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 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.