English students and duo - Overview
I: Student awareness
Some of our students were
aware of the potential of the Blackboard system (duo) long before
we were, having been introduced to VLE resources and learning support
from duo's early days in the university.
taking options in other departments (in particular, Combined
Studies students, who often work across subject and faculty boundaries)
first encountered the system as users--and thus had a far livelier
sense of its nature and potential value. To a large measure,
these students stimulated our trial of duo in the department.
References to 'duo' had begun to surface in the Staff-Student
Consultative Committee and in requests on module questionnaires,
and these roused our curiosity. Our decision to commit ourselves
to the project was confirmed by our wish to respond positively
to such interest.
Some of the initial reasons students gave for wanting duo:
to get missed handouts; lecture summaries online; links; noticeboards,
'tickings off from tutors', and discussion 'all in one place'.
The university-wide surveys into students' general C&IT
skills also demonstrated that many of our own students were
more at home than many of their teachers in a range of skills -
from Powerpoint to spread-sheets. Perhaps because of our own limitations,
but also because, once at university, many students voice nervousness
about computers, we found ourselves very surprised by these results.
It is beyond the scope of this report to discuss these results
in detail, but the statistics for
our own student first-year intake for 2001-02 are available here (LTT tables, 2001).
This cohort entered the second-year in the main phase of the project. Statistics
for first-year entrants in 2002-03 (in their second year in
the project continuation year) are also available here (LTT tables, 2002).
responses, and duo evaluation
Once we had introduced duo into the department, we used various means
throughout the project to gather and evaluate student response:
standard departmental end-of-module questionnaires (comments and statistics)
formal and informal oral and written feedback
subject-specific data made available by the Durham University Learning Technologies
team, from their C&IT and duo university-wide surveys. We give full details of our students' responses on the evaluation pages.
Time has not permitted us to conduct extensive comparisons
with the results for all students across the university,
but statistical data are available on the Learning Technologies'
team pages on the Durham web-pages.
University LTT C&IT reports / LTT
duo evaluation reports (Clicking these links
will take you out of this report. Use your browser's
back button to return.)
Blackboard's facilities for statistical tracking.
team's view of statistical tracking
we decided not to make extensive use of these facilities, we
include some examples here. As other VLE users report, they
show students using duo every day of the week, indicating peaks,
troughs and favourite working times for the different modules
and year groups. Examples here.
- student suggestions for duo use, and materials in their assignments
- these offered additional evidence of impact.
1. Pilot (2001-2002)
A range of English students tested duo for one or two terms, during
our pilot year, ranging from Level 1 students taking an introduction
to 'Classical and Biblical Background', to taught MA students
on an Edith Wharton module. For more, see 'about
As members of the project team taught or convened these modules,
we could monitor them closely, and, in some cases, could follow
in detail the route between initial stimulus or resource on duo,
and its impact on student learning.
For most of our students in 2001-02, duo was entirely new or still
a novelty and, as pioneers, they were interested in our efforts
and forebearing about our attempts to elicit their opinions.
They were willing to try out different activities and areas of
the duo sites, and to make their input publicly available as
sample dissemination material. They were also generally forthcoming
and honest about any problems.
uses centred predominantly, but not entirely, on the communication
facilitiesmainly to share and circulate resources.
Although there were only a few students living outside the Durham area,
students found duo a convenient, time-saving tool for getting
in touch with others in their seminar (particularly those they
did not know outside the classroom). In an MA group, where some
students came from a distance, the discussion board became a
Overall, these uses, though small in themselves, helped cumulatively to
contribute to a sense of a 'community' in the module, and to
foster independent learning.
- active take-up of the group email facilities (e.g. tracking down notes,
lost property, ideas for critical reading, other books on a
- postings of individuals' interests on the discussion board, as MA students
alerted each other to their own focus in the coming seminar;
- reports on the whereabouts of library books, and sharing single copies
of required reading;
- queries about missing journal copies, and reports of results of investigations;
- postings of news of relevant exhibitions and public talks;
- creating resources for others: e.g. accounts of interviews, news on
good links, drawing attention to relevant media items;
- Book recommendations.
'This book deals with the children of war theme excellently.
It covers the recent struggles in Afghanistan - thought
you might like to add it your reading list for that part
of the Children's Fiction module.'
Student assignments. Many of the most interesting essays used the recommended
web-links imaginatively and enterprisingly; and for some
students, the web had clearly become a significant research
tool. While this is a year-by-year development, as students
grow up with the web, we could trace specific interests in
essays directly back to items we had first highlighted on
case-study 1: VISUAL RESOURCES
On the Edith Wharton taught MA module, quick links from
the announcement board invited students to take a break
from work, and visit an exhibition of 19th-century
American painters at the Smithsonian site. These made
an instant impact, stimulating interest in the visual
arts of the Gilded Age. Our discussion of The Custom
of the Country, a text full of painting and visual
tropes, was greatly enriched by this painless preparation.
One student printed off copies of a Mary Cassatt painting,
and brought this to the seminar. This led us to access
further paintings during the seminar itself. Some essays
pursued the interest, placing paintings from these
exhibitions at the centre of their analyses. Though
previous students had been encouraged to take such
a focus, locating and retrieving books from the 'oversize'
nether regions of the library basement stacks had been
a deterrent, and such assignments had been rare.
Signpost: ease of access is a major plus for independent study through
the VLE, and for extending disciplinary boundaries.
Assignment case-study 2: STUDENT INITIATIVES
In a module on contemporary Children's Fiction, students
followed links on the site to contact authors. One
emailed an appreciation to the author of a new book
on war, and received a full response which she cited
in her assignment; she also made the letter available
for other students to read on duo.
Another interviewed a controversial author for teens, by telephone;
and again, cited the interview in an assignment on
teen fiction, making a transcript available as a resource
for future students.
Students seeing these accounts on duo, when the module ran again
the following year, were inspired to similar activities.
Citations of previous students' work appeared in bibliographies.
value resources created by their peers, and find
them stimulating as role-models. Such resources help
give status to students' work, and encourage them
to take themselves seriously as researchers. You
can always keep these on a photocopy, but a VLE is
handy for storage and access.
Numerical evaluations showed
improvement in the scores for 'IT and Library Provision' traditionally
an area of lukewarm response, even on high-scoring modules.
e.g. the majority of respondents now gave '5' or '4' scores
['5' = highest] to 'Library and IT provision' on the undergraduate
Children's Fiction and Fin de Siècle modules; and
this area also reinforced other high scores on the Edith
Wharton MA module this now returned 100% '5's in every
Comments on the end-of-module questionnaires confirmed the general enthusiasm
we had received in informal feedback throughout the year.
'duo is fantastic.'
'Invaluable in doing the set work, good information base with good
[Children's Fiction students, 2001-02]
Main phase and further development (2002-)
The responses on the pilot set the project off to a good start, and
our subsequent experiences have repeated and confirmed many of
our initial findings. However, with the unanticipated early 'roll-out'
of the VLE throughout the department, we have not been able to
keep such a close watch on student response as was possible in
the pilot when we were the sole duo users. Again, as we have
not been in control of all the input, we have also seen some
changes of emphasis, which have affected student use and perception.
The comments and response data in the evaluations need to be
read with the problems of 'dilution' of duo experience in mind.
With rising numbers of duo modules throughout the university, some
students have become experienced users, and a few of these seemed
already to be taking the system for granted. For those of us
who have put a lot of effort into duo, some of their responses
seemed rather ungrateful, even unfeeling. How much more would
they expect from us?! Others, who had not encountered any developed
English modules among their options, also made remarks which
struck us with dismay (e.g. 'the english deparment does not utilise
at all' - i.e. we hadn't been noticed!); others had registered
the duo presence in English, but demanded more; others used and
appreciated duo, but took its presence completely as a matter
of course - where we hoped for gushing enthusiasm, they were
When we were in a position to question further, however, many students
again took the trouble to reassure us.
e.g. when the 'Library and IT' scores dropped a little from
the heights of the pilot for the Fin de Siècle
and Edith Wharton modules, investigation produced strong
affirmation, along with useful advice about making the most of our material:
'. . . In response to your email, I found the resources ... excellent '
. . . read full email here>>>
Another sign of success was that, after the end of a module, students
began to request continuing access to their familiar duo site
-- usually to pursue an interest further in their dissertation.
(VLE users from other institutions have reported similar reluctance
about leaving a site.) A tutor could not simply re-admit someone
as a site visitor. In the new site, the student would find a
changed syllabus or different modes of delivery; even where a
tutor intended to re-use resources, many of these would had now
be back under wraps until the appropriate time in the current
module. The module now 'belonged' to the new students, and a tutor could
not distort their site to accommodate module alumni...
The LTT team at Durham have now addressed the logistics of 'continuation',
solving these by allowing students to access the archive version
of their module. For a well used site, a teacher might also want
to think about the less practical issue of how to close the curtain
- having spent a year building up a community, just to lock students
out might seem rather abrupt. Students themselves sometimes spontaneously
use the discussion board for their thank-yous and goodbyes.
In our team meetings and discussions with colleagues, we have
had to keep reminding ourselves that it is still early
days and we should not let the more negative - or even
the 'taking-us-for-granted' - responses overwhelm us.
Where you have built a community on the site, you might want
to give space for some 'goodbyes' to the module, as you
do in a live seminar or lecture series.
III: Continuing demand and conclusions on student response
Student demand has remained strong throughout the project, with many requests
for further duo development, and imaginative suggestions about how to use
it. While this is a very positive feature, when rising expectations are not
satisfied students can be disappointed. Where there is uneven provision of
VLE resources between modules, students need to be put in the picture, otherwise
use falls off. If they know which sites are active and evolving, and which
have 'static' information only, then they need not waste their time and energy
opening the site, only to find hopes dashed.
Most of our students have recognised the pressures on staff; they
have been tolerant of our inexperience, technical limitations,
and lack of time; and have expressed generous appreciation of
whatever resources and facilities individuals have mangaged to
Sometimes, comments did, indeed, affirm our vision of what the web or VLE
e.g. The use of DUO to post newspaper articles and journals all
expanded my thinking of the mass impact that children's
literature has on the 'real world'. As a result, my learning
did not seem isolated from reality, but actually led
into my other areas exceptionally well.. . .
[Children's Fiction, March 2004]
Such comments can give one heart when the drudgery of entering yet
another announcement might hardly seem worth it. But they should
not colour the picture unduly. When students fail to respond
so appreciatively, there is no need to assume the whole venture
is a waste of time.
Introducing duo as part of a project, we found ourselves sometimes tending
to exaggerate its significance. For our students, as for us as teachers,
the heart of English lies in the face-to-face discussions in seminars and
tutorials, in the excitement of the lecture theatre, in the quiet of reading
and writing. It is these activities that attract most student attention in
questionnaires; used with imagination (and given time), a VLE may enrich
or extend teaching, but it can be no substitute for creative practices elsewhere.
Our students are not distance-learners, and even at their best, their duo
modules are only a support to their central departmental experiences; and,
as teachers, we should perhaps simply regard any praise as a pleasant bonus.
Ask your students. As often, they can offer valuable perspectives.
They might have had working experience of systems which
many academics have met only on paper, and they will help
you envisage the potential of the system.
Once a few people are using a VLE, demand will spread quickly.
The VLE can help build a community where students help
each other as learners and as researchers.
Offering VLE resources can raise expectations, and create disappointment
and user fall-off if they go unsatisfied. Minimize this
effect by explaining clearly the level of resources each
Students will make suggestions and create resources which will build
up the site for their successors.
Keep a balance. Some students will become keen VLE users;
others might not share your enthusiasm. The VLE works
well alongside print, paper and talk.
Even small efforts can be much appreciated, and can make
a real difference.