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University of Birmingham (with Coventry University)

Authors: Cillian Ryan (c.ryan@bham.ac.uk), Mike Walsh (m.walsh@coventry.ac.uk)

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

Higher Education Academy Subject Centre: economics

 

Case study tags: online learninguse of specialist softwarean effect on learning,student satisfaction with e-learningan influence on policymanagement of learning assetstangible benefits of e-learninguniversity of birminghamcoventry universitytechnology-enhanced learning environmentseconomics

 

Background & Context

 

Why did you use this e-learning approach?

 

We were concerned that many good software projects designed to enhance teaching & learning were not being utilised by lecturers because of the time required to get and keep abreast of developments in the field, fears that the time would not be productive either because the products would turn out not to be useful or because students would not use them.

 

We had a specific example based on a prize winning package developed in the 1990s called WinEcon. We knew as a result of a survey conducted specifically for the project that despite well-attended seminars and workshops on C&IT initiatives, the actual implementation of WinEcon and the use of VLEs as an interactive resource in institutions was very poor. While 85% of HE institutions have at some time subscribed to WinEcon, our survey (with replies covering nearly 40% of the sector) indicated that only 63% currently maintain the licence. Of those, 77% reveal that the resource is not integrated into their Economics modules, is frequently just cited as an add-on resource, and in many cases simply stands idle. Of the remainder, 92% use only a limited range of the options on offer due to the perception that further development is too time consuming. Similarly, while 91% of institutions have VLEs, the survey indicates that at best 38% are using them as electronic noticeboards and less than 20% employ them as sources of interactive learning.

 

Our aim was to address this problem.

 

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

 

The project was designed to assist effective and integrated implementation of WinEcon in all types of HE institutions, mainly in first year modules, but in some cases year 2 and MBA programmes.

 

At present we have worked with 18 Universities across the sector on a variety of modules (approximately 22 modules and 19 lecturers). The number of students on each module varied from 40 to 400.

 

Still anticipated the 'not made here' syndrome, and this has proved one of the biggest challenges.

 

What was the design?

 

We wanted to bring the software closer to the lecturers and students by embedding relevant links into reading links, class-work, assignments etc. to encourage lectures and students to engage more with relevant software packages. Working with a WinEcon user group we explored the various ways the package could be used to encourage lecturers and students to engage more with the interactive package and to exploit the benefit that such a package offers.

 

The project was projected to run from 2004 to 2007. Phase 1 aimed to set up the project, to appoint and train a team member in the West Midlands, and implement the project at Birmingham, Coventry and UCE. Phase 2 aimed to appoint and train members of a national team in order to implement the project in other regions. Phase 3 aimed to approach institutions that do not have a WinEcon licence, revisit institutions from earlier phases, and evaluate the project. The final report is due during the autumn of 2007.

 

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

 

We feel that dissemination has been a major strength of the project. We trained up a team of seven people, mainly postgraduate students from English universities chosen on the basis of aptitude, experience on teaching and knowledge of first year economics teaching and a sensitivity to lecturers' needs in the summer of 2005. The process started in the West Midlands and was then rolled out across regions in the UK.

 

The team used existing contacts or approached new contacts with a view to implementing the project. This model could clearly be extended to other disciplines.

 

We evaluated the project using a dedicated questionnaire to evaluate NOT WinEcon, but the usefulness of the linking in facilitating the use of WinEcon.

 

We anticipated that there might be some element of 'Not Made Here' in trying to get people involved and there has been a small element of this.

 

We did not anticipate so many technical barriers to implementation and we have learned that such technical hiccups and the fear of such technical hiccups are as much a factor in discouraging participation as anything else.

 

We tackled these by encouraging the WinEcon consortium to give their material a new facelift, to remove version specific impediments to linking and perhaps more importantly, to adopt a new distribution strategy which allowed students direct and easier access to the software (rather than through a university server). Coventry University pioneered the implementation of individual downloads to registered students and there was an excellent take-up with no apparent problems.

 

Technology

 

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

 

WinEcon a Toolbook-based interactive learning package developed in the 1990s, VLEs, and Word and PowerPoint documents.

 

Tangible Benefits

 

What tangible benefits did this e-learning approach produce?

 

It is too early to give definitive results for this section, although results of the questionnaire to evaluate the usefulness of the linking facility are coming through. To date, responses (56 in total) from two universities for the academic year 2006-07 are available. 98% of respondents are year 1 business undergraduates at Coventry University and 2% from City University. A summary of the results below indicate students were using WinEcon outside the lab, while this did not happen (at Coventry University) last year where focus groups indicated students did not buy the individual programme. It is felt both inserting links and the introduction of a new distribution channel may explain increased use at home. Individual downloads of software are now available for home use at low cost for students registered on a course. Previously individual packages were charged at £29.99. In addition, WinEcon was also made more user-friendly as a consequence of the project, a common comment from students previously was that although useful it looked dated.

 

Q. If you have used WinEcon: Where have you used it? (more than 1 response):

 

In a computer lab in the University 96.4%

Via the University network in your halls of Residence 30.4%

Via your own CD 28.6%

The results below indicate that students were accessing WinEcon via links, while this did not happen in 2005-06, and they found it relatively easy to use.

Q.Did you access the package (more than 1 response):

 

Via the WinEcon icon or programme list on the computer? 83.6%

Via links in your University's Virtual Learning Environment such as WebCT or Blackboard? 36.4%

Via links on your lecture's webpage? 27.3%

Via links in the course files supplied to you by your department? 18.2%

 

Q.If you used the links how would you rate ease of use?

 

1 - Very easy to use 37.5%

2 - 35.4%

3 - 16.7%

4 - 8.3%

5 - Very difficult to use 2.1%

 

Another development has been the insertion of this project on the WinEcon website http://www.winecon.com/web_linking.html which includes a tutorial on setting up links.

 

In addition to a significant improvement in student learning and satisfaction with the learning process we also anticipate that the project will provide the following benefits.

 

  • A significant improvement in staff satisfaction with, enthusiasm for, and ability to, deliver e-learning. It is anticipated this can be achieved if staff can use WinEcon at a low cost in terms of time.
  • Extending the model to other subjects, such as maths.
  • A move towards targets such as retention and widening participation, which could be achieved through improved access to WinEcon. This is supported by an Economics Network survey which cited comments from students who were struggling, such as 'winecon is a 1st year life saver'. In addition, increased use of WinEcon at home could offer increased flexibility and free up computer labs.

 

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

 

There is a modest need for additional departmental resources required to deliver learning in this way, but no more say than getting to grips with most VLE's.

 

Legacy: There is still a need for at least one member of staff to be wholly committed to maintaining the project, to check software is running if it is on the institutions server, to arrange for installation in labs where necessary, to check links periodically, to update as necessary. It will not take a huge amount of time in an absolute sense (1 afternoon at the start of the year probably - but many lecturers still see this as a high individual price to pay).

There were problems in some HEIs in getting hyperlinks to work, for example, if WinEcon was on the server rather than on hard drives in the lab. This led to a focus in year 2 of the project of getting the implementation right rather than continuing to recruit new institutions and deliver less than perfect outcomes.

 

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

 

There are many institutions involved in the implementation of this project and we cannot speak for all of them. However, with regard to Coventry University's Business School this approach is in accord with the pro-active strategy of the School with regards to IT. It similarly complements the University of Birmingham School of Social Science Learning & Teaching strategy for the use of complementary e-learning.

 

Lessons Learned

 

Although it is too early to provide definite results we would expect that the project would lower the cost in terms of time for staff to embed WinEcon in VLEs. This in turn would make it easier for students to access WinEcon directly from schemes of work/lecture notes/seminar sheets, for use in labs and at home.

 

There were problems with links working in some cases, and the project focused on resolving these during phase 2. The initial survey results indicate students found these relatively easy to use. In addition, there were unanticipated benefits;

 

  • A move from a relatively expensive individual product to low cost downloading to individual students
  • Generic links were developed
  • WinEcon was made more user friendly

 

The project led to an Economics Network mini project at Coventry which is assessing the application of economics threshold concepts using WinEcon via a VLE for business students. This acted as an additional incentive to embed WinEcon, and the results from Coventry students are positive.

 

A key feature of this project is the dissemination process, which could be readily applied to other disciplines.

 

Further Evidence

 

'The results indicate ...a significant improvement in student learning and satisfaction with the learning process.'

 

'A key feature of this project is the dissemination process, which could be readily applied to other disciplines.'