In January 2015 the School of Advanced Study officially launched its new online research training website for arts and humanities postgraduate studies. The purpose of this site is to part-fulfil the School’s remit to offer research facilitation services across the country and in part to make more use of the work that SAS staff already do on a regular basis.
Essentially, PORT enables SAS to provide access to the skills, training programmes, and knowledge pre-existing in-house, and make them accessible – for free – nationally and internationally. As manager of this project it was up to me to manage the development process and design. The site was completed nine months ago, which seems to me to be a lot less time than it actually is. As such I thought I’d reminiscent briefly about the process in case it might be of use to anyone else designing a new publicly-facing virtual learning environment.
Becoming a learning technologist
I fell into the role of learning technologist quite by accident. After completing a doctoral degree in History at the University of Sheffield in 2009 I briefing worked in a marginal role on the HumBox project, before getting my first post-degree job, at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR).
My role was to develop – from scratch – a website that could host podcasts from the IHR’s extensive seminar and event programme and to provide a linked location for creating online versions of the IHR’s equally extensive research training programme. The result was History SPOT, a Moodle and Drupal-based website offering access to podcasts and training handbooks.
The job was initially one-year only, but through funding we managed to get a second year, in which time I developed the training materials from straight-forward handbooks, to fully formed tutorials. I guess it was around then that I, by de-facto, became a learning technologist.
The benefits and challenges of Moodle
From my experience developing and managing History SPOT I began to realise exactly what benefits and weaknesses the Moodle software offered. Much of my early work revolved around learning how to best use Moodle for our purposes. This was made especially difficult as we were increasingly moving away from the registration model and wishing to offer resources entirely for free, without registration.
In 2012 I moved from the IHR to the umbrella organisation the School of Advanced Study, with the intention of re-developing History SPOT to cover the entire arts and humanities. From what I had learnt in the preceding years, and with advice and discussion amongst other staff members and students, I began the re-development of History SPOT into PORT, with the intention of making it more resilient and useful for future development.
By this time I was very much aware of the short comings and the challenges that Moodle offered in this context. I was determined to ensure that the new virtual learning environment (VLE) was robust and flexible, but also that it would make use of a variety of technologies and tools within and outside of the Moodle system itself.
The History SPOT website was designed to accommodate both research training handbooks and courses (Moodle) combined with podcasts from IHR events (Drupal). These two very different systems were linked via a single-sign on. The website was a good training tool, but there were design drawbacks. The drawbacks of the History SPOT design, in my opinion were as follows:
- A single-sign on that forced users to register to access the courses. This posed a problem on two fronts: 1) students could not view content before registering, which reduced interest in the resources available. On reflection, it was a mistake to force even a free registration as this was enough to put some users off and made it difficult for us to surface content visible outside the VLE silo. 2) the single-sign on never worked properly, meaning that any statistics that we could gather from registration were confused and inaccurate, and meaning that students often came to us with registration problems.
- Lack of easy to follow bread-crumbs to guide students as to where on the site they were.
- No search engine
- Navigation variation between courses leading to confusion
- A restricted width limit that made displaying content on the page awkward.
In the end it proved impossible to develop a workable search engine within the time-frame, however, most of the other problems were solved during the re-design. PORT can still take registrations but it is no longer required for the freely available tutorials. All of these are offered through a simple click of a button to the course page. The width restriction is no longer a problem, although the site has now become top-heavy with an unmovable menu bar. This occurred by accident due to other technical problems with the header area during the re-development phase, and is very much a problem that will need tackling.
The limitations of using Moodle without registration – particularly the fact that quizzes cannot be used without registration – were put off during the re-development phase, but as the year has progressed, we have begun to solve those issues by investigating various interactive learning development tools that could replace the inbuilt system.
At the end of the day, however, the tools are only one part of the equation and not the most important. I have learnt that it is the tutorial designers that matter. A good online tutorial is one that is designed imaginatively and by someone who is truly invested in the process. Most people can create handbooks with a little interaction, but online learning works best when more thought than that is put into it. Creating content online is a creative process.
As manager of PORT it is my role to offer the support necessary to transform research training content into something spectacular. Even after five years in the role I’m still continuously learning how to do that. Every day there is something new to learn, something new to explore and experiment. As a learning technologist there is never a moment when you should be able to say that you have fully succeeded in creating the perfect course. I am always learning, always experimenting, and always trying to be creative.