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Establishing e-Learning Approaches to Support Masters Programmes in the Warwick Manufacturing Group

Amanda Dowd, Warwick Manufacturing Group, University of Warwick


The Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) is one of three Divisions in the School of Engineering at the University of Warwick. There is no intention to move entirely to on-line provision, but rather to use such provision to complement the face-to-face instruction.  Drivers for this move have been:

  • Industrial partner request: a growing proportion of WMG’s UK based part-time MSc programmes are what we term “dedicated” programmes – i.e. although the final qualification (MSc) may be generic, many of the modules are dedicated to a particular company client who would like to minimise the time their employees are away from the work place.  This was particularly the case with the so-called “Marconi Masters”, an MSc in International Technology Management developed in conjunction with and for Marconi, who specifically encouraged (and funded the development for) the use of e-learning as appropriate.
  • Introduction of an MSc programme in eBusiness Management: it was felt to be appropriate for a degree covering this subject to use the very technology it was promoting!
  • Increasing student numbers with classroom resources remaining essentially unchanged, particularly for the full-time MSc programmes which have seen an increase in registered students of >100 year on year over the last three years.
  • Overseas programmes, where WMG staff travel to China, India, Malaysia, South Africa or Thailand to deliver a module.  Frequently the pattern of module face-to-face delivery, (which would normally be five consecutive days in the UK,) spans two weekends, with the week between being essentially “free” and hence dead time as far as the tutor is concerned.
Approaches Adopted

Over the years tutors have experimented with different approaches to the use of e-learning technology to support their modules.  This has ranged across an in-house developed platform, commercially available platforms and an open-source solution.

In-house platform

As part of the initial Marconi Masters development and then with the development of material for the eBusiness Management programme, a team of staff based in WMG’s Engineering Business Systems group, developed an in-house platform for the delivery of e-learning material.  The WMG platform had wide functionality, including:

  • Module information (timetable, outline, assignment)
  • Notepad to enable “cut-and-paste” or original entry of memorable material by each user
  • Communications (email)
  • Learning resources – lecture notes, links to library material etc
  • Case studies
  • Exercises/Tests

An early version also had a “talking head” capability, although this was only implemented for one module for the Marconi Masters programme, as it required considerable expertise to translate a PowerPoint presentation into a Flash movie and then synchronise the words scrolling on the screen with the slides and the video clip of the tutor talking. 

Drawbacks to this platform were:

  1. Problems of allocating passwords – each student registered on each module had to be manually and individually added to the student list, syndicates allocated and then the system would randomly allocate usernames and passwords which then had to be issued to the students – different ones for each module they attended.  This was time consuming for both the support staff and clerical staff.
  2. The email system, which was internal to the web site, was not integrated with the “normal” email (Warwick accounts) of students or staff.
  3. Inconsistency between “versions” of the module site - the majority of WMG modules run multiple times during an academic year and mirrors of the site for each cohort were created.

A further disadvantage, from a management and resource point of view, was the high level of support staff required. Essentially, all the material had to be loaded on the site, students had to be registered for each module, user IDs/passwords generated and on-line tests administered by the support team (which reduced from 5 to 2 people in July 2002).

These issues were recognised by the site developers. Indeed, work has commenced on a modified version, which incorporates the following features (in addition to those available on the original platform):

  • Each user has only one username and password from which they can access all modules for which they are registered.
  • Tutors can load their own material (created in Word or PowerPoint) onto their module site
  • Enhanced site management and information capability (i.e. more under the control of the module tutor)
  • Users can view their own details, change their username and password and enter a preferred email address so that emails sent through the system can also go to their preferred email account.
  • Links to (external) translation web sites to allow students to easily translate unfamiliar words.
  • Enhancement to assessment sections to enable the module tutors (as well as support staff) to create new tests or edit questions and answers in existing tests.
  • A chat facility
  • The centralised nature of the entire site allows support staff to easily update the functionality and appearance across all individual module sites.

Work on this site, however, is currently curtailed in favour of using the University’s e-Lab, which is addressing many of the issues outlined above, as it attempts to integrate student information and records with the students’ learning (course) environment.

Commercial Products

WMG staff have previously used two commercial projects; BlackBoard and Tboll.  BlackBoard was introduced through the Centre for Academic Practice (CAP) as a pilot through the WOCC (Warwick On-line Course Construction) programme.  Several members of staff attended the WOCC workshops, which proved very valuable in identifying need, although no full modules were developed on this platform. The University elected not to continue with the product, but to build the core functionality into a set of Warwick tools, which could more easily be customised to the specific needs of Warwick departments. WMG were sufficiently convinced that it was worth following this central route.

The other product, Tboll, has been used successfully for modules on the Marconi Masters, the eBusiness Management MSc and on Overseas programmes.  This was the subject of an article by David Overton in an earlier issue of Interactions (Overton, 2002).  Despite its good functionality, this platform was dropped due to the high licensing costs.

Open-source software

An experiment was undertaken earlier this year with one module, using Open Source software.  The software used was Post-nuke for content management and security, Post-wrap for site information, Post-calendar for date related information and PhP BB for bulletin board and chat facilities.  The module was well received by the students; however, the site implementation was only possible because the tutor had a very high degree of technical capability.  It was recognised that to be effective as a long-term solution substantial input would have to be made to develop a “tutor-friendly” interface.  It was for this reason, together with the inherent dangers of using Open Source software, that the approach was not progressed beyond the initial pilot.

Current Status

During Summer 2002, it was recognised that WMG could no longer continue developing e-learning material on an ad-hoc basis, neither would we continue with a large e-learning support staff investment.  Thus a project team was established with two main objectives; to review the content and delivery of the eBusiness Management MSc and, as part of this, to develop a strategic recommendation for on-going development of WMG’s e-learning delivery.  Discussion of the first of these objectives is not appropriate here, but the outcome of the latter element of the project is as follows:

  • WMG should NOT continue to develop our own, bespoke platform; we should concentrate our efforts on the content to be delivered and ways of using the technology to best learning effect.
  •  From our experience with TBOLL and the pilot of the Open Source solution (both of which had excellent discussion/chat capabilities), it has been recognised that technology provision was not enough – significant work was required among the module tutors to enable them to learn how to use the medium so that the students engage with each other and the tutors effectively.  
  • Although the University’s e-lab may not have the range of facilities that the in-house developed (and planned) and Open Source platforms could/may provide, it does provide the minimum necessary set of mature applications, supported and paid for by the University, so are available at no extra cost to WMG other than machine licenses required for test authoring (using Perception Question-mark). 
  • However, we have identified that both within WMG and via e-lab, there is a lack of “process ownership” i.e. who should be promoting the development of new modules using this technology – the individual tutor or the programme management.  In addition there is no directly relevant training available for module tutors on pedagogy; WMG will have to develop this ourselves or in collaboration with the Centre for Academic Practice.  WMG have already funded several tutors to undertake an on-line course provided by Dr Gilly Salmon at the OUBS covering “ e-moderating” and “e-tivities”.  It is possible that the University’s new Postgraduate Award in eLearning may also help to meet this requirement.


The conclusions that WMG have drawn from our experiences and the development work carried out over the last year are that:

  • Supporting courses using e-learning does not reduce the overall time required of tutors. Apart from the widely recognised increased initial development time, although formal delivery time may be reduced, on-line support tends to encourage students to seek out their tutors for face-to-face discussion on issues – good from the learning perspective but not in terms of the tutor’s time.
  • There is potential for reducing time that staff spend away on overseas modules, but overseas e-delivery does depend heavily on a reliable infrastructure. Support staff may need to be available at working times for overseas centres, not just UK.  There is also potential for bringing in subject experts from around the world in terms of online conferencing (discussion forums, videoconferencing, chat – see article on the ‘ANNIE’ approaches by Mark Childs in an earlier issue of Interactions), giving a better learning experience for students.  Having as much of the material as possible available on CD-ROM can reduce dependency on infrastructure.
  • WMG currently issue extensive support material for all our modules.  Online Content delivery is see as necessary (as an alternative to issuing paper notes), but carries with it a risk that its delivery on CD-ROM will remove the aspect of learning where the student drafts/annotates notes in lectures, helping to embed learning.  Thus, more emphasis is being put onto developing effective use of online conferences, which if correctly designed and facilitated can enhance learning.
  • The use of e-learning can reduce classroom requirements, but increases computing resource requirements.  This is partially compensated by some of the e-learning being undertaken at the students’ convenience (presumably from their residences in many cases), but there is still the (students’ perceived) need for 24/7 lab access (which WMG does not at present provide).
  • The introduction of effective e-learning is a major change management programme – for both staff and students.  In addition to educating staff in the “new” ways of working, we also have to manage the students’ perceptions and expectations.

Dr Amanda Dowd
Academic Director of Graduate Studies
Warwick Manufacturing Group
University of Warwick
Tel: 024 7652 3910


Childs, M. (2003) E-tutoring in synchronous and asynchronous environments: experiences of lecturers and students in a learning and teaching development project, Interactions Vol 7, No 2, Educational Technology Web Journal, University of Warwick.

Overton, D. (2002) Global e-Learning in Hong Kong-WMG style, Interactions Vol 6, No 2, Educational Technology Web Journal, University of Warwick.

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