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Virtually Effective: The Measure of a Learning Environment

Introduction :

This paper examines the preliminary findings of a recent user survey of the staff use of Blackboard in University College Dublin (UCD), Ireland. Amongst the key aims of the survey was to quantify the level of usage of Blackboard within faculty and to qualify its usage as a means to aiding student learning. Further issues looked at what particular ‘drivers’, both institutional and personal were behind the uptake of e-learning, types of teaching materials being employed and how were these integrated within the traditional face to face teaching environment, also considered were the effects on organizational change that the presence of a virtual learning environment (VLE) might bring to faculty.

The results of the user survey are the first part of an overall strategy aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of Blackboard within the university.

Background :

Blackboard has been in use for over two years replacing the former online environment of TopClass ™ and more recently the Online Classes system. UCD currently has two live Blackboard servers running version 5 (and one test server for staff training). The primary server is housed by Computing Services and is open to all faculties; this currently holds c.400 courses run by c.300 instructors. Another server dedicated to the Michael Smurfit Graduate School of Business is also in operation.

The Centre For Teaching and Learning (CTL) and the Computing Services Department jointly developed the user survey. The Centre is responsible for the promotion of excellence and innovation in teaching and learning within UCD. The Computing Services Department is in charge of the IT infrastructure for the entire college and manages and administers the Blackboard system.

Blackboard users are provided with a half-day induction to familiarize them with the functionality of Blackboard and set them up on the test server. All staff are then recommended to take part in a two-day induction course that is jointly run by our Audio Visual Centre, the CTL, Computing Services and the Library. This course covers a breadth of material including basic HTML and image manipulation, promoting active and deep learning, key tools in Blackboard and copyright issues. The majority of current Blackboard users would have undertaken both these courses.

Results from the Survey :

The key cohort of c.300 registered instructors were notified by means of an internal ListServe and by notices published in the University’s E-Learning Forum and within Blackboard itself.

A broad range of usage occurs throughout faculty with a core element residing in the Sciences (19%) and Medicine (37%).

In relation to who is using the system the majority are academic members of staff (76%) but a key cohort of administrative members (16%) are being drawn in to maintain courses, post notices and in one department act as a ‘gate-keeper’ to all content postings.

Part of the survey asked ‘why’ it was individuals decided to engage with Blackboard. The results were as follows:-

  • 23% Wished to be personally innovative in their teaching
  • 15% Followed a departmental/faculty directive
  • 28% Are providing supplemental materials online (handouts, bibliographies, etc.)
  • 23% Are providing the opportunity for student centred learning
  • 5% Did so at the request of students
  • 8% Had other reasons such as the need to place student notices, to enhance the use of existing websites and one reason in particular found some resonance ‘…there was no other choice provided by the academic institution’.

When users were asked what further training they might like to undertake, there were a number of requests for developing quizzes and a series of requests for management style training. These consisted of general site and project management and online time management skills.

What was of particular interest was the amount of requests for fundamental training in the area of Blackboard itself; reference was made to tools such as the group functions, communications, surveys etc.

Other training requests included courses to aid in the development of interactive resources, such as Flash animations, digital video, audio files etc.

A wide divergence of the ICT skills base within our Blackboard community was noted, a certain cohort are now akin to graphic designers the majority (68%) are at an introductionary level only.

The Evaluation Tool :

A key element of the survey for the CTL and Computing Services was to gain an insight into how users were engaging with Blackboard and to provide them with a way in which to assess and develop their own methodologies and interactions within the Blackboard system.

A three step approach has been taken in an attempt to capture a snapshot at key phases in the life cycle of an online course and to lay down milestones that will act as a guide and point to resources for future growth.

Evaluation Model:

  • Formative Phase
    Used prior to a course to establish levels of learner expectation and experience
  • Diagnostic Phase
    Used during the course to ascertain necessary developmental changes
  • Summative
    Used after course to measure effectiveness (on learning outcomes and interaction) and prepare for future developments/revisements

Discussion :

A key question arose early in the survey ‘… whether or not the VLE was acting as an enabler in the use of educational technology?’ Often technology leads over the pedagogy and though many are acutely aware of this dilemma, engaging a package such as Blackboard means that one has decided to work with a set of proprietary tools. Are these tools the best for the job? Do we use them knowing their limitations? Has the technology subtly led the way in which we interact online rather than ourselves choosing particular tools for their individual merits?

It is apparent that the majority of Blackboard users in UCD are only just beginning to tap into the potential on offer, and are using the system as an effective means of delivering and managing an array of multimedia content. Our VLE has become a CMS (Course Management System).

Steps must be taken to avoid a possible stagnation of use in the VLE and promote its potential to stimulate users to reconsider their own pedagogy and curriculum design and direct them in a way to promote active learning and engagement with the learner.

This paper was presented at the ALT-Conference 2004 Exeter University, England.
Further updates will be available at: http:/// or email the author at David.Jennings@ucd.i

Author: David Jennings

06 October 2004

VLE: Blackboard



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