Online short courses: moving weekly classes into the future

In the late 19th Century, the University of Oxford was one of the first HE institutions to promote adult learning and extend its educational offerings to the general public across the UK, though the Department for Continuing Education (OUDCE).  One of the main pillars of this provision has long been the weekly classes programme that offers courses over ten weeks to students who can come to a class once a week in Oxford.

The early 21st century saw this programme extended through the establishment of online short courses, aimed at widening access to high-quality adult education to students who would otherwise be unable to access the scholarship and teaching of Oxford.  In January 2004, the Department launched its first ten-week online short course for 21 students, and in the following 11 years the programme has grown from a single philosophy course to almost 100 courses in 15 subject disciplines ranging from art history to astrophysics.

The online short courses are developed collaboratively by Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning (TALL), the Department’s in-house team of online learning professionals, and the Department’s academic staff (who are specialists both in their subject discipline and in the teaching of adult learners), and are tutored by subject experts who have undertaken training in how to teach effectively online.  Based on the Oxford tutorial model, the courses situate the student in an interactive virtual community creating a rich learning experience.  Bringing together students from all over the world with their Oxford tutors, the courses guide students through activities and learning materials enabling them to develop their understanding through a mix of flexible individual study and collaborative work.

A decade of development has seen a move from primarily text-based courses to ones incorporating audio, video and other interactive content.  The online experience has much consonance with a traditional classroom.  Student numbers per course are capped at between 20 and 32 (depending on the discipline).  This small community approach enhances the learning experience.  Students are able to take part in in-depth discussion; and receive personalised tutor guidance, feedback and support.  The international diversity of students also allows them to discuss and explore topics in ways rarely possible in face-to-face classrooms.

The programme has provided the opportunity for thousands of students across the globe to access the University’s teaching and learning in an environmentally sustainable manner.  More prosaically, the financial model for the courses is sustainable.  TALL has designed and refined a flexible production model that enables the creation of effective learning experiences on realistic budgets while maintaining a consistent quality, and adhering to the same academic QA processes as the Department’s face-to-face provision.  This model has been informed by significant and regular feedback from students, research undertaken by TALL, and by constant collaboration with academic staff.

The programme has had over 30,000 enrolments and has attracted a diverse range of participants, with students aged from 18 to 80+ years of age, from 126 different countries, with over 170 occupations.  Many of the programme’s students are non-native English speakers, some have access requirements (physical and/or educational) and a significant number of them take their online courses from resource-limited settings or are only able to study due to the flexibility the online delivery format provides.

Further information

Explore the online courses offered by OUDCE at

Find out about the development team in TALL at

Director of TALL, Sean Faughnan:

For course design enquiries, contact Marion Manton:

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The MPLS Online Maths Bridging Programme: supporting the academic transition to university

Extending and broadening the reach of a residential programme

The introductory page of the maths course

The introductory page of the maths course

The MPLS (Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences) Division’s Bridging Programme arose from the need for incoming students in the physical sciences to have certain prerequisite knowledge in mathematics and in their science subject. A one-week residential programme was established in 2012, involving a mixture of academic (subject-specific) sessions and transitional support (eg study skills) sessions. Places are prioritised for students who have a particular need: for example, if they have been identified in the admissions process as coming from socially and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds, if they have a disability, or there are other good reasons why they might be in need of such a course.

However, it isn’t possible to accommodate all students on the residential programme. Student feedback indicated that an online version of the maths course would be welcome, particularly one which differentiated between students with different mathematical backgrounds. So, the Bridging Steering Committee decided to translate some of the materials into an online format for 2013 freshers in Chemistry, Physics, Materials and Earth Sciences. The programme has since been extended to Engineering Science.

An interactive and flexible path to mathematical knowledge

The online Maths Bridging Programme covers core maths topics that students will encounter in their first year and contains six modules. Each one consists of:

  • an introduction outlining the topics covered in the module and their importance to the study science;
  • a diagnostic quiz (containing 10 multiple-choice questions) to enable students to assess their existing level of knowledge;
  • feedback on the quiz to help students identify which topics they might find it helpful to study;
  • topic material including notes and links to other resources, and further quizzes with feedback for students to consolidate and develop their knowledge;
  • extension material, with additional quizzes, for students who wish to take their knowledge beyond the core topics.
One of the diagnostic quizzes

One of the diagnostic quizzes

Training in study skills is also included; a short film was made on time management using the content from a session on the residential programme. A film on note-taking and other resources have now been added as well.

The online bridging course has two advantages over its residential counterpart. First, it’s open to all students (not just those who meet particular selection criteria) and is therefore more inclusive. Second, because the sequence in which students will encounter maths topics during their first year will differ according to their main subject of study, the online course enables them to study the topics in any order. In contrast, all students on the residential course take the topics in the same order.

The course runs in the Moodle VLE; technical development was carried out by the Technology Assisted Lifelong Learning Unit (TALL) in the Department for Continuing Education. Students access the course through a user name and password sent to them after the A Level results have been published.

A gap bridged…

The online programme appears to have been successful in achieving its aim of bridging the gap between students’ mathematical knowledge at A Level maths and university level. Approximately 72% of all freshers reading Chemistry, Earth Sciences, Materials, Engineering and Physics accessed it in 2014. There is also evidence that some students continue to access the materials in the online programme throughout the year.

Due to the success of the online Maths programme, Chemistry and Physics materials have also been developed and these are now accessible to the students. These sections are mainly useful for students of Chemistry and Physics but parts of them are useful for students of the other subjects as well.

Words of wisdom

The MPLS Bridging Programme team offers the following advice for designing and developing online courses:

  • First and foremost, consider the technical side: explore the different platforms on which your course could be built. Finding the right platform in terms of both accessibility and cost may require discussions with different departments or offices in the University.
  • Work closely with departmental lecturers and tutors who teach the chosen subject.
  • Link to existing study resources where you can.
  • When developing online materials, be aware that if you want to use any existing materials in any format (whether a book extract or a video clip), you must seek permission from the copyright holder. It can take some time to obtain the necessary legal advice and permissions, and you may need the cooperation of publishers or the heads of the institutions to which the authors belong.
  • Evaluation is very important. Plan a series of evaluations, both to assess the long-term impact of the programme and to make improvements in response to feedback from students and academics.

Further information

To find out more about the MPLS online bridging programme, visit the MPLS website or contact the programme team at

The IT Learning Programme in IT Services offers courses on copyright in the digital world.

oxtalent badgeRunner-up, OxTALENT 2014 award for the use of technology to support transition. The text and images in this case study have been adapted from the Bridging Programme team’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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WebLearn for Conservation Statistics: a wild success

elephant banner

Upskilling opportunities for conservationists in the field are rare

Wildlife conservationists in the developing world are the keepers of biodiversity, yet they frequently lack access to training in research techniques to support their valuable work. Dr Lucy Tallents from the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU, Department of Zoology) saw a real opportunity to offer conservationists the chance to study online. This would mean that students could develop important new skills without the need to interrupt conservation work or to pay the costs of overseas travel.

 A online system that works wherever, whenever

‘Conservation statistics’ is a 9-week postgraduate course created by Lucy and taught entirely through WebLearn. Between 20 and 25 wildlife conservation practitioners study part-time (10 hrs/week) to enhance their professional skills. The course aims to provide team activities and engaging learning materials, meaning that students from around the world work together to learn how solutions developed on a different continent can help species in their locality. Furthermore, feedback from their tutor and fellow students helps participants to evaluate the impact of their work using scientific methods.

The collaboratively edited mindmap

The collaboratively edited mindmap

The course goals are to:

  1. encourage students to develop and refine their own conservation research;
  2. expose them to new techniques for visualising and analysing their field data using open source software;
  3. encourage them to reflect on what they have learnt and apply their new skills;
  4. provide opportunities to collaborate across cultures, regions and professional backgrounds.
Skills audit as a Survey so anonymized results can be shared with the group

Skills audit as a Survey so anonymized results can be shared with the group

The learning outcomes are for students to:

  1. articulate their understanding and identify gaps in their knowledge;
  2. develop and critically evaluate research questions relevant to their own work;
  3. select and apply the appropriate statistical technique, and justify their choice;
  4. interpret their results and present visual, text and numeric evidence to support their conclusions.

Lucy has tailored her approach to follow particular pedagogical principles. She believes learning is most effective when student-centred and problem-based, with multiple opportunities for reflection, discussion and application of skills. Knowledge should be constructed within a community as students learn from each other and develop their own professional judgement. Feedback should be prompt to affirm understanding and support efforts to correct errors. To achieve these, she based the course around a spiral curriculum to regularly revisit concepts and skills.

Pioneering use of WebLearn

Lucy had already run an online course through Moodle with the Department for Continuing Education. However, she wanted to have more control of the site and valued WebLearn for its diverse tool set and. She has used it to present engaging, well-organised content, to foster the development of a learning community, and encourage deep learning. She collaborated with Rajan Amin at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to create content. The Oxford University WebLearn team provided training and technical assistance on WebLearn.

Within WebLearn, Lucy has made particular use of:

  • The Lesson tool to guide students through activities, prompting reflection through questions. Collaboratively edited student lessons allow feedback through public peer review.
  • Forums to allow students to explore ideas, share resources, and support and challenge their peers. WebLearn allows them to view conversations in different ways, and keep track of new posts. Teams brainstorm and refine plans in private discussions before sharing them.
  • Formative Tests and summative Assignments provide students with immediate feedback on their understanding and application of techniques.
  • Markbook collates each student’s marks, making it straightforward to summarise and communicate their performance to them.
  • Surveys collect feedback on the learning activities and tutor input, and promote reflection through a skills audit.
  • Chat allows live troubleshooting of software code without requiring high bandwidth, and archives solutions for reference.
  • The Site stats tool is invaluable for monitoring progress and offering assistance if someone hasn’t accessed the course or a particular activity
  • Announcements introduce weekly topics and remind students about deadlines.
  • WebDAV allows updates resources to be easily uploaded.

To keep a level playing field, she chose to avoid synchronous video or audio, so those who can’t receive streamed content don’t feel excluded.

Self-introductions and spontaneous clusters

Self-introductions and spontaneous clusters

At the start of the course, students introduce themselves and spontaneously cluster into friendly groups working on the same issue or species on arrival. They share previous experiences of learning statistics and reassure those who express anxiety. Students have multiple opportunities to collaborate, ranging from standard practice to more innovative exercises, including chat rooms and a troubleshooting forum for asynchronous problem-solving. They can easily share resources in forums or on student pages, posting scientific papers (including their own publications), links to useful conservation guidance and equipment, their organisation’s home page, TeD talks and local news articles.

Favourable feedback

A mid-course survey response was run with very positive responses. Out of 15 respondents, 87% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that ‘The course contains a good balance of independent study and reflection, group discussions and practical exercises.’ This is reflected in high levels of engagement with the course. The ‘What to research, and why?’ forum is active and popular with 56 messages in 12 conversations. All students replied to Lucy’s invitation to introduce themselves, two-thirds initiated at least one conversation, and 80% posted in at least one of the forums created by other students. Within individual forums, 50-55% of students were engaged in a given forum. Many students commented very favourably on the course:

‘Excellent. The use of “smileys” and casual language and content (e.g. the weather in the UK) make for a relaxed learning environment, and therefore a more cooperative one.’

‘It was fascinating to read about where other students come from and what they do.’

Example of automated feedback from formative Tests

Example of automated feedback from formative Tests

‘I think the Mind42 map of Pressure-State-Response-Benefit tool was great and helped to really visualise and categorise the broad subject of conservation in a single object. … it was a fantastic visualisation tool.’

‘The discussion on ‘what to research and why?’ is a good forum, as there are many students trying to answer similar questions, but in different ways and under different conditions.’

‘I think the learning materials were very manageable in terms of splitting the week’s activities and exercises across multiple PDFs allowed participants to find natural breaks in work, and made it more “digestible”. Also, by being able to download the guides, they will be usable in the future and, therefore useful to refer back to if required.’

Further Information

  • View an online demo of the Conservation Statistics course.
  • For further information about WebLearn, and to find out how you can use it in your teaching, whether with Oxford-based students or distance learners, contact the WebLearn team.
  • The IT Learning Programme in IT Services runs a number of courses to support academics and administrators in the use of WebLearn.
  • To find out more about Dr Lucy Tallents, you can visit her website and follow her on Twitter: @LucyTallents.

oxtalent badgeWinner, OxTALENT 2015 award for use of WebLearn. This award recognises examples of using WebLearn in innovative ways to support online study and interaction as part of a course or programme of study at undergraduate or graduate level. The text and images in this case study have been adapted from Lucy Tallents’ entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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The Library Assistant: using technology to support library inductions

libapp1Oxford’s library system: a labyrinth?

Oxford’s complex library system can be confusing for new students. Undergraduates and postgraduates often need to get to grips with up to five libraries covering their subject area, including their college library and several of the Bodleian Libraries. Many need to use Oxford’s research libraries, which can be intimidating to use for the first time. For example, before coming to Oxford most undergraduates have not come across libraries with remote book stacks. Furthermore, reading lists may appear confusing at first to new students, with terms such as ‘ibid.’ and seemingly baffling journal citations.

Both colleges and the Bodleian Libraries run induction sessions in week 0 to help students to become more familiar with libraries. Student focus groups show that these are popular and students particularly value the opportunity to have a tour of the library and demonstrations of key tools.

However, focus groups have also revealed that both undergraduates and postgraduates experience information overload during the first week of Michaelmas Term and that the timing of induction can be problematic. This means that much of the information does not sink in, and students miss the opportunity to pick up crucial knowledge. Furthermore, some inductions were felt to come too early when students do not have sufficient context to understand what they are being shown, while others came too late as students already needed to prepare a paper. There are also a great many IT-related questions which arise when students struggle to work out the various systems and their different user names and passwords.

Oliver Bridle and Angela Carritt, along with other members of Oxford libraries staff, launched a project, the Library Assistant, which aimed to develop an online library induction for use on mobile devices which works alongside traditional inductions for Freshers.

Focus groups help staff tailor the technology to tackle specific student problems

The Bodleian is a beautiful building but its sheer size and enormous quantity of books can be overwhelming at first

The Bodleian is a beautiful building but its sheer size and enormous quantity of books can be overwhelming at first

In 2013 a group of Bodleian staff members ran student focus groups to find out more about the difficulties students face when using Oxford libraries and to ask them what three things they would tell a new student about Oxford libraries. These focus groups determined the content of the Library Assistant and ensured that it focused on students’ needs. Card-sorting exercises were used to work out an intuitive structure.

The project then considered whether to create an app or a responsive web site. It was decided that a responsive web site would be created, in order to ensure that students without a mobile device could use the Library Assistant on a laptop or desktop computer. This would also ensure future sustainability, as by hosting a web site using the Bodleian Libraries CMS, staff could ensure that librarians would be able to make changes to the content easily. Following on from this, the team then worked with the Bodleian Libraries web team on the design of the Library Assistant and created wireframes which were tested on students to ensure that the navigation and functionality was intuitive.

The next stage was to work on the content. There are three main types of pages in Library Assistant:

  • Static html pages use text/graphics to provide guidance.
    Interactive database driven pages interrogate existing library databases which were upgraded as part of the project. There are three sets of database-driven pages – which libraries cover different subjects; the induction timetable; and the accessibility database which allows students to see the facilities available for readers with disabilities in each library.
    SOLO chat page is where students can use our Live Help facility to talk to a librarian

A small team of librarians from across Oxford worked on the content, using a style guide to ensure that content was as concise and consistent as possible.

The final stage of the project was to market the Library Assistant to freshers. This involved working with the Oxford Design Studio to design wallet cards and posters. Many colleges agreed to include information about the Library Assistant in information packs and on their web sites.

Another crucial strand of this project was working with librarians from across Oxford’s diverse libraries to ensure that they modified their inductions in light of the feedback from student focus groups and to ensure that the Library Assistant was incorporated as an integral part of induction, allowing face to face inductions to concentrate on high value subject information.

Immediate success: freshers are firm fans

The benefits of the online induction offered by the Library Assisant are:

  • available anytime, anywhere, at the point of need;
  • tailored to the needs of undergraduates in their first term at Oxford;
  • covers all the libraries used by undergraduates including the Bodleian Libraries and faculty and college libraries;
  • covers shared services (for example SOLO, IT and printing, copying and scanning) and helps students to identify which libraries cover their subject area; and
  • helps students to decipher reading lists;

The impact of the Library Assistant was measured using web analytics and by running student focus groups. Google Analytics showed 1,692 visits to the site between 23rd September and 6th December 2013, leading to 4,408 page views. Views of the website were not evenly distributed over the term but peaked around 23rd September and 9th October. These dates coincided with inductions for new students in the Department of Education on the 23rd September and Freshers’ week inductions which took place between Monday 7th and Friday 11th October. Visits to the Library Assistant appeared to trail off after the first couple of weeks of term. This pattern was not unexpected, as the Library Assistant is designed primarily as a tool for new students. It was expected that the need for the website would diminish as students learned how to use library services and no longer required so much supporting information.

The analytics data also showed that the most popular pages were ‘Which libraries cover my subject?’, ‘What does “closed stack” mean?’ and ‘What do phrases like “ibid.” mean?’.

Focus groups were run with first year students. The feedback from these focus groups demonstrated that students had found the Library Assistant useful in getting to grips with Oxford’s libraries. The sections that they found particularly useful covered using the photocopying system, logging into library computers and help with reading lists.

Creating this online induction has enabled Oxford libraries to transform face-to-face inductions. Staff can now concentrate on subject resources which students will find useful in preparing their first essays.

From L to R: Main Menu; Sub-Menu; Content Having a clear map is extremely handy when there are a lot of libraries at the heart of a small city

From L to R: Main Menu; Sub-Menu; Content
Having a clear map is extremely handy when there are a lot of libraries at the heart of a small city

Not just for first years! Library assistant proves applicable to postgraduates too

In September 2013, Sophia Staves and Catherine Scutt at the Bodleian Education Library made innovative use of the new library website, combined with other mobile devices, to enhance the presentation element (and so the impact) of the Education Library inductions. The pair began by exploring the new website designed for freshers and saw that, although designed for undergraduate students, much of the content and layout would actually work well used as the backbone for welcoming new postgraduate students, particularly those on the intensive PGCE course.

The induction session was structured around the content of the website, and students were invited to use their own mobile devices to access it. This practical angle made it more likely that the students would remember the information having experienced it for themselves. Using the mobile Library Assistant as a prompt ensured all the crucial information was covered, with an Education Library slant provided by having live, local, librarians presenting.

A dual screen approach was used: one presentation screen was linked to the library’s iPad ensuring that it displayed mobile ‘Library Assistant’ as it would be seen by the students on their mobile devices; a second presentation screen linked to a laptop. This meant Sophia and Catherine could complement the content of the website with live examples of the students’ own reading lists, relevant searches for books in the library catalogue, and to show the library website and social media while encouraging the students to join in on their own devices too.

This approach transformed what could have been a basic introductory lecture into an in-depth practical workshop, and provided students with a website to consult over the next few days and weeks.

The analytics of the mobile Library Assistant website show a significant spike in usage starting on, and in the days following, the PGCE inductions. As these inductions happen earlier than any other student events, it is very likely that the data are a direct result of the sessions. The feedback on the day was positive with students keen to join in and enjoying the event. This style of induction created the right first impression of the library as an up to date source of relevant information, provided by helpful, tech-savvy librarians. PGCE students were noticeably more adept at using the library and the online systems in 2013; asking fewer basic questions. Providing the right style of induction also promoted an excellent rapport between the 200 PGCE students and the Education Library staff.

Top Tips

For anyone else considering a project in developing something similar, Oliver and Angela recommend:

  1. Engage with students to ensure that you are meeting their needs


    There’s a reason it’s called ‘reading a degree’ – all Oxford courses require students to use a variety of literature with a critical eye

  2. Work closely with the staff across the institution to ensure that you benefit from their experience. This is also important because staff are crucial in advertising new services to students. For this project to be successful it was also necessary for librarians across Oxford to make changes to their face to face inductions so that we could improve the student experience. In addition, staff in college offices were important in promoting library induction.
  3. Use systems that you have easy access to so that you can make changes. Here, the Content Management System that was used was already widely operated in the Bodlleian Libraries.
  4. Devote time to the marketing effort. Often this is neglected but it is vital if students are to benefit by using the service!

With particular reference to the use of mobile devices during induction sessions, Catherine adds that is important to check the strength of the wireless signal first, and to seek advice from the local IT support staff on how much simultaneous access is likely to be possible. She also recommends allowing time to explain the process of how to connect to the University’s wifi (as this is an induction it will be the first time most students have tried to do so).

Further Information

oxtalent badgeOliver Bridle, Sophia Staves and Catherine Scutt were winners of the OxTALENT 2014 award in the category Using Technology to Support Transition. This award recognises initiatives seeking to facilitate students’ move to Oxford University from other institutions. 

The text and images in this case study have been adapted from Oliver’s entry for the OxTALENT competition (supported by Angela Carritt) and supplemented by Sophia and Catherine’s entry.

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Adapting Lectures on the Fly with Real-Time Questioning

The challenge: eliciting students’ misconceptions in a large class

CC 0 - Public domain - from Wikimedia Commons

CC 0 – Public domain – from Wikimedia Commons

One of the biggest challenges faced by lecturers is gauging the effectiveness of their lectures and gathering students’ feelings about the content and difficulty. Professor Sophocles Mavroeidis of University College, a lecturer in Econometrics, wanted to encourage his third-year undergraduates, to give him feedback on their progress during his lectures so that he could adapt the pace accordingly. He was particularly keen for students to identify and alert him of weakness that needed further attention. The class consisted of more than 50 students, and Sophocles felt they were largely unresponsive to his questions. He surmised that this might be because they felt uncomfortable asking or answering questions in front of such a big class. To tackle this challenge, he turned to Socrative, a real-time questioning tool. This offered the potential to elicit responses from the students anonymously and thus to obtain, in real time, a sense of their overall understanding of the material.

Integrating questions into lectures

Setting up the questions was easy, since Socrative only requires students to have access to smartphone, tablet or laptop connected to the internet. No special hardware, such as clickers, is needed.

Although Socrative can be downloaded as an app onto iOS and Android devices, Sophocles used the website. The site has a ‘teacher’ section, for which he had to create an account. He then set up questions in advance, both as quizzes and for eliciting responses to questions posed in real time.

Students used the ‘student’ log-in section on the website, which does not require them to create an account or give any personal information. Instead, they simply needed to type in a ‘room number’ assigned to the virtual classroom by Socrative, which gave them instant access to the questions posted on the projector screen.


A screenshot of the “dashboard” of the teacher log-in, with quick links to various resources. The room number assigned to the virtual classroom (F1559720) can be seen.

Sophocles started the lecture series with a five-minute quiz that contained revision questions based on material from a pre-requisite course in Quantitative Economics. This also provided a very easy way to introduce Socrative for subsequent use. The results were available instantly and helped the students to focus by exposing weaknesses in their background knowledge. Then, during each lecture he injected True/False and multiple-choice questions at regular intervals (roughly every ten minutes), testing the material just covered. The response time was generally very fast; Sophocles received their responses to the questions in a matter of moments. He could also share the results on the projector screen with the entire class, so not only did students get instant feedback on how they did, but they could also compare their answers with the answers from the rest of the class.

The ability to collect students’ responses almost instantaneously helped Sophocles to identify those points that had not been well understood and needed further explanation. In his final lecture, which was a revision class, he gave the students a final quiz consisting of a selection of the various questions that he had asked during the course. Once again, the students received instant feedback, and Sophocles was able to focus the revision on the topics that were more problematic for them.

A stamp of approval from students

Sophocles asked his students whether they found the use of Socrative in class helpful; all those who responded said that they did. Analytics from Socrative showed that 70-80% of students responded to the questions – a figure which would have been even higher if the remaining students had had an internet-connected device with them. However, even those students benefited from the use of Socrative, since they could find out the correct answers to questions from the projector screen and also compare their answers with those of their peers.

Words of wisdom

Sopohocles writes:

I strongly recommend this app to any instructor who is teaching medium to large-sized classes and wishes to give and/or receive instant feedback to and/or from the students as their course progresses. It is extremely easy to use and can be set up within minutes.

The app has more options than the ones that I used and described above, including some fun activities that may enhance student engagement (e.g. ‘space race’). I didn’t find that I needed to use those in my class, because it was an elective course and students choosing it were sufficiently motivated, but these other features may prove useful when teaching compulsory or core modules.

However, he suggests that using Socrates in very large classes might be problematic, as it could take longer for students’ responses to be recorded, thereby holding up progress.

Further information

  • Read other case studies on the use of digital tools for real-time questioning in this collection.
  • WebLearn includes a polling tool that can be used for real-time questioning. For further information, contact the WebLearn team.
  • Visit the Socrative website.

This case study has been adapted from Sophocles Mavroeidis’ entry for the OxTALENT 2015 competition.

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Using a WebLearn Forum for Online Learning and Collaboration Among Medical Students

Diagnosing the problem: complexities of time and place

Image CC0 (public domain) Darnyi Zsóka, via Wikimedia Commons

Image CC0 (public domain) Darnyi Zsóka, via Wikimedia Commons

The first year of the four year graduate-entry medical course (GEC) is challenging for both students and teaching faculty. The 30 students, some of whom are post-docs, have a wide range of prior knowledge and learning styles. Furthermore, many are encountering a multitude of new concepts and material in a short space of time. As a result, some of the teaching and learning can feel quite ‘siloed’ with students moving rapidly between modules with little time to assimilate integrate their knowledge into a wider framework.

The students are generally a highly-motivated, self-directed and enquiring group who are very keen to learn. They also relish clinical contact to inform and enhance their learning, but have limited time to see patients in their first year. Dr Richard Harrington, Associate Director of the GEC, runs a series of case-based seminars often using videos of his own patients. However, his work as a GP in Thame, coupled with the students’ multiple commitments, can make it difficult to timetable these seminars.

The WebLearn Forum tool seemed a promising way to address some of these competing challenges. By posting clinical details and photographs of a real patient (with their specific consent for use in this way), Dr Harrington would be able to create an online learning environment similar to a classroom seminar. In addition, the Forum style would enable students to integrate their learning across a number of domains as details of the case unfolded.

Access to real case studies enhances and expands students’ knowledge

Having alerted students to his plans in a classroom seminar, Dr Harrington posted a simple description of his patient’s presenting complaint (a cough) and his subsidiary concern (bruising of his abdomen), together with two photographs. He initially asked the students to make basic observations about the photographs and constructive comments on the posts made by their peers. An interactive discussion followed.

Online discussion forum about a patient presenting unusual bruising

Online discussion forum about a patient presenting unusual bruising

In all, 17 students viewed the forum and 12 participated in the ongoing discussion, which ran for three weeks. After the first week discussion on the presenting complaint was closed and new information was provided about the patient’s past medical history, which was very relevant. This triggered further questions about the medication he was taking, both prescribed and over the counter: essential information in the evaluation of any patient.

Dr Harrington reports that, collectively, the group demonstrated a good approach to information gathering (‘taking a history’) with a range of observations and comment. They were generally appreciative of each other’s contributions. When the patient’s complex past medical history and medication was disclosed, the discussion moved to another level. What seemed like a relatively minor problem (bruising) uncovered multiple complexities. Thus the case discussion moved beyond the students’ current syllabus, extending into cardiovascular disease, oncology and pharmacology.

Medical students are often taught to seek a ‘unifying diagnosis’: i.e. a single underlying cause for a set of symptoms. This approach is typified by the metaphor of ‘Occam’s Razor‘, but on this occasion it did not apply. This, Dr Harrington says, highlights a growing need to adapt medical practice in order to reflect the increasing aging of the population and patients presenting with multiple complex conditions.

A learning opportunity for teacher as well as students

Through the WebLearn Forum tool, Dr Harrington reports that students were able to develop their skills of history-taking, clinical observation and analytical reasoning in a safe environment. He also felt that the forum environment perhaps enabled those with less prior knowledge to contribute more confidently than they would done in a face-to-face classroom. Moreover, Dr Harrington overcame some of the practical difficulties in running his seminars as he could moderate the discussion without being in Oxford.

Some students had clearly researched their contributions to the discussion. However, the Forum tool didn’t only the students space to research their answers, it also stimulated Dr Harrington to do the same. As a generalist, he quite often finds himself taken to the limits of his knowledge by the GEC students and in the past has responded to their own questions by suggesting they research the answers themselves. Instead, he can now do some background reading before answering, so the process is educational for him too.

Dr Harrington also hopes that the forums will help to raise the profile of primary care as a positive career option for Oxford’s medical students.

A prescription for others…

Dr Harrington encourages others to ‘take the plunge’ with this advice:

  • Identify an interesting problem or question that will engage a group of students and get started. For medical teachers there is a wealth of opportunity.
  • Start with a relatively simple problem; the students will be quick to uncover some of the complexities.
  • It is best to set some ground rules for discussion (see above) and moderate the interactions.
  • Use photographs or lab data to stimulate the students to engage.
  • As moderator, maketime to check and contribute to the discussion on most days.
  • If the discussion is slow to take off, email the group a reminder or approach a couple of students individually and ask them to ‘prime’ the discussion.

Dr Harrington also thanks Damion Young of the Medical Sciences Learning Technologies team, for his generous assistance in making creative use of WebLearn as a teaching tool.

Further information

  • Read other case studies in this collection showing the different ways in which WebLearn can support your students’ learning.
  • The ITLP team in IT Services runs a number of courses on using WebLearn in teaching.
  • To find out how WebLearn can support you, contact the WebLearn team.

oxtalent badgeRunner up, OxTALENT 2015 award for the use of WebLearn. This award recognises examples of using WebLearn in innovative ways to support online study and interaction as part of a course or programme of study at undergraduate or graduate level. 

Our attention was brought to Dr Harrington’s innovation through our research into the student digital experience at Oxford. The text and images in this case study have been adapted from his entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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UBlend: Oxford Life at Students’ Fingertips

So much to do, so little time to read every email

Every day, universities buzz with exciting and alluring events, ranging from talks by world leaders, to debates and college balls. From such events abound great opportunities to be inspired, to meet like-minded people and, ultimately, to discover one’s path.  The problem currently is that there is too much information to process; students are too often frustrated at missing out on notices of upcoming events which get swept up in the daily barrage of emails. Two students, Jean Petreschi and Anders Krohn, were all too familiar with this feeling, and thought it would be great to have a way of arranging events efficiently in a way that makes it easy for people to see what’s on, and so to decide what’s worth attending. From this simple idea sprang the idea of Ublend, a quick and easy way to see what’s happening on campus, showing what’s trending, highlighting activities of societies and even finding events relating to the user’s interests.

Designing an app with something for everyone

After teaming up with a couple of other fellow students, Jean and Anders built an innovative platform connecting students and event organisers at Oxford. The platform is composed of a website, and an iOS app. Market research showed that students are also very interested in corporate events and profiles, an area that the pair were planning to develop over the summer of 2015. However, the app has wider appeal beyond students. To an event organiser, Ublend  promises more exposure and provides a simple platform to better manage events. Newsletters can be sent to subscribers through MINT, the intuitive newsletter tool, and messages go straight to followers who will be notified directly on their phones.

The pair launched an initial version in November 2014, and  released a completely new platform on the 27th April 2015. This new platform includes a new app for iOS , as well as a new and more advanced platform for event organisers which includes the newsletter tool, messaging service and better event data.

 Statistics show students approve

By May 2015 over 1,700 students had downloaded Ublend on campus. Feedback is generally good, with a 4+ star rating on the app store. Over 120 event organisers have signed up to Ublend, creating over 500 events in Michaelmas 2014 and Hilary 2015.

Put the emphasis on people

For anyone considering a similar start-up, Jean recommends putting people first and to take great care in choosing your partners. “I was lucky to find a great co­‐founder from the beginning, and that makes a real difference,” he says. “Overall, always prioritise the team, over the product, over the profit; in that order.”


Further Information

oxtalent badgeWinner, OxTALENT 2015 award for support for Student Innovation. This award recognises how students have used technology to enhance the experience of studying at Oxford, both for themselves and for their peers. The text and images in this case study have been adapted from Jean Petreschi’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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Online platform enables Syrian medical students to continue studying

Technology could mean conflict is no barrier to education


Kinan and Louwai designed the interface and logos themselves. Making the site simple to navigate was a key principle in their approach

Five years ago, Syrian universities were vibrant hubs of teaching, central to a population that highly valued education. Since the start of the current conflict, a new generation of university students have had their access to education severely impaired, leaving bright, highly motivated students lacking opportunities to learn. Today, Syrian teachers are overstretched, valiantly trying to provide good quality education in extremely challenging circumstances. Students receive the bulk of their education from centralised university lectures, but there are insufficient resources for regular small group teaching, making it difficult for students to clarify problematic subjects and explore stimulating topics in more depth.

Kinan and Louwai Muhammed decided to address this issue by giving students in Syria the opportunity to receive high quality small group teaching similar in style to the University of Oxford system of tutorials and supervisions. The two brothers, both medical doctors, developed an online teaching platform ( for UK-based educators to connect with Syrian medical students and provide free, personalised and focused teaching tailored to student needs. It is hoped that the additional teaching provided from the UK will enhance the training of medical students in Syria and ultimately lead to better doctors; and that the exposure of students to impassioned academics from Oxford will act as a source of inspiration and motivation during the difficult times faced by the region.

Sharing the uniqueness of Oxford education through the use of an online platform

First, a network of medical tutors from the University of Oxford willing to offer their teaching services to the project for free was established. The brothers are also working directly with Syrian students to establish extra-curricular clubs at Syrian universities so that club members can gather larger groups of keen students into lecture theatres to receive live lectures on interesting topics from Oxford academics.

Several open source platforms were then customised to meet the project’s needs and create an online teaching service. Tutorials are designed to complement and supplement the teaching delivered by each student’s own indigenous university. In addition to regular tutorials, the website also features invited guest speakers including highly regarded authorities in the medical and scientific fields from the University of Oxford, which simultaneously aim to provide Syrian students with inspirational talks, while promoting engagement with subject matter by offering the unique opportunity to question Oxford experts in real time.

The system generates online classrooms that Oxford based tutors and multiple Syrian students can log into simultaneously. Students and tutors have separate login portals and hence different administration rights within the site. Tutors can upload PowerPoint or PDF files to display as lecture slides to the students who are logged into the classroom. They can then navigate the presentation using the simple and easy-to-use interface, zoom and pan across specific images to focus on key areas and use whiteboard features to annotate slides in order to enhance key points.

The voice of the presenter can be heard live by all participants and students have the option to ask questions through either a microphone or text chat. There is also a fully integrated multi-way videoconferencing function that allows students to see the lecturer and slideshow simultaneously. This has great value in enabling tutors to demonstrate practical skills such as clinical examinations, which can only be fully appreciated by observing visual demonstrations. Individual students can also share their webcams to allow tutors to examine practical skills and give feedback on technique. Even videos and other media can be shared through an integrated screen-sharing facility, making for a truly immersive and powerful learning environment. The site also features a recording function that allows students to revise from talks at a later date.

To tailor content further, students can suggest topics about which they would like specific teaching by using a built-in polling system, so that tutorials can be specifically targeted to the topics students find most important. Tutors themselves can also list presentation topics they would like to offer and the times they are free to deliver teaching. Students can then register interest in a topic and schedule a convenient time by signing up to the tutorials available. On completing a tutorial, students are invited to submit feedback on the session using an integrated survey, which helps to improve the service and generate progress reports.

The website has been specifically designed for scalability in recognition of the fact that the ability to communicate complex ideas to remote audiences has many applications. Furthermore, the service can be expanded to involve other developing countries around the world, teach subjects other than medicine, and host academic conferences that could serve to bring the academic communities in Syria, Britain and beyond closer together.

The initial screen on logging into a classroom. A. Share screen facility B. Activate webcam function C. Activate Audio function D. Tutorial attendance list and ‘raise hand to ask question facility’ E. View webcam box F. Slideshow display G. Slideshow tools H. Discussion chat box

The initial screen on logging into a classroom. Legend: A Share screen; B Activate webcam; C Activate audio; D Tutorial attendance list and ‘ask a question’ icon; E Box for viewing webcam video; F Slideshow box; G Slideshow tools; H Chat box.

Initial feedback provides positive prognosis

In the first month after official launch, SyriaScholar has successfully delivered 16 hours of teaching in the form of interactive clinical tutorials. By the end of the first two sessions, all students were able to diagnose a basic heart attack from medical heart traces and had memorised a highly effective system for analysing chest x-rays. These were skills that none of the students had mastered beforehand. Qualitative performance on practice questions before and after each session improvednoticeably.

Formal written feedback collected at the end of each session shows students so far rating sessions as ‘good’ to ‘excellent’ in all categories, ranging from quality and relevance of tutorials to ease of use. There is also the opportunity for text feedback, which has generated many positive comments including:

‘Being able to interact with the tutor was excellent, I learned a lot of new things.’

‘The information we got would definitely help a junior doctor in his/her daily life. The online tutorials are much better and beneficial then a normal theory lecture.’

‘The site was really easy to use.’

‘The tutorials complement our teaching and are highly relevant to our studies in Syria.’

Popularity has also grown and many students have asked to attend the sessions. Over 150 ‘likes’ from interested people were generated within two days of the launch of a Facebook page and the website has received over 1000 session requests in the first month online. Several Syrian universities have been approached for further formal collaborations, thus spreading the expertise of Oxford University tutors.

An example tutorial in progress demonstrating the slide show, webcam and chat functions.

An example tutorial in progress demonstrating the slide show, webcam and chat functions.

Top tips for creating new learning spaces on the web

The brothers highlight the important of being adaptable and forward thinking:

‘When you recognise a problem and want to find a solution, the key is to plan. The first stage is to recognise that there is a demand for the service you can offer, and then to think of the best way to supply a solution… However, it is important to be flexible and willing to accept that, sometimes, your plans will change and you will have to contend with unexpected problems that will need to be dealt with as they arise.’

They also recommend that anyone trying a similar project should:

  • Have a clear vision of where you want your idea to be in a few years’ time and work on a clear strategy for achieving this target.
  • Set short term, realistic goals that take you closer to this objective.
  • Try to predict obstacles that you may face along the way and plan for how you might overcome them.
  • Play towards your strengths by working on areas that you are already familiar with initially. However, don’t design your venture in a way that limits potential future development.
  • Always keep scalability in mind so that, if you are successful, you can branch out of your comfort zone and expand your project into something much bigger.

Further information

  • The IT Learning Programme in IT Services offers a number of courses on designing and creating websites and in writing Web-based content.

oxtalent badgeWinner, OxTALENT 2015 award for support for Outreach and Engagement (General). This award recognises exceptional initiatives which use IT to reach a global audience and which have clear evidence of impact. The text and images in this case study have been adapted from Kinan and Louwai Muhammed’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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Bringing New Life to an Old Language with a Smart Board

Ancient languages; modern methods

The traditional method of teaching ancient languages such as Hebrew is drilling in grammar and vocabulary, working deductively from a textbook. In this world, audio-visual innovation is presenting the grammar using PowerPoint! It is perhaps unsurprising that many students struggle with both motivation and retention. Revd Dr James Robson, who teaches at Wycliffe Hall, decided to address this problem through introducing some of the modern methods of second language acquisition and providing an interactive, dynamic and multi-sensory engagement with the language and texts of Biblical Hebrew.

Having used an Epson interactive projector in his classes for a couple of years, James went on a Smart Board (interactive digital whiteboard) course at IT Services. He arranged the procurement and installation of a Smart Board at Wycliffe Hall, and set about redesigning his teaching around the use of the board.

Active learning with the Smart Board

James used different functions of the Smart Board for classes at different levels of study.


Annotations hand-written directly onto the board.

For Introductory Hebrew, he created pages in the Smart Board software in advance of the classes. These gave an outline of the class, with hyperlinks to songs, games, texts, PowerPoint presentations and to other pre-prepared Smart Board pages where particular teaching points or tasks could be found. Students could then engage directly, sometimes coming to the board to identify features.

hebrew 3

In this game students drag verb forms to the correct slots.

James could easily add new pages to explain different points, and refer back and forth to these pages. At the end of the class, he made the pages available to students in WebLearn. He could then retrieve them for reference in later classes ‘as simply as jumping to a different page in a document.’ He also devised games; for example, to develop students’ skills in parsing verbs.

hebrew 4

Annotating pre-prepared texts

For Intermediate Hebrew, James created diagrammatic analyses of set texts beforehand. In class, these texts could be read, discussed and annotated in real time, with students contributing. Sometimes students were invited to come up and asked to identify features in the text using pens in different colours. The software enables the annotations to be tied directly to the text, so that the annotations still remain linked to the text to which they were originally attached even when scrolling. Again, the Smart Board pages were made available in WebLearn for subsequent reference.

Transformed teaching; engaged students

James’ new approach ensured variety in the classroom and enabled much greater student interaction and participation. He noticed that they appeared very engaged during class.

Student feedback includes: ‘The use of technology really lets us get on with the job of learning… so much more packed into the 50 minutes.’

The unanimously positive reaction of students has been reflected in the high levels of take-up and continuation of Hebrew. Furthermore, during the period in which James has used the Epson projector (two years) and Smart Board (one year) seven of the nine students who sat Final Honours School in Theology have  achieved first-class marks on the elective Hebrew paper. Two of them have also won the Hebrew prize.

James has subsequently initiated at least one colleague into the benefits of teaching with a Smart Board. He tells us:

When I was on research leave last term, a post-doc kindly taught Hebrew for me. I introduced him to the Smartboard, gave him access to the software, and showed him the kinds of things that could be done. He has observed that it transformed his teaching.

Top tips…

James highly recommends anyone interested in using a Smart Board to go on a course, but he also advises experimentation and having fun!

Further Information

oxtalent badgeHonourable Mention, OxTALENT 2015 award for Innovative Teaching with Technology. This award recognises people who have made creative use of digital technologies other than WebLearn in their teaching. The text in this case study has been adapted from Revd Dr James Robson’s entry for the OxTALENT competition.

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