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Mark Stubbs and Ian Martin
MMU Business School
Blended Learning: One Small Step
This article describes a blended learning project delivered over 9 weeks
to 230 full-time first year undergraduates studying a unit about emerging
information technologies. The unit was originally planned on a weekly
1+1 model of 1 hour lecture reinforced by 1 hour tutorial, running for
9 weeks. Summative assessment was designed as individual, face-to-face
demonstrations of web pages produced by the students. Holistic redesign
of the unit, using web-based learning materials and computer-supported
assessment, enabled leaner delivery and assessment, better reinforcing
the intended learning outcomes and saving 85 hours of staff time. Principles
and assumptions underpinning redesign, delivery and assessment are presented
and reviewed from three perspectives: a behavioural perspective, an IT
perspective and a resource perspective.
The Emerging Technologies unit had its roots in units delivered in previous
years, but 2002/3 was scheduled to be its first formal year of operation
following the quinquennial review of a suite of undergraduate programmes
on which it appeared. The unit had been included in the portfolio of Business
IT courses to increase first year students’ exposure to new information
technologies and new ways of working. Like other first year units it was
designed to set students’ expectations of academic endeavour and
lay foundations for more advanced study. A team of three academic staff
with advanced IT skills and a track-record of innovation in learning and
teaching were allocated to run the unit. Whilst the team intended to make
use of the latest technologies in lectures and provide further exposure
through tutorials, the unit had been planned on the basis of a traditional
delivery model. It was only the last-minute secondment of a key member
of the teaching team that made lean delivery an acute priority. Some quick
thinking, an entrepreneurial proposal and a supportive Dean transformed
this problem into a pilot blended-learning project. Resources for “back-filling”
the secondment were redirected toward off-setting the up-front development
costs associated with redesigning the unit and developing web-based tools
to support lean delivery and assessment.
Key project deliverables, quality monitoring, evaluation and dissemination
arrangements were agreed to ensure (A) that the student experience was
not compromised by the pilot project and (B) that other staff could learn
from it. Re-direction of “back-fill” resources was conditional
on both criteria being met. Deliverables and terms were agreed mid December.
The redesigned unit, assessment and supporting e-learning materials had
to be available in January when the students returned. Christmas was busy.
A Behavioural Perspective
Despite the time pressures, the two remaining unit tutors were committed
to holistic redesign of the unit, not bolt-on substitution of e-learning
materials for tutor contact. Our intention was to create a coherent system
of input, activities and assessment that covered the approved learning
outcomes and reinforced intended academic behaviour and values. In particular,
we wanted to establish the following principles so that later years of
study might build upon the norms of focused independent study that they
P1: Tutor as expert of last resort
P2: Attention to detail
P3: Regular engagement
P4: Demonstrate learning outcomes
We were conscious that consistency and routine would play an important
role in establishing these desired norms of behaviour. Although notoriously
difficult to operationalise (Walsham 1993), we found Giddens’ “axes
of structuration” offered a useful checklist for ensuring that our
words and deeds were mutually reinforcing around these principles.
Giddens’ (1984) notion of “structuration” portrays
social structure and individual action as mutually producing. He describes
how this so-called “duality of structure” leads to self-organizing
patterns that become more solid as they are reproduced over time and across
space. For analytical convenience he highlights three axes or dimensions
along which this mutual production takes places. He associates:
- interactions involving communication with social structures that dictate
what is significant.
- interactions involving power with social structures of domination.
- interactions involving sanctions with social structures that dictate
what is legitimate.
Our attention to these axes of communication, power and sanction is highlighted
in the following accounts of our efforts to establish the four behaviour
principles required to support the unit. When planning our unit structure
and agreeing our policies for interacting with the students, our attention
to the three dimensions was not always conscious. We had used the ideas
in research and consultancy contexts (see for instance Stubbs and Lemon,
2001), so the axes provided us with a sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit,
checklist. Nonetheless, they provided us with more than a convenient narrative
device for post-hoc rationalisation of events.
P1: Tutor as Expert of Last Resort
Our “Tutor as expert of last resort” message was communicated
regularly in lectures and reinforced in tutorials. Students were told
that help would be prioritised for those who were making a genuine attempt
to engage. They were shown snapshots of the data lecturers held about
use of the e-learning environment. As learning curves were quite steep,
students valued “tutor support” in tutorials. Tutors exercised
power over this precious resource, rewarding with their time those
students who had engaged with the e-learning environment and imposing
sanctions against those who had not by denying them time until
they had had a go for themselves.
Many students found the approach unfamiliar at first – “you’re
a tutor, you’re meant to help us”. However, a slow but
consistent prioritisation of support meant that students were gradually
weaned off this expectation and within three weeks the “tutor as
expert of last resort” principle had become established as a cultural
norm amongst those attending tutorials – “don’t even
bother asking, he knows you haven’t had a go yet!”
P2: Attention to Detail
It is almost impossible to underestimate the importance of “Attention
to detail” to successful implementation of business IT solutions.
Its particular significance for the unit was communicated via the
assignment brief as a very specific set of naming criteria with which
students’ submitted web pages must comply. Tutors exercised power
over the definition of a valid submission to reinforce this. Students
were informed in the assignment brief and in lectures and tutorials that
submissions would be ignored if web page naming criteria were not followed
to the letter. To reinforce the principle of “tutor as expert of
last resort”, tools were made available in the e-learning environment
so that students could check for themselves that submissions complied.
These tools were demonstrated in lectures to reinforce the principle of
“regular engagement” (see below).
At the appointed assignment hand-in time, the sanction for non-compliance
with naming standards was applied consistently. We exercised our power
over interpretation to classify work that failed to use the designated
names for the web pages as failing to submit. The Common Undergraduate
Regulations (CUR) sanction of a capped mark of 40% for late submission
provided automatic sanction to reinforce the importance of “attention
to detail”. Each student who had failed to name their files correctly
was emailed personally to inform them that they must change the names
of their files to enable valid re-submission before the absolute deadline.
Students who were still missing correctly-named files were emailed on
several occasions in the run-up to the absolute deadline with a clear
warning that their continued failure to comply would result in an automatic
0% when the absolute deadline passed.
Despite the checking tools, 46% of students studying the unit failed
to submit the two correctly-named files for the appointed hand-in time.
This figure dropped to 23% at the absolute deadline, which included several
not-yet-official withdrawals. After the first deadline many students were
shocked to discover that they had fallen foul of the strict naming standard
- “I couldn’t believe it, I just assumed it was right,
I’m not going to make that mistake again”. The fact that
they could still pass encouraged most to make the necessary changes and
put their frustration down to experience; however a minority ignored the
emails about changing the names and one became aggressive when he discovered
that he had received 0% for his efforts. The failure of his appeal and
his subsequent disciplinary provided important Faculty-level reinforcement
for the principle of “attention to detail” and was welcome
back-up for our clear and consistent communication about desired behaviour
and the penalty for non-compliance.
P3: Regular Engagement
The importance of “regular engagement” for climbing the learning
curves associated with web development and undertaking the research necessary
to produce appropriate content was communicated as a key message
in lectures. We were keen to reinforce this message with tutorials despite
Aytoun computer laboratories can handle a maximum of 25 students at a
time (or less to allow for machine failure), so the 230 students on the
unit would require at least 10 hours of computer laboratory time for hands-on
reinforcement of learning outcomes. Large numbers were leading many first
year colleagues to a fortnightly model for tutorials. The loss of our
third team member meant that we could not cover 10 hours of tutorials
per week for this unit alongside our other commitments. However, rather
than see the students once every two weeks, we felt that routine played
a key role in defining students’ time at university and set expectations
about the nature of academic work and support. We felt that this was particularly
important for setting first year expectations, so we exercised power
over student routines by booking 10 hours of computer laboratories each
week and scheduling students to regular one hour slots. To work within
the resource constraints we made ourselves available for 30 minutes in
each hour-long tutorial to answer questions. The availability of self-paced
e-learning materials and the principle of “tutor as last resort”
made this approach workable and reinforced our message that this assignment
was best addressed through regular weekly efforts, rather than irregular
Lecture slides were made available on the Business School intranet so
students who missed a lecture could get at them, but regular attendees
were rewarded by assignment hints and tips, such as repeated demonstrations
of the name checking tools, which were over and above the lecture slides.
In other words we exercised power over what was communicated when
and how to reinforce the message that “regular engagement”
was advantageous. Not only was regular attendance rewarded, but students
were also informed that their use of the e-learning environment in scheduled
tutorial times provided attendance data that would be passed on to the
first year leader for use in the first year Progress Board, which considers
achievement and attendance across all units of study. The Progress Board
reinforces desired norms of engagement through the sanction of
inviting students falling below the required standard to explain their
reasons to the year leader to see if preventative action could avoid them
failing the year.
P4: Demonstrate Learning Outcomes
We were conscious that the language of learning outcomes often works
better for educationalists than for the students who are supposed to be
demonstrating them. To ensure that the approved unit learning outcomes
translated into specific student performances, we highlighted which of
those in the definitive document were being assessed in this particular
assignment brief and used a grid structure to communicate exactly what
level of performance in each of the different learning outcomes would
be rewarded by what mark (click here to see
the assignment brief in pdf format).
The structure and operation of the grid was explained in an assignment
briefing lecture, and students were advised to fulfil all the criteria
for gaining 40%+ in a particular learning outcome, before going on to
attempt the 50%+ level of achievement, and so on.
The grid provided the interpretative scheme for shaping the way
we exercised our power as tutors to allocate marks, ensuring that
achievement against the specified learning outcomes was rewarded appropriately.
Feedback was written in terms of assignment learning outcomes and marks
were justified in terms of the criteria specified for each. This personal
feedback was emailed to each student, reinforcing the message that performance
against specified learning outcomes was the key to high marks.
An IT Perspective
Giddens’ original work on the notion of structuration offered little
explicit guidance on the role Information Technology (IT) might play in
social contexts. Although he has given more attention to the issue in
later writing (Giddens, 2001), several scholars of Information Systems
have picked up the challenge of offering an account of the role of IT
in structural change that is consistent with Giddens’ work (see
for instance Orlikowski and Robey 1991, Walsham and Han 1991, Rose and
Lewis, 2001). A discussion of the relative merits of these approaches
is outside the scope of this paper, but it is useful to note their shared
interest in the potential of IT to support the spread of behavioural patterns
across time and space, and their cautionary note about the inevitability
of unanticipated and unintended consequences.
As IT developers we were conscious that IT has a distorting effect on
communication. Different IT solutions create different possibilities for
the richness, nature, synchronicity and symmetry of communication, and
the memory of communication that can be maintained (Sproul and Kiesler,
1991). We were keen to use these distortion and memory effects to reinforce
our four unit principles. The secondment of our colleague meant that efficiency
gains from automating routine tasks were critical for running the unit
in the way we wished. With these factors in mind we set about developing
IT to support two groups: students and tutors.
Students at MMU Business School are familiar with using web browsers
to access course materials. The web-based Business School intranet is
used to relay all manner of information from staff to students: course
messages, lecture notes, assignments, and the like. Students are used
to accessing it inside the building and from home. The intranet holds
over 8,000 documents and receives over 10,000 page hits most days, excluding
document downloads. As received wisdom indicates that students interpret
new technologies in terms of those with which they are already familiar
(Orlikowski and Gash, 1994), we chose to build on familiarity with intranet/web
browser interfaces to create the e-learning environment to support the
first years taking the emerging technologies unit. Not only was a web
environment most likely to be accepted, it was also demonstrating the
kind of technologies the students were studying in the unit.
IT support for the blended-learning project involved two distinct areas:
- An e-submission tool that provided computer-supported assessment and
The first system (and e-submission) could have been developed in Web-CT
but we chose to adapt an existing e-learning solution, already available
within the Faculty. The e-learning solution, known as theWebDevRes (short
for Web Development Resource), had been developed some years earlier to
support final year undergraduates and Masters students who were learning
advanced web development skills. It integrates e-learning materials with
its role as an internal Internet Service Provider (ISP) for the students.
This ISP role could not be handled in Web-CT so it had been developed
outside. The WebDevRes environment offers sophisticated student tracking
and access monitoring features and was already being used by over 600
students a year, so increasing its coverage to handle introductory HTML
the tight timeframe for the project.
The second system was more complex but had a longer development window
- it needed to be robust in time for the first e-submission. Our intention
was to create a system that:
- enabled assignments to be picked up electronically at a designated
- provided tutors with fast navigation around the 230 assignments;
- detected automatically any work similar to that submitted by other
- highlighted breaches of assignment requirements; and
- captured and communicated personalised feedback.
The aim was not to replace the role of the tutor in assessment, but to
assist and inform our marking through simple pattern recognition. We wanted
to build a system for experts, not an expert system (Hirscheim and Klein,
A suite of tools to fulfil these requirements was designed and implemented
on an old Personal Computer that had been configured to run a LAMP environment
(Linux Apache MySQL PHP). The LAMP software has a zero purchase price
and is highly customisable (for someone with sufficient skill and expertise).
As the server had been designated as visible only inside MMU, within limits
of professionalism we had total freedom over and responsibility for what
was hosted and executed on the server. Assuming the role of web master
and system administrator enabled rapid development of tools to address
our requirements. These tools were tested and refined prior to the assignment
submission deadline. Automated analysis of each student’s work was
presented as a secure web page, which had hyperlinks for reviewing the
submission and boxes for capturing marks and comments. The system was
integrated with the Web Server’s email system so that our marks
and comments could be sent as a personal email to each student.
Figure 1 – Marker’s Page Screen Shot shows
a screen shot of the marking screen web page.
If we review the two systems from a “support for processes of structuration”
perspective, the student e-learning environment can be seen as a mechanism
for providing students with routine contact with codified tutor expertise.
The asymmetric nature of the communication from tutor to student reinforced
the role of tutor as expert. The 24x7 availability of codified expertise
and the system’s on-going monitoring of student engagement with
that expertise enabled actions that reinforced our principles of “tutor
as last resort” (P1) and “regular engagement” (P3).
The second system provided support for the role of tutor as meticulous
expert despite over-whelming student numbers. Automated name checking
and pattern recognition in student work enabled quick turn-around of carefully-analysed
work. In this way, IT provided valuable support for the “attention
to detail” principle (P2). Tutors’ routine use of the screens
to frame personal feedback in terms of performance against desired learning
outcomes provided cultural reinforcement for that principle (P4).
Orlikowski and Gash (1994) describe how patterns of computer system use
can emerge that are generally regarded as desirable but were not planned
for in the original IT design. They describe how developers can exercise
power over the development process to support and consolidate such behaviours
in later software versions and “design out” undesirable patterns
of use that have emerged. Our repeated typing of the learning outcome
categories in the free-format text box used to hold feedback comments
came from our desire to reinforce the “demonstrate learning outcomes”
principle (P4), but it created extra work. Modifications to the screen
design in the shape of a clearer pro-forma is therefore planned for next
year to provide further reinforcement for P4 by making it an inescapable
routine for all tutors.
Our use of IT produced another pattern of use that we did not anticipate.
This was not quite so desirable. Personalised email feedback meant that
students could respond with a one-click, knee-jerk moan. We will be reviewing
our feedback strategy in the light of this for next year.
We will reflect further on our IT development at the end of the article,
but it is useful to summarise here that we were able to combine IT and
pedagogical design to establish our intended principles. Our IT produced
some patterns of behaviour that we did not anticipate - one positive and
deserving of reinforcement, the other worth reviewing.
A Resource Perspective
Our original plan was to deliver this element of the unit through a traditional
1 hour lecture plus 1 hour tutorial model over 9 weeks. We planned to
use our team of three to assess two students in a viva/ demonstration
every 15 minutes – one member of staff being lead assessor for each
student, with the remaining member acting as a floating moderator.
Through the blended-learning project we varied the delivery model and
used e-learning materials to reduce our contact to 30 minutes per week
question and answer sessions in tutorials. The computer-supported assessment
tool enabled us to remove the face-to-face element of assessment from
all students. Instead we chose to viva only those whose work was suspiciously
similar or who had breached key assignment requirements. We found that
it took on average about 8 minutes to assess each assignment and comment
our findings according to the grid criteria. The comparability brought
by the explicit criteria meant that we were able to perform sample moderation
in a 2 hour session involving three assessors (our seconded colleague
generously offered help with some of the assessment). 40 students fell
foul of our viva strategy and we found that the computer-supported assessment
tool enabled each focused discussion to be concluded within 10 minutes.
The comparison reveals that our blended learning model produced a staff
saving of almost 85 hours.
Staff time required for the two approaches is compared below:
||Traditional (1+1) model
||Blended Learning Model
||9 weeks @ 1 + 1
= 9 + (9 x 10)
= 99 hours
|9 weeks @ 1 + 0.5
= 9 + (9 * 10 * 0.5)
= 54 hours
||15 min assessed demo with floating moderator
= 230 x 15/60 x 1.5
= 86.25 hours
|8 min IT-assisted assess
= 230 x 8/60
+ sample moderation
= 3 x 2 + vivas on demand
= 40 x 10/60 x 1.5
= 46.67 hours
||= 185.25 hours
||= 100.67 hours
The table above does not allow for the development costs associated with
the project. The sense of being part of something creative and rewarding
masked the hours that went into unit redesign and supporting software
development. It is our intention to continue with this blended mode of
delivery for future years and thereby recover the up-front development
We found that by sticking to our rules for prioritising student support,
more of our time was spent discussing interesting problems with interested
students. “Just-enough, just-in-time” students struggled with
the unit principles; they found our prioritised support unsatisfactory
and regarded us as downright unhelpful. Performance was similarly polarized
with some outstanding work and some work that scored very little against
the strict assignment grading criteria. Levels of achievement were still
well in line with first year norms and, allowing for some of the peculiarities
of this particular first year cohort, the higher pole appears more representative
of the potential for blended learning than the lower pole.
The success of the blended learning project in resource terms raised
an issue for the Business School’s normal mechanism for ensuring
equity of workload: the staff timetable. As this is constructed and compared
on the basis of contact hours, savings generated through this kind of
project translate into more work the following year for the innovators!
The up-front development costs of this kind of project are intimidating
enough without the prospect of hours saved being filled by work from elsewhere
in the following year. Moves to a better load metric, based on number
of Full-Time-Equivalent students and the nature of the unit, are on-going
but are clearly urgently needed if lean delivery is to be encouraged.
This article is one of several attempts to explain the principles and
practice of this pilot project to a wider audience. However, the extent
to which others can follow our footsteps is questionable. Our use of Giddens’
checklist may be of interest but it was our technical skills that enabled
us to set up a highly responsive interaction between IT and unit design.
Our conversations with students and our observations of their behaviour
and work in tutorials enabled us to make instant changes to the IT, for
which we could see the effects in the hit logs and subsequent tutorials.
Without our IT skills we would have needed outside help to realise our
ambitions. Out-sourcing development to a third party would have inevitably
introduced delays and communication overheads as we translated our reflection
on student behaviour into formalised requests for changes to software
code and then waited for those changes to be made. Going outside the teaching
team for IT skill also raises questions of funding. This project was implemented
on a ‘shoe-string’ budget. We modified existing software for
the learning materials and used the free LAMP environment to develop the
other tools we needed. The IT systems we produced were robust, reliable
and worked for us (and for our colleague who re-joined us to help with
the marking), but they were not fully-engineered solutions. There was
(and still is) no comprehensive help or maintenance guide.
Literature on the nature of innovation would see little of surprise in
this account (Rogers 1983). Early adopters of innovations (such as blended
learning) tend to have the vision and technical expertise to make the
ideas work. The majority need to be convinced by results and need more
fully engineered solutions before they will follow. Discontinuity between
the fundamentally-different nature of early and more mature adopter communities
creates a “chasm” that several technical innovations have
failed to cross. Early take-up appears promising as the techno-savvy visionaries
experiment but the expected take-off fails to happen as the majority are
waiting to be convinced by results that are slow to emerge (Moore, 1999).
We suspect that these cautionary tales from techno-markets are potentially
enlightening for understanding patterns in the take-up of blended and
distance-learning in our institution and elsewhere. Perhaps advice about
targeting 100% support for a small number of demonstration projects, rather
than attempting (but failing) to meet the support expectations of all
those who express an interest, has equal resonance.
This blended-learning project came about by accident. Our emphasis on
redesigning the whole unit, not just replacing tutor time with some e-learning
materials, ensured that it succeeded. The project might be hard to replicate.
It needed a crisis, a Dean willing to recognise up-front e-learning development
costs, and technically-proficient enthusiasts with a track-record of innovating
learning and teaching through IT. It was stimulating and rewarding. The
checklist derived from Giddens’ work proved useful and experience
from the project has prompted us to reconsider the way we deliver our
other units. We are convinced that web technology offers the possibility
of treating learners as individuals, working at their own pace through
materials, following hyperlinked support materials as and when they need
it. We do not believe that the best role for IT is to replace face-to-face
contact; it was much better at enhancing the increasingly pressured but
nonetheless pleasurable opportunities we have for face-to-face contact
with our students. Long live blended learning.
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