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Flexible Learning

Posted 5 January 2005

Harper Adams University College cultivates a more flexible learning environment with Perception and WebCT Overhauls eLearning systems with market-leading products

Scenario As the pressure grows on the farming community to deliver more for less and to compete across national borders, so the pressure on the agricultural colleges to provide more forward-thinking, flexible and integrated education to its students grows. As the UK’s leading college in this sector (1,700 students), Harper Adams University College is investing significant resources on overhauling its IT systems to provide its students easy and constant access to its developing eLearning environment.

Although still in an embryonic stage, the college’s eLearning system is rapidly becoming an integral part of education at Harper Adams and it has been designed to scale quickly and easily. It is expected that it will be able to support partner colleges around the country and internationally through its remote testing facility.

Approach Harper Adams has developed a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) based around WebCT and Questionmark Perception. This has been used by the college for some time and the two systems have proved that they work well together. It was not until one year ago that the college stepped up the pace of its eLearning strategy by looking at new ways of using existing systems and providing additional functionality and accessibility to its academic staff.

Rupert Morris, eLearning Technologist at Harper Adams, comments, “To be sure that we have the best eLearning systems possible, we need to have the best component parts on the market and they need to integrate seamlessly together. With WebCT and Questionmark Perception we have this combination and, although in its early stages, our eLearning systems are on track to providing the college with the tools necessary to open its doors to a much wider student base and to support the students more effectively. We have invested a significant amount of time and money to establish the VLE and to build into it a level of flexibility and redundancy that ensure the systems will be sufficiently robust for many years to come.”

Solution The systems have been devised to meet the college’s educational needs today and with a close eye on the potential needs of the future. To that end, much redundancy has been in-built, enabling the staff to rely on the availability of the systems at all times and ensuring that they will scale seamlessly as the eLearning strategy grows and develops. Two servers have been allocated to Perception, one to host the application and the other to hold the SQL database that contains the Perception questions.

Commenting on the set-up, Rupert Morris says, “Computer Aided Assessment (CAA) is a powerful tool and should be given serious consideration when planning ahead. The ability to give instant feedback and up-to-the-minute reports on students’ progress is incredibly important. We have found Perception to be a very professional product that contains a great number of features, some of which we are yet to uncover, I am sure. It is easy to manage, provides flexible questions and reports and integrates so tightly with our VLE that they operate as a single entity. We now believe that we have the very best eLearning systems possible.”

Results The eLearning systems are now set up and operating effectively at Harper Adams. Uptake is in its early stages but academic buy-in is strong and growing at every turn. The whole concept of eLearning is being pushed heavily within the college and more CAA tests will be developed. These are likely to include interactive testing elements, such as Flash, to introduce a multimedia dimension to the exams.

The last round of exams was completed successfully using the new systems and this has confirmed that eLearning is an integral part of education at Harper Adams.

Kevin Brace, eLearning Officer at Harper Adams, concludes, “We have had very positive feedback from the users who have experienced the new tests for both formative and summative exams. They appreciate the immediate feedback they receive from the new systems and the ease of access of the tests. Training for the academics is very much in the plan moving forward and we are now working with HR to identify possible departmental eLearning champions to help to spread the word. This strategy will help to improve staff skills and to increase confidence in the college’s systems. We will work closely with Questionmark to take this initiative to the next level.”

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