been a collection of the significant and the tangentially interesting - trying to make the learning process more of an exploration of the subject. This has been the theory that has steered our efforts and alongside this we have experimented with different forms of presentation.
If Blackboard is to be a useful tool it must be accessible to all who want to use it, both staff and student. In creating our courses we have been keenly aware of the creation process being open to those without large IT skills. Our first courses utilised Word and PowerPoint. If a VLE is to be truly useful it must be approachable at entry level. Many of our colleagues do not have considerable IT skills and if they are to become interested then they need to be comfortable using the skills they have.
Our initial trials raised further questions but were greeted with genuine interest by students. Word can work in BlackBoard but is more effective if saved as a web page. It was our impression that few staff knew about this possibility. PowerPoint can also be saved for web use but developers need to be aware of the difference this makes in display terms. With several presentations created it become evident just how much memory they took up - something that could become an issue. One surprising element that occurred was our over-estimate of student ability. Primarily, our courses had too much content. What had been planned was possibly 2 or 3 times as much as could be achieved well in our given sessions. Also the students found it difficult to absorb all that we were asking them to do. Quantity aside, student study skills were not as keen as we had expected. There were also issues about logging on. Given new usernames and passwords they were initially thrown by the layout, even after a demonstration. Whilst those who surf regularly knew where to look and what to click, there was a reticence amongst the IT novices about what step to take next. This was felt most keenly when we initiated a discussion. Our over simplistic idea that all adolescents have used chat rooms was proved false. Once steered through the initial stages though, this element became an extremely useful tool to develop ideas and by extension essays. In retrospect, there may be a use for a generic course that new Blackboard users undertake- something perhaps on the lines of Merv Stapleton's viewlet on assessment in the first edition- which can be resident on any college system and viewed at any time.
Using Blackboard is a sophisticated activity and to encourage staff (and students) a personal, at-any-time introduction would be beneficial. There is much to be said for giving staff time to get to know Blackboard . We spent hours looking at assessments and discussing which would be best and then further time creating samples to test ourselves. This was of significant use as many staff already used Hot Potatoes and would need persuasion that their current material might be better served by the VLE. (Blackboard, we need a crossword generator please.)
It had always been our intention to use movies. We wanted to harness what gave e-learning its edge, what took it out of the traditional learning sphere. And here the fun began. In our naivety we were awash with different file formats, different players and a concern with memory issues. We created film ourselves but the production values were less than we would have liked. We looked at available footage from the web but this was often in a format that we couldn't play or over-long and uneditable. We have also looked at using Flash animation but at present our skills are not high enough.
To reach this stage has taken a lot of time. Many dead-ends have been met but we continue to believe that the VLE can offer another dimension to learning. Encouraging new users will remain a goal -producing interesting, varied material will make the task easier.
South Downs College
Staff Development Editor Note:
In the interests of sharing experiences among practitioners Dick and some of his colleagues have agreed to offer any additional information on their practical experiences. Their emails are listed below.
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