Department of English Studies, University of Durham, U.K.

Project co-ordination and report: Dr Pam Knights

Project team and contributions: Dr Robert Carver, Dr Robin Dix and Dr Simon James

Supported by the English Subject Centre
departmental development projects scheme

The duologue project

Durham University English dept in Elvet Riverside. Small screenshot of duo student departmental information page.
Durham University English dept. Hallgarth House.

An English Subject Centre 'Mini-Project'

at the

Department of English Studies, University of Durham

Report by Dr Pam Knights

Pilot (non-funded): October 2001-June 2002; main phase: October 2002-September 2003; continuing development, dissemination and review, October 2003-September 2004.

Screen-shot from contents page of teaching assistants' support module. Includes Bewick scene of a classroom.  Our main aim in this project was to explore the uses of a virtual learning environment (VLE) for an English department largely new to e-learning, and uncertain about its possible advantages. We worked with the Blackboard™ platform, customised in the university as 'duo' (Durham University Online), and well established throughout the institution by the time our project began. Bringing in other colleagues as the project unfolded, we set out to trial the system from an English Studies point-of-view: to develop, test and assess a variety of activities and resources. At every stage, we were offered unstinting help and support by colleagues at the LTSN English Subject Centre (from 1 May 2004, the Higher Education Academy), and by the Durham University Learning Technologies team. VLE activities also opened up welcome contacts with colleagues across the university, and in English departments elsewhere; and the project was greatly enriched by these discussions.

We were aware that many other departments use managed learning platforms as a matter of course (as richly attested to, for example, in the projects Michael Hanrahan describes in the English Subject Centre 'English and IT', Report Series, No. 5, December 2002, or in the numerous case-studies highlighted in the Generic Centre briefing leaflets and resource areas). However, we have also realised that for some English colleagues, online systems still seem a largely alien world; for others, such systems remain colourless repositories for booklists and course descriptions. In describing our engagement with Blackboard, we are not propounding ground-breaking innovations, or even 'best practice guides', nor are we trying to replace the plethora of guides now available. We are simply trying to convey something of the experience, to help fellow subject-practioners (particularly non-IT enthusiasts) to picture its uses and possible kinds of impact.

Screenshot of Stokesay Castle on a medieval module duo site.This report gives an overview of some of our students' and staff responses at various stages, and attempts to offer some snap-shots of how we have been developing and using the Blackboard platform, from the pilot onwards.

Our general aim is to give a realistic picture of how we began to work with the system, and to suggest some of the (often unexpected) ways we have found that a Virtual Learning platform can help to support ordinary departmental activities in English Studies.


Individual levels of involvement have varied; and we have represented as wide a range of responses as possible. Small screen shot of a plot diagram on duo.We have included the voices of the more enthusiastic, but have also tried to be open about what different colleagues have seen as the system's limitations and drawbacks. We are addressing a 'lay' audience, rather than the e-sophisticate: to give as clear a picture as possible, we include sample materials and the comments of duo users.

We hope that the report will be helpful to any English colleagues who are wondering about whether to commit departmental time and energies to developing VLE resources; and to those who are already using a VLE, but are interested in hearing about others' experiences, or sharing ideas about possible developments.

This report is not a full-blown web-site, and will not be updated. (Unfortunately, the coordinator cannot commit the rest of her life to the duologue report.) However, we hope that the format is slightly less deadly than a single word-processed document, and that it helps people who don't know VLEs to picure something of what they are all about. With this report, as throughout the project, our ambitions for a more exciting and sophisticated end-product foundered on the reefs of time and technical expertise.

All screen-shots are of modules developed during the project, in the Department of English Studies. These small illustrations are intended simply to give a general impression of the versatility of Blackboard-- to show that using it need not mean encountering endless screens of monochrome text. If you are interested in seeing some larger, clearer samples, you will find some in the 'uses' pages.

Unless indicated otherwise, any sample images have been produced in-house, and anyone is welcome to extract them for educational purposes. You are also welcome to cite this report and duologue project research, but we should appreciate the appropriate acknowledgement (see 'Contacts' page).

Finding your way round this report

The reports on the main pages (white background) give a general overview: about the aims and implementation of the project, evaluation of student and staff responses, the main uses we have been making of duo, our dissemination activities, and contact details, with acknowledgements. You can access all the main pages from the navigation bar at the top and foot of each page in the site; and if you are short of time, a quick click through these pages will give you the gist of the project.

duologue project logo, which links to home page.If you get lost, click any home link, or the project logo at the top of each page.

Supplementary pages (blue background) offer more details (e.g. fuller reports on surveys, examples of activities, staff and student duo users' comments in context, sources for further information). You will be guided to these by links from the relevant main pages. You will find more details in the Table of Contents.

'Signposts' throughout the site offer an 'at a glance' summary of our main observations at each point. If you are very pressed for time, you could just read the signposts.

Small screen shot of a course banner and announcements page. Links to ABOUT page: overview of project aims, implementation, development, general comments and conclusions.
To read a formal report on the duologue project--contexts, aims, implementation and development, and our general reflections and conclusions, start here.

(If you just want the main outcomes and conclusion, go here.)

To get an idea of some of the ways we have used the VLE, flick through a photo-album here.

For an individual perspective from a project team member, you might prefer to start with one of these (in order of length; shortest first):

  • A worm's eye view of the Blackboard System, by Robin Dix. Highlights advantages and disadvantages of the system, as experienced by a web newcomer . . . I came to Blackboard as a complete novice: a year ago, I didn't even know what a Virtual Learning Environment was. .

  • Duologue: a review by Robert Carver. A reflective narrative of one staff user's experience over the span of the project; also offers a sense of important strategic considerations in the use of Blackboard . . I was . . . interested . . . in the practical challenges of getting the system up and running, creating resources, and selling the idea to the Department and to students. .

  • One teacher's approaches by Pam Knights. An illustrated outline of some of the ways one staff user began developing duo within three different modules . . . At the start of the project I had imagined creating far more dynamic resources . . .

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