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Learning Technology in their Hands

Learning Technology in their Hands: An educational development perspective on institutional change at Coventry University

Frances Deepwell, Centre for Higher Education Development, University of Coventry

In October 1998 a decision was made at the highest level that Coventry University would provide a campus-wide online learning environment by 1999/2000. Within a year the University launched LEARN ONLINE - visible as a clickable tab on all principal pages of the University web site A link to the web facilities of a University, or the "virtual campus", is to be expected on most modern University sites. Nothing unusual in that. What lies behind the link at Coventry, however, marks a shift in the institution that is rarely encountered elsewhere. Every student at the University has access to every one of their modules online. Every module is equipped with a fully functioning web-based environment comprising communication and information tools. Every module tutor is authorised to work with and develop use of the online facility. This paper describes how this came about and the impact it has had across Coventry University. 

An empowering technology

The commitment from senior management to support the implementation of a web-based learning environment is premised on the intention to "enhance teaching and learning". This commitment was matched by the desire of educational developers to ensure that the solution reached was acceptable and beneficial to the teaching and learning processes of the University, as embodied in our Teaching and Learning Strategy . The implementation of the online facility has focused around the CHED (Centre for Higher Education Development, formerly the Education Development Unit and has been guided by pedagogical and academic concerns from its inception. Anytime, anywhere learning has implications for face-to-face teaching when it is combined in a hybrid delivery mode. It is therefore crucial to ensure the support of a critical mass of lecturing staff who can recognise the empowering nature of the technology. 

For this reason, the implementation process required close collaboration amongst many members of staff across the University, bringing together the CHED, Computing Services and the University's Teaching, Assessment and Learning Task Force. The Task Force are a group of 25 academics seconded half-time to promote and disseminate good practice in their subject area. The development of the online facility, even though primarily a management decision, can be characterised as consultative rather than directive.

Choosing the online environment

A thorough investigation of all online learning systems might clarify their relative strengths, weaknesses and their potential and there is great demand in the sector for such comparative analyses. In themselves, however, such comparisons do little towards finding the best, current solution for a given institution with its own particular requirements and constraints. Our strategy for deciding upon an online learning environment was to draw up a list of criteria desirable for web-based teaching and learning and assess the available options against this list. The list included criteria such as:

  • Fully browser-based - no extra software required by students or staff
  • Private to students and staff on a module
  • Able to be updated directly and instantly by lecturers
  • Easy to use

The best available option in 1998 was without a doubt WebCT, developed by the University of British Columbia and since merged with Universal Learning Technologies ( We proceeded with large-scale piloting of modules using this integrated learning environment. An essential cornerstone of the piloting and testing phase was the installation of a WebCT server by Coventry Business School. This server was made available to academic staff across the University who wished to be involved in the piloting phase. More than 400 modules were operational in the pilot year and feedback from users, both staff and student, was used to refine a module template which could be applied across the board. This period was also spent developing materials and staff development activities to promote and inform about the imminent launch of an institution-wide online learning environment. 

Shaping the online environment

The end result of nearly a year of consultation and piloting is a web-based infrastructure that enables lecturers to use technology in their teaching with a minimum overhead. Many of the procedural barriers preventing academic staff at Coventry University from seizing the available technology have been removed. There are five central aspects to our solution, listed below:

  1. Simple route into the system
    We created a front end to WebCT, presenting to each student just those modules on which they are registered, similar to the My WebCT feature of later versions of the software, but reflecting accurately the information held in our student record system. The LEARN ONLINE link is present on all main pages of the University web site. This customised page enables students to jump in and out of their registered modules quickly and easily. For staff, we added a search facility to proceed directly to a given module.
  2. Common starting point
    Each web in WebCT is built from a common template, developed with much consultation and reflection over the course of the pilot year, see figure 1. The template is a common starting point for academic staff and is ready for student use. It includes the communication tools of mail, discussion forum and calendar as well as hyperlinks out to general web-based resources, such as the University library and to study skills materials and even includes a short survey for module tutors to activate for mid-session feedback from their students.
  3. Automated web creation and class lists
    All taught modules of the University are automatically set up with their own WebCT web, labelled with the official module title and customised for the School in which they are based. Registration information is taken from the University student record system and brought into the WebCT student management system on an ongoing basis overnight so that student accounts are accurate and up-to-date.
  4. Online help and paper-based guides
    The CHED maintains the WebCT Support Webwhich contains many self-help, quick reference and starter guides in using WebCT at Coventry. The online help available within the modules has also been customised for local use. A self-study familiarisation pack, called The Guide, was distributed in Induction Week as part of the LEARN ONLINE induction session provided for all new students. 
  5. Local and central support
    Central support to students is provided by Computing Services and by School-based technicians. The CHED supports staff across the institution with email, telephone and face-to-face trouble-shooting and consultancy as well as a well-developed programme of short courses in using the online tools. As of September 2000, each School has a Teaching Fellow whose role includes staff development and support for online learning.
The impact of large-scale implementation

The new infrastructure has undoubtedly had an impact across the University. The web environment provides a new space for teaching and learning and also for administration. Learning technology is now no longer the preserve of the dedicated few, who have long championed the advantages of various computer-based learning methods. Whilst usage remains variable from School to School, the technology has clearly penetrated far beyond the early adopters. Opportunities for curriculum development are now being taken which would previously have been impossible. On some courses, such as the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, WebCT is already integral to the delivery. The new lecturers who attend this course re-apply the techniques they encounter here in their own teaching. Other staff come to the technology through personal interest, curiosity or, in some cases, in their search for solutions to communication difficulties. Some subject groups are taking a more strategic stance and requiring the facility to be used, for example, for delivering coursework marks to students.

Staff development has taken the form of scheduled and bespoke courses, briefings, case studies, presentations and consultations. The CHED is changing its methods of delivering academic staff development of communication and information technology skills and is becoming far more responsive to individual need and in this regard we now act as consultants. With the recent appointment of 8 Teaching Fellows, we have also been able to devolve some aspects of staff development to the Schools, where due regard is paid to local considerations. In the staff development work we do, we aim to instil a sense of ownership amongst lecturers of this central resource for teaching and learning. 

The online developments have come at a time of exponential growth in the use of the Internet for higher education and as we approach the end of the second year of full implementation, the CHED is evaluating the measure of change to teaching and learning across Coventry University. Other changes across the institution as a result of the implementation of online learning include improvements in our procedures and policies regarding student registration and use of computing facilities, for instance. These developments have come together with a concerted drive to improve computing facilities for staff and increase open access availability for students. Notwithstanding this, student access is still an inhibiting factor in uptake in some subject areas.

In terms of reviewing what is happening across the institution, the current model of distribution presents a challenge to the evaluators: each of the individual module webs is a private space for the tutors and students enrolled on it and only they have access to it, except by arrangement. Some of the module webs are not used, over 20% of them are used intermittently and a few webs have now become indispensable to the module they support. It remains nonetheless one of the most valuable qualities of our implementation of online learning that control over the online module rests with the tutor. Learning technology has been placed in the hands of the tutor, who is therefore able to choose to use or not to use the facility in line with their individual learning and teaching strategy. 

the template used across all modules of Coventry University

Figure 1: The template used across all modules at Coventry University

Frances Deepwell
Centre for Higher Education Development
Coventry University

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