Supporting Blended Learning in Cross-Departmental Programmes: WebLearn

Oxford’s Virtual Learning Environment, WebLearn, offers a range of tools to support teaching and learning activities in courses that blend face-to-face and online teaching and learning. A Cross-departmental team from Oxford’s Continuing Professional Development Centre and the Department of Primary Care have implemented a comprehensive WebLearn environment for use across three related modular programmes in the Health Sciences involving two departments: the Department of Primary Care and the Nuffield Department of Surgical Sciences. The MSc in Evidence-Based Health Care, Postgraduate Certificate in Health Research, and the Postgraduate Diploma in Health Research are designed for busy health professionals seeking to ensure that they are able to adapt to the most current demands of modern health service delivery. The programmes employ innovative study methods through online distance learning and intensive 5-day residential modules.

The Challenge

Through their courses, students had different experiences studying modules from different programmes. They were presented with a variety of technologies and VLE systems with different structures, navigation and appearance. CPD wanted to provide a systematic online environment that students and staff could engage with consistently but that would still allow individuals to be creative and innovative, and share their practice.

For systematic use of a VLE to be developed and enhanced, it needs to capture the flair and enthusiasm of individuals but support those individuals within a sustainable and efficient framework ~ Dr Adrian Stokes, Director of the Centre for Continuing Professional Development

The team also wanted to provide more structures support to the intensive residential week, enabling students and tutors to get to know each other before they met face to face, and have relevant information on hand. This would enable to the week to focus more on more demanding academic activities.

The Innovation
It was decided to develop an overall framework through deploying a centrally provided and supported system available to all departments: WebLearn.

The team used a variety of approaches to select relevant tools to use from the VLE. They asked for feedback from tutors who were already using WebLearn , and also gathered feedback from students who had used WebLearn in individual module/lecture series. They also went through a formalised consensus exerciss to determine the aims and objectives of using WebLearn.

  • To create a framework for managing the extension of WebLearn across multiple programmes, involving multiple departments, with sites at the ‘course’ and ‘module’ levels, each employing a different set of functions and tools to communi- cate with students.
  • To employ ‘templates’ and standard conventions to enhance the user experience (e.g. navigability), giving common look and feel across different modules and courses, covering the homepage navigation, forums, online evaluations (both daily and weekly), and a timetable-interface for session resources.
  • To develop the WebLearn skills of colleagues and improve sustainability (e.g. by avoiding dependence on processes that require one or two key individuals).
  • To develop stable folder-structures, resource locations and naming conventions, across multiple runs of several module sites, ensuring a deliberate and consistent approach across a complex set of programmes.
  • To categorise resources into ‘Programme specific’ (e.g. handbooks), Module spe- cific (e.g. textbooks) and ‘module-run-specific’ (e.g. timetables), and develop a set of centralised resource locations where appropriate, and the structure for easy duplication (of resource folders and module sites) where possible.

Combinations of tools were then selected that would realise these aims.

Two types of WebLearn site were designed. ‘Course’ level sites covered the overall course structure and referenced other relevant resources for students across the university (e.g. the Student Gateway). Module level sites were designed to encompass three phases. Orientation: where students are prepared to engage with eachother, their tutors and the module content. Intensive: to support face to ace teaching at the intensive residential week, providing a repository for material produced. Follow up: to support the phase following the intensive through further reading, assignment preparation etc. The VLE acts as a wrapper, supporting this three level approach.

During the intensive week engagement between tutors and students has shifted towards critical analysis, evaluation, and more demanding academic activities away from information giving and getting to know one another. Use of WebLearn has provided this orientation to enable staff and students to focus on teaching and learning.

Even though the cross-departmental work has just started, at the end of the first term the early signs were promising:

We are getting higher levels of participation in the online elements and students actually want more. They are feeding into the process of choosing new tools and decising what is best at module and course level. ~ Dr Adrian Stokes, Director of the Centre for Continuing Professional Development

Soon the CPD will be able to evaluate more deeply the impact of moving to WebLearn, but even in these beginnings it is felt that the systematic use of WebLearn has led to a sustainable and efficient framework for blended learning.

Top Tips

  • Be clear about what it is you want to achieve and design your use of WebLearn to realise these aims.
  • To design on a large scale for students, try to put a team together to negate the risk of having a whole initiative led by one advocate. A team can support each other and create a framework.
  • Broaden your network to support what you are doing. Support is available from the WebLearn team and the WebLearn User Group.

A winner of the OxTALENT 2011 Award for ‘Best Use of WebLearn to Support a Course or Programme of Study’.

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