Figure 1 - PebblePAD Standard Interface

Figure 1 – PebblePAD Standard Interface


Marina Orsini-Jones (Dott. Lett. Bologna; M.A. Warwick; HEA Fellow)
First Year Course Tutor – English/Teaching Development Fellow
Faculty of Business Environment and Society/Centre for the Study of Higher Education
George Eliot Building,
Coventry University

Students – Natalie Maund, Khadija Paruk, David Adley (English Single Honours Degree) and Christina Lamari (English and TEFL) – First year students in 2006-2007.


This case study illustrates how Personal Development Planning (PDP: QAA 2009) has been integrated into the first-year curriculum for the newly-launched degree courses in English at Coventry University. It shows how the e-Portfolio PebblePAD and the Virtual Learning Environment Blackboard/WebCT Vista were used on the mandatory module Academic Methods and Approaches to enable students to plan, reflect and record progress on their learning experience online while working on their assessed coursework tasks.

The summary and the section on ‘Background/Context’ were written by the course tutor, Marina Orsini-Jones. The ‘Activity’ section provides the students’ perspectives on PDP integration, with particular reference to the use that they made of the Webfolio tool in the e-portfolio PebblePAD while working on an assessed collaborative group. The case study concludes with some reflections by the module leader.

Background Context

According to the QAA Guidelines for the HE Progress File (QAA 2001), all students in HE should be offered the opportunity to engage in PDP, that is, ‘a structured and supported process undertaken by an individual to reflect upon their own learning, performance and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development’. The three core elements of PDP are reflection, recording and planning.

At Coventry University the main institutional implementation guidelines are that:

  • Personal development planning should be a formative, student-centred process.
  • The process should be integrated into the whole of the student experience and include academic, personal, career and professional skills inputs.
  • The implementation should take into account, build upon and be complementary to existing expertise and practices.
It was decided that students should be encouraged to record PDP achievement using the e-portfolio software PebblePAD (Figure 1), developed jointly by the University of Wolverhampton and the software firm Pebblelearning. The e-portfolio was made available to all students via a link on the existing Coventry University Portal, CUOnline.

PebblePAD encourages students to engage in reflective practice when writing an entry/file – or ‘asset’ as it is called in PebblePAD. In the ‘thought’ template, for example, students can opt to write a ‘journal entry’ or a ‘structured entry’. The former contains separate sections:

  1. experience;
  2. reflection;
  3. conclusion; and
  4. planning (see Figure 2).
PebblePAD also provides a blog facility, and allows for audio-visual content that to be linked to any entry. The shared gateway operates like a ‘content-rich’ forum, where students can peer-review each other’s work. The building of web pages can be collaborative and the Webfolio provides opportunities for group reflective practice and for the ‘socio-collaborative’ creation of hypermedia environments.

The implementation of the PDP policy for the newly-launched degree courses in English (first cohort 2006-2007) had to be carefully thought through by the English staff, bearing in mind the fact that academics teaching English ‘are wary of the skills agenda, but [that] there are also clear signs from students that they come to their degrees with skills-weariness’ (Martin and Gawthrope 2004:77).  For this reason, it can be argued that PDP should be used in the humanities in an ‘implicit’ way, via activities that stress creativity rather than skills. Although portfolios and reflective journals are seen in most of the relevant literature as the best way to foster reflection, record achievement and action-plan academic and professional progress (e.g. Allen 2002; Cottrell 2001, 2003a and 2003b; Edwards 2005; Moon 2004:12), previous research carried out at Coventry University into the use of assessed portfolios with first year undergraduates reading languages (Orsini-Jones 2004; Orsini-Jones  2007) showed that a reflective portfolio can be a very challenging task in the first year of studies and that it could have a negative effect on students’ attitudes towards PDP, rather than fostering its development.

It was therefore decided to take a more subject-specific approach to academic and professional skills development and to PDP. A module was designed in the first year to facilitate student transition into HE and to encourage them to engage with PDP: Academic Methods and Approaches. The module was worth 20 credits (1/6th of the students’ programme of studies in the first year of their course). It was designed to foster a culture of both academic rigour and professionalism among students, to be developed via work on subject-specific tasks. The module is delivered in blended-learning mode and the activities set in it are aimed at encouraging students to reflect on the learning process and develop a PDP ‘ethos’. The module’s aims and summary (as in its module directory descriptor) are as follows:

…to prepare students for academic study at degree level, to illustrate the nature and processes of research in humanities and to introduce students to research methodology. The module will also aim at providing practical experience of applying these skills in actual case studies relevant to their study programme… Students will be given the opportunity to reflect upon and record their Personal Development.

And its objectives are (from the same source) that on completion of the module students should be able to:

1. Search for, review and correctly reference literature using the Harvard style;

2. Interpret data from a variety of sources, evaluate it and indicate how it can be used for specific academic tasks;

3. Plan and write essays according to academic standards;

4. Illustrate their knowledge and understanding of texts, concepts and theories;

5. Identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative research strategies and describe the methodological issues associated with research;

6. Demonstrate the ability to work as part of a team and design and present a website in group.


In 2006-2007 the intended learning outcomes were assessed with an online referencing and information-retrieval test, a group presentation of a website and a collaborative essay.

Reflection on the learning process and the recording of achievement were encouraged in a variety of ways, e.g.:

  • Dedicated discussion forums were created in the Virtual Learning Environment (called CUOnline and based upon Blackboard/WebCT Vista) where students could rate postings in terms of ‘reflectivity’ (anonymously) – see Figure 6;
  • Reflections on the tasks carried out in class using the ‘thought’ tool in PebblePAD. Students could choose to keep these reflections private, share them amongst themselves and/or with their tutor, or post them to a dedicated gateway;
  • A reflective ‘socio-collaborative’ assessed task in which students had to present their work (with a subject-specific topic) to their peers and reflect on the way in which they had built a Webfolio.

The group presentation/web page design task proved to be the best way to foster reflection amongst students. The task was planned in collaboration with the module leaders of the other modules on the English degree programme and counted for 40% of the module mark. The students had to post a reflective PowerPoint presentation to the module website in CUOnline summarising in it the process of working on the task, design a Webfolio in PebblePAD and present their two ‘ICT-artefacts’ to their tutors and peers in class. Because of the high level of ICT competence required for the task, students were provided with both face-to-face and online technical support from an expert on PebblePAD from the e-Learning Unit. Students were asked to choose the content of their website from a list of topics related to their Degree Course. Some students opted for a literature topic, others for a media-studies related one, as in the example reported on by a group of students below.


The assessed collaborative task and PDP development – students’ perspectives

(Natalie Maund, Khadija Paruk, David Adley (English Single Honours Degree) and Christina Lamari (English and TEFL) – First year students in 2006-2007).

We engaged in an assessed reflective collaborative task aimed at developing the following skills:

  • ICT (PowerPoint, Web page design/PebblePAD, File management, CUOnline/Vista, Importing pictures, Word processing, Accessibility issues);
  • Research/information retrieval on a topic relevant to the degree course;
  • Team work;
  • Problem solving;
  • Time management/coping under pressure;
  • Learning to learn (oral group reflective report on the day of the presentation);
  • Presentation skills;
  • Subject-specific critical and analytical (text analysis);
  • PDP

We had to post a reflective PowerPoint presentation to the module’s Virtual Learning Environment’s shared discussion forum summarising the process of working on the task, and also design a Webfolio (interactive web pages) in PebblePAD and then present them to the rest of the class and our tutors.

The assessment of the task was based upon:

  • the quality of the content of the website (20 marks),
  • its design (particularly in terms of the clarity of its navigation and the consideration given to accessibility issues – 10 marks) and
  • the quality of our presentation skills on the day, when we illustrated the task to our tutors and peers, including an oral report on the way we had reflected on the task as a group (10 marks).
We chose to analyse two articles from two different newspapers (The Sun and The Times) but from the same day and covering the same item of news – the then Education Minister (Ruth Kelly)’s controversial choice to send her child to a private school. Our analysis of the two articles allowed us to delve further into linguistic issues and to strengthen our understanding of how journalists can manipulate their audience. We worked at the levels of grammar, register, rhetorical figures and semantics (e.g. Figure 3). We accessed the texts of the two articles via the newspaper database Lexis Nexis and obtained pictures of Ruth Kelly via Google.

Building a website was new to most of us. We felt that PebblePAD made this easier as it guided us through the different stages involved such as the design of the website, the creation of each web page and the insertion of hyperlinks. We also felt that it had been useful to employ the module website available via the CUOnline portal, as it helped with out-of-hours communication between staff and students, to retrieve up-to-date information on the module in conjunction with PebblePAD and peer-review our presentations and discussion postings (Figures 4 and 5).  Another benefit was the acquisition of new ICT skills: how to create hyperlinks, manage files and create Webfolios. We also welcomed the opportunity to engage in online reflection (both private and public) and greatly valued having the support of a ‘PebblePAD expert/buddy’ from the e-learning Unit.

We felt that there were particular features of PebblePAD that had helped us with PDP, i.e.:
  • All assets can be stored in one place and are easy to retrieve;
  • Its structure is conducive to the good organisation of assets;
  • Its structure helps with reflecting on achievement and plan action points;
  • It is a good tool for sharing assets/ideas (Figure 6).

We also felt that engaging with this task had provided us with PDP-related opportunities, such as:

  • Sharing assets with the outside world (our Webfolio could be published on the Web without password protection and shared with potential future employers);
  • Transferring work we do to our CV;
  • Improving our ICT skills;
  • Transferring skills across modules/course;
  • Engaging in ‘online leadership’ for the group (managing files/communication);
  • Working in a multicultural and multinational group both face-to-face and online.
Finally, we enjoyed this task and had fun while creating the Webfolio (we named our group ‘The Incredibles’, for example).



The module leader felt that all the coursework activities on the module Academic Methods and Approaches supported the development of a PDP ethos amongst students. However it appeared that the collaborative English Studies project was more conducive to the development of individual reflective PDP skills than the individual tasks carried out by students. The tutor would therefore like to conclude this case study with the following observations:

  • First year undergraduates engage in PDP more willingly if tutors introduce it as a ‘GDP’ (Group Development Planning) subject-specific activity;
  • PebblePAD would appear to be a suitable tool to cater for the reflective needs of both advanced ‘reflectors’ and less advanced ones, thanks to the variety of ‘structured entries’ that it offers to encourage reflection on a task;
  • The possibility of personalising their PDP entries with an e-portfolio, with different colours/interfaces and multimedia hyperlinks, would appear to appeal to most students;
  • The use of ICT encourages students to present work in a more professional way;
  • The use of both PebblePAD and the Virtual Learning Environment to underpin the activities of a module offers students peer-review and peer-support opportunities that would not be available to them if only paper were used for their coursework tasks.
The majority of the students on the module commented positively on it and stated that their confidence, in both academic and professional terms, had been enhanced by their learning experience. Reported below are some of the anonymous module evaluation comments at the end of the year:

The webfolio/presentation and the essay allowed us to do a method of working that we do not encounter in any other modules. I loved working in my group, and it really brought us together and made us work well, developing a strong sense of responsibility.

This module makes me evaluate my strengths and weaknesses and helps me to understand what I need to do to improve.

The module tries to orientate our future, helps to see further than just our studies. – Prepares us for the cruel world of work, by explaining how to sell ourselves.

This module has helped me ease into academic study, and to transition from A level to university standards; it has created a base to start writing academically; the group work and presentation area of the module has helped improve skills I was quite weak in.

Bibliographical References

  • Allen, D. (2002) The PDP Handbook . Available  online at:  [03 April 2008].
  • Cottrell, S. (2001) Teaching Study Skills and Supporting Learning. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Cottrell, S. (2003a) Skills for Success: the Personal Development Planning Handbook. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Cottrell, S. (2003b) 2nd edition The Study Skills Handbook. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Edwards, G. (2005) Connecting PDP to employer needs and the world of work. London/York: HEA.  
  • Lexis Nexis (2007) [online] Available from <> [25 January 2007] now replaced by [2016]
  • Martin, P. and Gawthrope, J. (2004) The study of English and the careers of its graduates. In P. Knight and M. Yorke (Eds.) Learning, Curriculum and Employability in Higher Education. (London: Routledge).
  • Moon, J. (2004) A Handbook of Reflective Learning: Theory and Practice. (London: Routledge/Falmer).
  • Orsini-Jones, M. (2004) ‘Supporting a course in new literacies and skills for linguists with a Virtual Learning Environment: Results from a staff/ student collaborative action-research project at Coventry University’. ReCALL 16 (1):189-209.
  • Orsini-Jones, M., Kurowska, M., McTavish A.M. and Mills, S. (2007) ‘Personal Development Planning Perspectives from the
    Faculty of BES (Business, Environment and Society)’ Conference Proceedings, Internationalisation – ELATE (Enhancing Learning and Teaching Environments) Conference, 26-27 June, pp.65-72.
  • Pebble Learning (2005), PebblePAD [online] Available from [31 March 2008]
  • Quality Assurance Agency – QAA, (2001) ‘Guidelines for HE Progress Files’