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University of Glasgow - Use of Moodle in Divinity

Author: Sarah Nicholoson (s.nicholson@arts.gla.ac.uk)

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

Higher Education Academy Subject Centre: philosophical and religious studies


Case study tags: an effect on learningan effect on student personal development,student satisfaction with e-learning,innovation in learning and teachingstaff 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 equality


Background & Context


Why did you use this e-learning approach?


The Department of Theology and Religious Studies was running a paper-based distance-taught BD degree: 15 modules of 20 credits each and a 60-credit dissertation. In 2005 we decided to progress to e-learning: we wanted to make it more immediately available to our distance students, and to use the learning materials with our 'regular' (campus-based) students. We also hoped that putting it in a VLE would help us to market the degree overseas and to market individual modules as stand-alone modules. We had about three enquiries per week from overseas students, but were ultimately unable to develop either the full online degree or an overseas recruitment strategy because the Arts Faculty discontinued the degree.


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


Glasgow is an ancient university, and this has some cultural implications. Long after newer universities in Glasgow were using VLEs, Glasgow was still considering whether it would invest in one (although individual departments in the university were using a variety of VLEs). Eventually Moodle became Glasgow's 'official' VLE.


Learner groups were initially composed of distance students of a wide variety of backgrounds (some with no IT experience at all) and staff with varying levels of interest in e-learning. The second of the distance modules to be developed for e-learning (Biblical Studies 1A) was then used with Level 1 campus-based students in addition to the distance students, so both groups were using the material simultaneously. This involved an average of 6 distance students per session and 60 campus-based students per session. There were three lecturers involved in teaching (although only two taught in any one session): me, Dr. Sherwood and Dr. Hunter. Dr. Hunter went on to develop Moodles for his other campus-taught courses. I wished to develop a Moodle for my other Level 1 course (Biblical Hebrew) but human factors (my unplanned pregnancy) intervened and that work remains to be done.


Prior to an e-learning approach some of this teaching was a paper-based distance-taught programme. The Moodles later developed by Dr. Hunter were structured on his Level 2, 3 and Honours courses.


We anticipated some staff resistance and a little student resistance to new approaches, particularly the time required to learn the new system. The lecturer developing the pilot module (Dr. Orr, Reformation Theologies) was sceptical about the return for the effort: she indicated that the time involved in developing e-learning materials was likely to be considered excessive by other lecturing staff in the department and that the benefits were unlikely to provide sufficient motivation.


What was the design?


The design reflected the paper-based course material, which itself had been developed with input and advice from GUIDE. Each module was divided into 10 units. Learning activities were incorporated at several strategic points in each unit and each unit ended with a summary. The nature of the learning activities depended on the material being taught. For example, in a unit on Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, Dr. Sherwood has designed enquiry-based learning activities that ask students to engage with, reflect on, and critique the history of the interpretation of the text. This is closely related to Dr. Sherwood's current research and is therefore addressing the university's primary strategic aim in L&T. Using the VLE enabled us to incorporate some new design features such as news, interactive spaces and discussion.


Assessment of the courses involved two short essays (each 10%), a 1500 word essay (50%) and a one hour exam (30%). This is an unusual set of weightings in the institution: Level 1 exams are usually weighted more heavily. The low exam weighting at Level 1 was intended to ensure that students with non-traditional backgrounds were not disadvantaged by lack of recent (if any) exam experience. Course convenors implementing VLE-based courses worked with staff in GUIDE, who were available for consultation on technological and pedagogical issues. GUIDE comprised academic staff, project managers, and learning technicians, and they were an invaluable resource to our department because they were able to advise on all levels of design, including the pedagogy of e-learning in distance education. They advised us, for example, to use Moodle's function to reveal material to students weekly, which worked well even though Dr. Hunter and I revealed our material in advance of teaching it, while Dr. Sherwood preferred to reveal material after teaching it. Interestingly, student feedback indicated they were generally happy with both approaches.


However, the e-learning materials did not make full use of Moodle's features, and the modules were not as pedagogically grounded as they might have been. The material could be better differentiated and more use could be made of communication tools such as discussion boards. That said, it must be stated that the department did not provide developmental resources (e.g. time to develop the online modules) and the result is probably as good as it can be in the circumstances.


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


We used a Level 2 course as a trial. The convenor, Dr. Orr, received training from GUIDE prior to and during the development of materials. Students in this course came to Glasgow and met with GUIDE staff for an induction in using Moodle.


Student progress was monitored both through the VLE and by contact with Dr. Orr. In addition, the students were asked to describe their experiences with the VLE and compare it to their experiences of the paper based courses. There were regular team discussions between the course convener and the distance learning team about the progress of the course.


The anticipated problems did materialise but since they were anticipated we were able to cope with them reasonably well. No unanticipated problems arose at that stage. All the students who enrolled completed and passed the course. We overcame the students' fears about technology by offering increased support, and by offering a paper version of the module just in that group to allay fears. One student really did not seem to get to grips with the VLE and submitted essays by post. A more serious problem was staff anxieties about using the VLE, which we addressed by sharing positive experiences about usefulness of the VLE, but we were not as successful as we hoped at enlisting colleagues in the VLE experience.


The most serious setback was the decision by the Arts Faculty to discontinue the distance degree on the basis that all the students were part-time and therefore were regarded as fees-only students. It was argued that the degree was losing money since none of the students attracted SFC block grant. This is not strictly true since block grant is awarded in 'full-time equivalent students' rather than in full-times places. However, we could have made a stronger argument to continue the degree if we had developed the e-learning materials quickly enough to pursue an overseas marketing strategy, which would have shown additional income. Staff resistance to developing e-learning materials may have been a factor in the demise of the distance degree. There is not really enough evidence to draw a strong conclusion here.


Technology Used


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


We used Moodle because it was available; it was the University's choice of VLE and other programmes in the University were being developed through Moodle. It was also supported by the Glasgow University Initiative in Distance Learning (GUIDE). GUIDE offered considerable support with the technological aspects of e-learning design through the VLE.


Tangible Benefits


What tangible benefits did this e-learning approach produce?


Benefits included:


Saving on photocopying, printing, postage. Printing alone was £6 per module; use of Moodle therefore saved the department £6 per head in printing, plus the cost of posting the module book, plus photocopying of class notices and other handouts, which were published on the Moodle instead.


Increased staff use of the VLE for distance-taught courses and for classroom-taught courses at all levels including Honours. Dr Hunter now has a Moodle for each of his courses and student feedback surveys indicate student support for this approach, with the overwhelming majority of students indicating that they find the Moodles helpful.


Increased staff confidence in the department with using technology in teaching. Since the development of e-learning materials for the distance degree the department has also invested in its own data projector and DVD player, which are regularly used by departmental staff. More use of e-learning is beginning to be seen as a necessary future development and was discussed at the department's teaching committee in June.


Distance students in the Bibs1A course were less isolated because of opportunities to communicate via the VLE; not just with each other but also with the lecturers. The use of the VLE for additional handouts and for course notices seemed to give more of a sense of community to this kind of contact than when those notices were sent by email. For example, comparing feedback sheets with other modules, distance students in the Bibs1A module made more contact with lecturers and had fewer complaints about their isolation than distance students in modules without VLE support. This contributes to the university's L&T aim of access and opportunity and also to the aim of creating a sense of community among students (L&T Strategy, May 2006).


Pass rates of 100% in the VLE-supported courses after the development of the VLE. Prior to the introduction of the VLE, the pass rate was still high: on average over 90% in the campus-based Bibs1A course, so perhaps the evidence for improved student performance is scanty. Indeed, the student numbers involved cannot really indicate any statistically significant results. Perhaps more important is the evidence of student satisfaction which is evident from the end-of-course feedback sheets. Again, student numbers are probably not high enough for statistical significance, but the evidence available seems to show that student satisfaction is higher since the introduction of the Moodle than before the Moodle.


Contribution to University's agenda of widening participation, at least until the distance degree was discontinued. All students in the distance programme were part-time mature students, and admissions form data indicates that many of them came from non-traditional backgrounds. For example, one student was a retired man who had failed his eleven plus and so had never had the opportunity to study at University level before but who excelled in his course. Data from the student disabilities service indicates that two of the students who used the online modules had severe mobility disabilities and would have been unable to study except at a distance (i.e. they had to study from home). One student had a heart-lung medical condition and similarly was unable to do campus-based study. At least three students had clinical depression and benefited from the flexibility that e-learning can offer (e.g. no missed lectures; no missed material). One student completed her degree through distance learning after she became pregnant. These experiences are clearly in line with the university's L&T equality and diversity objectives.


It almost goes without saying that the examples given above of students who have benefited from the widening participation agenda are also evidence of the social inclusion and social justice benefits of e-learning. For example, there is a great deal of belated justice in the case of the man who had failed his eleven plus more than forty years ago, who was thereby given to believe that he had no aptitude for academic work, and who is set to graduate next year with a very good degree.


It is possible that the use of e-learning materials has had a positive effect on retention, but we have no data on this because the situation is too complex and there are too many variables. Students withdrawing from study tend to cite personal reasons, if any; no one has even mentioned the mode of delivery in a letter of withdrawal.


Increased performance towards the university's aim of using 'new and developing technologies and associated methods of delivery to enhance students learning and promote flexibility' (L&T strategy, May 2006).


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


A very small number of our distance learning students had no computer access in their homes. It is clear that a programme delivered (even partially) through a VLE requires students to have regular and easy access to a computer and to the internet. This meant changing the admissions information, but existing students were not disadvantaged.


There are some disadvantages involved in using technology in teaching that are lessons learned alongside the implementation of our e-learning materials. One is the difficulty of adequate proof-reading for learning materials in languages with other alphabets (e.g. Hebrew) that require to be typed almost in 'code' on a regular keyboard. Mistakes in handouts were rare when handouts were hand-written. Handouts with typed Hebrew look much neater, but one small slip of the finger can produce a mistake that isn't immediately obvious to a non-native speaker!


Another disadvantage in my field is the difficulty of critiquing aspects of the use of technology in culture. We are restrained by regulations governing the use of university computers which prohibits accessing certain materials which require to be critiqued. For example, a course in feminist biblical hermeneutics might involve critique of biblical pornography in Hosea and comparison with ideologies of gender in other forms of ancient and modern pornography. However, using university computers to access relevant material would lead to Senate investigations. Obviously this problem generalises to other fields! Possibly the most serious drawback was the lack of resources. Perhaps we underestimated the resources necessary for this kind of development.


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


At the time, the University's strategy in distance education was to move towards e-learning. There was no explicit departmental strategy on methods of delivery, though there was enthusiasm for distance learning.


However, enthusiasm for e-learning was less forthcoming. Of our 15 distance-taught modules, only three made it into Moodle, and only one survives. The one that survives is the Bibs1A module, which prompted one lecturer to write Moodles for his other courses, but so far he is the only person who has done so. The university's latest e-learning strategy is to promote increased use of Moodle in all departments and our department has discussed it, but it is likely to be a slow process. Our department has not yet allocated any resources to the development of Moodles for our courses, and without resources it is unlikely that staff will take the initiative required to learn to use a whole new computer system.


Lessons Learned


Summary and Reflection


This e-learning approach works reasonably well in pedagogical terms, though pedagogical grounding is improved by making use of more of Moodle's facilities. It also depends on student willingness to engage with the technology. In practice this is rarely a problem.

More of a problem is the perception that developing Moodles is difficult and time-consuming. There is some truth in this, especially for staff who are not confident with technology, and there is a real problem of lack of resources allocated to Moodle development within the department. Learning support is available through the university's teaching and learning service, but time needs to be made available in departments, possibly through the workload model.


The project certainly delivered some tangible benefits in line with institutional strategies. Since the courses were developed in 2005, the University has strengthened its resolve to make more use of the VLE, and our department has a greater number of experienced staff than some other departments in the University, which means we ought to be able to meet some of the challenges.


On the other hand, it is difficult to make a case for tangible benefits given that we put only a small fraction of the distance modules onto the Moodle, and given that only one of the department's lecturers has incorporated e-learning into his teaching. The decision to discontinue the distance degree was the reason the project was never completed: we had barely begun when the decision was taken. The number of students who were both distance learners and involved in the e-learning courses was too small to draw significant statistical conclusions. Despite these issues, student feedback has been very positive on the e-learning we do deliver.


I personally have learned that students are keener than many staff to get to grips with technology in learning. Some of my colleagues may be easily persuaded to use the VLE, but many others see it as a chore. Therefore I think it is necessary for students to be given opportunities to insist that staff provide what they need and expect from technology in teaching. At the same time, staff ought to recognise their responsibilities to provide for student needs without waiting for student pressure before a response is made.

I strongly believe that in the initial stages of using a VLE most staff need support. It's not just about learning the new technology; there are pedagogical concerns to be dealt with when using a VLE. Although institutional hand-holding to support course development through VLEs is costly and time-consuming, I think it would be helpful for many staff. Fortunately the benefits of using a VLE are quick to emerge and staff enthusiasm should carry things forward.


My own teaching has been interrupted by personal circumstances, but next year I shall return to a normal teaching load and I am keen to use Moodles and podcasts with my students. My experience of using e-learning materials in the distance degree and in conjunction with my two colleagues in Old Testament/Tanakh has fuelled my enthusiasm for the flexibility that e-learning can offer in terms of learning styles, teaching styles, assessment and student collaboration. e-Learning also makes me reflect on my pedagogical approaches and provides opportunities to consider new possibilities. One lesson I have certainly learned from the project is the need to keep better records, because evaluating the success (or lack of it) is a complicated procedure when it comes to e-learning: there are many factors to be considered. One problem with this case study is the lack of data available, simply because it was either not collected or it was not kept past the initial stages of course delivery.


Done well, e-learning seems to foster a sense of community that has been disappearing in recent years among students, who have so many more responsibilities than was the case 20 years ago. It seems to me that the more learning opportunities we give them, the more they demand, and such engagement with the learning process should, in my opinion, be encouraged.


Further Evidence


I personally have learned that students are keener than many staff to get to grips with technology in learning. Some of my colleagues may be easily persuaded to use the VLE, but many others see it as a chore. Therefore I think it is necessary for students to be given opportunities to insist that staff provide what they need and expect from technology in teaching. At the same time, staff ought to recognise their responsibilities to provide for student needs without waiting for student pressure before a response is made.


In 2005 we decided to progress to e-learning: we wanted to make it more immediately available to our distance students, and to use the learning materials with our 'regular' (campus-based) students. We also hoped that putting it in a VLE would help us to market the degree overseas and to market individual modules as stand-alone modules. We had about three enquiries per week from overseas students, but were ultimately unable to develop either the full online degree or an overseas recruitment strategy because the Arts Faculty discontinued the degree.