Abstract for Online Educa 2011

Last week (between many other tasks!) I managed to finalise the abstract for the presentation I will be giving at the Online Educa conference in Berlin in December. I’ve posted the final version below:

The University of Reading has been promoting the use of e-learning and more particularly e-portfolios in the last four years. One of our main objectives is to put the student at the centre of learning by providing them with support and an infrastructure that will allow them to excel. The University uses Blackboard as its VLE and the e-Learning Team have looked at ways of improving functionality to this end in the past. Within the JISC-funded DEVELOP Project (July 2010-February 2012), widgets have been designed using HTML/JavaScript to further this improvement through interaction with Blackboard’s very basic e-portfolio tool.

E-portfolios are seen as a way of collecting evidence of student achievement and subsequently promoting the reflection thereon for personal and professional development. The work over the last four years has revealed that students encouraged to create and maintain e-portfolios need guidance within and around the provisional Blackboard Learn tool to truly exploit its potential. One of the aims of the DEVELOP Project undertaken at Reading has been to provide this guidance by developing widgets that enhance the e-portfolio tool on offer.

One widget enables students to build a portfolio with all the pages as specified by their tutors/lecturers. This widget also guides the user through the various steps needed to share and maintain their portfolio. A feedback widget allows tutors to provide feedback on specific parts of the students’ portfolios while an export widget would allow students to download their portfolio in a standards-compliant form. By providing students with ready-made structures and templates, easing the delivery of feedback, and enabling students to take their work away for future use, the project has endeavoured to make the technology less of a hindrance and more of a help.

By also allowing students to navigate learning resources and content particular to their interest, the project has taken a similar approach with course materials and hopes to encourage more student-centred approaches to teaching. To this end the DEVELOP project created a tool that enables tutors to tag content as or after they add it to their course, encouraging a process akin to discovery through a subsequently more flexible navigation of the Blackboard Learn course site.

The project has been working closely with a number of academic staff, with use case scenarios and a rapid prototyping approach, to develop the widgets that will deliver these enhancements. Both informal discussions and formal piloting of the tools have informed further development and allowed for an evaluation of the success of this approach. The presentation at Online Educa 2011 has provided an opportunity to showcase this work, both in demonstrating how the tools work and in discussing the approaches, both technical and pedagogical, that were taken.

One of the immediate effects that the project has had has been to open up the discussion around e-portfolios and around course structure and associated pedagogy within Blackboard Learn and get teaching staff thinking about how approaches to delivery and the facilitation of learning might be altered.

Many questions remain: have the DEVELOP widgets enhanced the University of Reading’s VLE, Blackboard Learn? And in doing so, have they actually promoted more student-centred learning or simply provided more avenues for the delivery of traditional teaching methods? We have also to address the question for which there may be no real empirical answer: should we be guiding students through reflection in this way and how much do ready-made structures and templates actually hinder what might be considered truly reflective activity?

About Guy

I am currently Enhancement Officer (for Education Technologies) at the University of Reading. I am also studying for a Masters in Research at the University's School of Systems Engineering.
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