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Different Pedagogical Uses of Blackboard with Different Learner Groups

Summary

This case study reviews the impact of Blackboard on teaching and learning at Kingston College, and describes the development of a model for applying the VLE in different curriculum areas. Read more…

Introduction

This case study focuses on the application of Blackboard in post-16 education and training provided at Kingston College. Two years after its initial adoption, the College has reviewed the impact of Blackboard software on learning and teaching. A key finding has been that the diverse nature of the College’s curriculum and associated learner needs must be reflected in a variety of approaches in the use of VLE technology. The College is now seeking to identify the most effective and pragmatic ways of developing and deploying VLE resources to address the needs of learners across the range of its curriculum contexts.

Kingston College is a medium-sized college of further, higher and adult education, occupying a dual site in the heart of Kingston-upon-Thames and located within the London South sub-region of the Learning and Skills Council. The college delivers a wide range of academic, vocational and professional education and training programmes to around 3000 full-time and a similar number of part-time students. This provision is at all levels from entry-level, basic-skills courses to BSc degree programmes (delivered in association with the neighbouring Kingston and Thames Valley Universities).


Blackboard at Kingston College

Blackboard was adopted as the VLE at Kingston College in January 2002. The software was installed as part of a strategy to enhance the quality, range and reach of curriculum delivery in the College and to improve the productivity of teaching staff. The College Academic Network IT Support and ILT Curriculum Development teams jointly manage the Blackboard roll-out in the College.

Content within Blackboard, is organised into courses, which correspond to sections of the curriculum (for example, AVCE Travel and Tourism or A-level Geography). Each course provides access to a range of learning materials, which are controlled by teachers responsible for that programme area. A customisable menu in each provides access to the learning materials, which have been assembled by the tutor. The software is now widely used to support curriculum delivery in programme areas across all six of the College Faculties and a growing proportion of staff and students use the software on a regular basis. On the majority of programme areas at the College, Blackboard is used as a supplement to traditional face to face teaching methods, although on a growing number of programmes it provides a significant element of course delivery, where access to the software is a strict requirement for the students.

Reviewing the impact of Blackboard in the curriculum

During the 2003-4 session, the ILT Curriculum Development team at the College sought to review the impact that Blackboard was having at the College. The team consisted of the Head of ILT, E-Learning Coordinators in each of the College’s six faculties and the E-Learning Developer in the College’s Learning Resources Centre. This process consisted of a formal student survey, informal discussions with groups of students (focus-group style sessions) and interviews with teaching staff using Blackboard.

The review was prompted by observations that some Blackboard courses were being used far more than others. There clearly could be many factors behind this, not least the time and energy staff had to develop the course. However, there was a growing awareness that the effectiveness of a Blackboard course bore less of a relation to the amount of content contained within it but to the type of content and to how this was integrated with traditional classroom-based teaching and learning activities.

Some of the main findings of the review are outlined below:

• Many Blackboard courses had unused elements in them such as empty content areas and discussion boards, which were off-putting to students.
• Attempts to require students to interact with each other or the teaching staff through the VLE, for example through the discussion boards or “live” virtual classroom facility were often unsuccessful, especially on lower level courses.
• Students often found navigating around Blackboard courses more problematic than had been assumed, especially where multiple routes to the same resources had been provided.
• Despite the provision of dedicated hands-on training in the use of Blackboard, many staff felt ill-equipped to apply Blackboard effectively in a learning and teaching context.
• Staff were unsure about the extent to which they could incorporate Blackboard as a vehicle for delivering for their programmes.
• Many students commented on the problems they experienced accessing file attachments delivered through Blackboard due to long download times or incompatibilities with the file format at the software on their home computer.
• Whilst some students appreciated multimedia resources, such as those provided by the National Learning Network, other students commented on the superficial nature of these materials
• Many students commented positively on the use of short self-marking tests and quizzes incorporated within their Blackboard course. These were useful for checking their progress in a subject.
• Other functions that were generally liked were the Announcements tool to issue news and course information, the Calendar for key dates, the Assignment function for submitting work online and the Groups facility for sharing work-in-progress with their peers.

Developing a model for pedagogic differentiation in the application of Blackboard

Through a combination of feedback from students, discussion with teaching staff using the software and analysis of the content and access rates to various Blackboard courses a framework has emerged for applying Blackboard in different curriculum contexts.

A key outcome of the review has been the recognition that one size does not fit all! It is clear that the broad spectrum of programme types and associated learner needs at the College must be reflected in a variety of approaches in the use of Blackboard. Furthermore, given that Blackboard is typically utilised as part of a blended approach, styles of e-learning need to correlate with the methods adopted in face to face (classroom) provision. This awareness has lead us to question the applicability of much of the rhetoric associated with e-learning (generally emerging from authors based in higher education), which talks of the emergence of a new learning paradigm; construction of online learning “communities” and the fostering of highly autonomous constructivist learning approaches. Although on certain programmes these aspirations are appropriate, they do not correspond to the bulk of the curriculum at Kingston College!

Based on this notion that the style of Blackboard integration in curriculum delivery needs to match the needs of the students and appropriately supplement the classroom-based approaches to teaching learning for those learners, a model has emerged that highlights the various ways Blackboard can be used with different groups of students. Central to this is the distinction that is made at the College between programmes at different attainment levels. To put this into practice, three broad categories of Blackboard application have been identified for programmes at Levels 1 – 3 (entry-level, GCSE, Intermediate GNVQ, AVCE AS); 3 – 4 (A2, later stages of an AVCE, NVQ Level 4, BTEC HNC) and 4 – 5 (HND, BA, BSc, professional and management training programmes).

In distinguishing between the type of learning and teaching being used in each broad area of the curriculum, it has been helpful to consider three forms of pedagogy: transmission, transaction and transformation.

Transmission-based teaching dominates on lower-level courses where students possess limited autonomy and the emphasis is on factual recall, performance of repetitive tasks, shallow learning and strongly-directed teaching. Our experience is that this form of pedagogy will be the dominant mode even on the early stages of Level 3 courses (AVCEs, AS qualifications).

Transaction-based teaching and learning involves a greater balance between the input of the learner and the teacher. Here, the emphasis is on the provision of skeleton outlines, or scaffolding, with a greater degree of responsibility for investigation and application on behalf of the learning. Students possess a greater degree of autonomy and may be motivated by strategic goals such as the progression the qualification will lead to. Transaction-based teaching will be used in many A-level and Higher Level (e.g. BTEC HNC) courses.

Transformation-based pedagogy involves the teacher stepping back and facilitating – rather than imparting or scaffolding - learning amongst the students. Students will generally have a high degree of intrinsic motivation, be self-starting and autonomous learners and achieve a deep and lasting level of learning. This form of learning is sometimes described as constructivist and involves students creating knowledge by reflecting on their own experiences and through collaboration with their peers. This form of learning and teaching is certainly the dominant model on courses run by the Kingston Management Centre at the College.

Approaches in the classroom for these three different levels of course will differ. We now recognise that the way in which e-learning is utilised must also differ. Emerging from the review process has been a simple model, which maps out the key functions in Blackboard, that appear to be most productive for each form of pedagogy. This is shown in the diagram below.



The table in Appendix 1 exemplifies the application of this model with different programmes from the curriculum provision at Kingston College.

Moving forwards with Blackboard at Kingston College

This case study has highlighted the growing understanding at Kingston College of the need to match technology closely with learner needs. In hindsight, with respect to Blackboard, we feel that too little attention had been given to this point in the past. The emergence of a model for distinguishing between different curriculum contexts based on the level of learning has provided a helpful framework for planning, implementing and evaluating VLE-supported learning and teaching strategies.

A key outcome from the development of this model has been a new approach to providing training in the use of Blackboard. We have shifted the balance away from instruction on technical functions towards guidance on pedagogic suitability of different features and applications. Colleagues are encouraged to remove sections of their Blackboard course that they do not intend to use, restrict the availability of functions to those suitable for their learners’ needs and consider the student experience first before embarking on any online development work.

In reality there are, of course, numerous other factors that will dictate the precise way in which Blackboard can be most effectively used on a particular programme. These will include subject-specific issues, teaching styles and the degree to which the VLE is being used as a delivery vehicle (the type of “blend”). Nonetheless, by identifying what we feel is the most important factor in affecting approaches to Blackboard adoption, the model does provide a starting point for thinking about the application of VLE-based e-learning within the curriculum.

Author: Andrew Williams

30 June 2004

VLE: Blackboard

 


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