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The Learning Revolution - eL@Le

Computers have transformed the way teaching and learning occurs in universities with Leicester setting the pace in developing the agenda for eLearning. (Article first appeared in LE1 summer 2007)

Leicester is an early pioneer in the development of new learning technologies having identified the opportunities that arose from using computers to support the lecturer and student in the teaching process, rather than just assisting the teaching process.

In the early 90s, several members of the University attracted substantial external funds for research projects, particularly from the newly formed Teaching and Learning Technology Program (TLTP). Departments of Geography, Economics Archaeology and the School of Education were all involved in very successful TLTP projects.

The Medical School was also involved with a Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning project for Health and Social Care leaders. Such was Leicester’s distinction in the field that one of the 24 national centres for the Computers in Teaching Initiative was hosted by the Geography department and the University was also chosen as one of the original nine centres forming the Teaching and Learning Technology Support Network.

Programmes for online assessment and involvement in the Virtual Field Trip in the Department of Geography were examples of projects that were ahead of their time.

In early 2001 a discerning Leicester community of eTeachers were beginning to demand services and facilities that were not easily offered from simple Web technologies. For example, teachers wanted to track their students through online resources and wanted more effective online assessment and discussion tools. They also wanted everything within a single (Web)environment. As a consequence, funds were made available for the purchase of a commercial Virtual Learning Environment.

September 2002 saw the first student use of this service which has, since then, witnesses exponential growth, as shown in the table. The addition of a Plagiarism Detection Service within Leicester’s eLearning portfolio in 2004 has been a significant factor in increasing the number of Blackboard course site with some departments integrating this service into all their course modules.

Subsequently, Leicester added a content management system which included a module for the support of eportfolios. The eportfolio tool allows students to share their electronic resources, such as CVs and key skill assessments, with course tutors or future employers. More recently, the University has added the Blackboard Community tool which will allow specific content to be delivered to targeted groups.

Dr Richard Mobbs, Head of Web Design and eLearning, said: “We are continuing to enhance the Blackboard service. For this next academic year we hope to introduce blogs, wikiing and podcasting tools to the system along with other enhancements that will allow tutors to enrol whole cohorts onto their courses or into defined groups.”

Leicester also appointed its first Professor of eLearning who helped to give the discipline a new impetus.

Professor Gilly Salmon’s earlier work had focused upon the social interaction between learners and tutors. Since arriving at Leicester, Professor Salmon and her Beyond Distance Research Alliance staff have been very successful in attracting research funding to help understand the various pedagogical issues associated with new technologies. Her work is concentrating mainly on emerging technologies – investigating the use of blogs and wikis within communities of practice; examining podcasting; investigating the learner experience and the use of PDAs to support trainee teachers within a classroom environment.

Richard Mobbs added: “The success of elearning will be linked to good quality, well designed learning materials that have been produced for the Web environment. We are beginning to see national repositories being developed where course materials for certain subjects are available free of charge and many publishers are offering Blackboard content, sometimes free of charge.

“Leicester has come a long way over the past two decades and, particularly with the facilities in our new £28 million David Wilson Library, will offer eLearning facilities for students that are second to none.”

The Student’s Perspective

Kate Webber is a third year English undergraduate at the University. She writes:

Throughout my time as a student at the University of Leicester, the website <blackboard.le.ac.uk> has been an invaluable tool for my academic research and as a means of facilitating communication between myself, other students, and my tutors.

Because the website is easy to navigate and is regularly updated, departments can post notices about exam time tables or lecture rescheduling for example. This means if you’re not near the campus, you can still maintain close contact with the University and your tutors – no matter where you are.

The website has other facets aside from departmental communication that I’ve also found very useful during my degree. Blackboard also encourages students to post their own responses to issues raised in seminars, essay topics and specific lectures, and allows students to read and respond to these comments. It is a great way of discussing ideas that cannot be fully examined in seminars, in a forum that can be readily accessed at any time and place.

Tutors also use the site to post links to relevant academic websites that complement their lectures, so Blackboard is often the first port of call when you want to start researching a particular topic.

I think the reason why the University of Leicester’s Blackboard site has proved so beneficial to my learning is because it harnesses internet technology to advance further learning beyond the scope of using books alone and is available at all times.

END

This article first appeared in LE1 summer 2007 and can be found here

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