E-learning advocates – Dr Peter Hinds

E-Learning, Old English literature, Victorian literature

Project Summary

Project Title: Blended Learning with E-Resources (EEBO, ECCO, JSTOR*)

*EEBO (Early English Books Online – digitised images of printed books from 1473 to 1700 – available under a JISC licence); ECCO (Eighteenth-Century Collections Online – digitised images of printed books from 1700 to 1800 available under a JISC licence); JSTOR (The Scholarly Journals Archive – journal articles in all disciplines – available under a JISC licence).

As I will show in more detail below my role as advocate will be based in part upon the ongoing design and development of a website (already partly developed) which enables students to navigate the above primary and secondary material databases in an interactive way. Colleagues within the English Department will be invited to enter critically into dialogue about this website and the related activities, with a view to promoting greater reflection in relation to IT, and ultimately promoting wider usage. In the spirit of a dialogue it is envisaged that input from colleagues will help refine my own e-learning initiatives as well as my experience being of use to others. My aim is generate fruitful debate about pedagogy and IT in Higher Education generally, whilst also having a concrete discipline-specific example of a form of e-learning with which to initiate discussion. It is to be hoped that colleagues will take up, transfer and apply some of the ideas which stem from these discussions. In addition I will, of course, also be meeting the other advocates and publishing via the ESC.

Background

Plymouth University is currently rethinking how it delivers programmes to its students and how it manages all aspects of its business in terms of IT (for instance, the University will be an early adopter of Sharepoint in 2007-8). It is partway into a five year overhaul of its internal and external electronic profile. As such the University is peculiarly receptive to IT initiatives (such as my blended-learning resource); the advocacy position would allow me effectively to raise awareness amongst staff of the potentials of such resources and to develop, enhance and expand this initiative in dialogue and consultation with my colleagues. In fact I have managed to secure the funding for EEBO, ECCO and JSTOR as result of my idea for this interactive resource. Furthermore, the English Department is seeking to move towards online delivery of standard teaching materials, but also it is also looking at ways in which IT can be used to enhance the student experience beyond standard teaching methods in ways that will contribute both to their skills and knowledge.

My interest in the use of IT in Higher Education has led to the development of an initiative within a first-year English module (‘Revolutions and Reinventions: Literary Cultures, 1580-1780’) which uses EEBO as a research resource. The first-year students undertake searches for primary texts in the seventeenth century, in line with instructions and within set parameters, and reflect critically upon and evaluate their findings. They are thus introduced to the digitised images of seventeenth-century books, unmediated by editorial introductions, annotations and textual modernisations, and they are prompted to consider the business of editing and the work done to select and prepare texts for modern readers. The advocacy role would help me, in conjunction with colleagues, to develop this initiative, to reflect more on its utility, and allow me to encourage a transmission of ideas and to promote a wider interest in, and take up of, IT.

Aims and Objectives

Underpinning the advocacy project will be the e-resources, and activities relating to these will operate as case studies and as a series of on-going pilots with which colleagues can be involved. These activities will develop over the year and thus colleagues can be introduced to the process behind this: for instance, the skills and training required in order to generate certain kinds of learning object (nothing like as extensive as is often imagined); the economies of time (without pedagogical compromise) that can be generated from utilising certain kinds of electronic provision; and, importantly, practices to follow and to avoid. Furthermore, the wasteful ‘re-invention of the wheel’ is common when projects are developed by individuals in isolation whose experience, expertise and findings are largely left private and unpublished; the e-advocacy scheme allows for me to share information effectively. The advocacy role would involve setting up a series of workshops over the year in which ideas relating to e-learning can be exchanged (I envisage that a one-to-one format would work best for the most part). The website and e-resources activities would be used as examples to be criticised and engaged with in the spirit of a genuine dialogue of ideas about pedagogy in relation to traditional learning materials and e-resources, not simply as a model. In this way I would hope to further an understanding amongst colleagues of the appropriateness and utility of e-learning in delivering the learning outcomes for specific modules. A genuinely dialogic and open-ended relationship with colleagues should generate a receptive culture and help to further understanding of the possibilities of IT in Higher Education.

In summary, in terms of colleagues and advocacy, the aims are to:

  • Provide case studies of the kinds of interactive materials which can be generated
  • Collate and then discuss findings in relation to the generation, development and implementation of e-learning objects in order to encourage a more widespread use
  • Engage with colleagues in genuine two-way discussion about the application and integration of IT
  • Raise awareness of training involved in order to generate interactive, online materials
  • Raise awareness of the IT training courses available (of which there are many at Plymouth)
  • Highlight the help available to individual members of staff from learning technologists within the University and thus foster a dialogue between academic staff and technologists about the provision of learning materials to students, hopefully to the benefit of both parties. Opening up such lines of communication is important.

The fact that there is a substantive discipline-specific e-learning initiative upon which to base the advocacy role is important: this will act as an initial focus but discussions will not be limited to it. The planned exercises based on EEBO, ECCO and JSTOR will develop both students’ skills and knowledge. They should develop greater respect for evidence and a better sense of the ways in which texts are mediated. They should gain a greater awareness of e-resources and their potentials, and the ways in which these resources have changed, and are continuing to change, the practice of teaching and research. They will have more advanced IT skills, and will be more confident and competent in relation to a variety of electronic environments. Overall they should become more reflective in relation to the way in which they learn and how IT is helping to change the ways in which that learning occurs. Such enhancement of skills and knowledge will make them attractive to potential employers.

In summary, in terms of students and wider University benefits, the exercises related to the e-resources aim to:

  • Contribute to remote (or ubiquitous) learning possibilities
  • Encourage students to become, and help develop them as, independent learners
  • Encourage students to become more reflective learners
  • Raise awareness amongst students of some of the key online research tools for the Humanities and consequently raise their awareness of the wider business of universities, and of lecturers as researchers (not simply teachers)
  • Provide students with a rich, blended learning experience
  • Support and participate in strategies related to the development of comprehensive virtual learning environments (alongside the implementation of Sharepoint)
  • Support the HEFCE’s and the Plymouth University’s broader e-learning strategies
  • Promote interdisciplinarity thought
  • Contribute to a culture of sustainability

Methodology

The primary mode of contact and consultation with colleagues will be in the form of individual workshops. There is a general informality within the English Department at Plymouth and, as the advocacy role needs to be tailored to the specific departmental context, then this individual workshop format should work well. There is also the opportunity to give more formal presentations, both within the Department but also throughout the Faculty of Arts. In this latter respect there are teaching and learning events scheduled each year within the Faculty which will be ideal for publishing (and demonstrating) the project more broadly. Meetings with the other advocates and publication with the ESC is also envisaged as a means of sharing findings and good practice.

The e-resource exercises themselves are designed to introduce students to, and engage them critically with, the fundamental electronic research resources in English and the Humanities. Students undertake exercises based upon these with the appropriate level of support, structure and sophistication for the level of student. These exercises will be supported by, and complemented with, a website which has already been planned, designed and partly developed, but which needs further development. As mentioned, this is where I hope to engage colleagues in discussion. The website is a historical primer which provides short extracts from primary documents, together with introductions to those extracts, as well as commentaries and annotations. It also provides links to further information; for instance, articles (JSTOR) or other relevant primarily material (EEBO, ECCO). This will be an online hub from which students can explore primary and secondary documents and is an example of how students can be inducted into critical encounters with research materials in a virtual learning environment. It is designed to encourage students to explore texts and historical contexts in imaginative ways. Over and above this, by introducing students to the key research databases, it is possible to change student perception of, and generate insights into, the function and duties of a university lecturer. This is a way in which I hope to engage colleagues, in that e-learning can be about more than delivery of modules; it can be a more powerful tool.

The feedback and findings of the previous project based upon EEBO need to be collated. At present the conclusions remain private and particular to my module, but they have the capacity to provide insights more broadly, in the first instance amongst English colleagues. These conclusions will form part of the basis for discussion. They also provide a fund of data and experience which should be shared more widely outside the discipline and even amongst IT technologists and educational theorists. Naturally the website will generate more data and experience and a similar process is envisaged in relation to this.

Integration

The idea of an advocacy role and the e-resources project are in line with the University’s desire to utilise IT in the spirit of providing enriched learning environments for students, making information accessible remotely, fostering greater sustainability, and using staff time with the maximum efficiency and economy. However, in addition to these broader IT aspirations, both HEFCE and Plymouth recognise specifically that rewards and incentives are needed for the meaningful development of e-learning in universities. I am thus taking advantage of the receptive culture at Plymouth for e-learning and the willingness to provide the funding for the necessary e-resources but also, in terms of this advocacy, to provide me with teaching remission (one module per term) in order effectively to carry out an advocate’s role. The remission has been agreed and guaranteed by Dafydd Moore, the Head of English and the project in all its aspects also has the support of the Head of the School of Humanities and the Dean of the Faculty of Arts.

Outcomes

In general the advocacy role will foster an awareness of the possibilities and benefits of IT. IT initiatives can often be seen as impositions, things to be done in addition to existing jobs. However, there has been a shift in thinking within Higher Education and the generation of e-learning materials is now recognised and rewarded. I hope to create amongst colleagues an awareness of this culture, which is more welcoming and receptive of IT initiatives, and also help them gain an understanding of the pedagogical and economic benefits of creating reusable learning objects, particularly those that are interactive in nature.

Within the broader outcomes of the advocacy role, one key product is the website, which operates as a virtual learning environment for students. Significant work will be carried out on this website over the 2007 summer term in order to have it ready for students to use in the autumn term. Over the course of the year pages will be authored and added. The evolving nature of the website lends itself to the advocacy role as it can be a site of discussion and consultation. Similarly the design of exercises related to it will be a source of dialogue.

Expertise

I have experience working with web software; FrontPage and Dreamweaver. The website is designed in Deamweaver and more support and training will be needed in relation to this. Plymouth can, and has agreed to, provide both of these internally (primarily with the dedicated Faculty of Arts Learning Technologist but also with more general IT support). I am also a departmental representative for e-learning in the University and have recently been made responsible for the departmental webpages. In these respects I am already known within the department for my engagement with IT in my teaching

My own modules are delivered with online materials as a matter of course. Reading lists and assessment tasks are only made available online, not in hardcopy. All module announcements are made online. As previously mentioned I have devised and run an exercise based on EEBO (conducted entirely online) and intend that the website will be used to extend the range of exercises. I have also studied the relation of theories of student learning to the design and implementation electronic resources, including matters of accessibility (as part of a Learning and Teaching Certificate).