Early in 2008 staff in the science department at New College Nottingham decided to investigate how social networking applications could be used to support teaching and learning. They were looking for something which they could construct and maintain relatively easily and which would help to keep students up-to-date with current developments and news stories. The lecturer who volunteered for this project, Carla Smedberg, was teaching Health Sciences at the time and so this became the subject focus.
Carla wanted something which would help students become more involved in their learning, not only at an individual level but also to facilitate group collaboration and peer-to-peer support. A number of social networking applications were considered but Carla quickly settled on the idea of developing a departmental blog. Not only did a blog satisfy her criteria, it would also be used to link to learning resources, to access websites and organisations of interest, and to provide lesson updates, assignment deadlines and assessment timetables. Another important feature was the ability for students to provide feedback and to communicate with each other on a 24/7 basis.
Before undertaking any development work, Carla tested the idea of a departmental blog with her students. The initial pilot group was first year BTEC National Diploma Health and Social Care (Health Science) students. The group consisted of 17 students; 15 female and 2 male. The group initially completed a short survey to rank different types of media which they believed would best support their learning. The results showed an overwhelming response for using a web-based application. It was also established that the students were very familiar with blogs and comfortable with the idea of using one to support their studies.
The students were then asked to look at a variety of blogs and identify positive and negative aspects of each. Finally they were asked which elements they would like to have in a class blog and to provide justifications for their choices.
Once these preliminary investigations were complete, Carla was ready to commence development work. At the start of this project she readily confessed to being an IT novice, and initially found it a daunting prospect. However, as a keen fan of Star Trek and an avid reader of related blogs, she was well aware of their potential. Finding a blog development tool that was relatively easy to master was therefore crucial, as were scope for scalability and ease of maintenance. Sustainability was another key issue, particularly once a critical mass of students and teachers became involved. In the event, the process proved so straightforward that Carla was soon teaching colleagues how to contribute and how to develop blogs of their own.
Carla’s initial task was to teach herself how to construct a blog and populate it with content and links, and then to provide the means by which students could respond with comments and feedback, and communicate with one another. The blog was then launched (in March 2008) and students were soon supplying information about how they were using it: checking deadlines, accessing support materials, providing comments about blog threads as well as the design, layout and usability of the blog. As a result of this feedback one of the earliest updates was the addition of eBooks. Students were also soon accessing careers information and advice for UCAS applications and there was a noticeable increase in emails to lecturing staff via links on the blog. Notices from lecturers regarding room changes, reminders of assignment deadlines, appointments, and similar items were also immediately appreciated and used by students.
The students were very motivated and vocal about ‘their’ course blog, asking that websites used in class were added. Relevant links to help with assignments were added as and when needed. Students also posted information about useful websites they had come across and eBooks they had found, and shared these through the blog.
Much of the BTEC National Diploma relies on students developing and using independent study skills. Initially, students had problems developing these skills but the blog helped here by providing a natural starting point for their research. Very soon after launch it became apparent that many students were finding the blog useful in gathering information, completing assignments, delivering them on time and improving their performance. Lecturers were soon reporting that they were seeing fewer resubmissions, and those assignments that needed to be resubmitted required less reworking.
Individual tutorials are a key part of the Health Sciences course and, traditionally, appointments were made and displayed on a tutorial notice board. Students often missed appointments through forgetfulness but since tutorial appointments have been posted on the blog attendance has improved markedly.
Using a vote poll on the blog, eight students reported that the blog supported their learning and another eight commented that the blog supported their learning but needed some improvements. In the blog thread ‘blog suggestion box’ various users left comments about changes and additions they would like to see and these were progressively implemented.
Once students saw the benefits of the blog and the impact it had on their work they began to persuade other teachers to use the blog and it wasn’t long before Carla’s colleagues started to contribute content.
An article in the college magazine brought the blog to the attention of Jane Parker, the Learning Resource Centre Librarian. The LRC has always been very pro-active in embracing technology and Jane immediately saw how blogs could be applied and quickly became involved in promoting this further. From here it was not long before the college Principal and the Senior Management Team decided that they wanted this approach to be implemented across the college and invited Carla to take a role in making this happen. Consequently, what started as a relatively small scale Action Research Project was soon extended college-wide with wholehearted support at the highest level.
This case study is an example of how an enthusiastic member of staff can create a transformational impact that has been instrumental in bringing about change and improvement across the whole college. Crucial to the success of this initiative has been the involvement of students from the outset and the support of Carla’s colleagues at all levels of the organisation, and an institutional willingness to experiment and support innovation.
Perhaps one of the most telling comments comes from Carla herself: “If I was told the blog was going to be taken off-line I think I would be totally distraught because we have come so far with it and its been proven how useful it is for both the teachers and the learners ….. it’s had that much of a positive effect on their learning.”
Acknowledgements: The initial phase of this work from January to March 2008 was funded by a grant from the National Science Learning Centre, University of York via the Regional Science Learning Centre, East Midlands at the University of Leicester.