Students as change agents

Many VLE reviews are driven by a desire to improve the student learning experience and institutions are in no doubt that students are the most important stakeholders in terms of being beneficiaries of the project outcomes.

However, you should not underestimate their importance as agents in influencing institutional change. A number of institutions told us that student dissatisfaction with their existing VLE was the main driver for initiating a review.

Very often student dissatisfaction has little to do with the actual VLE product and more to do with the quality and consistency of its use by academics.

Top tip

The University of Sussex realised the importance of the student voice but found it difficult to attract students to scheduled focus group sessions.

The project team reflected on this and decided it was unfair to ask students to 'come to us'. Instead, the VLE project team went out across the University and conducted a series of interviews with students. David Walker, Head of Technology Enhanced Learning, feels that this approach gave far better information both in qualitative and quantitative terms.

The University of Sheffield undertook widespread consultation with staff and wanted to encourage them both to evaluate what they were already doing but also to undertake some 'blue sky thinking' about the future.

The University applied digital technology to help with this engagement and used the IdeaScale platform to allow people to submit and vote on ideas. They ended up with 65 ideas, 75 comments and 882 votes.

Some of the top ideas were things like a more intuitive interface, drag and drop functionality, a mobile app that works, integration with Google docs, better integration with the student record system and staff being able to view any module.

Ultimately the University decided to stick with its existing VLE but it nonetheless put some of the good ideas into practice.

One of the key ideas from the consultation exercise was implemented and staff are now able to view any module in order to help them understand the wider curriculum and share good practice to support a programme approach.

Farzana Latif, Technology Enhanced Learning Manager, University of Sheffield

When Imperial College London reviewed its VLE in 2010 getting appropriate student engagement was high on its risk register. The central review team was working closely with faculty learning technologists who knew a lot about what individual academics wanted but the institution as a whole knew less about the student perspective.

Julie Voce, formerly e-Learning Services Manager at Imperial College London told us that going through the student union is generally accepted as the way to achieve high levels of student engagement. However, in practice, the review team got more input by going through departmental administrators.

They ran a number of student focus groups and managed to get a mix of undergraduate and postgraduate students. It was more difficult to engage postgraduate students who were more inclined to sign up for sessions but not turn up on the day.

The only incentive for participating in the focus groups was food and drink (although Imperial did give vouchers for students who were involved in the later usability testing).

The project team was initially advised to run the focus groups as early evening sessions but found that lunchtimes often worked better because the students were less tired.

Students from different subject areas had very different perceptions of the VLE and in some cases this was down to how staff had set their courses up or down to students not realising what they could do to change the views they were looking at.

Julie Voce, formerly e-Learning Services Manager at Imperial College London