Resource Database: Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Title Developing a Set of Resource-based Learning Packages
Originator Carolyn Roberts
Department School of Environment, Cheltenham & Gloucester College of Higher Education, Francis Close Hall, Swindon Road, Cheltenham, GL50 4AZ, UK
Tel. +44 (0)1242 543370
Fax +44 (0)1242 543273
Email crroberts@chelt.ac.uk


Summary: This case study examines the philosophy and management strategies underpinning the integrated development of a broad set of RBL materials across a department's teaching portfolio in the early 1990s. The subsequent six years have offered the possibility of evaluating their effectiveness over a more prolonged period than is normally the case.

 

Background

In 1992, Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education made a decision to invest £50,000 in a pilot project to develop learning materials to increase the flexibility and effectiveness of undergraduate studies, and to promote independent learning skills. At the time of the development, the College was expanding its student numbers significantly, was part-way through changing its undergraduate courses to modular semesterised patterns, was recruiting increasing numbers of mature and part-time students, and was experiencing the first of the HEFCE Teaching Quality Assessments. After a competitive bidding process, the Department of Geography and Geology was selected to run the twelve-month project, subsequently known as the 'Capitalisation Project'. Following the preparation of academic and business plans in late 1991 and early 1992, the project developed and began to employ teaching materials over the academic year 1992-3. Much of the material is still regularly used and evaluated by students five years later, and over 800 hundred students have engaged with the materials.

Rationale

The main aims of the 'capitalisation' project were:

Context

The early 'conceptual' phase of the project was concerned with establishing the development strategies and educational methodologies to be used, an outline of the academic areas to be addressed, and the administrative arrangements for their production and delivery. There were discussions on the appropriate range and focus of areas to be 'capitalised', the potential benefits of employing and deploying staff at different levels of expertise, the use of academic staff remission, and the role of central College facilities such as the Design Unit. In outline, it was agreed that investment would range across the work of the Department, be focused at module level, utilise the previous developments of experienced teaching staff, incorporate diverse styles of delivery (e.g. text, audio, video, group work), and devolve the presentational elements onto temporary 'junior' staff.

At this stage there was some disagreement about the best way of organising the project with some senior staff within the Department and College, suggesting alternative strategies for the project. For example, among the alternatives mooted were:

The last strategy would potentially allow external publication of any materials developed by the College, albeit with a smaller number of tangible academic outcomes at the end of the process. The Department resisted this approach, wishing to maximise the number of resource-based elements developed, and to explore as wide a variety of approaches as possible, whilst recognising that the quality of final presentation might be lower than would be required for external publication. Subsequent analysis suggests that the central unit would have produced about half the number of modules for the same investment. Although these would have been of a higher quality the potential external market for materials designed to support existing modules was very limited.

For reasons of academic staff engagement, the project managers wished to keep the development as close as possible to the point of delivery, rather than centralising into the College's systems. Within the Department, some insecurity about the longer-term employment implications of RBL was evident, and a level of apprehension about the prospect of changing established successful teaching practices in favour of a more experimental approach. Additionally, there was reluctance to remove academic staff from mainline undergraduate teaching during the project, for fear of compromising the quality of the current students' educational experience. Despite the debate, the project went ahead following the Departmentally proposed strategy.

Once the project had been agreed in outline and funding secured, a member of the Department's academic staff was identified as the project manager, with about 40 per cent of her time allocated to the project. Two assistants were recruited, both enthusiastic new graduates with wide interests in geography and related areas, and with some prior experience of desktop and other forms of publishing. These three staff worked with academic colleagues across the Department to identify a variety of types of material to be 'capitalised', and suggested appropriate styles of delivery. Following a day-conference of all Departmental staff, academic, administrative and technical, firm decisions were taken about the modules to be addressed, from the hard science of geochemistry and global geo-tectonics, though a range of introductory, laboratory and field skills in physical geography, and across to the humanities and social science aspects of human geography. Twenty-one modules were identified, in whole or in part, for 'capitalisation', engaging with all four of the Department's undergraduate fields in Human and Physical Geography, Geology, and Earth's Resources. The emphasis was on the early levels of the undergraduate programme (I and II), and on those areas of the curriculum where the pace of philosophical change was moderate; anticipated 'shelf-life' was an important criterion. The Department's philosophy of Level III tuition being underpinned by cutting-edge staff research suggested this would be inappropriate for 'capitalisation'. A further important criterion in the selection of modules was the personal enthusiasm of the staff member teaching the module for a different, more devolved and participative approach to student learning. The personal benefits for their active participation included the opportunity to enhance significantly the learning materials available to their students; the 'costs' to the staff member included the initial investment of time to reconceptualise the delivery method, and the psychological cost of releasing their teaching materials to more open scrutiny by colleagues than was then the norm.

Implementation

The variety of new developments planned were an orchestrated response to the intentions of module tutors and included new workbooks, readers and resource packs (containing text and other materials) for private study, group exercises, video packages (both in-house productions and new teaching materials centred around commercially available videos), exercises using CAL, and a simulation game. Each module was discussed with the module tutor, clear outcomes agreed and a timetable for activity set.

A wide variety of criteria underpinned exactly how to 'capitalise' each module, including discussion of where control would rest in setting the pace and outcome of independent study, the assessment arrangements, the 'incentives' for students, the style of presentation and its packaging, and the resultant balance between classroom contact and independent (though supported) study. Alternative modes of delivery were explored, including paper-based text, audio and videotape production and in-house CAL. At this stage a very clear decision was taken not to invest significantly in in-house CAL because of the excessively high investment of preparation time required for the limited number of students who would subsequently be able to benefit; within one institution, albeit a relatively large Department, this was not felt to be cost-effective. In addition, the national TLTP project was already developing, and some colleagues were contributing to that. Reinvention was not an option. Similarly it was agreed that the standard of presentation of 'capitalised' material would not necessarily support external sales. The intention was to produce attractive, but not necessarily publishable quality materials, and leave updating possibilities with the module tutors for subsequent years. Some staff visited colleagues in other HEIs to inspect materials in use, to test disciplinary-specific ideas, and to discuss alternatives.

The phasing of developments was designed to allow simpler projects to be tackled first, including those where the module tutor had already piloted some materials. A varied 'diet' ensured that the graduate assistants' learning curve was steep, with their desktop publishing and organisational skills developing quickly and in a complementary way. Skills in the development of audio and videotape were developed later. Each development began with the module tutor, project manager and a graduate assistant examining any existing materials, and discussing the appropriateness of different potential styles of delivery. An outline costing (excluding the time investment) was then prepared for the production of new materials, and a timetable agreed. The graduate assistants then worked sequentially on different modules, each completing about ten elements during the twelve-month period. Their self-reliance and drive were important in allowing the project to succeed.

Detailed discussion of the types of materials developed are beyond the scope of this summary, but the following examples illustrate the diversity of projects which were implemented.

A workbook and other materials were produced for a Level II module on 'River Basins'. This incorporated editing and presentation of three pre-existing commercially or privately-available videos exploring particular geomorphological themes, with supporting papers taken from the research literature and prompt questions for seminars. A short computer simulation on hillslope hydrology (in the public domain) was used as a foundation for exploring in small groups (through structured questions) the movement of water through saturated and unsaturated domains. Documentation to support ten to fifteen hours of structured laboratory work on sediment transport (in a small recirculating flume), sediment rating curves, properties of sedimentary materials (particle size, materials strength), fluid properties (meander simulations on Perspex sheets), and experimental design was prepared. Finally, two field trip destinations (one on mass movement, and one on river channel processes) were set out on worksheets for small groups to use largely independently. This enable one tutor with the help of a postgraduate student to oversee a group of about 60 students. This module was to be supported in its delivery by a weekly lecture programme, and timetabled laboratory access with tutor support.

An option module on 'Fossils and Microfossils' was developed to be suitable for home study using packaged materials. Seven study packs, including boxed rock and fossil specimens, were duplicated using pre-existing departmental resources. A workbook was developed for the module, incorporating a very extensive set of diagrams, and plenty of self-test opportunities. A computer-based classification exercise was produced to underpin the elements of the course dealing with evolutionary theory, and the assessment strategy was refined to take account of the need for students pacing themselves through the module. The reduction in tutor time subsequently required to run this module enabled it to continue to be offered even in academic years when student numbers were relatively small.

'Images of the Third World', a Human Geography Level II option, was partially-'capitalised' through the development of a resource pack dealing with Mexican Art, practical sessions utilising a wide range of advertising posters, and structured seminar material for use with or without the tutor present. A simulation game, concerning the opportunities of individual inhabitants of Third World countries to break out of the cycle of deprivation, was produced for use by small groups of students. A further range of film and video material was purchased, and worksheets developed to underpin student private study of these items. This material was to prove exceptionally popular with students, and the module attracted over ninety students in subsequent runs.

A pre-existing RBL module on 'Aerial Photography and Remote Sensing' was improved essentially through repackaging and enhancement of the items available for home study. Boxed sets of stereoscopic imagery, stereoscopes, hard copy of satellite imagery and short exercises were prepared. These were supported by audiotaped lectures designed to be heard whilst looking at diagrams and photography. The sets included two on aerial photograph interpretation, and four on satellite image interpretation. Early sets explored the principles, and later ones particular applications of the technology. A workbook containing exercises based on the ERDAS image processing system, and a set of local imagery, was also developed to complete the tuition. Typically, remote sensing tuition requires complex organisational arrangements to ensure good access to facilities for students, and in later years, the module was able to be delivered by a range of tutors with less knowledge of the resources available at Cheltenham. The organisational arrangements were particularly popular with mature and part-time students, who enjoyed the opportunity to listen to materials while driving.

A final example is the development of two cross-disciplinary study packs for a module on 'Deserts Past and Present'. The first concerned the relationship between wind characteristics and dune formation, and included satellite image mosaics at various scales, atlas presentations of specific areas, meteorological information and supporting text. Student exercises were constructed to underpin the use of the materials, which were based on two geographic areas where the academic staff concerned had research experience. The second pack explored desert sediments represented in the geological record in the West Midlands, in their local and broader context, and included geological maps, diagrams, photography and text. These packs were designed to reduce the amount of tutor contact required to deliver core material, allowing class time to be spent on fieldwork.

Costs

The development of RBL materials incurs both direct and indirect costs, to degrees determined by the precise nature of the developments. In this case, the total direct cost, as already noted, was £50,000 covering RBL materials in twenty-one modules. Most of the expenditure was on the salaried junior staff and items, which in subsequent years became standard facilities, such as personal computers (two), DTP and authoring facilities, a scanner, video presenters and so forth. Reprographics costs were also substantial in the first year, making up about 10 per cent of the total.

The costs of academic staff time are not included in this analysis (on average about 4 hours per hour of study-time 'capitalised', but a detailed analysis undertaken for two specimen modules (both large Level I modules with student numbers at about 150 per year, and a workbook plus lecture format) suggest that financial savings of the order of 20 per cent of the initial running costs of the module were secured even in the first year of operation, through the reduction in contact time required subsequently for supporting student study. This analysis excludes the base IT costs for the authoring, but includes development time of both junior and more senior staff. In later years, the saving would be commensurately higher, dependent upon the extent of any updating required.

However, it is important to recognise the externalisation of some costs. In later years, some of the ongoing costs were recovered by sales of workbooks to students (reprographics costs only). Students were directed to study off-campus or beyond the departmental boundary in many cases, thus throwing some costs onto central services or the students themselves. The administrative costs were in some cases higher, academic staff time being replaced by administration of study pack loans, self-timetabled laboratory work, or room bookings for student groups. In practice it is difficult to disentangle costs of the new arrangements from increases in running costs which would anyway have been incurred through increased student numbers. Costs per capita suggest a two or three year 'half-life' needs to be anticipated for the content of study packs and work books, after which updating will be required. In those areas where the subject material changes fundamentally very quickly (for example, in areas engaging with legislation, or cutting-edge science), investment in resource-based approaches needs to be more cautious.

Evaluation

For many academic staff the effort they invested in this programme reaped rewards which spread across into subsequent years. Some found the development task exceptionally stimulating and enjoyable. The initiative was also supported by the external examiners. However, the development did initially attract some hostility from internal staff, both academic and support. Some academic staff felt that their ownership of teaching materials was threatened, and were reluctant to offer ideas that could in theory subsequently be utilised by other staff. Several colleagues commented unfavourably on the 'front-end' loading of preparation time, and were anxious that they would not personally benefit from this in later years. One or two were initially unsympathetic to the educational objectives, and would have preferred to see equivalent financial investment in additional staff appointments. This attitude was also manifest in some reluctance to relinquish the control of the learning process to the students; occasionally, colleagues continued to deliver their 'capitalised' materials in the classroom, repeating verbally material which was readily available as text or on tape, rather than allowing students to study elsewhere to their own timetable.

From the students' perspective, the benefits were very considerable and regular formal student evaluation revealed initial enthusiasm from most, and year-on-year improvements in their responses. One notable phenomenon was that of 'familiarity'. As more modules began to diversify their style of delivery, students responded increasingly positively, perceiving the shift as a benefit rather than a threat to their anticipated level of achievement. Mature students were notably positive about the changes. Many students commented on and subsequently widened their study of particularly enjoyable elements. The only reluctance to engage with this came from students who had difficulty in organising their studies, and who somewhat resented the demand to take control of their own learning process. For some Higher Education students, attendance at a lecture session may be the full extent of the commitment that they are willing to make without protest.

Three years later, in 1995, the Higher Education Funding Council for England assessed the Department's geography provision, rating it as 'excellent'. In particular they noted:

"The Department provides an impressive range of high-quality learning materials, which have been effective in response to the challenge of rapidly expanding student numbers. Students were able to undertake independent study modules including self-paced exercises, and to experience student-led teaching Desirable independent learning skills and a wide range of personal transferable skills are acquired, and many of these are demonstrated in the high quality of Level III dissertations" (HEFCE, 1995, p.4).

Conclusion

Overall, the project was very successful in meeting the objectives originally set. The student experience was enriched, and access arrangements benefited. Larger student groups were accommodated and the development undoubtedly addressed the need for students increasingly to be able to develop independent study skills. It also assisted the Department to manage dramatically increased student numbers. At the end of the project, the College decided to invest in a more permanent cross-College 'Flexible Learning Design and Development Unit' to assist other colleagues to make similar adjustments.

However, the pace of change in Higher Education in the UK during the 1990s highlights the need for careful planning of RBL initiatives. Not only colleagues, but courses come and go in response to changing patterns of undergraduate recruitment, and some of the initiatives taken proved to have relatively short shelf-lives. After two or three years of operation, the content may still be current, the approach appropriately challenging and stimulating for students, and the presentation attractive, but the course may no longer be needed by the host institution. This highlights the possibility of promoting wider inter-institutional approaches where the risks as well as the benefits of RBL approaches, can be shared.

Keywords:

Capitalisation project
Independent learning
Resource-based learning
Student-centred learning

This is one of the case studies which appears in the GDN Guide "Resource-based Learning in Geography"


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