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Case Sudy: The E-Learning Evolution in Higher Education


Since the UK government announced its target of increasing participation in higher education to 50% by 2010, the number of applicants to universities has greatly increased. Vocationally-oriented universities, such as Leeds Metropolitan, who were awarded their university status in 1992, have experienced the most dramatic increase.

E-learning did not emerge overnight. What started 20 years ago as a mainframe computer aided learning system for mathematics and science, evolved into pockets of e-learning established throughout the university, with staff experimenting with three disparate systems.

The university saw the positive student response to the e-learning that was available and recognised the need to standardise on one system to reduce support and training costs. In January 2001, it appointed an administrator dedicated to managing online learning. At the same time, a steering group was set up, responsible for planning the roll-out of e-learning across the institution in order to meet the growing demand. The group’s goal was to see its widespread strategic adoption and to standardise on one enterprise-level learning solution, which could be centrally managed and administered, to save time and resources. This would also make it easier to carry out staff training.

The group evaluated a number of solutions, before selecting WebCT’s Campus Edition in May 2001. Following a pilot, the university fully implemented the system in September 2002.

Diverse Population
Leeds Metropolitan University is hoping to introduce more blended learning courses across the institution and believes that this combination of face-to-face and online learning will appeal to its increasingly diverse student population, many of whom are part-time students, fitting in their studies around their part-time or full-time jobs.

The university hopes that more local students will be attracted to the institution because of its e-learning capabilities and plans to extend the number of international students in the future, partly through the provision of distance learning.

Stuart Hirst, a member of the academic faculty in the School of Information Management at Leeds Metropolitan University explained: "Today we are seeing a very different kind of student, many of whom are supporting themselves financially by working while they study for their degrees. With reduced classroom training and more online study, these students are finding this flexible approach makes it easier for them to meet the demands of their courses.

"Furthermore, online facilities that enable collaboration, such as chatrooms, messaging and facilitated discussion groups ensure they can still interact and engage with their peers and tutors. We are committed to increasing the student responsibility for learning and we are finding they are motivated by the greater independence and flexibility e-learning affords."

Online Assessments
Staff are using the system to deliver formative assessments, where students are assessed informally throughout their courses, through online quizzes and games or formal assessments, where the learning outcomes are tied into the examination of the course. Students can be reminded of their deadlines and submit their assignments online.

Staff can monitor the status of the assignment through a dropdown box, which allows them to see who has or has not met their deadlines. Results and feedback are password protected to ensure privacy and are delivered through WebCT’s messaging system. A benefit of this approach for staff is that the time they spend marking has decreased, and they are able to more closely monitor students’ progress throughout their courses, providing additional help when and where it is needed.

Hirst explained the benefits of this system. “Through online assessments, students are more involved in the entire assessment process, so it becomes a part of their learning, rather than a mere marks hurdle," he said.

"The assessments are fun but effective, students often don’t realise they are actually learning until it comes to the exams and they remember information that was delivered through an online assessment. They also appreciate the quick turn around of marks from staff.

"We have a new level of visibility of student performance and can see who is struggling or has failed to hand in assignments and respond accordingly. We are actually able to pay closer attention to students’ needs."

The Future
The University plans to widen the participation of e-learning by training more staff in how to use the new system and encourage them to experiment with the technology. It hopes that this will help deliver new innovative teaching methods, which will further enhance the student learning experience.

Thérèse Walker, Head of Learning Technology Services at the University concluded: “We have only started to explore the opportunities for innovation and creativity within learning and we are already seeing benefits.”


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