Association for Learning Technology Online Newsletter
Issue 3, January 2006   Monday, January 30, 2006

ISSN 1748-3603

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Issue 2
October 24, 2005
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August 5, 2005
Viewed from the other side
Student involvement in online course design
by Stuart Hepplestone and Helen Rodger


Tutors wishing to embed e-learning initiatives within their learning, teaching and assessment (LTA) strategies often do not have the time to upload materials to Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) such as Blackboard, or find the process daunting. The Student E-learning Assistants at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) provide academic staff with hands-on assistance, freeing them to concentrate on the appropriateness and quality of online materials, rather than concern themselves with the technology. Having another pair of trained hands to help can enable staff to integrate Blackboard with their LTA strategies much more quickly and effectively.

SHU first recruited two Student E-learning Assistants in September 2004.The original idea to employ students in this role came from the United States and the Netherlands where Student Technology Assistants (STAs) provide front-line support and work collaboratively with academic staff to help them to integrate technology into their LTA activities. Some STA programs are even offered as credit bearing course modules (e.g. George Mason University). The students gain experience of course planning and the attendant considerations, which can help them during their time at university and beyond.

E-learning support strategies

With the implementation of the Blackboard Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) at SHU in September 2000, a team of E-learning Advisers were recruited to provide ‘at elbow’ support to tutors developing Blackboard sites. Rather than actually develop Blackboard sites for tutors, the E-learning Advisers support skill development (through workshops and one-to-one consultations) in tutors so that they can take ownership for building their own Blackboard sites. Good practice guidance (based on the student experience) is available to tutors through various methods, including timely emails and newsletters, an e-learning website, frequently-asked-questions, and a dedicated Blackboard site which allows tutors to share their experiences of e-learning. An interventionist approach is never taken, although tutors are encouraged to meet regularly with an E-learning Adviser who helps them to reflect on their Blackboard site development and makes suggestions for improving the site or using new Blackboard functionality. However, although tutors rate highly the feedback on and suggestions for their Blackboard sites, they do not always have the time to implement the changes.


The Student E-learning Assistant posts were advertised as four-month part-time contracts to correspond with the timing of each of the semesters and the summer break. This allowed applicants the flexibility of choosing the best time of year in accordance with their programme of study, and aimed to widen the variety of experience that students would bring to these posts. The post-holders were expected to work the equivalent of one day per week (7½ hours), choosing a work pattern to fit in with their University timetable.

The posts were advertised during the summer vacation in August 2004 and were open to all current SHU students. Despite being advertised during a time of year when students are not normally around, we had over 60 applicants by the closing date. The eight short-listed candidates were provided with screen-shots of a series of Blackboard course web sites, each containing some element of inconsistent practice that students often remark on. The candidates were asked to comment on them and think about how each Blackboard site could be improved to enhance the student learning experience. Each candidate managed to come up with far more suggestions than the deliberate errors included in the activity!

The two successful applicants were both final year computing undergraduates. The newly appointed Student E-learning Assistants worked the same shift pattern during their induction while they were introduced to the nature of the work. They were provided with training on using Blackboard – although they needed very little guidance – and they work-shadowed the Senior E-learning Adviser for a short period to help them gain confidence in working with tutors. They soon opted to work three short shifts per week, at different times to each other, in order to maximise the support they could offer. Their actual hours ranged from 8 to 14 hours per week depending on other commitments. Towards the end of their initial contract in semester one, due to their dedication to the role and popularity with staff, we offered the Student E-learning Assistants the opportunity to extend their contracts throughout semester two. They also took the opportunity to continue working in this role over the summer until they finally graduated in September 2005.

Rules of engagement

The Student E-learning Assistants took responsibility for planning their own work, and for making suggestions and giving advice on the quality and appropriateness of Blackboard sites and online materials, based on their experiences as students. They were responsible for deciding whether they could competently answer queries or whether to refer them on to other e-learning support staff. They were also asked to conform to a set of rules of engagement, which included guidance on:

  • Communicating and working with tutors – reminding them that some tutors may have limited IT skills or technicalknowledge, and they should be tactful and patient at all times.
  • Taking responsibility for setting their own pattern of work – remembering in particular that their studies must come first.
  • Working in academically sensitive situations, such as working with their own tutors and or being placed in a situation that might give them (or their friends) an advantage over their peers (e.g. access to learning materials or assessment data before other students).
Types of activities

It was anticipated that the Student E-learning Assistants would assist tutors with tasks that they typically find daunting and time-consuming when developing Blackboard course web sites (e.g. inputting test and survey questions or setting up group pages). We also asked tutors to allow the Student E-learning Assistants to make suggestions for improving the sites based on their experiences as students (i.e. ‘health checks’) and then to provide the time and expertise to implement the changes. We expected that the Student E-learning Assistants would help in testing new Blackboard functionality, and possibly assist tutors with Blackboard induction sessions to students.

Immediately on the appointment of the Student E-learning Assistants in September 2004, an email was circulated to all Blackboard instructors advertising the service they will be providing. We received 50 immediate responses from tutors requesting assistance and support, including:

  • Designing and building new Blackboard sites to replace existing web sites (which were gradually being phased out).
  • Explaining how to make the maximum use of Blackboard functionality. Building, trying out and deploying Blackboard tests.
  • Inputting student marks from non-Blackboard activities (e.g. group presentations) to the gradebook.
  • Setting up group pages and discussion forums (particularly in modules with large student cohorts).
  • Compressing images and PowerPoint presentations.
  • Preparing and reformatting images for use in Blackboard tests.
  • Designing and creating Blackboard site banners.
  • Advising on good practice and recommendations for creating a consistent look and feel to Blackboard sites.
  • Assisting colleagues in delivering workshops to staff.
  • Writing documentation for students on how to use Blackboard tools (e.g. discussion boards).
An unforeseen activity included tutors requesting the Student E-learning Assistants to help them with funded e-learning projects. For example, they assisted on Teaching Quality Enhancement Funded (TQEF) projects, including a project in the Faculty of Arts, Computing, Engineering and Science that looked at the material developed as part of the UKeU pilot, and investigated ways on improving its design, navigation and layout, and developing a template and guidelines for use across post-graduate courses.


As part the evaluation of the posts, the Student E-learning Assistants were asked to comment on the benefits of working in this role. These are summarised as follows:

  • A better understanding of Blackboard: ”It enables me to learn more about Blackboard, its uses and functions available within it.”; "Seeing the instructor-side of Blackboard helps to understand it better and has improved my usage of it as a student."
  • An understanding of learning and teaching and the University: ”It has given me an insight into how courses are structured, and the difficulties in converting them into useful online content is something I enjoy doing."; "The interaction with lecturers has given me a better understanding of the University."
  • Time management skills: "My time management skills have improved as working on the team has given me a better structure to my day. It gets me to come into University when I normally wouldn't!"
  • Enhanced information technology skills: "I've learned how to use new software."
  • Flexible hours/convenience: "I'm able to fit the work around University lectures", and "It's a convenient location – at University!"
  • An enjoyable experience – and their friends are asking for similar experiences.

The work has also assisted the Student E-learning Assistants in both their studies and chosen career. One of the post-holders used the experience to provide a focus for her dissertation by writing a good e-learning guide for staff; the other has chosento pursue a career in e-learning andsince graduatinghas moved toworking in an e-learning supportrole in one of the University's faculties.

The Student E-learning Assistants also commented on the positive feedback they received when working with tutors:

  • “Staff appreciate the student viewpoint, and also welcome feedback on errors, omissions etc which would normally be overlooked.”
  • “Suggestions are always welcomed.”

Both Student E-Learning Assistants have been highly regarded, both by tutors throughout the University and by their colleagues in the Learning and Teaching Institute. Their contribution to the University has far exceeded original expectations, and while this could be attributed to the dedication and professional approach of the two original post-holders, the University is confident thatfuture post-holders will be equally successful.


The Student E-learning Assistants were asked to comment on any negative aspects of the role. Interestingly, the only drawback identified was concern over time-management – which they earlier mentioned as a skill they gained while working in the role!

Future plans

We are currently in the process of recruiting two new Student E-learning Assistants who will join the University in January 2006.


This case study is based on a presentation given at ALT-C 2005:
Aspden, L., Hepplestone, S., Rodger, H. (2005) Viewed from the other side: student involvement in online course design, ALT-C 2005, 6-8 September, Manchester

Stuart Hepplestone
Lecturer in Curriculum Innovation, Sheffield Hallam University

Helen Rodger
Lecturer in Curriculum Innovation, Sheffield Hallam University

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