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British Journal of Educational Technology doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2008.00822.

Vol 40 No 1 2009

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Out of classout of mind? The use of a virtual learning environment to encourage student engagement in out of class activities

Maggie Leese
Maggie Leese is subject leader and senior lecturer for the Early Childhood Studies course within the School of Education at the University of Wolverhampton. Her research interests include improving the 1st-year student experience and the use of technology to support learning. Address for correspondence: Maggie Leese, School of Education, Walsall Campus, University of Wolverhampton, Gorway Road, Walsall, West Midlands, WS1 3BD, UK. Email: maggie.leese@wlv.ac.uk

Abstract With increasing student numbers and a diverse student body, it is crucial to consider a range of methods to engage students in learning and teaching activities. This project was used to encourage 1st-year undergraduate students to engage in out of class activities between taught sessions. The project used a virtual learning environment (VLE) known as Wolverhampton Online Learning Framework (WOLF) to encourage collaborative working within learning sets. The central aim was to investigate the potential to improve communication and mutual support between students and also to encourage students to make links between taught sessions. They were given weekly tasks that needed to be completed within their learning sets and they then posted the work in folders within WOLF by a set time. This allowed for timely feedback from the tutor and it facilitated sharing of resources across the sets. The nal element involved students using their new knowledge to peer-teach the whole group in short presentations at the beginning of the next taught session. Feedback was collected in three ways, including focus groups, module feedback forms and a short questionnaire about the use of the VLE. Overall, the students feedback was positive and they commented on gaining a number of skills including, using technology, group working and presentations. In addition to this, the overall pass rate for the module was higher and the average student grade had also increased.

Introduction This project was carried out in an attempt to nd alternative teaching and learning activities, for a large Level 1 undergraduate module (n = 74), that would encourage the students to complete out of class activities (OOCA). The module was run in two separate
2008 The Author. Journal compilation 2008 Becta. Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA.

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iterations with each class having 37 students attending. Over the past 2 years, the student numbers have continued to rise and due to larger teaching groups it was possible for students to attend the teaching session without really engaging with the teaching and learning activities. The students were expected to do a range of activities outside of the class that would support the face-to-face taught sessions, but on the whole the completion of these tasks was ad hoc and the majority of students did not engage in any OOCA. This presented difculties because students did not make the links between the taught sessions, leading to a very atomistic approach to their learning. In addition to this, the whole programme was being revalidated and the specialist study skills module was being deleted with a move to embed key skills in all Level 1 modules. Teaching staff were concerned that with the large student groups there was a lack of additional time available to encourage the key skills, including giving presentations, nding appropriate literature and working in groups. Given the widening participation agenda and the diverse student body (Macdonald & Stratta, 2001), it has become increasingly important that students are given support to develop a range of skills that are crucial if they are to succeed in higher education (Oliver, 2007) and to develop deep approaches to learning (Biggs, 2003) early in their studies. In order to support students especially during the rst semester, it was crucial that teaching staff used a range of teaching and learning activities that encouraged the students to take responsibility for their own learning. Oliver (2007) suggests that this can be achieved using a blended learning approach that is designed to scaffold the students learning, and Hughes (2005) proposes that by including peer and tutor support, it is possible to increase student motivation without increasing teaching workload. Nicol (2007) reported that when students work collaboratively, their learning is enhanced and that planned group work has the potential to support positive social interaction for 1st-year students. This project was designed to develop a range of teaching and learning activities that would encourage student engagement in OOCA and support them in developing a range of skills (Fox & MacKeogh, 2003). Planning This project focused on collaborative working within learning sets, with the potential to offer a supportive framework to students and encourage them to make links between taught sessions and other activities (Boyle, 2005; Chou & Liu, 2005; Dutton, Cheong & Park, 2004). This blended approach to learning combined taught face-to-face sessions and weekly online tasks that were posted on a university virtual learning environment (VLE) known as Wolverhampton Online Learning Framework (WOLF). Each learning set had six or seven members and they had their own group folders to encourage them to work collaboratively to complete the activities and prepare presentations that they would group peer-teach to the whole class in the next session. The peer-teaching sessions were 5 minutes in total; therefore, the rst 30 minutes of each face-to-face session would involve the whole group listening to individual groups, discussing how they completed the weekly task and what resources they had found useful. These resources were then made available on the VLE for all the students to support their work within the module. Group work and peer teaching were used as a formative assessment allow 2008 The Author. Journal compilation 2008 Becta.

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ing the teaching staff and the students to assess their learning on a weekly basis. Although this work was not part of a summative assessment, it was crucial to ensure that the students could see how this work would support their nal assessment. There are a number of denitions of a VLE, but the common elements that are used to describe it are that the environment is computer-based and it involves sharing of information between other students and tutors. Further to this, a VLE has the potential to improve communication and offer support to students. Given all these features, it appeared to be the most appropriate medium to facilitate the project, although there were other possibilities, including using the university e-portfolio; however, previous students indicated that they were more condent using WOLF. The students were new to the university and they came with a wide range of previous learning experiences, including A-levels, access courses, as well as mature students returning to study after a number of years. It was imperative to ensure that regardless of their past experiences, all students were supported and had the skills needed to participate in the teaching and learning activities as this was crucial to encourage their engagement (Whitworth, 2005). With this in mind, the students were put into learning sets so that each member could support the others. Booth, Sutton and Falzon (2003) highlight that learning sets can give students a shared purpose and that as a result they feel they can get the job done; therefore, by using peer-learning sets, students are more likely to feel that the task is achievable (Fox & MacKeogh, 2003). The VLE was the planned vehicle to bring about this blended approach to teaching and learning, so it was important to ensure that students felt comfortable with using the university VLE known as WOLF. To ensure that the students were well supported, they had the opportunity to highlight their own strengths and also to identify areas that they would need support with by completion of a short questionnaire. From this information, it was possible to formulate the learning sets ensuring that all the required skills were available in each group. Students were put into learning sets ensuring that at least three students within the group had stated that they felt comfortable with using the VLE for a range of tasks. Within the early face-to-face session, the students were shown the main features of the VLE and they had the opportunity to raise any issues that they had experienced either then or by contacting their tutor by email. Pedagogical issues Prior to planning the use of the VLE, it was important to be aware and pay due consideration to any possible constraints in order to ensure that the focus remained rmly on student learning (Smedley, 2005). It was imperative to be aware of the dominant discourse that surrounds the increasing use of technology within higher education and to ensure that there are sound pedagogical reasons for implementing the changes to the module (Clegg, Hudson & Steel, 2003). It was also crucial to be clear about the rationale for changing the teaching method to a blended approach to ensure the aims were explicit to other members of the team. Within the literature, a number of authors make the point that terms relating to e-learning are used interchangeably and that this can lead to confusion (Chou & Liu, 2005; Molesworth, 2004; Oblinger & Hawkins, 2005;
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Tavangarian, Leypold, Nolting, Roser & Voigt, 2004). Although this project was clearly linked to an increased use of technology, the pedagogical underpinning was much more about a move from teacher-led delivery to student-centred learning (Hunt, 1999). Gilbert, Morton and Rowley (2007) highlight the importance of considering the impact on the student and being aware that students may be unsure of their roles as students and tutors within technology-supported learning activities. Further to this, it was important to encourage students to engage with the online activities, and Keller (2005) suggests the technology acceptance model (TAM) that considers what factors will encourage the student to engage with technology. TAM proposes that students are more likely to engage with technology if it will enhance their performance, perhaps in an assessment, make the task easier or if important people suggest that they should engage with the activities. The literature also highlights that the greatest motivation for students to engage with technology is if it is directly linked to assessment (Molesworth, 2004). With this in mind, the students were encouraged to view the online work as a resource for the upcoming assignment in an attempt to ensure that there was clear alignment between what the student was learning and what they were going to be assessed on (Biggs, 2003). Hughes (2005) highlights that some students nd it difcult to engage with technologybased tasks as they may have little prior experience. With this in mind, it was important to acknowledge the three elements of the 3P model discussed by Biggs (2003), which suggested that there are three elements that need to be considered: (1) the presage, which is what the student had experienced prior to this; (2) the process, which refers to what the students are expected to do; and (3) the product, which would be the end result. Assessing the presage was difcult within the short period of time, but students were asked to self-identify where they felt their skills lay and what areas they would want support with. The students were then put into learning sets according to their own assessment of needs. The process included the students working together on carefully planned online tasks that were devised to support them in obtaining key skills, including negotiating, working in groups and presenting. Finally, the product is the students ability to peer-teach the whole group on their given topic as well as reinforcing content from taught sessions. The main purpose of the tasks was to encourage peer support within the learning sets, but it was also crucial to ensure prompt feedback from the tutors as this is said to be a strength of using the VLE (Thurston, 2005; Weller, Pegler & Mason, 2005). A number of tasks required the students to engage with an online discussion and at least one member of the teaching team would also engage in these discussions, but on the whole this task was carried out by the module leader. It was crucial that the teaching staff checked the group work before the students presented the work, as students had requested an opportunity to discuss any errors before they planned and carried out their peer teaching. This was facilitated through email contact with their tutor and a commitment by teaching staff to give feedback on the students planned presentation prior to the next session. During the peer-teaching session, students were given feedback, initially by the tutor, but after Week 3, the students watching the presentation also gave constructive verbal comments.
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Results All of the learning sets completed the activities to some extent, but there were a number of complaints from learning sets that individual students were not pulling their weight within the team. The students were encouraged to explore ways of dealing with the conict, and they were supported by teaching staff to come up with solutions. All of the groups worked through their difculties and the solutions included changing the times that the groups met and also working remotely using the VLE, email and text messages. A number of learning sets needed support to deal with the conict, but the support offered was focused on the students nding their own resolutions rather than teaching staff intervening because this would be a key skill that is needed in the graduate market. The workload for the module was heavier in the initial stages as each activity had to be planned and posted on WOLF. It was also important to give students timely feedback to ensure that any errors were corrected before the peer-teaching session. This was quite intensive at rst, but after Week 3, students needed very little tutor input and they were encouraged to make contact by email if there was a problem or they needed support. The emails were generally related to difculties with technology and these were easily resolved either by a reply to the email or signposting the student to the university computer support staff. Following completion of the module, data were collected from the module evaluation forms, two focus groups and a questionnaire (Appendix). Feedback from the students was, on the whole, positive, with a range of comments that included WOLF is very efcient, easy to access and simple to use, the use of technology was the best so far and the group work and presentations made me more condent in other modules. Although these comments and many others were very positive, it was important to remember that the students who enjoyed the use of technology were more likely to make comments. Despite the efforts to ensure that all students engaged in the activities, a number of students did so very minimally, citing work or family commitments as a reason. Negative comments included lack of support when they came across problems with the task and difculties with organising roles and responsibilities within the group. A number of students commented that they would have preferred time during taught sessions to work on the computers with support from a tutor. Two students commented that some members of the groups did not contribute to the group work but that the other members of the groups had ensured that the task was completed. A number of comments were generic, including I enjoyed the module and beneted from a number of teaching styles and being encouraged to think and work in groups. During the focus groups, these were further explored and the students reported that it was the combination of teaching and learning methods that they found helpful. They reported that, you knew what was expected of you every week and one student stated that the work I did helped when I came to do my assignment. On the whole, students commented more about the skills that they gained from the group work, including doing presentations and using technology, with only two students commenting on how the activities improved their learning on the module. The module results for semester one, prior to the
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project, had a pass rate of 69%, which was slightly lower than other Level 1 modules. After implementing the changes in semester two, the module had a pass rate of 82% and all students who submitted work actually achieved a passing grade. The results also showed an increased average grade, with eight students obtaining an A grade, compared with one student in the rst semester. This will need to be monitored further to analyse the possible impact of the changes on student achievement within the module. During the focus groups, students commented on the difculty when working with a diverse range of students, but they also identied that this was something that they were going to have to do when they graduated and entered the workforce. There was also some discussion about the difculties with technology that at times impacted on the work of the learning sets. This included a number of students who did not have access to computers at home and they felt that this increased the impact on them because we had to stay on campus when other people could go home. In response to the suggestion that it should be compulsory to complete the tasks on campus, two students commented that it would not be possible for them because of either work or childcare obligations. A number of students commented that there were difculties with meeting with their sets because it was, impossible to nd a time when everyone was not in lectures. Evaluation One difculty was that the module is taught by at least two teachers and the other tutor did not feel condent setting tasks on the VLE; therefore, they needed extra support and this impacted on the role of the module leader. One possible answer to this is to negotiate extra time for staff who feel condent with the use of technology to support other team members when required. The module has just gone through revalidation with the increased element of technology-supported learning in the new module and the results from this project have informed the planning for the module. Given the students comments about needing tutor support for initial tasks, it will be important to ensure that the students have time within taught sessions to gain the necessary skills that they will need to complete the ongoing assessment. There needs to be a support network for the students and this might include telephone support, in-class demonstration workshops and email contact with tutors. The project set out to use a blended approach to learning to encourage students to engage with OOCA and this was achieved on the whole. The students took responsibility for their own learning and at the end of the module they had clearly learned a number of key skills that will support their studies at Levels 2 and 3. There was more tutor support needed especially in the early stages, but this was back to normal by Week 4 with minimal email support needed. The students were all positive about peer teaching and they became condent in working with groups, presenting and resolving a number of conicts. The learning sets were identied for the students based on their own assessment of skills and this ensured that each set had the required skills. This resulted in some learning sets having difculty meeting because of timetable conicts so it might be benecial for the students to identify their own sets either based on friendships or based on availability to meet and work together.
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References
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Appendix Questionaire: using learning sets to support your learning Please comment on the questions below What did you nd useful about being in a learning set?
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Can you describe any difculties that you experienced working in learning sets? Did you feel that the weekly tasks supported your learning in the module? How? Did you feel that the peer teaching supported your learning? How? What suggestions would you make for improving the module?

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