Post by Dr Sue Folley and Dr Daniel Belton of the University of Huddersfield
At the University of Huddersfield, we’ve used technology as part of a blended learning approach for some time but this year we’re upgrading our learning platform to Brightspace. This put us at something of a crossroads and we had a choice to make. We could simply migrate content from the old virtual learning environment (VLE) onto the new platform or we could take a different approach.
A catalyst for change
In truth, a straightforward migration was never really an option. We view the Brightspace platform as a catalyst for change – a chance to transform the way we support students online. Student retention – a significant driver across higher education in general – is a key objective for us and to excel in this we want to deliver engaging, interactive learning experiences.
Whilst there was lots of great practice with the previous VLE, its design made it difficult to achieve the complete learning experience that we wanted for our students. Then along came Brightspace, a seamlessly integrated online, active learning environment – definitely not a passive content repository with features bolted-on afterwards. We wanted to make sure we capitalised on all of the great functionality and interactivity offered by the Brightspace VLE.
For that to happen, our staff would need to be given time and space to focus on building their course modules and that wouldn’t be easy in the day-to-day work environment. In the past, we’ve used offsite working sessions, or ‘retreats’ to help staff focus on research papers or other writing projects. When it came to our transition to Brightspace, it made sense to take distractions out of the picture by adopting a similar approach.
Planning the offsites
To get the results we wanted from the sessions, some preparation would be needed. At introductory sessions we reviewed the objectives of the offsites, which were to:
- learn and share best practice
- build courses optimised for maximum student engagement
- make the best use of the features of Brightspace
- improve staff engagement with the platform
- initiate a cascade learning approach where attendees could spread their knowledge to other colleagues.
People had to commit to doing the basic training beforehand and also to bring materials along with them so that they would be ready to build. They also had to apply to attend the offsites. We didn’t want attendees coming along only to build basic content. We wanted them to think about how they would enhance modules using the tools of the platform, and to outline their ideas on an application form. These forms helped us plan the sessions by giving us an insight into the kind of help that attendees might need.
Collaboration and course design
We held three offsite sessions during the early summer months and succeeded in attracting a broad range of participants from across academic schools. Attendees worked in their course teams on the things they had prepared which was something of a luxury in itself as that sort of focused time together is rare.
Lots of time was given to participants working on their modules but we got everyone back together periodically to review progress and address any issues. Our Customer Success Manager at D2L, Sophie, attended the sessions and was able to provide an overview of Brightspace’s features and work with teams to help them get the most out of the platform.
Of the platform’s interactive features we found the ePortfolio and quiz options to be the most popular but teams worked with all sorts of tools, including intelligent agents, to create engaging and interactive modules that would help optimise learning outcomes.
Reaping the rewards
The offsites have given the staff a lot more confidence in using the Brightspace platform. Being away from the day-to-day distractions of the workplace, attendees were more invested in the process and the preparation beforehand ensured they got the most out of the time. The individual attention given to each group, from both our own facilitators and D2L, ensured teams designed their courses in the way they wanted and that would work for them.
The enthusiasm generated has also been taken back into the workplace with session attendees proactively sharing knowledge with their colleagues and this ripple effect should help all departments get the most out of Brightspace.
We’re confident the approach we’ve taken will prove effective in giving students and staff the best possible online experience. Thanks to the offsites, we have modules that have effectively been built from scratch, with content that is up to date and structures that are optimised for an engaging learning experience. We’re now looking forward to taking full advantage of all that Brightspace has to offer this academic year and to continuing to build on the success of the offsites for the benefit of our academic staff and, ultimately, our students.