This case study describes an e-learning action research project carried out by the University College Dublin (UCD) Audio Visual Centre (AVC) and the UCD School of Medicine and Medical Science. In action research the researcher is an active participant in the teaching and learning practices under investigation. Action research is based on a cycle of planning, acting, observing, reflecting and implementing (Salmon, 2001). Evaluation is embedded in the entire process. The first phase of the project was a review of the current state of e-learning in the School of Medicine and Medical Science. This review led to recommendations for improved development techniques, which were then evaluated in a trial implementation.
Review of current practice
There are approximately 250 students per annum enrolled in the UCD School of Medicine and Medical Science. Medical students have from 20 - 24 contact teaching hours per week. The Blackboard Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) supports classroom and lab teaching (blended learning). Questionnaires, interviews and a review of existing materials were used to gather qualitative and quantitative data on current e-learning practice in the School.
A questionnaire consisting of 23 questions was developed. It included questions on the respondents' views on, experiences of, and plans for e-learning. All lecturing staff in the School, as well as teaching staff in the university hospitals received a copy of the questionnaire, which was distributed by mail. Out of a possible 430 respondents 102 replied: a response rate of 24%, which was lower than anticipated.
Of these, 63% of the respondents had been involved in e-learning. The majority felt that students benefited from online learning, though some thought it 'too early to say'. No respondents felt that it was not beneficial. Constraints on the development of e-learning included the lack of time and a perceived lack of skills. The questionnaire concluded with an open question to gather the respondents' wishes for the development of e-learning.
The questionnaire was followed by one-to-one interviews with a smaller sample. For pragmatic reasons, lecturers on Systems II, the Biology of Disease States, were chosen. Interviews were arranged with the nine module co-ordinators and most of the lecturers. It was also decided to interview staff members who were known innovators in the area of eâ€‘learning and those whom other interviewees had suggested.
Most of the academics interviewed created their own learning materials, though they reported having little time to do so. They were interested in creating pedagogically sound learning materials with minimal input from a specialist development team. There was particular interest in making greater use of images and digital media, encouraging the students to reflect on their learning and in developing case studies. Staff felt it important that any prospective authoring tool should be easy to learn and use, and that content created could easily be edited and reused.
Review of existing materials
The Systems II Executive Board had recommended a standard structure for Blackboard. Skeleton outlines for lectures and tutorials were available for students to download and print. Some interactive exercises were available online.
Figure 1: Sample screen from Blackboard 'Course Documents'
In some modules, lecturers had added case studies, Computer Assisted Learning Practicals (CALS) and formative assessment (see Figure 1).
Case studies were available as WORD documents that described patient history and raised some questions for research prior to class, where they were discussed in small groups. Answers were not posted to Blackboard in order to enable reuse of the case studies.
CALS are stand-alone learning activities. They consist of images of tissue or cell samples with a description. Most CALS are WORD documents with embedded images. This series of images is often followed by a quiz. There is no scoring and an idealised answer is given as feedback. In a few cases, Flash movies or web pages were used instead of WORD. Flash was used to show animation and to ask questions. Images from the CALS were also used in examinations but otherwise CALS are not blended with teaching activities.
Blackboard quizzes were used for formative assessment in two of the modules. Multiple-choice, multiple answer and matching questions were all used (see Figure 2). Some respondents would have liked to use questions based on images, such as labelling or hot spot questions, which were not available at that time
Figure 2: Sample CALS question
Pathology Virtual Patient
Prior to the action research project, the AVC, the Pathology department and UCD Centre for Teaching and Learning (CTL) developed an interactive, online, virtual patient case study on colorectal cancer. This case, known as the Pathology e-Tutorial, simulates a real-life doctor-patient interaction where the learner carries out a consultation, examination, differential diagnosis and clinical tests on a simulated patient. On reaching a diagnosis, the student then continues with a treatment plan (see Figure 3).
Figure 3: Pathology e-Tutorial: Taking Patient History
The e-Tutorial includes an online notebook where the learner can record his or her observations and reflections. This feature was considered important as it helped promote reflection. Boud (1985) has described reflection as the processes where learners explore their experiences to gain a better understanding and appreciation of their learning. Reflection helps students to think and act like practitioners
The e-Tutorial was well received by both staff and students. Some of the lecturers would have liked use the e-Tutorial as a basis for developing similar resources, while others wanted to modify or update its content. However, this would require considerable knowledge of Flash, which few lecturers possessed. The AVC therefore concluded that if e-learning of this standard were to be more widely used, the lecturers must be helped (in the words of one lecturer) 'to quickly produce good-quality content that can easily be modified'.
The development stage
Based on the feedback from the questionnaires, interviews and reviews the AVC decided that a new tool was required to help academics develop media-rich, interactive eâ€‘learning. This tool had to be easy-to-use and should require minimal training. It should be capable of generating a variety of question types, which could incorporate images and video. As academics have little time to spend designing learning materials, it would have to support rapid content development and content reuse.
Development tools: build or buy?
The project team considered whether to build or buy a software tool, which could be used to meet the academics' requirements. Two open source tools were examined. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach:
Needs large resources - time, money, people
May not be as good as similar commercial products
May be 'reinventing the wheel'
The team concluded that, in this case, a tool should be developed in-house. This tool was developed using XML with a front end developed via Flash Companion.
The tool's design was based on the work of Castillo et al (2004). For reasons of portability, the tool was designed to tag content in XML and to be SCORM conformant. Initially a Flash player was developed which dynamically imported content from templates in XML format. The XML files had to be created with a text editor. This design allowed for a wide variety of layouts and media types but lacked a simple interface.
Flash Companion, also based on the ideas of Castillo et al (2004), was used to provide an interface for the XML templates. Flash Companion was released by RapidIntake in 2005. It is highly customisable and provides a form template as an interface for building questions such as multiple choice, drag and drop, fill in the blank etc. The form is written to an XML file, which is read by a Flash player. The XML files, any images or media used and the Flash player are integrated into a project. This project can be SCORM compliant.
The AVC created created templates for Flash Companion, such as a two column multiple choice question and an open answer question with images or animations as part of the feedback. The notebook for recording reflective observations was also added, as were email options (see Figure 4).
Figure 4: Two column multiple choice question with notebook - student view
The AVC and the School of Medicine and Medical Science have developed online learning in Immunology and Respiratory Pathology to evaluate Flash Companion and the AVC templates. It was found to be easy to use and to enable the rapid creation of online content. The evaluation projects were presented to the School of Medicine and Medical Science in February 2006 where they were well received. The presentation generated interest among academic staff, who were interested in using Flash Companion to develop their own materials.
The AVC designed and ran two training courses on Flash Companion and the AVC templates for UCD staff. Half a day is spent on Flash Companion and half a day on designing learning materials for the online environment. Authoring using technology is now easy: the challenge is in the pedagogical design and usability of the materials. Our other challenge is to increase the number of lecturers developing interactive teaching materials for Blackboard and the web.
The UCD AVC would like to thank the Irish Higher Education Authority (HEA) for funding this project and Dr David Dewhurst of the Learning Technology Section, College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh for acting as a peer reviewer. Also, the author would like to thank his colleagues in the UCD Audio Visual Centre and the School of Medicine and Medical Science for their support, in particular, Helen Guerin and Ken Doyle in the AVC and Prof. Peter Dervan and Dr. Peter Holloway in the School of Medicine and Medical Science.
Audio Visual Centre, University College Dublin
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