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Older issues »
Online 'student common rooms'
by Emily Bennett, David Carpenter, Paul McVeigh, Nancy North and Mary Watkins


Introduction
The following issues are likely to be familiar to anyone working within higher education:
  1. Information and resources: Students receive a lot of information, both during induction and throughout their course. Given that this information is typically disseminated via different formats and in multiple places (e.g. paper-based and online across many websites), it is unsurprising that students often loose or forget about it.  Also,there are many resources available to students, but they are often unaware that they exist or where to find them.
  2. Online learning: Students can be less than enthusiastic to engage with a university's virtual learning environment (VLE).
  3. Communication and feedback: Communication amongst and between both staff and students can sometimes be problematic, as can the process of gaining feedback from students about their courses. 
  4. Lecturers involved in online learning: Lecturers do not necessarily have time to research the latest e-learning technologies and pedagogies.  
  5. Link between what is being taught, latest academic research and current news: By the time students have had their induction at university they are (hopefully!) aware of the idea that their subject is relevant to real life and that it is continuously changing.  However, given that this is not something that is necessarily stressed before they come to university, they often do not realise its importance and how this actually applies in practice.
Online 'student common rooms'
The School of Social, Historical and Literary Studies (SSHLS) is one of the largest schools in the University of Portsmouth. One way in which the School is attempting to address the issues above is through a School-wide project to design, create and run online what we have termed 'Student Common Rooms' (SCRs).

An online Student Common Room (SCR) was setup for each of the five subject areas within SSHLS: Sociology, History, English, Journalism and Politics. A screen shot of the home page of the Sociology SCR is shown in Figure 1. Each SCR acts as a 'gateway' or 'portal' giving students a single starting point from which they can access:

  • Timetables
  • Grades
  • Assessment deadlines
  • Maps and staff telephone numbers
  • Student rep details
  • Links to the University library website
  • SSHLS hand book
  • Careers resources and guidance
  • Tools for submitting work and receiving  feedback
  • Coursework receipts
  • Term and semester dates
  • Attendance guidelines
  • Study skills resources
  • Reading lists
  • Options lists
  • Dissertation and research management resources
  • Live RSS news feeds (relevant news stories, videos, podcasts and the latest academic research in their subject area)
  • An area to leave feedback about any aspect of their course
  • An area where discussions can take place between students or between students and staff


17-student-common-room-1

Figure 1: Home page of the Sociology Student Common Room (SCR).


It is easy to see how the SCRs can address the issue of students accessing resources and information (issue 1 above). However, whether or not they address the other issues depends on how the system is designed.

 The idea of using 'gateway' or 'portal' type websites is not new. However, the key issue here is how the SCRs are updated and maintained.  There are two typical situations. First, the control and maintenance of the content can be the responsibility of the online development or administrative team. However, this situation does not encourage lecturers to engage with the technology (issue 4 above). The alternative is that lecturers control and develop the content. However, this can lead to inconsistencies arising across a school or faculty in relation to how (or if!) the content is maintained.

What is needed is a an online system in which lecturers have some input to maintaining and developing the content, but where the system is created and run in a way that ensures the information is updated regularly and correctly. This is what the SCRs aim to achieve. The remainder of this article focuses on the practical implementation and design decisions that are critical to the success of the system.

System design, implementation and maintenance
There are two main groups of end-users: the students themselves and the lecturers updating the system. All design decisions therefore needed to take account of the needs of each group.The first decision to be made was the choice of platform. A basic requirement was that the platform was institutionally supported. With this requirement in mind, there were two main choices available:
  • Blackboard, the University's virtual learning environment (VLE) (rebranded as 'Victory' at the University of Portsmouth).
  • Terminal Four, the University website's content management system (CMS) that runs the main University website.
Terminal Four was discounted as the main delivery platform for a number of reasons:
  • Web pages generated from Terminal Four are not password protected and so not suitable for some information.
  • It does not provide communications tools, such as discussion boards, and thus does not address the communication issue (number 3 above).
  •  Lecturers are not trained to use it.
  • The University's central web team hold overall control over the content within Terminal Four, which means that it is not flexible enough for the School's online development team.
  • Using Terminal Four as the platform would not encourage students to login to Blackboard (Victory) (i.e. issue 2 above).

Blackboard was therefore chosen as the delivery platform for the SCRs. While using Blackboard does overcome the above mentioned problems with Terminal Four, it introduces a few of its own. The biggest of these is the duplication of information: i.e. if 5 SCRs are required, then this it could mean that the same information must be added to each of the 5 sites. [1].  This is clearly not sensible, so a hybrid system was designed. 

To access their SCR, students login to Blackboard and click on the link to their SCR that appears alongside the units that they are studying.  (Each unit that the student is studying still has its own area in Blackboard, for example containing lecture notes and other unit-specific materials, which is separate from their SCR and maintained by the unit coordinator). Once inside the SCR, students can browse to find all of the information they need. In order to address the information duplication problem above, much information relevant to multiple courses is stored outside Blackboard and simply linked from each SCR. 

All 5 SCRs have the same design and structure (figure 1). This is important for several reasons: first, combined honours students have access to more than one site so it's helpful if sites are consistent; second, it is very time consuming and impractical to write separate instructions (for both lecturers and students) for each subject area.

For each SCR the following design principles and updating responsibilities apply:
  • Generic information common to all students in the University: each SCR provides links out to all of the generic information and resources, e.g. term dates, the library, grades and time tables, e-mail system, central student services etc.
  • Generic information common to all students in SSHLS (e.g. the SSHLS handbook) is stored on the University website and linked from Blackboard. This ensures that we only need to update one copy of the information. This is the responsibility of the development team and the Associate Head to maintain.
  • Information specific to each subject area is the responsibility of each subject area leader. This task is delegated to a lecturer from that subject area.  This includes reading lists, staff roles and specialisms, assessment deadlines, unit options lists, student rep details, online student feedback, degree handbooks.  The same staff are also responsible for monitoring the discussion boards.
Involving lecturers in updating and maintaining the SCRs is essential. The most practical reason is that the online development team simply do not have the time to monitor and update the SCRs throughout the year. More important is that the success of the SCRs relies on all lecturers knowing how to use SCRs to communicate and provide students with information, and believing that they are important. Additionally, the SCRs use many of the tools and techniques that lecturers may not have the time to try out in their own units (e.g. discussions, RSS news feeds etc), so being involved in the SCRs gives them a chance that they may not have otherwise have had to engage with these new tools and techniques (and so considers issues 3 and 4 above).

There is one exception to the general rule of lecturers updating subject specific information: the latest research and news section. SCRs are key information points for students; displaying live RSS news feeds on the home page (the box on the right side of the screen in figure 1), reinforces the message that the subject is continuously changing and relevant (i.e. it considers issue 5).  These live feeds include video and audio podcasts.

To extend this idea, we have set up a website that provides further live RSS feeds from academic research and news, along with links to key websites and blogs of prominent researchers in the field.  This website is linked from the home page of each SCR and also from many other Blackboard units (figure 2). This website is maintained and developed by the online development team in SSHLS. However, lecturers are invited to suggest resources and news feeds to include, and so they have subsequently become aware of the possibilities of web 2.0 tools (issue 4).  In fact, this has generated a fair number of requests from lecturers wanting something similar in their own units or for research purposes.

17-student-common-room-2

Figure 2: Current news and research website (This website is linked to from the SCRs.
It can be accessed directly via www.sshls.port.ac.uk/Current_research_news_and_resources/index.html )


Staff training and student induction
Staff training and student induction is critical to the success of the SCRs. Considering each of the end-user groups, training was provided as follows:
  • Lecturers responsible for updating the subject-specific information: face-to-face training, detailed written instructions and a written time table for what needs to be done throughout the year.
  • All other lecturers in each subject area: face-to-face demonstration of the SCRs at the team meeting before the start of term and written instructions, including how to use key features such as communicating with students.
  • Students: concise written instructions added to student hand books, a practical demonstration during the first week of term and a practical workshop for level 1 students as part of their study skills unit.
Conclusion and further work
While the SCRs provide an online system that considers the issues mentioned at the beginning of this article, we do not claim that they are the complete solution.  They are simply part of a range of ways of tackling these issues.  Crucially, the SCRs ensure that a consistent message is given to students.  For example, if students are told in the face-to-face induction that their subject is constantly changing, updating and relevant to the real world but the online materials do not reflect this (e.g. it does not include any RSS news feeds), then there is an inconsistency in the messages that the students receive. The SCRs attempt to redress this and provide some consistency and reinforcement. Furthermore, the SCRs offer one way of (to some degree at least) engaging all lecturers in the Schools' in online materials.

The SCRs project is very much a work in progress.  During the next year we are going to evaluate the system.  This evaluation will consider both groups of end-users; the lecturers and students.  The students' perceptions usage will be evaluated in a number of ways:- 
  • Examining the tracking data in Blackboard.  This will tell us how frequently students accessed the system and what they are looking at. 
  • Wide scale survey: short questionnaire about the SCRs will be completed by large proportion of students. (To maximise the response rate, this will be completed during the last lesson of the term in the core units).  This will not only ask about the SCRs, but also about the online tools and software that they use in general. This is important to gauge the level of computer literacy and confidence among our students.
  • Discuss the SCRs at the student-staff consultative meetings held in November and April.  This will give us as a deeper insight into the students' perceptions of SCRs and suggestions for future improvements. 
Although feedback from students is essential, the real potential of the SCRs is the way in which they give lecturers control and access to the content. Therefore, the lecturers' options of the SCRs are equally as important:
  • Monitoring how lecturers deal with updating and maintaining their part of the SCRs.  This process started over this summer and, apart from a few minor problems with file organisation, it has been fairly successful.  Despite these early indications, it is important to monitor this throughout the year. This will be judged by the online development team in SSHLS and the level of support they have to provide lectures with.  To do this, all issues and questions will be logged.    At the end of the year we will discuss with each of the lecturers who were maintaining part of the system how they thought it went.
  • We will also examine the tracking data and discussion boards to see how often lecturers are using SCRs to communicate with students.
  • We will discuss the SCRs as part of the teaching team meetings to get feedback and suggestions from all SSHLS lecturers.
Based on what we find this year during the evaluation, we will refine the model of the SCRs and develop a framework that hopefully will be useful to others. 

Emily Bennett
Senior Online Course Developer

David Carpenter
Director of the Centre for Distributed Learning

Paul McVeigh
Associate Head - Curriculum

Nancy North
Director of the Centre for Distributed Learning

Mary Watkins
Online Course Developer

School of Social, Historical and Literary Studies, University of Portsmouth

Emily.Bennett@port.ac.uk

[1] In an earlier version of the system we did attempt to do this. The earlier version actually had 15 separate SCRs, one for each of the 3 levels in each of the 5 subject areas.  However, this was completely impractical, time consuming and vulnerable to human error because it meant the same information had to be updated in 15 separate places.
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