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University of Glasgow - Supporting Scottish History courses via Moodle

Authors: Karin Bowie (k.bowie@history.arts.gla.ac.uk), Dauvit Broun (d.brown@history.arts.gla.ac.uk)

JISC e-Learning Activity Area: technology-enhanced learning environments

Higher Education Academy Subject Centre: history classics and archaeology

 

Case study tags: online learningan effect on learningan effect on exam resultsan effect on student personal development,student satisfaction with e-learning,innovation in learning and teachingan influence on educational researchstaff satisfaction with e-learningstaff personal developmenta positive effect on recruitmenta positive effect on retention,an influence on policyuse of resources,modifications to learning spaces,management of learning assetsan effect on social equalitytangible benefits of e-learninguniversity of glasgowtechnology-enhanced learning environmentshistory classics and archaeology

 

Background & Context

 

Why did you use this e-learning approach?

 

This case discusses the adoption of a Moodle VLE for a Level 1 and three Honours level Scottish History courses. Previously the courses either used a basic Dreamweaver website or had no internet-based support. We used a VLE because we had observed its usefulness in courses taught by colleagues. We used Moodle software because the university has selected this as its VLE of choice.

 

More specifically, the use of a VLE was intended to facilitate learning and teaching by:

 

  • making course materials accessible to students anytime, anywhere, particularly course handouts, assigned reading for each seminar, and OHP/PowerPoint presentations used for each lecture, as well as supplementary material such as timelines and genealogies.
  • improving communications between staff and students through the email functions for the class and seminar groups
  • reducing photocopying costs by cutting the course document to a few pages of 'essential information'

 

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

 

Characteristics of the courses

 

Scottish History Level 1 serves as an introduction to a period of Scottish history (1100-1707). The course has two lecturers and four Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs). The course is designed to introduce students to working with primary material (in the form of extracts) and to the assessment of secondary literature. Contact hours are 30 lectures and 6 seminars over 12 weeks. The seminars are based on worksheets containing a general introduction, primary source extracts and discussion questions. One to three articles or chapters are also assigned to as background reading for each seminar. Making these readings available to a large class is a perennial problem.

 

The Honours Courses are interdisciplinary, taught by staff from the departments of Archaeology, Celtic and History. The courses are designed to introduce students to a variety of primary source material and historiographical issues. Contact hours are 15 class meetings (either lectures or workshops) and 5 seminars over 10 weeks. Every student is provided with worksheets for each seminar and sources and tasks for each workshop.

 

Composition of learner groups

 

Scottish History Level 1 attracts a diverse student body, numbering between 120 and 150. The course is open to all first and second year students in the university and is taken by a substantial number of students who do not intend to study History at the honours level. It also attracts overseas exchange students and mature students. The course has to be designed to cater for students without any knowledge of Scottish History or any previous experience of studying History at the university level, while offering sufficient depth to challenge more experienced second year students.

 

For the Honours courses, student numbers vary from around 20 to 35, although one course recently had 63 students. These include students from different disciplines (History, Celtic and Archaeology), a number of exchange students and some mature students. The course has to be designed to cater for students without any prior knowledge of the subject or the various disciplines involved in the course.

 

  1. Situation before e-learning was introduced Scottish History Level 1 was completely overhauled when e-learning was introduced with new seminar worksheets containing primary source extracts and assigned chapters/articles. There had previously been a Dreamweaver-based website that provided supplementary materials but this could be ignored by students without much adverse result for them. Neither lecturer knew Dreamweaver and had to rely on limited secretarial support to put anything on the website. The Honours courses did not have websites before the VLE was introduced.
  2. Anticipated problems/challenges
    • Lectures: Will the availability of the PowerPoint/OHP presentation for each lecture result in a drop in lecture attendance? Will those who do attend still feel that it is worthwhile? Might the availability of detailed notes be used by students to prepare for lectures? Will they offer a solution to the perennial problem of having too much material to cover in a lecture?
    • Seminars: Will issues of digitisation costs and copyright limit the aim of supplying all seminar readings online?
    • Communications: Will staff be overwhelmed by queries from students struggling with a new system?

 

What was the design?

 

The course Moodle sites were used to supply information and resources to all students on and off campus and to encourage communication between students. Seminar groups were created in Moodle to allow tutors and students to email each other and a general chat function was created for the class at large. Administrative information, essay reading lists and past exam papers were provided at the top of the Moodle site. Other materials were provided in weekly sections so that students could see when each item came into play during the course.

 

  • PowerPoint/summaries of OHP presentations for lectures
  • Worksheets for seminars and workshops
  • Digitised secondary reading for each seminar (when available)
  • Digitised annotated primary sources or links to sources on websites (when available)

 

It was hoped that the provision of lecture slides would aid note-taking and learning by allowing students to listen more and take notes more selectively. In addition, the department's student-staff committee had recommended the provision of lecture slides for the benefit of students with special needs. The provision of digitised readings was expected to relieve pressure on limited library resources and improve preparation for class. Moodle also offered a way to increase the depth of the course for more advanced students. More specialised information was provided for these students, such as timelines and supplementary primary source material.

 

The design was planned and completed by the course lecturers. Each took responsibility for their aspects of the course, loading lecture notes as the course progressed. The course convenor took overall responsibility.

 

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

 

The modest scope of this e-learning approach meant that its implementation was fairly straightforward. The password and navigation to the site was given to students when they enrolled on these courses. Moodle enables staff to see which students have used the site, so it was possible at an early stage to identify which students had not registered. Those few students who had difficulties were then shown what to do.

 

An introductory session on Moodle for all GTAs in History was arranged. All but one of the tutors on Scottish History Level 1 used Moodle's group email function to communicate with their seminar groups. (One experienced GTA had no internet access at home and little enthusiasm for computers or Moodle training so his group communicated with him via the departmental secretary.)

 

Unanticipated problems

 

  • Printing scanned files: The provision of scanned secondary literature in PDF files was an important achievement, but students had access to different versions of Adobe and many did not know how to manipulate files in Adobe.
  • Printing costs for students: Some students have complained that they must bear the cost of printing out the assigned readings and lecture outlines.
  • Internet access for all tutors: as noted above, not all course tutors were able, or willing, to access the Moodle site. This would be an issue if something more ambitious were to be attempted in future, such as e-discussions held before a seminar.
  • Plagiarism: there was some concern that students would cut and paste from course files to their essays.
  • Staff illness: on the Honours courses, staff absence meant that the provision of some lecture notes had to be abandoned for the final third of the course.

 

Technology Used

 

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

 

There was institutional encouragement to use Moodle, although the History department was not as aware of Moodle as other departments (Archaeology and Celtic). This meant that the Moodle sites for the Honours courses have been created in the Archaeology or Celtic department VLEs, even when a course has been administered as a History department course.

 

There was limited training on offer for Moodle. The university offered voluntary training which one lecturer in Scottish History Level 1 took up but found of limited use as it was not discipline-specific. Others struggled to fit the courses into their schedules. Peer training proved most helpful: as one lecturer commented, 'My training, as the History member of staff involved in these courses, consisted of a couple of lunchtime sessions with members of the Celtic department showing me what to do. I found this quite straightforward, once I got the hang of it! I feel quite confident that, should I wish to expand into more advanced applications - I'm particularly interested in group work - I could get the necessary bite-sized training at my keyboard from one of my more advanced colleagues.'

 

Tangible Benefits

 

What tangible benefits did this e-learning approach produce?

 

In Scottish History Level 1, the introduction of e-learning coincided with an overhaul of the course, so the specific role of e-learning in improved results is impossible to quantify. Results have been transformed, however: the proportion of students who finished with an A grade overall leapt from 1% to 15%, while the number of 'fails' (less than D) fell from 12% to 5%.

 

On both Scottish History Level 1 and the Honours courses student feedback questionnaires and focus group discussions have been uniformly positive about Moodle: they appreciate the ready availability of seminar readings and lecture notes. For Scottish History Level 1, staff expectations of student preparedness have become more robust and the quality of seminars has improved noticeably. For the interdisciplinary Honours courses, the availability of lecture notes meant that students could review material from an unfamiliar discipline and the lecture itself could be delivered in a more fluent and engaging way. In workshops, the pace could more readily be dictated by student responses in the knowledge that any essential business not covered in the workshop could be posted on the Moodle site. In addition, Moodle enhanced the research-led nature of the Honours courses by making it possible to distribute articles and other materials even before they were published.

 

To a limited extent, students on Scottish History Level 1 and the Honours courses have used Moodle to exchange views between themselves.

 

There has been a reduction of approximately 50% in the amount of material photocopied for these courses (notably essay reading lists and copies of secondary seminar materials).

 

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

 

Lectures: The greatest pedagogical concern is how to judge the amount of lecture material to make available. If lectures are made available on Moodle in too much detail, then students may stay away from the lecture itself. Attendance at Scottish History Level 1 lectures has declined (from about 2/3 or 3/5 to about 1/2 the class). This demonstrates that while this new technology offers great advantages, it also undermines the traditional large-class lecture. To address this, the teaching team plans to explore ways to remodel their lectures to take better advantage of the provision of lecture notes and make lectures more interactive. In contrast, lecture attendance has not noticeably declined in the Honours courses, where classes are smaller, students are more committed and lectures are already more interactive. In an Honours course debriefing, all students in the meeting said that they gained more from the live lecture itself than they would have from what was available on the Moodle site alone.

 

Seminar readings: The department's photocopying budget has been spared, but the cost of printing has been passed to students. This is particularly a problem for those students who lack internet access at home and must pay the relatively higher cost of printing charged by the university. Scanning the readings took more time and trouble than had been anticipated. Copyright restrictions were only resolved with the adoption of a site license by the university.

 

Inequities of access: Use of VLEs increases the pressure on students to have their own computers and internet access in their homes. This is a cost that some can shoulder more easily than others. VLEs therefore may add to the existing inequalities between students from different backgrounds.

 

Staff time: There is no doubt that the use of the Moodle site has made more demands on staff time. At the same time, it has enhanced the experience of teaching, and the sense of professional achievement. All lecturers involved in these courses are in no doubt that they would much rather have Moodle than not have it! The fear remains, though, that a more ambitious use of the Moodle site could make serious in-roads into staff time which is already stretched.

 

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

 

The department and institution has encouraged but not forced the use of Moodle. Take up of Moodle has spread mostly by informal contact between peers and by an increasing expectation from students that Moodle will be used in courses. Staff have been left to make use of it in ways that suit them and their courses best. The result is a wide range of formats and practices, ranging from the fairly minimal approach to the more ambitious and innovative uses that have been developed by (for example) members of staff teaching Celtic Civilisation and Philosophy. The Arts faculty is in the process of creating a unified 'point of entry' for all Moodle sites, but otherwise the institutional 'touch' has been very light.

 

Lessons Learned

 

Summary and Reflection

 

There is no doubt that the provision of course materials on the Moodle site has enhanced the learning and teaching experience of staff and students and that it has contributed to an improvement in staff and student performance, especially in seminars. This is seen as a critical advance for students at Level 1 in particular.

 

We recognize that some might view our use of Moodle as rather basic, but even this simple use of a VLE has thrown up significant pedagogical challenges, particularly in lecturing for Level 1. We will continue to use Moodle to support lectures, workshops and seminars where this allows classes to be conducted in a more engaging, innovative way and helps to introduce students more readily to the cutting edge of the subject. The seminar experience suggests the possibility of raising expectations about student preparedness for lectures. If lecture summaries on Moodle could be seen as introductions to be read beforehand, rather than substitutes for lecture attendance, then lectures could become more ambitious.

 

Though we would like to take advantage of Moodle's more advanced features, there are barriers limiting our ability to do so, particularly the availability of time (and GTA wages) for new activities that would be incremental to current course contact hours. Training would be helpful to more fully exploit Moodle's potential, but sessions are typically scheduled for whole mornings or afternoons, and the reality of lecturers' lives means that this amount of 'free time' is rarely available during semesters. Short, focused training sessions by peers in one's discipline, scheduled perhaps at lunchtime, would be helpful, though this may overburden already hard-pressed members of staff who are competent in the use of Moodle.

 

Further Evidence

 

In Scottish History Level 1, the introduction of e-learning coincided with an overhaul of the course, so the specific role of e-learning in improved results is impossible to quantify. Results have been transformed, however: the proportion of students who finished with an A grade overall leapt from 1% to 15%, while the number of 'fails' (less than D) fell from 12% to 5%.

 

There was limited training on offer for Moodle. The university offered voluntary training which one lecturer in Scottish History Level 1 took up but found of limited use as it was not discipline-specific. Others struggled to fit the courses into their schedules. Peer training proved most helpful: as one lecturer commented, 'My training, as the History member of staff involved in these courses, consisted of a couple of lunchtime sessions with members of the Celtic department showing me what to do. I found this quite straightforward, once I got the hang of it! I feel quite confident that, should I wish to expand into more advanced applications - I'm particularly interested in group work - I could get the necessary bite-sized training at my keyboard from one of my more advanced colleagues.'