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The Departmental Website: Moving towards learner support

Dominic Kelly, Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick

Several years ago I took over the day-to-day running of the website for the department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS). Co-incidentally, I’m sure, I soon found myself having to completely re-design the site in line with preparation for the QAA exercise – through which PAIS sailed with flying colours – in December 2002.

The re-design of the site, which was an entirely collaborative affair between myself and one or two other key individuals, set me thinking about what the site was actually for other than advertising the departmental ‘wares’ (available programmes and modules, staff profiles, news, events, links and so on). What it was clearly not about at that time was teaching. Modules were listed but, with a very few exceptions, module documents were not available in electronic form.

This state of affairs has now ended and all module documents are now available electronically on the site, either with full or restricted access depending on the member of staff concerned. What is more, staff are now being encouraged to place other teaching materials (lecture notes, OHTs, handouts and so on) on the site as and when they become available. But is this enough? Clearly not. It is a step in the right direction but retains an essential passivity that experienced teachers – and those taking the Warwick Teaching Certificate – will know falls some way short of the ‘deep’ approaches to learning we should be encouraging our students to develop.

Enter my 'knight in shining armour, Christine Coe. Chris arrived not so much on a black charger or a white stallion but, less poetically, down a wire. In a sparkle of fibre-optic motes she provided extensive advice and guidance as yet another re-design of the site unfolded, this time directed at enhancing its potential as a teaching tool. Chris is an e-learning consultant with the E-lab section of IT Services, and is actively working to provide new communication technology. The new facilities and support provided by her and her colleagues (also in CAP and the Library) will enable innovations in learning and teaching throughout the University. This has certainly been the case in PAIS, where Chris and I have been working in partnership to encourage academics throughout the department to use the new tools provided by E-lab to assist teaching. These include ‘SiteBuilder’, ‘NewsBuilder’ and ‘Forums’ which is a discussion tool.

We worked together on the structure and design of the new departmental website that would provide a platform for all module material. We converted a number of modules that had previously been in a document format. These included my own postgraduate module, ‘The Politics of International Trade’ (which carries the unfortunate acronym, PIT). These modules have been uploaded using ‘SiteBuilder’ to the departmental website in a structured format enabling easy information retrieval for students.

As far as I am concerned, the uploading of the PIT module document has been a godsend. In terms of reviewing and updating the document, this can be done quickly and easily without having to involve anyone else. As new scholarly material becomes available, I simply upload the reference or hyperlink to the appropriate section. More and more, I am replacing paper-based readings (that go missing or are otherwise unavailable) with electronic resources. This offers a number of benefits – such as freeing up library resources, keeping my module document fresh and contemporary, and facilitating student access to core material.

In addition, I have – alongside other colleagues – taken the opportunity to embed the ‘NewsBuilder’ features designed for users to create and maintain a ‘News and Events’ page for their individual modules. This gives the module material a much more interactive feel, an essential quality in any academic discipline but particularly so in my own field of International Political Economy. In addition to the announcements of events and ‘housekeeping’ issues, 'NewsBuilder' allows the insertion of graphics and hyperlinks to other sites. This has proven to be a wonderful tool in guiding ancillary reading, keeping up with current events, and encouraging exposure to a wide variety of views – analytical as well as policy-oriented – from across the political spectrum. With proper use, the politics of international trade can literally unfold before the eyes.

A final innovation has been the embedding of the ‘Forums’ communication tool designed for asynchronous use. This might sound like a painful medical procedure but is in fact a very useful discussion ‘space’ where student conversations can be logged and organised for future reference. Aside from its obvious uses as a discussion forum on specific issues or questions between the teacher and a group of students, ‘Forums’ can be used by students to organise and direct their own learning. This could take the form of a group activity involving anything from two to an unspecified number of participants with similar or differing levels of expertise and/or experience. It could involve consideration of a single seminar question on a specific seminar topic or a role playing exercise designed to illuminate political process, structures and issues at the Cancun meeting of the World Trade Organisation for example. Finally, and without exhausting the possibilities, it could form part of a formative or summative assessment process.

I do not wish to go overboard on this. I am, and always will be, first and foremost a classroom teacher whose chief asset is an ability to build a rapport with students coupled with knowledge of my subject and discipline. I cannot say that I spend the majority of my time online, pursuing my craft in cyberspace. Neither can I say that the ‘virtual’ classroom is always a happy place where the teaching and learning arrow permanently points at ‘maximum’, ‘optimal’ or ‘job done’. What I can say is that, for me at least – and I’m sure this is true for other colleagues within PAIS – e-learning and e-teaching is becoming an increasingly welcome addition to my teaching repertoire. I would like to thank Chris Coe and her colleagues for facilitating this process. Without their efforts and encouragement I am quite certain that I would have found it impossible to incorporate IT fully into my teaching practice.

Dr Dominic Kelly
Department of Politics and International Studies
University of Warwick
Tel: (024 765) 23324

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