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Bringing online learning to a research-intensive university

By Niall Watts / August 2007

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A spirited debate recently arose on the International Forum of Educational Technology & Society (IFETS) listserv. A (real world) conference had been announced with the aim of "raising awareness of the benefits of using online technologies in supporting teaching, learning and assessment, with a particular emphasis on the impact of e learning." A university was organizing this conference and aiming it at the university sector. Contributors to the IFETS listserv questioned whether there was still a need for conferences on this topic. In my experience at the University College Dublin (UCD), understanding of the online medium's potential among faculty has always appeared limited. But recent software developments have helped more academics—and their students—at UCD benefit from online learning.

E-Learning and the VLE

UCD is a traditional, campus-based university with a strong commitment to research. Like most universities, UCD has a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) for e learning. In our case it's Blackboard. Many faculty members identify e learning with the VLE. Blackboard is used for announcements and the delivery of passive content such as handouts and PowerPoint slides. Little attempt is made to make full use of the online medium. This may be because most academics have not learned or studied online as part of their education. To teach online requires them to rethink their teaching methods and imagine teaching differently from the way they were taught. Despite their exposure to digital media and social networking software, students seem to have equally low expectations of online learning.

Nevertheless, a few academics at UCD have become enthusiasts for active and engaging e learning. They have tried problem-based learning and promoted reflective practice. They have learned skills ranging from the development of learning materials using Flash to the moderation of discussion groups. However, there is little evidence that these innovators are influencing their colleagues to become early adopters. Why?

Case Study

The UCD School of Medicine and Medical Science and the UCD Audio Visual Centre set up a project team to conduct a study on the attitudes to and practice of e learning within the School. The first phase of this study consisted of a questionnaire, a review of learning activities, and interviews with academics.

The questionnaire included items on the respondents' views, experiences of and plans for e learning. None was worried that e learning would lead to job losses or de-skilling. The majority of respondents felt that their students benefited from online learning. None expressed negative views though a substantial proportion felt that it was "too early to say." Most felt that e learning had helped them as teachers, though a small number of respondents felt that it had not. Perceived constraints on the development of e learning included a lack of time and skills.

Some members of the faculty were interviewed. Most of them had created small quantities of learning materials. While many seemed to be satisfied with passive content delivery, others were interested in fostering active learning online. They were particularly interested in:

  • Making greater use and reuse of images, animations and movie clips
  • Developing virtual patient case studies
  • Encouraging the students to reflect on their learning

Animations can be used to illustrate processes that change over time such as heart rate. Virtual patient case studies allow medical students to take a case history from an imaginary patient, order virtual tests, and explore different diagnoses and treatments. An imaginative story line, illustrated by video clips can make these cases convincing and effective.

Faculty showed little enthusiasm for the use of online communication tools, such as chat and discussion, due to previous bad experiences, perhaps due to a lack of e moderating skills on their part.

Reform not Revolution

The academics saw e learning as an element in blended learning, supporting classroom, laboratory and hospital teaching, particularly in image-rich subjects such as pathology and immunology. The academics wanted to enhance their teaching. They focused on content rather than communication. They were not interested in using online learning to transforming educational practice as proposed by authorities such as Garrison and Anderson in their seminal work "E-Learning in the Twenty First Century." They did not share the views of Roger Schank, as written in eLearn Magazine:

"School has to change. The world has changed radically in the last 100 years while academia has stayed the same. This state of affairs must end or students will be learning increasingly irrelevant material taught using ever-more-outdated methods."

Our Solution

Despite their lack of time and skills, many of the academics wanted to build learning materials themselves. Due to their expertise and teaching experience, they felt that they were the right people to design and develop these materials. They believed that multimedia specialists and e learning developers—even those within the University—were expensive, had limited availability, and did not fully appreciate the subject matter. While they wanted to undertake development tasks, most of the academics lacked e-learning design and development skills.

Blackboard is not designed for the development of virtual patient case studies or interactive e-learning. Multimedia developers in the University had previously used Macromedia (now Adobe) Flash. It is designed to handle digital media and user interaction. It can be used to develop effective e learning but this requires long development times. Faculty have had neither the time nor the inclination to become proficient Flash developers. One solution was to use a software tool called Flashform, developed by Rapid Intake. It consists of customizable forms and templates that are interpreted and displayed by a Flash player. Flashform is easy to use and facilitates rapid content development. The idea is to allow content experts without any programming knowledge to create engaging learning sequences using activities, questions, and digital media. These sequences can easily be edited. Use of standards such as SCORM and XML increases the portability of the content. Multimedia developers can create additional forms and templates to extend Flashform.


Two academics from the School of Medicine and Medical Science developed pilot projects in emphysema and immunology. Afterwards, several lecturers who were interested in developing e learning with Flashform approached the project team.

A one-day course was designed with the aim of converting interested academics into competent Flashform developers with an understanding of the pedagogical principles underlying online learning. This is hardly revolutionary but builds on existing realities and on the interests of the lecturers. To date, about 5 percent of the lecturers have attended this course. According to Rogers' Diffusion of Innovation model, innovators comprise the first 2.5 percent of a population and early adopters the next 13.5 percent. This suggests that interactive e learning is moving out of the experimental phase into more general usage.

Time pressure is still a major issue and we are considering reducing the course to a half-day to encourage greater participation. We are also planning an introductory course on teaching and learning online, which will largely be conducted online!


Most of the course participants are now producing interactive e learning materials. Preliminary feedback from their students suggests that they enjoy using the new materials and find them helpful.

While this article is based on a case study in the UCD School of Medicine and Medical Science, my professional experience suggests that academics in other universities in other countries have similar attitudes to and experiences of e learning. The Flashform solution may well work elsewhere where academics have similar requirements.

While we have improved the interactivity of e learning materials, there are still many academics yet to be convinced of the value of online learning. Ease of use on its own does not guarantee that effective or engaging content will be created or that the students will appreciate it. Only an appreciation of and commitment to best practices can do that. Diana Laurillard, professor of educational technology and pro-vice-chancellor at the Open University (UK), has suggested that templated e learning is the most that can be expected in traditional universities until teaching is given the same priority as research. Educational technologists can help innovators and early adopters to "spread the word" through conferences and presentations of successful examples of interactive e learning.


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