The Digital Learning Environment

It was a simple and honest piece of feedback:

"I don’t care what it looks like, I just want it to be used"

said a student when asked for their views on a proposed new digital learning environment last year.

They were words that resonated with Professor Neil Witt, Head of Academic Support in Technology and Learning, and the man whose vision of a more innovative and engaging learning experience was beginning to take shape at that time.

“The expectations of our students are constantly growing and changing,” said Neil. “And we need to move with them by adapting to new technologies and preferences, and delivering them to any platform or mobile device, wherever they are using them.”

But how could the University deliver on that technology-enabled learning ideal – and do so without causing significant disruption to its core operation? Then again, how could it afford not to?

“I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say there was genuine excitement when the Digital Learning Environment (DLE) project launched,” reflected Rupert Frankum, Technical Project Manager in Technology Information Services. “People have battled so long with SharePoint that they embraced the change and engaged with the process.”

The project

The decision to create the DLE was taken following an extensive period of feedback gathering and refl ection, a process that involved the canvassing of more than 3,500 students, and the holding of 20 staff and student focus groups. It set a benchmark for engagement – particularly student engagement – that would be maintained throughout the project.

Rupert said: “I think students and staff very quickly appreciated that we were looking to move to a position where, instead of technology dictating to them what their practice should be, they could dictate how their practice should be supported by technology.”

The idea was to replace the existing module-focused virtual learning environment with something more dynamic and fl exible: something that was mobile-first, housing a range of resources and systems all behind a single sign-on. Bringing that to life fell to Rupert and his team, using Agile methodology and working in fortnightly sprints to release segments of the DLE to a group of early adopters, who grew in number from 30 to 200 over the course of the nine-month production.

“We held ‘show and tells’ with staff and they were so popular, we had to move them into lecture theatres,” said Rupert. “We had a total of 2,000 people attend and that provided a wealth of feedback that we were able to address by adding new functions to the DLE.”

Those new functions included timetable information, coursework submission, e-assessments, quizzes (driven by unanimously positive feedback from students) and ‘minimum module information’, consisting of details of each module, electronic reading lists, past exam papers, forums and wikis – all to help students make more informed decisions about their learning journeys. Peer-reviewed learning and the functionality to book meetings with tutors were also included.

Project delivery

And while the DLE project has been understandably technology-centric, it has also advocated support, with faculty-focused support teams managing the process of training and development, and a University wide subscription to lynda.com providing access to 1,600 software courses for all staff and students.

“The great success of the project has been the way it has delivered and offered that support, with minimum disruption and maximum benefit in all areas,” said Neil. “And feedback has been universally enthusiastic: simple features such as being able to book slots with lecturers and personal tutors, and the use of quizzes are signifi cantly enhancing student learning. Students have also reported that they are seeing a marked improvement in the availability of lecture materials and consistency of information.”

The statistics have spoken volumes for the way it has been embraced. Around 10,500 students access the DLE on a daily basis and 90% of the Mobile with Plymouth App usage is now related to teaching and learning activities. In the first three months after launch, more than 2,000 online video tutorials were created among 24,000 learning resources; there were 630 modules using e-submission, 250 quizzes, more than 200 forums, and 50 live chats. And those learning resources have been viewed more than 800,000 times, and more than 5,000 users have watched 75,000 educational videos.

“It opens up a wealth of possibilities for teachers to engage with students outside of the classroom,” said Neil. “Of course, that does mean that we might have to work a little harder to provide that additional content that will enrich their studies, but with the DLE automating a number of processes, it frees up time to provide that rich content students respond to.”

The future

With 6,000 partner college students now also able to access it, and the potential to open it up to prospective students and other external contacts, the DLE has become a portal into the teaching and learning community of the University.

“Thanks to the DLE, the University can start to collect learning analytics to re-invest back into the student experience, ensuring a living learning environment shaped by its community,” added John Wright, Chief Information Officer. “It’s a key strand of our ambition to become an ‘edgeless university’, where technology delivers, supports and enhances the student experience to the point where it blurs traditional campus boundaries.”