Sarah Mattin: International Study and Language Institute
This case study outlines approaches to fostering an active learning environment on the University’s first fully online Undergraduate Pre-sessional Course which ran in Summer 2020 with 170 students. It reports staff and student feedback and reflects on how lessons learnt during the summer can inform ISLI’s continued online delivery this autumn term and beyond.
- To design and deliver an online Pre-sessional Course to meet the needs of 170 students studying remotely, mostly in China
- To promote student engagement in learning activities in an online environment
- To devise effective mechanisms for tracking student engagement and thus identify students who may require additional support
The Pre-sessional Programme (PSE) is an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and academic skills development programme for degree offer holders who require more study to meet the English Language requirements of their intended programme. The programme runs year-round and, in the summer, has separate UG and PG courses. We would usually expect to welcome around 700 students to the campus for the summer courses (June-September); in summer 2020 we took the courses fully online in response to the COVID crisis. This case study focuses on the Undergraduate Course.
Due to the constraints of the time difference between the UK and China, where most students were based, we knew learning on the course would need to be largely asynchronous. However, we were keen to promote active learning and so adopted the following approaches:
- Use of the online authoring tool Xerte to create interactive learning materials which enabled students to have immediate feedback on tasks.
- Incorporation of asynchronous peer and student-teacher interaction into the course each week through scaffolded tasks for the Blackboard Discussion Boards.
- Setting up of small study groups of 3-4 students within each class of 16 students. Each group had fortnightly tutorials with the teacher and were encouraged to use the group for independent peer support.
- Live online interactive sessions which took a ‘flipped’ approach, so students came prepared to share and discuss their work on a set task and ask any questions.
In order to track engagement with the learning materials we used Blackboard Tests to create short (4-5 questions) ‘Stop & Check’ quizzes at regular intervals throughout the week. We used the Grade Centre to monitor completion of these. We also made use of other student engagement monitoring features of Blackboard, in particular the Retention Centre within Evaluation and Blackboard Course Reports which enable instructors to track a range of user activity.
Our tracking showed that most students were engaging with the tasks daily, as required. We were very quickly able to identify a small group of students who were not engaging as hoped and target additional communication and support to these students.
Student feedback demonstrated that students perceived improvements in their language ability across the four skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening) and this was confirmed by their results at the end of the course. Student outcomes were good with over 90% of students achieving the scores they needed to progress to their chose degree programme. This compares favourably with the progression rate for the on-campus course which has run in previous years.
Feedback from teachers on the learning materials was very positive. One teacher commented that ‘The videos and Xerte lessons were excellent. As a new teacher I felt the course was very clear and it has been the best summer course I have worked on’. Teachers highlighted Xerte, the Discussion Boards and the interactive sessions as strengths of the course.
The materials and overall design of the course have informed the Pre-sessional Course (PSE 1) which is running this Autumn Term.
Overall, we designed and delivered a course which met our objectives. Some reflections on the tools and approaches we employed are as follows:
Xerte lessons: these were definitely a successful part of the course enabling us to provide interactive asynchronous learning materials with immediate feedback to students. We also found the Xerte lessons enabled us to make coherent ‘packages’ of smaller tasks helping us to keep the Blackboard site uncluttered and easy to navigate.
Discussion Boards: teacher feedback indicated that this was a part of the course some felt was an enhancement of the previous F2F delivery. Points we found were key to the success of Discussion Board tasks were:
- Creation of a new thread for each task to keep threads a manageable size
- Linking to the specific thread from the task using hyperlinks
- Detailed and specific Discussion Board task instructions for students broken down into steps of making an initial post and responding to classmates’ posts with deadlines for each step
- Teacher presence on the Discussion Board
- Teacher feedback on group use of the Discussion Board in live sessions to reinforce the importance of peer interaction
Small study groups: these were a helpful element of the course and greater use could have been made of them. For example, one teacher developed a system of having a rotating ‘group leader’ who took responsibility for guiding the group through an assigned task each week. In the future we could incorporate this approach and build more independent group work into the asynchronous learning materials to reinforce the importance of collaboration and peer learning.
Live sessions: student feedback showed clearly that this was an aspect of the course they particularly valued. Both students and teachers felt there should be more live contact but that these do not need to be long sessions; even an additional 30 minutes a day would have made a difference. Teachers and students commented that Teams provided a more stable connection for students in China than Blackboard Collaborate.
Blackboard Tests and monitoring features of Blackboard: these were undoubtedly useful tools for monitoring student engagement. However, they generate a great deal of data which is not always easy to interpret ‘at a glance’ and provides a fairly superficial account of engagement. Most teachers ended up devising their own tracking systems in Excel which enabled them to identify and track performance on certain key tasks each week.
Taking into account the feedback from this year, materials developed could be used in future to facilitate a flipped learning approach on the course with students studying on campus or remotely. This would address the calls for more teacher-student interaction and enable the course to respond flexibility to external events. Currently, we are applying lessons learnt from the summer to the delivery of our Pre-sessional and Academic English Programmes running this term.
The Pre-sessional English and Academic English Programme webpages give more details about the Programmes
Academic English Programme: http://www.reading.ac.uk/ISLI/enhancing-studies/isli-aep.aspx