Learning Activities to Promote Student Collaboration

Guest post by Lucy Tallents & Jocelyne Hughes

The SHOAL portal will go live in March, following a beta-testing phase in February (to participate in the trial, email shoal@maillist.ox.ac.uk).  As the release date approaches, we will blog about specific learning activities that feature in the portal, organised into themes such as collaboration, feedback, and support for tutorial-based learning.

In this post, we focus on the use of embedded websites to promote collaboration and the exchange of ideas and information between students.

Collaborative data collection


Problem: On her ‘Exploring data with R’ online course, Lucy Tallents wanted to create a place where students could collaborate to build a simple ecological dataset, which they would use to help them discuss statistical theory and applications.

Solution: After designing a data collection protocol suitable for everyone (measuring five tree leaves collected near their home), Lucy created a Google doc for students to enter the leaf morphology data, and embedded the Google doc within a WebLearn Lessons page.  The instructions for field work, data repository, discussion forum and computer exercises on data analysis are seamlessly connected using the Lessons tool. https://weblearn.ox.ac.uk/portal/site/:central:it:shoal:leaf-morphol

Adapt this idea: In a face-to-face situation, students could collect data in a field or laboratory practical, or during library research.   After collating data on Weblearn, students can analyse and discuss in their own time.  Another approach would be to instruct the students via Weblearn how to collect the data in their own time, and upload it to a Google doc ready for a classroom session on analysis or interpretation.

Jointly-edited mind maps

Problem: On a different course, Lucy wanted to encourage students to use mind-mapping to clarify their understanding of wildlife conservation issues.  Mind-mapping software is freely available, but Lucy’s aim was for students to collaborate in creating a mind map together, so that they could learn from each other’s diverse professional experiences.

Solution: Lucy created a skeleton mind map on Mind42 [www.mind42.com], and added students as collaborators there, which automatically sent them an email inviting them to edit the mind map.  She linked to the Mind42 website within the Lessons tool, from a page which presented the theory and explained the task in more detail.  Students edit the mind map themselves, adding their own ideas and comments, and working towards a consensus on how different conservation drivers and threats are related. https://weblearn.ox.ac.uk/portal/site/:central:it:shoal:mindmap

Adapt this idea: Collaborative mind-mapping can very successfully be used in face-to-face teaching to encourage a more holistic and connected view of a topic, and as a revision aid.  Students can work in small groups or as an entire class, highlighting connections and revealing knowledge gaps.  Another use is to bring together ideas presented in a whole module where lectures are provided by a number of different teachers.  A collective mind map can be created by students to unite the themes presented by diverse staff during the term.

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WebLearn version 11-ox4 released on 31st January 2017

WebLearn was upgraded to Version 11-ox4 on the morning on Tuesday 31st January 2017, we apologise for any inconvenience caused by the disruption.

If you would like to suggest improvements to WebLearn then please do so by contributing to the WebLearn User Voice feedback service.


  • Lessons tool
    • Brand new Checklist tool: add a series of “to do” items and allow students to mark them as complete
    • Collapsible sections: if you give a title to a Lessons page section, then that section can be made collapsible
    • Various UI improvements
    • Firstname surname (instead of username) is now displayed in the Forums summary


  • The Researcher Training Tool (RTT) now works well on a mobile device
  • Many accessibility improvements (courtesy of the Ra11y project)
  • SoundCloud audio files with player can now be embedded within Lessons and other pages – as a side note it’s possible to have private audio files hosted on SoundCloud, they are just like regular file but the URL is private, simple opt to share the file and copy the “embed code”


  • Resources – one can now “Copy content from my other sites” on a mobile device
  • HTML WYSIWYG editor
    • an accessibility checker button has now been added – this allows an accessibility report to be generated for all hand crafted web pages, see https://cksource.com/accessibility-checker/demo.html
    • will now auto-save is every 3 minutes
    • the style-sheet used when editing is now the same as that used when rendering a page


  • Sign Up tool: users should no longer see an ugly stack trace if their session has timed out.
  • The calendar summary now uses the correct icons
  • Reading list authoring: deleting a top-level section now actually removes it from the page


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SHOAL blog post – Beta-testing

SHOAL_FishImageTesting Testing!

We are excited to announce that in February the SHOAL portal moves into a beta-testing phase!  We invite staff and students to join our group of trial users, to give us feedback on the portal design.  Trial participants will get a sneak preview of the diverse digital learning activities that will feature in the showcase.  Email shoal@maillist.ox.ac.uk to join the trial or find out more.

Our original idea for SHOAL aimed to make it easy for staff to re-use and re-purpose example learning activities by importing them into their own WebLearn site.  Once the project began, conversations with experts such as Marion Manton (Technology Assisted Lifelong Learning) and Kate Lindsay, and our own experience, encouraged us to focus on maximising discoverability of resources instead.  This is because we believe that staff are likely to adopt and adapt ideas that have inspired them, beyond using an activity as-is.  By revealing interesting resources and making their creators and usage permissions known, we hope that SHOAL will encourage cross-departmental and divisional sharing of existing resources as well as promoting the creation of new learning activities.

On the technical side, Matthew Buckett at IT Services has developed two new WebLearn tools:

  1. A Metadata tool which allows the SHOAL team to enter and store data on each example learning activity, and
  2. A Browser tool which harvests the metadata and allows staff and students to search it, in order to find learning activities that match their interests.

Each example learning activity will be hosted on its own separate WebLearn site, which will be a special ‘Repository’ site type.  The Metadata tool can be added to repository sites to enable learning activity to be described.  The Browser tool can feature in multiple WebLearn sites, allowing learning activities to be discovered from a variety of places within WebLearn.  Both tools are currently integrated within WebLearn but there is the potential to run them independently if a different VLE is adopted by Oxford in the future.

The SHOAL project now features on the ‘Support’ page of the Digital Education website, https://digitaleducation.web.ox.ac.uk/support.  When the portal goes live this will be one route to exploring the learning activities.


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New version of Turnitin: Feedback Studio

turnitinlogoTurnitin has released a major product upgrade that is now available at Oxford University. The new version of the service (which has been live since the afternoon of Monday 16th Jan 2017), is called Turnitin Feedback Studio and offers all the functionalities of Turnitin, but with a simplified, more intuitive interface designed for the modern classroom.

Turnitin Feedback Studio makes it faster and easier to promote academic integrity via Originality Check, and use GradeMark to provide feedback and evaluate student learning. (The PeerMark product is not included in Feedback Studio, but can still be used via Turnitin Classic.)

Turnitin Classic and Feedback Studio are quite similar, however, there are some key differences which are highlighted in this video: http://youtu.be/tIKjBzJIe2g

Toggle between the two versions

It will be possible, within the document viewer, to toggle between Feedback Studio and Turnitin Classic until August 2017:

To switch from Feedback Studio to Turnitin Classic you may use the button is at the bottom of the screen:


To switch from Turnitin Classic to Feedback Studio: the button is at the top of the screen:


Integration between WebLearn and Turnitin

Please note that these changes are totally unrelated to the proposed new (IMS LTI) integration between WebLearn and Turnitin. The switch-over to the new integration has been postponed for the time being due to a change in policy by Turnitin. We will keep you informed of any developments in this area. In the meantime administrators may go ahead and set assignments in WebLearn without any concerns.

Useful links:


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Call for Entries: Apereo Teaching and Learning Awards (ATLAS) 2017

apereo-logoThe Apereo Teaching and Learning community is seeking submissions for the annual Apereo Teaching and Learning Awards competition. The award recognises innovation and excellence in the use of digital technologies to enhance teaching, academic collaboration, and student engagement and learning.

If you are thinking of entering then please contact the WebLearn Team. We will be happy to support your application and work with you to ensure the best possible submission. You may find it useful to read this post about the 2015 winning entry ‘Conservation Statistics’ authored by Oxford’s very own Dr Lucy Tallents.

Application Submission

Opening Date: 15 January 2017   Deadline: 20 March 2017

Each applicant needs to submit an in-depth description of the innovative teaching method, practice or strategy, together with evidence to support the claims, based on the award criteria.

The details of how to complete the application can be found at https://www.apereo.org/communities/atlas/atlas-application.  

Winners will be announced in early April 2017 and recognized at the Open Apereo Conference June 4 – 8, in Philadelphia, PA. Registration and travel expenses will be covered for award winners.

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WebLearn and Turnitin courses: Hilary term 2017

IT Services offers a variety of taught courses to support the use of WebLearn and the plagiarism awareness software Turnitin. Course books for the formal courses (3-hour sessions) can be downloaded for self study. Places are limited and bookings are required.

Click on the links provided for further information and to book a place.

WebLearn 3-hour courses:

Plagiarism awareness courses (Turnitin):

Byte-sized lunch time sessions:

These focus on particular tools with plenty of time for questions and discussion

User Group meeting:

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WebLearn Unavailable 6th Jan 00:00 – 00:15

In order to restore full dual-site resilience following Tuesday’s outage of the Shared Data Centre, WebLearn will be unavailable for about 15 minutes at midnight tonight (Jan 6th from 00:00 until 00:15).

We apologise for the short notice and any inconvenience that this essential work may cause.

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SHOAL promotes discovery and connections

SunsetGroupDiscoverability and connectivity are core to the SHOAL project’s aims.

Digital learning activities will be discoverable through the new SHOAL portal currently being developed by Matthew Buckett and Adam Marshall within Weblearn.  Resources will be tagged with Learning Object Metadata such as the type of activity, interactivity, and subject, so that you can identify the resources that are most relevant to you.  We are testing the portal with a small number of resources, but welcome information on others, particularly in STEM subjects.  If you use digital tools to enhance face-to-face teaching or online courses, or know someone who does, please get in touch.

SHOAL will also promote connectivity, helping you to feel part of a new generation of educators and learners using digital resources at Oxford.  The portal will connect educators who wish to incorporate digital resources into their teaching, and students who want to find helpful resources for revision and discussion.  We have been testing the mock-up and need volunteers to put it through its paces.  We anticipate opening it up to willing students and teachers to trial in February, and we would love to hear from you if you want to try the portal and become part of a community of digital education enthusiasts.

You can contact us on our new SHOAL project email: shoal@maillist.ox.ac.uk

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WebLearn 11 video: benefits and new features for students

‘WebLearn: A short guide for students’: the second in the set of three videos showcasing enhancements and features in the new version of WebLearn is now available. This video shows features useful for students, such as the new mobile-friendly design of WebLearn, ‘favouriting’ your frequently-used sites, adding your profile photo and subscribing to your WebLearn calendar.

Visit the Learning, Teaching and Research playlist of the Oxford University IT Services YouTube channel to watch all the WebLearn 11 videos.



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Wrapping up the WISE project

The WISE project formally ended on 30th November. In this post we reflect on the extent to which we have achieved our goal of effecting a step-change in our service to the staff and students who rely on WebLearn in their work and study.

Immediate objectives

WISE 5-stage process diagram small

The 5-step process model

Work closely with selected academic units (departments, faculties etc.) to fast-track their use of WebLearn for teaching and learning:
We developed a 5-step model of engagement (see right) with units and worked closely with 19 units (4 more than the target) right through from the initial meeting to the launch of their new sites. An additional unit had one meeting with the WISE team, and redesigned their site unaided. The extent of the work with the participating units varied from a simple revamp of a department’s top-level page(s) to a complete restructuring of the site hierarchy and extensive use of Lessons tool to give students a proper learning pathway.

Provide improved tools and templates to support best practice:
We developed, and refined, ‘best-practice’ guidelines for the design of WebLearn sites, as well as four site templates, in an iterative process throughout the project. These outputs will make it easier for units to redevelop their sites either by themselves or with normal support from the WebLearn team.

In addition, many of the technical changes made to WebLearn (especially in the Lessons tool) were contributed to the Sakai trunk and are integral to Sakai 11/WebLearn 11. This has automatically extended the reach of some of the technical benefits, not only to other departments in Oxford, but also to the world-wide Sakai community.

Facilitate the use of WebLearn according to best practice:
The guidelines are now incorporated into online support materials for WebLearn and underpin four new WebLearn templates created by the project team.

Establish a peer community of WebLearn champions (enthusiasts):
We attracted a small, but keen, group consisting of administrative and academic staff. We have encouraged these champions to join the WebLearn User Group if they aren’t already members.

Longer-term objectives

Four revamped sites

Top-level pages of four redesigned sites

Enhance the student WebLearn experience:
The ‘box’ design for the higher-level site pages (see right) has proved very popular in all units and is now a standard template in WebLearn. Usability testing and focus groups with students confirmed that using images in the ‘boxes’ and minimising the use of the tools navigation menu on the left side of WebLearn pages are more efficient for navigation. The principal problems uncovered in the tests were related to information architecture (the way in which sites were structured and where resources were located in them) and to idiosyncratic functionality in WebLearn itself. Scores on the System Usability Scale (SUS)* from the usability tests suggested that WebLearn is average in terms of usability. Interviewees in the project-level evaluation reported anecdotally that students were responding positively to the new site designs, but none had yet had an opportunity to conduct gather feedback formally.

Promote staff engagement with the tools and features offered by WebLearn to enrich teaching and learning:
In a substantial number of units administrative staff (rather than academics) look after the WebLearn site, including uploading learning materials on behalf of academics. There are a variety of reasons for the lack of direct engagement with WebLearn on the part of academics, but the main effect on the project was that we did not work with as many academics as hoped. That said, we achieved substantial success with those academics with whom we did work, especially in encouraging them to use the Lessons tool to provide students with a structured pathway to the resources and activities needed for their learning.

It has been gratifying to hear of the expansion of WebLearn use in a number of units as a result of WISE, and the team has already received requests for guidance on redesigning sites along ‘WISE’ lines as part of its business-as-usual WebLearn support. For more information, contact the WebLearn team: weblearn@it.ox.ac.uk.

* SUS is a type of high-level subjective view of usability which is often used in comparing the usability of different systems. See https://www.usability.gov/how-to-and-tools/methods/system-usability-scale.html.

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