The eReadings Service from the Social Sciences Library

Origins of the eReadings Service

A need was identified to provide a collection of online readings in one easy-to-access place for staff and students in the Social Sciences division, covering as much content as possible across prescribed curricula. The requirements were that such a site should be ‘clean’ in appearance, easy to navigate and easy to use.

manorroadbuildingThe SSL eReadings service was set up by the Social Sciences library to provide the required readings under Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) licence, primarily digital scans of chapters and articles that appear on  reading lists. The service addresses the teaching needs of all the departments in the Manor Road Building (Politics and International Relations, Economics, etc.), together with the Oxford Department of International Development in Queen Elizabeth House. On the BA degree programme in PPE alone, that’s around 750 students across the three years of study.

The Innovation

The library asked departments to submit requests for materials to be scanned, which were then fulfilled. The librarians also went through the reading lists that are routinely supplied by departments every term, and identified materials for scanning that were not already available electronically. This resulted in a total of 358 scanned items, all of which comply with CLA HE Licence copyright requirements, and contain a cover sheet providing the bibliographic details of the item.

SSL eReadings

‘WebLearn enables me to easily control the access, organisation and presentation of digitally scanned chapters and articles to help increase access to important Social Science teaching resources’ – Ian Chilvers

The scanned items are made available on a WebLearn site, using a well-designed combination of participant groups (students registered for a particular course or programme), internal sub-groups and group-protected folders. This has resulted in a lean and well-controlled WebLearn presence, providing easy access to eReadings for only those students entitled to them (i.e. because they are registered on the appropriate courses).

By using knowledge gained from a postgraduate degree in library science, code snippets and online tutorials that he found on the W3C Schools website, Ian Chilvers, a senior library assistant, taught himself to write WebLearn pages using ‘raw’ HTML code, in line with recommended good practice and accessibility guidelines.

Others in the small library team assist with identifying items to be scanned, scanning them, clearing the copyright, creating the PDF files and uploading them to WebLearn. Ian makes use of the statistics provided by the WebLearn Site Stats tool, which he exports to Excel and sorts and analyses in order to produce a summary report.

In order to reduce the possibility of human error by retyping bibliographic details, the library team maintains its own RefWorks account, from which team members copy and paste the required bibliographic details. Ian devised a colour-coded Excel spreadsheet to manage the flow of information and the status of the various readings and where they are in the process of scanning, copyright clearance, and provision in WebLearn.

An innovative feature is a form delivered in WebLearn that enables both staff and students to submit a request for a particular item to be scanned. Ian created this form using the CGI scripting service provided by IT Services. Unlike the libraries’ ‘Scan and Deliver’ service, no payment is required and scans are added to WebLearn for use by everyone who is authorised to access the eReadings site.


Based on the WebLearn usage statistics, the team in the Social Sciences Library succeeded in making a substantial impact. During the nine months following the launch of SSL eReadings in October 2012, the WebLearn site received 3,497 visits (1,390 unique visitors). The WebLearn Sign-Up tool is used occasionally to take bookings for user education sessions in the Library and will have driven some of this traffic. By the summer of 2013 over 350 chapters and articles on reading lists across the division had been created and made available on the Library’s WebLearn site.

Top tips

Ian Chilvers offers the following recommendations for departments and libraries who may be considering a similar service:

  1. Get to know WebLearn before making any decisions about how you want to use it. Learn what it can and can’t do for you. Testing once you’ve got started is important too.
  2. Keep things organised in the Resources tool with helpful and consistent names for files and folders.
  3. If you need greater control over the presentation of your content, try creating your pages in notepad using HTML and CSS and then upload the .html file, rather than using the WYSIWYG editor.
  4. Ensure your target audience knows about your site or service and what benefits it can offer them.

Further Information

oxtalent badgeWinner, OxTALENT 2014 award for use of WebLearn for learning support and outreach to students.

Adapted from original text by Jill Fresen of the WebLearn team & Ian Chilvers, Senior Library Assistant (Technical Services), Social Sciences Library.

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Virtual Machines for a Forensics Course

The Challenge: An Instant Learning Environment

Dr Gareth Digby is a visiting lecturer in the Department of Computer Science. He teaches Forensics, one of the courses in the part-time MSc programmes in Software Engineering and Software & Systems Security. These programmes are offered by the department for those who wish to study while continuing in full-time employment, and each course is taught by an industry expert in the subject. Gareth is based in the USA, where he works in the systems engineering services sector, and flies over twice a year to teach the Forensics course.

The course is blended, in that students come to the University for a week of face-to-face classes and then have six weeks to complete an assignment and submit it online. In class, students complete a number of exercises designed to familiarise them with the forensic process and with a set of tools. In each exercise they investigate an image of the file system of a computer whose user is suspect of conducting malicious activities using the computer. This image, which has been custom created by an expert, typically includes fragments of documents, images, emails, and other files, from which students must reconstruct evidence of the user’s wrongdoing. The assignment is a similar task and also entails producing documentation of the kind typically required from a forensic investigator.

In preparing and running the course, Gareth faces a number of challenges:

  • he needs to have a learning environment that works work in the way that he wants as soon as he arrives in Oxford;
  • students’ laptops have different hardware configurations and/or different operating systems;
  • students do not have the time to install multiple tools and data sets on their laptops;
  • students may not have previous experience with the forensic tools although they are expected to have some experience with Linux, the operating system on which the forensic tools run.
Distribution of the forensic tools virtual machine and the assignment evidence on DVDs

Distribution of the forensic tools virtual machine and the assignment evidence on DVDs

Gareth’s solution is to create a virtual machine: ‘a software-based emulation of a computer’,  which enables a user to run a ‘guest’ operating system (in this case, Linux) on a host computer that has a different operating system (e.g. Windows or Mac OS X). As well as the operating system, his virtual machine contains the students’ learning environment: the forensic tools (which include the open source application The Sleuth Kit). Because of size considerations the evidence on which they will work is distributed separately.

Implementing the Virtual Machine

When Gareth designed the course in 2009 he was aware of the challenges that he would face, and so built virtualisation into its delivery from day one. He created the students’ learning environment himself, so he knows that it works. The only prerequisite is that students must 1) have the virtualisation software required to run the virtual machine (typically, VMware) on their own computers already, and 2) have a working knowledge of the Linux command line.

The virtual machine is already mounted on the iMacs in the computer lab at the start of the course, and most of the students use these during their week in Oxford. At the end of the week they take a copy of the virtual machine away with them to put onto their own computers.

Creating assignment evidence using virtual machines

Creating assignment evidence using virtual machines

Having the tools and evidence for the assignment on the virtual machine means Gareth can be confident that all the students start from the same point, so the assignment is fairer and, hence, easier to mark. However, he has to create a fresh set of evidence for the assignment each year, and to do this he creates additional virtual machines to emulate both the ‘suspect’s’ computer and the computers of other users with whom the ‘suspect’ might interact.

Recently, Gareth has started to experiment with Cloud infrastructure to see whether it can deliver the same benefits. One reason for this is that the computer forensic data sets and images used for the exercises and assignments are becoming very large and can require tens of gigabytes of free storage on their personal computers. Although it’s possible to reduce the size of the forensic images, this detracts from the realism of the assignment.

Gareth’s experiments with using the Cloud will consider the changes made to the blend between the technology context, the learner’s context and the teacher’s context: ‘I am conscious that, while at one level I am simply moving the virtual machine from a local installation to a remote installation, this change now requires the student and teacher to both have reliable network access available.’

Making a Difference

Because the virtual machine is insulated from upgrades to the hardware and operating systems of the host computers that might have an impact on the tools used, Gareth can use the same basic environment from one year to the next. Another advantage is that students can customise the look and feel of the user interface of their virtual machines, rather than having to use the standard layout of the computers in the classroom. Gareth says: ‘It’s interesting, when you walk round in class, the different ways they’ve all laid out the desktops … They’ve got the whole operating system in the virtual machine … so they can get the environment the way they want.’ This makes them more productive, so that ‘by the end of the week it’s just become some software that they use.’

There is no specific question about students’ experiences of using the virtual machine on the course feedback form, but students appear to have no difficulty installing and using it once they have returned home to do the assignment.

Some of Gareth’s fellow teachers on the MSc programme have adopted virtualisation as well – in one case, to enable students to use design tools developed for the Linux operating system on their Windows and Mac computers.

Top Tips for Success

You can use virtualisation in any subject where students need a particular set of tools and data, not just in computer science. And you don’t have to be a technical expert in order to install the virtualisation software or create a virtual machine.

Gareth’s recommendations are:

  1. Make sure in advance that the students understand that they need to acquire the virtualisation software (e.g. VMware) themselves.
  2. Think carefully about how you are going to distribute the virtual environment in terms of:
    - Media: many laptops no longer have DVD drives, so use USB sticks or consider the Cloud.
    - Distribution technologies: look for distribution technologies for which the manufacturer has clearly committed to support over the medium- to long- term; otherwise you may find yourself having to re-create the virtual environment next year using another technology.

oxtalent badgeWinner, OxTALENT 2014 award for support for blended learning.

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The Copenhagen Field-class: ‘one-stop’ support through WebLearn


T Jellis (2)Dr Thomas Jellis, winner of the 2013 OxTALENT award for “Use of WebLearn to support a course or programme of study”, is a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford’s School of Geography and college lecturer at St. John’s and Hertford colleges. When preparing a new Copenhagen field trip for undergraduate geographers, he exploited WebLearn’s capacity for effective course outlines. He and his team designed a very successful and highly specialised sub-site on WebLearn to host their material. Their aims were three-fold: to enable preparation prior to the trip; to promote reflection on the themes and activities; and to allow collaboration via group project wikis.

The Challenge

The trip required a ‘one-stop’ site, which Thomas produced from scratch himself, without contacting the WebLearn team. The site had to provide students with information before the trip, remain useful and updated for the duration, and serve as an information repository afterwards. Beyond the field trip itself, the site needed a coherent structure that could be easily reused for future trips.

The Innovation

The site can be accessed from any mobile device and scales seamlessly to any platform. Those using a laptop, tablet or smartphone are able to easily navigate the site and retrieve material. Moreover, by creating a wiki for each group project, the site expands the learning environment in a number of ways. It provides a forum to foster intercollegiate communication, encourages the development of research questions in advance of the trip, and allows the sharing of material, both during and after the trip.


Thomas reports that student feedback was positive and the ability to share material was welcomed. Encouragingly, students felt prepared in advance of the trip and, as it came to a close, confident that they knew what was expected of them in terms of writing up their findings. In addition, colleagues at the department praised the site as setting the standard for field classes in the future.

Top Tips

  • Attend the classes run by the IT Learning Programme and follow up afterwards on the WebLearn support pages.
  • Experimenting and testing are crucial before you publish the site.
  • Think about how the e-environment allows you to do things that would not be possible with printed documents. Include hyperlinks, embedded maps or figures, and a wiki in your site.
  • When creating web links, always use the option to ‘automatically resize’; this avoids the awkwardness of a double scroll bar and resizes the content for hand-held devices, essential on a field trip.

Further Information

Explore the Copenhagen Fieldclass site

Join the WebLearn User Group for guidance and collaboration

Use the IT course catalogue to find courses to support the use of WebLearn. These include:
WebLearn: Fundamentals
WebLearn: Design and content
WebLearn: Surveys
WebLearn: Tools for creating interactive online resources
WebLearn: Tools to support teaching and learning
WebLearn: Using Mobile Oxford

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Winner of the OxTALENT 2013 Award for ‘Use of WebLearn to support a course or programme of study’.

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Evolution of Master’s Essay Writing: developing peer-review assessment through WebLearn


jeremy howickDr Jeremy Howick, Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, and Lettitia Derrington, Department for Continuing Education, have introduced peer review as an aspect of assessment for the MSc in Evidence-based Health Care. They have designed appropriate forums and topics using the WebLearn Forums tool to serve this purpose. In this innovation they have demonstrated the capabilities of a VLE to facilitate essential research training for students who act as peer reviewers of each other’s work.


In providing students with the experience of an editor perspective, Jeremy and Lettitia sought a way to strengthen their students’ experience of the research-teaching nexus. They also wanted to provide them with training in the process of academic publishing. This is particularly important, since the students on this course are encouraged to seek publication of their essays. One further challenge was that part of the assessment process for this MSc takes place through distance learning. Effective use of a virtual learning environment was therefore essential. As Jeremy explains:

“Nobody has yet developed a way to combine (a) the benefits of students giving each other formative peer review feedback, (b) the benefits of WebLearn for ease of student interaction, and (c) a process to establish the teaching-research link and reap the benefits thereof.”


Jeremy and Lettitia designed a process using WebLearn forums that allowed students to interact as peer reviewers of each other’s essay assignments. A forum was created, containing a topic for each student. The students were invited to post a new thread for each of the three stages of their assignment over a period of three weeks: proposal, outline, draft. At each stage, students were asked to submit their own work and also act as peer reviewers for others. The forums were supervised by the module coordinator. Instructions were detailed in html pages on the WebLearn site and also sent as announcements.


100% of students were active participants and the feedback was universally positive. One student wrote:

“Thank you. [I] have never had a teacher give so much help and input before…I wish I had had teachers like you in the past.”

Other module coordinators have expressed an interest in using the same model for student peer review.

Top Tips for Success

Jeremy and Lettitia’s tips are divided into three key categories:


  1. Students will rarely have experience acting as peer reviewers, so explain the process carefully.
  2. Label the forums and topics clearly.
  3. Send reminders at each stage of the peer review process.


  1. The goal is for students to provide feedback to each other, so supervision is only a supportive function; the head tutor needs to monitor and facilitate the process.
  2. In the case of inappropriate or insufficient feedback from students, the head tutor needs to intervene with clarifications to the peer reviewer (e.g. suggestions on how to provide constructive feedback) and the student whose work is being assessed (with further comments).
  3. Provide general formative feedback to all students at each stage of the process.


  1. Ask the students to evaluate the assessment strategy and process of peer review in the feedback for the course.
  2. Communicate with the WebLearn team to see what WebLearn innovations might be forthcoming.
  3. Modify, adapt, improve for next year!

Further Information

Join the WebLearn User Group for guidance and collaboration.

Use the IT course catalogue to find courses to support the use of WebLearn. These include:
WebLearn: Fundamentals
WebLearn: Design and content
WebLearn: Surveys
WebLearn: Tools for creating interactive online resources
WebLearn: Tools to support teaching and learning
WebLearn: Using Mobile Oxford

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Runner-Up for the OxTALENT 2013 Award for ‘Use of WebLearn to support a course or programme of study’.

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Blavatnik School of Government iPad app: a new take on WebLearn

blavatnik logoIntroduction

The Blavatnik School of Government (BSG) is in its first year of offering the one-year Master of Public Policy (MPP). To support this course, the Blavatnik School provides iPads to all its students. Led by the project manager, Edward Long, the school has developed a highly specialised iPad app to support the delivery of course content and facilitate peer discussion. They used WebLearn to drive the back end of the app and developed a custom theme for their sites to help unify the user experience. For this project, WebLearn development was implemented by Matthew Buckett, Colin Hebert, Adam Marshall and Marc Savitsky; and Theodore Koterwas and Ben Dodson were responsible for development of the app.


The school’s student body comprises 38 scholars from 19 different countries. The course format includes a large number of guest lecturers, who often teach only one or two sessions in the year. Students need to be able to quickly access new readings and lecture slides, discuss study topics, submit assignments, and book drop-in sessions for technical support, careers advice and one-to-one meetings. The learning environment also needed to integrate with the iPad platform and offer a persistent login state, as well as offline storage.


WebLearn tools are used to deliver many of the features the Blavatnik School required. BSG  use the Resources, Forums, Assessments, Tests and Sign-Up tools for the student portal, and also developed two new products to improve the student experience:

bsg1. The BSG WebLearn Theme

Working with the WebLearn development team, BSG designed and developed a set of CSS stylesheets. As well as upholding BSG branding conventions, the stylesheets improved the readability of text and menu elements, and enhanced navigation on a touch-screen device.

2. The BSG iPad App

Through innovation by developers within and outside the University, this app brings a more intuitive front end to several of the WebLearn tools. It also allows persistent login states, offline storage and multiple ways of sorting content by context. As a result, for a BSG student, the home tab provides a convenient overview of the day’s timetable, as well as the reading materials set for that week. Essential and supplementary reading materials are marked with different coloured icons. Reading materials can be sorted by course module or by week of term, and picker menus allow the user to jump to a different week or module. A library tab provides availability information for all prescribed library books, including the location of holdings. Finally, two forum tabs provide a discussion space for course-related chat (open to students and staff), and a “Common Room” (open to students only).


As this is the first year of existence of the Blavatnik School and the programme, no student feedback is yet available. Nevertheless, other departments have expressed an interest in the BSG innovations for their own course administration. The app was also a runner-up for the OxTALENT 2013 Award in the category: ‘Use of WebLearn to support a course or programme of study’.

Tips for Success

  1. Being a new institution affords the opportunity for freedom of design, but it can be difficult to precisely gauge requirements, given that the course itself is under development. The BSG overcame this challenge by running a focus group session and three testing phases with graduate students and staff at the University.
  2. Prioritise features so that essential functions are delivered long before your deadline. This gives the flexibility to drop low-priority features in order to deal with bugs and improve the look and feel, closer to the delivery date.

Further Information

View the BSG WebLearn sites:

Blavatnik School of Government public site
MPP 2012 member access site

Watch the online user guide

Join the WebLearn User Group for guidance and collaboration.

Use the IT course catalogue to find courses to support the use of WebLearn. These include:
WebLearn: Fundamentals
WebLearn: Design and content
WebLearn: Surveys
WebLearn: Tools for creating interactive online resources
WebLearn: Tools to support teaching and learning
WebLearn: Using Mobile Oxford

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Runner-Up for the OxTALENT 2013 Award for ‘Use of WebLearn to support a course or programme of study’.

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WikiNets: Organising and Sharing Your Research


WikiNets is the brainchild of William Zeng, a DPhil student in the Quantum Group in the Department of Computer Science, and a team of other graduate students: Erfan Soliman, Miriam Backens, and Brendan Fong at Oxford, and Daphne Erzer at Cambridge. It was among 21 winning entries in the ‘Summer of Student Innovation’ competition organised in 2013 by Jisc and a number of other organisations.

Recognising the active role that students increasingly play in enhancing their learning experience, Jisc and its partners devised the competition as an experiment to find out whether students themselves can develop digital technologies to improve their studies and research. Entrants were required to produce a short video to promote their idea, and the videos were judged by a combination of peer voting (via the web and Twitter) and a panel of experts.

The Challenge

The concept underlying WikiNets is simple: a researcher has an idea which they want to relate to other ideas, often in different kinds of ways. Very soon that researcher has built up quite an extensive and complex network.

Similar networks develop in our dealings with the human world – whether with other researchers working in the same field, with contacts in business and industry, or with people in our personal and social life. The challenge lies in maintaining these ever expanding networks while at the same time being able to keep track of an individual idea and its relationships.

The Innovation

WikiNetsWikiNets is a collaborative, open source, network-building tool to organise and share one’s notes and research: in essence, it’s a combination of a wiki and a concept map. Its basic functionality includes the ability to attach information and references to each idea (node), and to search both for individual ideas and particular types of relationships. Although inspired by William’s experiences as a researcher in Computer Science, WikiNets should also be suitable for disciplines ranging from the natural sciences to literature. Furthermore, not only can an individual researcher share his or her own ideas with others, research groups will also be able to collaborate through the tool and thereby build a collective network.

Winning a £5,000 prize in the competition has given William and his colleagues the opportunity to develop WikiNets into a real technology solution. The tool will potentially be adopted not just within Oxford, but also by other universities, colleges and learning providers. Over the summer the team has been developing an alpha version of the open source app.

Because WikiNets will be an open source tool, it can be downloaded and used for free. Also, users with programming skills can customise it to suit their own needs. They can then share the modified code with other users, thereby helping to extend the tool’s features and capabilities for the benefit of the wider research community.

Top Tips for Success

William has this advice for would-be student innovators:

Students shouldn’t forget to look within their own university as well as outside it when looking to innovate. Our WikiNets team already does some academic work together and this made our new collaboration much smoother.

Further Information

Watch William’s promotional video for WikiNets on YouTube and read the team’s blog, The WikiNets Project.

See the other case studies of digital innovations by students in our collection.

Information about the competition was taken from the Jisc News blog post ‘Digital savvy students offered £5k grants’ (20/05/13), CC BY-NC-ND.

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Streaming Lectures with WebEx


The Medical Sciences Division at Oxford has used lecture capture and videoconferencing technologies successfully for several years, both to stream lectures live and to record them for students to review later, for reinforcement or revision. As well as using established technologies such as PowerPoint and QuickTime, the Division is increasingly using the WebEx service for lectures, tutorials, and seminars when students are away from Oxford.

The Challenge

During the clinical part of their medical course, students work on rotations. These include periods in district general hospitals, which can be many miles away from Oxford. Because students are absent at different times, it is not possible to timetable lectures when they are all in the University.

The Innovation

WebEx screenshotTo address this challenge, Medical Sciences uses WebEx videoconferencing software for live webcasting lectures in years 4 to 6. WebEx provides both web and audio conference facilities, and allows participants to share presentations, applications, and even the entire desktop. They can view video, chat to each other, and contribute to a whiteboard. All participants need is a computer, mobile phone, or tablet with an internet connection, headphones, and, optionally, a webcam (for smaller meetings). It is also possible to receive audio over the telephone, in which case WebEx will call the participant’s mobile phone or landline. In this way, students do not incur any charges on their own accounts.

In lectures which are given through WebEx in Medical Sciences, the screen of the lecturer’s computer is broadcast along with the audio. With extensive use of graphical slides with images, graphs, diagrams and so forth, the typical style of lecturing in medical subjects is well adapted to this ‘screencast’ format. Moreover, visibility in a dark lecture theatre tends to be poor, so capturing the slides of these lectures is more effective than filming the lecture with a camera placed in the room.

An advantage of live streaming with WebEx is the possibility for students to interact with the lecturer by sending questions over and comments a chat-like system. These can be captured and stored, along with the lecture itself, in server space provided by WebEx. A URL with the link to the lectures can then be placed in WebLearn so that students can revisit the lecture at a later date.

Live lectures via WebEx are now a feature of the Medicine & Surgery courses in years 4 and 6, and are being developed in some speciality rotations in Year 5. Lecturers have become familiar with the system and like its features, particularly the live chat. Students respond positively to it too.

Further Information

WebEx can be used for a range of purposes, from meetings and interviews to lectures and training, and even to troubleshoot technical problems. It is split into different sectors or ‘centers’, depending on the nature of the meeting. The Medical Sciences Division recommends using the Events Center for streaming lectures, in order to avoid the additional costs that can be incurred when the Meeting Center is used for meetings of more than 11 people.

WebEx is provided by IT Services to University departments as a cost-recovered service. For more information, see the WebEx pages on the IT Services website.

The IT Learning Programme offers an online course in the basics using WebEx, on an on-demand basis.

University of Oxford WebEx Enterprise site.

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