Coaching students for success
by James Howard & Nick Pearce
How do you design a study skills and research methods module that will be interesting and engaging for sport studies students? This case study outlines a possible approach that integrates the Blackboard Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) with face-to-face seminars. For those of us with a passion for technology and an interest in how it can improve and facilitate learning, the use of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) within higher education (HE) is a necessary and exciting step forward. Yet within the context of a mid-sized, multi-site college with a diverse student body and with an ambition to grow and develop, the utilisation and implications of virtual learning take on a particular significance. The issues and challenges that arise demand specific solutions that maintain the balance between students' needs, teaching quality and varied means of provision. This case study highlights these issues in relation to the development of a first-year research and study skills module for the School of Sport at St Martin's College, Lancaster.
St Martin's College, with campuses situated in North Lancashire, Cumbria and more recently London, presents a fascinating context within which to consider the changes and challenges that accompany the introduction of VLEs. St Martin's is undergoing an intense period of growth: its current application for taught degree awarding powers going hand-in-hand with its long-term development strategy and Sir Martin Harris' vision for a University of Cumbria.
This period of transition has emphasised the need for the College to accommodate the needs of an increasingly diverse and geographically dispersed student body. In response, the College has become acutely aware that it must aim to be at the forefront of pedagogical and technological developments in order to provide the facilities and learning environment that this new phase in its development demands. Such is the perceived role of flexible, distributed and e-learning within these changing contexts that the College has made their integration a central aim of the current corporate strategy. To this end, St Martin's has made significant investments in the Blackboard VLE and in providing a network capable of consistent, reliable delivery. This investment is beginning to pay off, with a number of initiatives to help faculties, departments, courses and individual tutors to realise the benefits of introducing online elements into their teaching planning and provision. This gradual integration has taken a number of forms: from flexible distance units to simple online repositories for lecture information.
Study Skills and Research Methods (SSRM) reconsidered
One consequence of St Martin's renewed network capability and support for Blackboard has been the opportunity to reconsider how traditionally problematic courses are delivered, an area which provides the context for this case study. The first-year Sports Studies course at St Martin's incorporates a study skills and research methods module (SSRM) that provides students with a base set of competencies in how to study effectively, complete assessments successfully and undertake research projects. Previous cohorts taking this module have exhibited poor retention and attainment in comparison with other first-year modules. While this is due to a number of factors, the difficulty in enthusing first-year students about the relevance and benefits of SSRM has undoubtedly been a factor. Although this problem is not isolated to sports students, the central focus of the Sport Studies course on sport and sporting issues, and the corresponding interests of the students, perhaps create a particularly difficult context within which to integrate such a SSRM module. An awareness of these issues has led to a gradual recognition that a new approach to teaching SSRM was needed. Any new approach would have to tackle the perceived lack of relevance of SSRM to sport whilst covering the necessary and valuable course content that had previously proved difficult to communicate.
As a result, the decision was made to reconsider the original lecture and seminar structure and to develop an alternative system of delivery. This new module design would utilise the Blackboard VLE and reconnect the study skills module with the rest of the Sport Studies degree course. The design would aim to:
The new SSRM module design
- shift responsibility for learning onto the students by encouraging active, independent study;
- contextualise the skills and methods content within the sphere of sport-related study;
- create clear links between the SSRM module and the other Sports Studies modules;
- integrate online learning and traditional face-to-face methods within a structure that played to students' individual strengths.
The aims above were undoubtedly laudable; the question was, how could they be realised, and what part would Blackboard play in the process? Up to this point, Blackboard had been utilised by a number of tutors within the School of Sport, primarily as a repository for lecture handouts and presentations. VLE access records suggested that many students did not utilise even this basic service and the course sites reflected this, having no consistent style, quality or breadth of content. To an extent this was a result of technical difficulties in the previous academic year, which had created a negative perception of Blackboard and its potential amongst some staff and students.
With the network issues now resolved, it seemed that these negative perceptions could be overcome, but only if Blackboard was made central to the student experience. Given that one of the problems with the SSRM module appeared to be the unsuitability of lectures as a means to communicate content and engage the students, the decision was made to move away from their use. Lectures would be replaced with a weekly instalment on Blackboard that would become the focal point for the students' engagement with the module.
Figure 1: Welcome Page
The welcome page is the first page students see when they log onto the course site. As well as being the page from which students initially navigate to course content, it is also where any announcements or course news are posted by the tutors.
However, it was clear that simply converting the existing lecture materials into Blackboard content would be insufficient: a broader re-design was required. Although the existing weekly seminars aimed to be a key learning point within the module, the students' lack of preparation and engagement meant that this was not always the case: whilst seminars work well as a space for peer-to-peer interaction and discussion, this cannot happen if the lecture content has to be reiterated before students can become involved. This de-motivates staff and students alike and means that the invaluable face-to-face discussion time is squandered.
The revised module design aimed to combine online and face-to-face elements to exploit the individual strengths each presented by each mode, something which could only happen if the relationship between them was carefully structured. A central focus of the design was on how to merge the interactivity, accessibility and innovation of Blackboard with the in-depth discussion and sense of mutual participation of the seminars. Whilst this approach is clearly related to the concept of 'blended learning', following Oliver and Trigwell (2005) it was felt that the current definition of blended learning was too ambiguous to provide a helpful description of the module re-design. Against the specific institutional context and the need to familiarise tutors with the new module framework, a decision was made to avoid the language of blended learning in order to emphasise the benefits provided by face-to-face and online learning respectively. Not only would this allow the designers to avoid ongoing discussions regarding blended learning within the institution but it would also smooth the transition and acceptance of the new design in the perceptions of the teaching staff. This was felt to be important, as the use of Blackboard to this extent and in this form was an innovation within the School.
One of the key aims of the re-design was to place the responsibility for learning back onto the students, by supporting, facilitating and necessitating a more independent approach on their behalf. This independence was seen as the bridge between Blackboard and the seminars; the former presenting activities for the students alongside guidance notes and the latter providing a space to demonstrate their achievements and promote peer discussion. In this way the design aimed to avoid the pitfall of increased dependency on the teacher that online learning can initiate (Brabazon 2002) while at the same time actively engaging students with the subject matter.
Integrating online content and seminar participation
The integration indicated in this approach requires careful planning and a number of factors had to be taken into consideration which centred on both the type of activity asked of the students and the practical design and feel of the module site. Underlying all such considerations was the desire to make evident a clear rationale for the module, enabling students and teaching staff to see the aims and potential benefits of what had previously been an easily discarded element of the course. Our solution was to present the SSRM content within a specific sporting context. This approach went beyond using sport as a source for contemporary examples to include using sporting language and terminology to re-phrase and define the weekly topics and content. In addition to making engagement with the content a more rewarding experience for the students, this approach emphasised the relationship between the SSRM module and rest of the Sport Studies degree, providing a sense of relevance that had previously been missing.
Figure 2: Weekly Notes page
Students must read through the weekly notes and complete the activities as directed prior to the weekly seminar. The language used in the notes is closely aligned with the sporting context of the course.
Having been presented with the necessary ideas and information in a context and language that they could understand, students were asked to put the associated skills into practice via activities that continued the sporting theme. Each activity made use of the VLE's inherent advantages, involving online actions, databases and research and, crucially, made clear how these would be utilised in the face-to-face seminar contact sessions. As a result, students and staff were acutely aware of how their actions online would provide the foundation for the classroom activities. Within the classroom, the focus was on peer discussion and mutual learning and it was hoped that this would balance-out the bias towards individual study that the use of Blackboard tended to result in.
The weekly activities took a number of forms, each designed to test different aspects of the generic skills being communicated. For instance, a worksheet asked students to locate, via specific online journals, the full reference and abstract of one qualitative and one quantitative piece of sporting research on a topic being covered in their sociology of sport module. Students were then asked to complete a series of questions on their chosen articles, designed to test their critical reading and research methods knowledge, which would form the basis of the seminar discussions. Exercises such as this helped familiarise the students with the library resources, encouraged independent study and contextualised the wide variety of research undertaken within sport studies.
Figure 3: Literature review process
Diagram designed to help students understand the process of filtering sources/reading when writing a literature review for a research proposal.
In a later activity the students were presented with a 'research scenario' online accompanied by links to further information and context. They then had to take on the role of 'Sport Researchers' and use the information and skills provided in previous weeks to complete an online template with their proposed plan for the research. The classroom activity picked up on this, asking the students to share and defend their research plans before agreeing on the most suitable method.
Figure 4: Notes page
Notes aimed to get students thinking like researchers by imagining themselves in various research scenarios.
Utilising this combination of online and face-to-face activity, the module was designed to be a structured introduction to undergraduate study. From initial I.T. workshops to assess competency and identify students requiring additional support, through structured online activities and discussion based seminars, the module aimed to develop students fully able to take responsibility for their own learning.
Implications for assessment
Alongside the aim of making the SSRM content more accessible and relevant, this framework provided the module tutors with an additional method of assessing student participation. If individual students did not access and complete the weekly activities this would be clearly evident in the seminar activities, which relied upon this preparation. In order to formalise and further emphasise this imperative to engage with the online content prior to the seminars, the assessment for the module was restructured to link the formative weekly activities to summative assessments at the end of each semester. This added a further incentive to complete the weekly work, catch up on any work missed and again placed the SSRM module central to the success of their wider Sport Studies course.
To conclude, we feel that discussion of blended learning can on occasion hide some of the problems and issues which e-learning raises and may also obscure the advantages of more traditional learning strategies. In the context of a growing institution with an increasingly dispersed student body, academics and course designers need to utilise the potential of online learning and teaching. The benefits in terms of re-evaluating and improving existing courses and the clear cost, flexibility and accessibility implications cannot and should not be ignored. As highlighted in this case study, the use of VLEs can re-invigorate previously problematic modules and can engage students with notoriously difficult to teach subject content. However, the use of online components should not blind us to the existing strengths of traditional teaching methods and module designs need to address the relationship between these two approaches directly.
Brabazon, T (2002) Digital Hemlock: Internet education and the poisoning of teaching. Sydney: UNSW Press
Oliver, M. & Trigwell, K. (2005) Can 'Blended Learning' Be Redeemed? E-Learning, 2(1), pp. 17-26
James Howard, Consultant Researcher and Module Leader: Advanced Research Skills for Sport, St Martin's College
Nick Pearce, Research Assistant and Tutor, St Martin's College
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