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A Team-Based Approach to Enhancing Learning Through Provision of Flexible E-Resources

Carol Davies and Catherine Fenn, Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick

This article describes the strategy and experiences associated with developing web-based resources for students on the Warwick Medical School part-time postgraduate Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programme studying 'Understanding Research and Critical Appraisal in Health Care'.

The development has been the basis of a project funded by the University’s Teaching Quality Enhancement Fund (TQEF). It focuses on developing a team-based approach to providing web resources for the students to support a range of learning outcomes, including generic information skills, critical appraisal skills and specialist applications of evidence-based health care in particular clinical areas.


Warwick Medical School (WMS), established in 2000, brought together existing postgraduate/CPD programmes provided by the Centre for Primary Health Care Studies (CPHCS) and Postgraduate Medical Education (PGME) unit. Strategic development during the academic year 2004/05 streamlined postgraduate provision within the School and established a Faculty web infrastructure for e-learning based on the University web architecture.

WMS formed an e-learning strategy group during Spring Term 2005. The group drafted an e-learning strategy (approved, following consultation, by the Faculty Information Committee) addressing e-learning development that would support both an independent Warwick undergraduate medical qualification and a broad range of CPD provision. The decision was taken to work with Warwick ITS/E-Lab and the Academic Office to exploit centrally supported web tools (SiteBuilder etc.) and administrative systems (SITS), participating in the ongoing development and convergence of these systems.

Our project involved liaison across WMS and with a number of University agencies, including Library, E-Lab, Centre for Academic Practice, Graduate School Office, and Communications Office. The vehicle for our project development was the design and planning of sites to support each occurrence of the Masters level core module Understanding Research & Critical Appraisal, covering learning outcomes previously delivered by four separate but similar modules.

Project Aim

The University web architecture was exploited to enhance taught postgraduate student learning experience, focusing on the need for flexible learning differentiated by medical specialism, providing resource-based e-learning opportunities to complement face-to-face learning and teaching formats including lectures and task-based learning in small groups.

Design and Development

The University web architecture was exploited to enhance taught postgraduate student learning experience, focusing on the need for flexible learning differentiated by medical specialism, providing resource-based e-learning opportunities to complement face-to-face learning and teaching formats including lectures and task-based learning in small groups.

A key appointment was made, Project Officer (0.5 time), responsible for site structure, implementation, maintenance, evaluation data collection, preparation and liaison with the project team.

The project was intended to act as a catalyst for e-learning development in the Faculty by working in line with Faculty e-learning strategy to provide a model relevant to the full range of taught postgraduate degree programmes (and therefore all students and all academic staff). This approach enables WMS to keep pace with e-learning developments happening around the University.

In line with WMS e-learning strategy the project site was based on the University web architecture working with centrally supported web tools. This approach, as acknowledged by Dowd (2003) in an earlier Interactions journal article, provides a set of tools that are both supported and paid for by the University and therefore available at no extra cost to the School. Exploiting and evaluating the capability of the University web architecture required the establishment of strong links with support staff and advisors from the Universities central services in particular e-lab, CAP and the Library. Dempster (2004) acknowledges that the challenge for software designers (e-lab) has been to develop (a set of) tools that allow for flexible and evolving pedagogical approaches whilst providing an easy entry point for cautious newcomers.

The project has drawn on a number of available pedagogical models, in particular Salmon’s 5-stage model (2000) and the concept of ‘e-tivities’ (2002), providing a framework for active and interactive online learning. A Warwick forum resource was provided for information exchange between staff and participants and an area for posting introductions and topics of interest for the module. Pre-module and post-module online forms allowed participants to self-assess their confidence levels. McConnell’s (2000) approach to the facilitation of computer supported cooperative learning, and the concept of a ‘teaching presence’ within a ‘learning community’ set out by Garrison and Anderson (2003) were addressed via provision of Warwick based and external resources for literature searching and critical appraisal with interactive exercises.

The project's team-based approach to e-learning development draws on skills, experience and time of academic staff, clinical academics, medical education specialists, administrative staff, clerical staff, technical staff and e-learning advisors. However, this appeared not to reduce the overall time required from tutors. The addition of basic content to the site, which continues to be published in the hard copy module guide, could be considered as 'just another administrative task' but this fails to acknowledge the potential for using web architecture for enhancing resources.

Although the rationale here was to provide web-based resources for participants, the site also served as a good example of the scope of the module and an interesting dynamic whereby not only the module shaped the web site but the web site also shaped the module, an outcome acknowledged by Martin (2005) from developments in the Warwick Business School.

Resources available on the site also included a digital version of the module guide and a full set of plenary presentations provided by the teaching faculty. Collaboration with the Biomedical librarian created a virtual library with comprehensive reading lists, grouping resources together by specialist clinical interest. Information on each plenary session linked back and forth between the timetable, learning outcomes, reading/resource lists and the presentations. Links to online resources were created following the library guidelines for deep linking.

Student Participation

Students enrolled on the module were emailed an invitation with instructions for the pre-course tasks available in one online message, Salmon (2002). It was strongly recommended to students that they authenticate their Warwick Identity prior to the face- to-face taught sessions. Checks through the IT helpdesk highlighted that up to 30% of students registered on this module had not activated their Warwick IT accounts. Guidance pages were developed in collaboration with the Library and IT Services with information on getting started, how to get help and the benefits of signing up (Athens, web catalogue). It should also be noted that ALL students registered on the module used non-Warwick emails.

It was noticeable that few participants posted to the Forum although statistics showed that there were many ‘lurkers’, (ibid). Access to the Forum was not restricted to signed in users because of the low level of IT registration (see above) and therefore statistics for viewers could have been inflated by hits from non-participants. It was found that posting to the Forum by participants could be increased if they were offered more structured guidelines and had the option of emailing comments and thoughts to the module leader. When participants were asked directly if contributions via online forms could be posted on the Forum, no one declined.

A summary page was also created to showcase the information submitted via the online forms. Participants were reminded prior to the module that work undertaken during the module could contribute to their final assignment. They could therefore gain most from the module if they managed to identify a topic of particular interest in advance of the face- to-face sessions.

Development of Key Skills

Swain (2006) acknowledges that mature postgraduate students may be more set in their ways. They often have a set pattern of learning that has stood them in good stead from school onwards and may need persuasion to use new technology, for example, or different learning tools. Brigley (2006) found that medical doctors expressed preference for didactic teaching in preference to interactive or reflective learning styles.

From the research literature discussed above, there is clear evidence that access to online material has the potential to foster independence, self-reliance, self-motivation, critical abilities and creativity in students, in addition to subject knowledge and the skills to acquire and utilise knowledge of critical appraisal. If properly designed within the curriculum, this can encourage active learning based on current research, helping to focus and intensify students’ preparation for small group and collaborative work on the module.

Further to a review of material freely available online materials, participants were directed to three sources:

During the course there were two formal opportunities for students to practice literature searching and use of RefWorks in the IT lab, supervised by academic staff. Library staff contributed to formal teaching about literature searching and ran the RefWorks presentation. Students were encouraged to pursue their topic of interest during the literature searching exercises. This also enabled students to prepare for their critical appraisal assignment while help was available from academics and librarians. IT lab was available throughout the course providing an opportunity for individual practice and assignment preparation. It was found that time required for hands-on literature searching and use of RefWorks was under-estimated and students were eager for additional personal help, reflecting their perceptions of their own skill levels pre-course. This has implications for additional staff time and possibly training. Access to some Library resources requires a Warwick sign-on.

Post-course e-resources included guidelines for writing the assessment and submission, guide to bibliographic citation and referencing; marking scheme and criteria; appropriate student forms. This potentially saves administrative time post-course when students may have lost hard copies.


An online evaluation form was created, based on the standard WMS PG Student Evaluation Questionnaire (SEQ) template, adding questions specific to accessing online resources. Students were also invited to complete an end of module confidence profile on a form identical to the one by which they submitted their pre-course profile. An outline plan for the semi-structured group discussions was produced following a collaborative exercise between a medical education specialist, CAP e-learning advisor and elab (ITS) WMS e-learning advisor and the Project Officer. These same advisors and specialists then facilitated end of module group discussions. The discussion plan covered preparation work, face-to-face sessions and student expectations for the period of independent study leading to the preparation of the assessed assignment. Semi-structured discussion comments and data gathered via online SEQ are presented below:

Access to Resources

Pre-Course Use of Web Resources

Confidence Knowledge Review Task

Early feedback from team members suggest the website design is attractive and well structured.

“I have enjoyed looking at this. I really like the time table with the PowerPoint slides attached.”,>

”I have been looking at the website this morning btw and it is a nice clean and clear design. The pre session forum seems to have not taken off but then proforma sort of allows them to deal with the more formal aspect of that anyway. Perhaps the forum will take off as they tackle the assignment.”

A range of qualitative feedback was collected from the student semi-structured discussions:

  • “No issues” with [web] design;
  • "Too much information" [was] positive;
  • Quick to look to website on receipt of module guide;
  • Felt more prepared than for other modules;
  • Web provided flexibility of access; T
  • ime was a limiting factor;
  • Students would like to have some feedback on pre-course task;
  • Communication via, post, email and web supportive;
  • Anxiety 'putting self out there' [posting to the Forum]; '
  • New' forum users daunted by how to post;
  • Interest in further online support/tutorial packages, especially in relation to statistics

Quotes from student end of course questionnaires were also analysed:

 “Very well organised, probably the best module I have attended in terms of preparation beforehand and for what is expected from you for the assignment”

 “Gives the student broad vision of evidence based healthcare and gives the tools to develop it in practice”

“I would certainly recommend the course as it gives clarity of basic concepts and it was very practical and the issue of applicability was well addressed”

“Maybe groups should be formed with different levels of knowledge from the initial forms submitted about level of knowledge”

“Group work not always most efficient time use. [Suggest] small bite sized self-checks in form of questions and answers, ideally via computer. ”


Key to this project was the very positive co-operation of all team members; academic staff, clinical academics, medical education specialists, administrative staff, clerical staff, technical support staff, and advisers from University agencies (Library, E-Lab, CAP). A Project Officer co-ordinated the team approach and played a key role in implementing agreed resources. Utilising the varied skills and experience of this team led to the teaching and administrative staff increasing their confidence and capability in the design and use of web resources.

Exploitation of existing web architecture enhanced taught postgraduate student learning by providing flexible, resource-based learning opportunities to complement a range of face-to-face learning and teaching formats differentiated by medical specialism. The project also acted as a catalyst for e-learning development in the Faculty by working in line with the e-learning strategy to provide a model relevant to all taught postgraduate degree programmes (and therefore all students and academic staff). The web-based resource framework is available for other module leaders wishing to develop support for their own modules. SiteBuilder provides enough flexibility for staff to clearly define their own style within the framework. Linking to excellent external resources frees staff to concentrate on other aspects of course development.

This project did not require participants to sign-in to access resources as some part-time postgraduates experience problems signing up for their Warwick IT accounts and it was felt that a request to sign-in might act as a barrier and discourage participation. As a workaround Warwick External User accounts can be created for participants who are unable to activate their Warwick IT account. Therefore encouraging sign-in as a requirement for resource access poses additional challenges, especially with large groups of part-time students, whose Warwick IT account may not be active. However, the nature and content of some postgraduate modules might be deemed too sensitive or confidential to remain accessible to non-participants.


Brigley, S et al (2006) Hospital doctors’ views of their CPD and its relationship to learning in the organisation Vol 26, No 4, Medical Teacher pp379-381

Dempster, J. (2004) The changing face of e-pedagogy? Interactions Vol 8, No 2, [Educational Technology Web Journal], University of Warwick. Accessed online at:

Dowd, A. (2003) Establishing e-Learning Approaches to Support Masters Programmes in the Warwick Manufacturing Group. Interactions Vol 7, No 3, [Educational Technology Web Journal], University of Warwick. Accessed online at:

Garrison, D. R. and T. Anderson (2003) E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice. London, RoutledgeFalmer. Accessed online at:

Martin, A. (2005) A Dynamic Custom Module Support Web Site. Interactions. Vol 9, No 2, Educational Technology Web Journal, University of Warwick. Accessed online at:

McConnell, D. (2000) Implementing computer supported co-operative learning. 2nd edition, London, Kogan Page. Accessed online at:

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Salmon, G. (2002) E-tivities: The key to active online learning. London, Kogan Page. Accessed online at:

Swain, H. (2006) Limber up for role. The Times Higher.

Citation for this Article
Davies, C. & Fenn, C. (2006) A Team-Based Approach to Enhancing Learning Through Provision of Flexible E-Resources Warwick Interactions Journal 28. Accessed online at:
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