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Exeter tech-supported learning environments case study

Page history last edited by PBworks 16 years, 4 months ago

University of Exeter Case Study



CSCS Exeter online texts.doc 



 Author: Alison Wride


1. Why did you use this e-learning approach?



This case study from the School of Business and Economics at the University of Exeter involved a move to using on-line formative exercises for several modules; two of these were intermediate microeconomic modules, another was a business awareness module for non-business students. Resources were provided by the publishers of a set text, students were given training and information in an introductory session and weekly help sessions were run by the module leader. The initiative was motivated by several factors:
  • A change of module structure in our economics programmes. We have moved from 30 credit level 2 economics modules to 15 credit modules. The semester 1 modules are taken by all year two students, on both single honours and joint programmes; the semester two modules are core for the single honours economists. The result is increased numbers on semester one modules, with very diverse mathematical background. This raised pedagogic issues we needed to address.


  • The introduction of a business module for students from outside the School of Business and Economics 


  • The identified need to increase the amount of formative assessment and associated feedback 


  • Increase in the proportion of international students


  • An identified need to improve administrative systems particularly at module level


  • The move to full economic costing and a change in incentives has resulted in increasing numbers of ‘buy-outs’ of academic staff. We therefore have identified a need to have core modules which can be delivered by a number of people including temporary lecturers.



2. What was the context in which you used this e-learning approach?



The University of Exeter is a member of the 1994 Group of Universities which are generally small and medium-sized universities, built on a human scale. Exeter is research focused but avoids the impersonal feel of some very large institutions. The School of Business and Economics is seen as very student-focused, with some outstanding scores in the 2006 NSS.
The Economics programmes are largely split into those that are very technical, with a strong mathematical core, Economics, Economics and Finance, Economics with Econometrics and less technical programmes including Business Economics and Economics and Politics. The students are largely between the ages of 18 and 22 and enter with three A levels at around AAB-ABB; they may work part-time, but generally are available to attend all lectures and classes and do not have family responsibilities. However the School of Business and Economics is aware of the needs of students who do not conform to this traditional picture. We have also increased the number of international students in recent years and have found the use of WebCT invaluable in ensuring that all students are able to access materials in advance of lectures.  Students on the business awareness module are from outside the school, from degree programmes that include Drama. Computer Science, Mathematics and English. Teaching staff in the school are mostly research active; we were the smallest 5-rated Economics department in the last RAE. Many of the staff are from mainland Europe and for several this is their first teaching post and first job in the UK. In recent years the school has started to employ full-time teaching fellows, appointed for their ability to teach and interest in pedagogical issues.
These were new modules; however the modules they replaced involved a traditional mix of 2 hour long lectures per week and a one hour class. The class involved students preparing a formative exercise which was then discussed. In recent years the class sizes have increased from 12 students to around 25 on level 2 modules. Numbers in lectures range from 40-200. Attendance at lectures is around 60% on average, attendance at classes is somewhat higher, around 75%. We do note student attendance at classes, however follow-up on this has proved costly, particularly in terms of academics' time and we are seeking alternative ways to measure/track student engagement.
We anticipated some challenges:
  • Many of our students expect weekly classes, identifying contact time with learning.
  • Introduction at level two for economics students meant that we had missed the opportunity to make full use of e-learning from the start of their time at Exeter.
  • We were concerned about the response of students on the Business awareness module; the very diverse background meant that some student would be used to classes while other expected seminars/discussion groups.
  • The use of password-protected publisher’s resources meant that students would have to buy the book; we anticipated complaints from some students and from other staff.
  • The resources were not at this time embedded within WebCT and we were aware that this might lead to confusion.
  • The major challenge anticipated was whether the students would actually do the work each week, allowing them to develop their skills and learning throughout the modules.


3. What technologies and/or e-tools were available to you?



The technologies used were provided by publishers, including Wiley and Pearsons Students were able to access case-studies, videos and other resources. They were expected to completed on-line exercises, some multiple choice, others in essay or graphical format, and the results were collated and sent to the lecturers. We chose to use these resources because in each case they supplemented our preferred texts; thus we were confident of the academic content. The publishers were able to provide training and support to staff and students and the administrative aspects, including notification of which students have logged in and are completing the exercises were seen as invaluable.



4. What was the design?



We wished to retain lectures as a learning/teaching tool. This is driven partly by the institutional context where the number of contact hours is a matter of scrutiny, but also as a core strand of our commitment that all our research active staff will continue to teach. However we increasingly felt that students were attending classes to ‘get the answers’. They were not always preparing exercises in advance of the class, nor were all of them prepared to participate in discussion. Given the pressure on resources we really did not feel that this was effective teaching or learning. We therefore decided that linking each lecture with an associated exercise, and referring to it both before and after the students had completed the exercise would reinforce the lecture-based learning.
On the business awareness module we had a two hour timetabled slot each week. The use of one line exercises and other learning materials allowed this contact time to be used in a developmental way. Initially there were several lectures; these were followed by seminars and presentations and then we moved into groups working on business plans, which were discussed by the complete cohort.
Staff involved in the design of the approach were the lecturers on the modules, the Head of Department and the Head of Undergraduate Studies of the school.


5. How did you implement and embed this e-learning approach?


The new approach was explained to students at the start of the modules. The necessity to buy the text was stressed and the advantages of e-learning were discussed. The students were given a presentation by the publishers technologists and the information was made available again at the weekly help classes. Staff received training in the materials before the start of term. Since the resources were ‘on-line’ there was no requirement for IT support teams to be involved, we have very good IT facilities across the campus but nearly all our students have their own computers.
Evaluation of the approach took several forms. During the modules the proportion of students logging in and completing assessments was recorded. Student feedback was sought informally throughout the modules and formally on completion of the modules. Staff using this approach will be meeting at the end of the academic year to exchange views and reflect on the approach. A record of log-ins has been retained and has been compared with the exam results.
Most of the challenges identified above did not arise; the major exception was the number of students completing the assessments each week. When challenged some explained that they were working in pairs and thus only one name would appear on the record; others agreed that they had fallen behind. Students did not cite unwillingness to buy the book/access code as a reason for not completing the assessments. In the future we will consider making completion of 80% of assessments compulsory in order to attain 10% of the module mark.
One unanticipated problem was the dissemination of the approach to other staff, particularly to support staff. Classes are administered and organized by an undergraduate support team and at one point they were heard telling students that ‘There aren’t any classes, just lectures’. While this was partly true- though it ignored the help class- it was unhelpful and gave the impression that the on-line support was a poor substitute for classes and that the motivation was entirely resource driven. This is being addressed for the 2007/8 session with a workshop for support staff explaining the processes and the benefits.




6. What tangible benefits did this e-learning approach produce?



We have identified some tangible benefits to both staff and students from this approach

  • The pass rates/ average marks on the economics modules are equivalent to the modules that were previously in place. The business module was new, however the marks demonstrated a good spread and a high average level of achievement.
  • Retention rates on the modules were very high and several students on joint programmes who took the first economics module decided to sign up for that running in the second semester.
  • Several of the staff involved had not previously used e-learning. In part the issue had been the cost of designing materials and this was overcome by the use of publishers’ resources. Their enthusiasm for the approach has enabled us to highlight it across the school.
  • The recording of student participation potentially allows us to use the learning process as an administrative tool, monitoring attendance.
  •  The approach fits with our institutional strategy on increased emphasis on e-learning and problem-based learning while also retaining core contact hours and ensuring research active staff continue to teach.
  • The use of e-resources ensure that all students on the module have access to materials even if they have work commitments or have to spend some time away from the university.
  • International students reported that they found the on-line materials particularly user-friendly. They had often felt diffident about speaking in class whereas the opportunity to cover the materials at their own pace. The provision of help classes ensures that they can then seek support if they need to do so. 
  •  Real savings in staff time were identified, with eight hours of tutorials per week being replaced by two help classes. The real benefits of this will appear in subsequent years, since the staff involved are now familiar with the resources.
  • Real space savings were achieved with the reduction in the number of classes.
  • The materials provided by the publishers are very extensive, far more so than we would have had the capacity to design.
  • There is potential for team-teaching and increased continuity when staff are bought out on research grants.


7. Did implementation of this e-learning approach have any disadvantages or drawbacks?



A few disadvantages were identified, these included:
  • The time spent explaining to students who missed the initial training how to use the resources. We will address this in the future by having a web-based explanation linked through from the module page.
  •  Concern about the costs of the texts to students. We have persuaded the publishers to give us some free texts and key codes for distribution on a needs-assessed basis.
  • Concern that the interactive discussion that could take place in classes was now being lost; though the fact that this discussion was not occurring enough had motivated the new approach.
  • Managing the belief that this was a cost-driven measure rather than a one driven by concern for student learning.




8. How did this e-learning approach accord with or differ from any relevant departmental and/or institutional strategies?



This e-learning approach does embed within our institutional strategy which clearly aims to increase the amount of e-learning undertaken at what was a largely traditional university. As the national agenda appears to move towards a splitting of teaching and research-led institutions, universities like Exeter are in danger of falling between the two. We are not members of the Russell group, yet we expect to carry out internationally rated research and that our teaching should be research-led. This approach not only benefits the students but is also resource efficient and fits with the move to increased buy-outs for academics.   


9. Summary and Reflection



We believe that this approach has been largely successful. Where students have fully participated fully in the assessments their learning has been enhanced and their achievement has been high. We suspect that the students who did not complete the exercises would in the past have been the non-attenders at classes, although this is a subjective view. In 2007 we will be talking to students on modules using e-assessment, emphasisng the benefits and explaining the process in the light of our previous experience. We will also show them the anonymised data from the previous cohort that relates the proportion of e-assessments completed to the final exam mark, although we will also make it clear that the conclusions are not robust.

The approach works in terms of our institutional strategy and has informed the school strategy that is currently being developed for implementation from 2008.

For 2007/8 we will be introducing a similar approach into our year 1 economics module; this has over 400 students on it and has consisted of three lectures per week, one whole module workshop and optional help classes. These will be retained but will be supplemented with compulsory weekly online assessments. We will be asking each department within the school to look at the resources provided by publishers and to consider whether these could be used to enhance student learning. From 2008 all modules within the school will be based within WebCt, at present this happens for around 25%, and we see that in the future there will be a core of e-learning through all our programmes. 




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