Supporting interdisciplinary study: WebLearn’s Biomedical Sciences Portal

Introduction

WebLearn is a multi-faceted virtual learning environment that can be used to help alleviate the practical challenges of complicated degree courses. Robert Wilkins, Biomedical Sciences course director, gave educational technology a central role in the management of this new undergraduate degree.  In 2011 Biomedical Sciences admitted its first 30 students. As a fundamentally interdisciplinary programme,  a number of departments and units contribute to the teaching, including Biochemistry, Experimental Psychology, Pathology, Pharmacology, and Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics. Robert’s vision was to use the latest technologies to give students an experience that began pre-arrival, was personalised, and was paperless as far as possible. The result was the Biomedical Sciences portal in WebLearn.

The Challenge

The course teaching takes place across the University Science Area: its students lack a physical ‘home’ department and need to travel around the Science Area between lectures and practical classes. They also have a relatively complicated timetable and may need to access teaching materials through many different WebLearn sites as well as to access their own work saved on different computer systems. In the final years of the degree, students will attend teaching sessions which were originally developed for students on other, much larger, courses, which could leave them feeling that that teaching is less tailored to their needs. Furthermore, as a new degree, early intakes will not be able to ask existing students about their experiences of these challenges.

The Innovation

All students of Biomedical Sciences visit the same WebLearn portal page, which is automatically personalised for them. The portal is a simple, clearly branded site which brings together a number of WebLearn tools:

  • Announcements from all sites of which the student is a member
  • Course documents
  • ‘MyCalendar’ : a colour-coded personal calendar created by automatically combining calendars from other WebLearn sites, which also has an iCal feed so students can view their personal timetable on a smartphone or any computer. A searchable table provides links to m.ox.ac.uk for directions to event locations. The department has plans to improve these links for the next academic year. Lecture materials will also be linked to calendar entries from Michaelmas term.
  • ‘MyStuff’: an interface which helps manage the student’s saved files in the 100MB, available-anywhere storage space provided by WebLearn’s MyWorkspace. From next academic year, this tool will be updated to allow file management and uploading by drag-and-drop directly through the personal portal page.

Feedback

This innovation is still in its initial stages, but anecdotal student feedback has been positive. According to Robert, “Students have said how they feel sorry for those on other courses who don’t have their own portal!”

Top Tips for Success

1. Engage with students before they arrive. Upcoming students were able to view a series of introductory podcasts from on-course theme leaders. They could also interact with each other and their tutors in a chat room. The department will encourage current first year students to engage with next year’s intake through their portal pages.

2. Work with existing administrative practices: administrators can manage the underlying WebLearn sites of this portal in almost the same way as for any other course.

3. Work closely with the various teams that can provide help with educational technology: in this case study these teams were the Medical Sciences Division Learning Technologies, the WebLearn team and Educational Resources Team.

Further Information

Join the WebLearn User Group for expert guidance and to hear examples of innovative practice at this group’s termly meetings.
IT Services also offers a large number of courses to support the use of WebLearn that can be found in the IT course catalogue. These include:
WebLearn: Fundamentals
WebLearn: Making your site work
WebLearn: Surveys
WebLearn: Tools for creating interactive online resources
WebLearn: Tools to support teaching and learning
WebLearn: Using Mobile Oxford

Winner of OxTalent 2012 award for “use of WebLearn beyond a single course or group”

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