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Mature students and mature tutors

05 Jul, 2005
The problems and positives of embedding e-learning in a Foundation Degree.

Institutional context

UCW offer a range of courses and has a large institute of education which offers a diverse portfolio of courses. Although traditional initial teacher education programmes are offered, along with early childhood and education studies, there has been a growing development of offering continuing professional development for those currently in practice at both undergraduate and post-graduate. One such development is raising the professional status of teaching assistants (TAs) through offering foundation degrees, specifically the Foundation Degree in Learning Support (FDLS). The FDLS predominantly attracts TAs from the primary phase although secondary TAs as well as students from post-16 and social services are also on the programme. Students range in age and practice however all students are required to be in practice with a minimum of two years experience.

The majority of students are mature (post-25), women, and who may have missed formal opportunities to study after leaving compulsory education. Learning takes place predominantly through lectures at UCW and five partner colleges, although e-learning is being developed as a further support through the inception and development of WebCT. It must be noted that although students on the FDLS are studying in a part-time or full-time mode, they usually only meet with their peers or tutor on the day of the formal lectures thus WebCT is viewed as a way of encouraging further student development outside of the taught sessions.

Learner activity

An induction module introduces study skills to students through which consist of a number of aspects, specifically use of ICT to assist learning (i.e. library catalogues, online databases, etc.) Students are also introduced to the VLE, WebCT as a system to support their studies and communicate with others. The majority of lectures are taught directly with WebCT encouraging discussion outside of the formal learning environment. Furthermore, additional materials to support lectures (i.e. readings) are placed on WebCT to encourage students to access the VLE for their benefit. Module content is also placed on the VLE if students are unable to attend a lecture due to the nature of being mature students and conflict of work and family commitments, etc. Students are also encouraged to contact tutors through e-mail to discuss aspects of the module and/or assignments - e-mails being easier for both tutor and student to use for communication purposes opposed to tutorials or telephone support (which are also offered).

Pedagogical / technical approach

The main elements that are encouraged on the FDLS through the VLE are the following:

All of the FDLS modules are placed on WebCT and consist of a number of features. These mainly include communication (discussion board, chat room, e-mail) and module content (course outlines, lecture notes, additional resources). Students are encouraged to access the chat room at specific times (for example during reading week) should they wish to discuss aspects of the module content or assessment with a tutor. E-mail support is also encouraged (as discussed above) and discussion boards to encourage discussion between students.
WebCT can be accessed by any student across the six institutions hosting the FDLS thus a student in a specific work context who may not be with a peer group at their host institution can communicate with other students with similar backgrounds.
Activities to further support the taught content are placed on WebCT to deepen understanding in a constructivist sense though communication and discussion.

Intended outcome(s)

  • To enable students to engage with others in order to deepen their understanding of course content.
  • To provide a support network to enable and broaden access to learning.


The main issues to arise from using a MLE to facilitate learning could be divided into different areas from the macro to the micro.

Until a student registers and this registration is processed, students do not have an identity which hinders accessing any ICT resources. Applications from students may be taken up to and beyond the official start date for the course.
Partner colleges
Encouraging discussion and joint development of modules is a difficult aspect due to the tensions in time allowance and distance between FE and HE.
e-Learning is a new initiative which has required tutors to see the benefits for themselves and/or their students before committing to developing their technical skills to use and embed learning on WebCT. Time to learn, develop and maintain WebCT is an issue, especially when tutors may be used to only delivering learning in a traditional manner.
Students enter the FDLS with a range of backgrounds, most of whom are returning to study after an extended period. Even entering the physical environment can be a cause of concern initially and use of virtual environments and broader ICT skills can be varied with students having little or no experience with ICT through to being advanced users.

Established practice

E-learning has been a new initiative for the FDLS and as such, previous learning had been facilitated through 'traditional' lectures and tutorials.

The e-learning advantage

Students are regularly in contact with tutors through e-mail for support and welcome the idea that they can access further assignment guidance, additional material or lecture notes from WebCT. Tutors have the benefit of being able to store materials and communicate with all students directly, while also having a record of e-mail queries.

Key points for effective practice

Time must be allocated for all involved in course management and delivery, in developing WebCT. Benefits to tutors and their students needs to be made explicit and time embedded into modules to ensure that students understand how WebCT will be utilised in their modules. Regular meetings to develop WebCT between partner colleges needs to be set aside for effective development.

Conclusions and recommendations

Within the seven months that WebCT has been in operation, all students have accessed WebCT and are aware of the capabilities and benefits that are offered through engagement. All modules on the FDLS are structured on WebCT in a similar way to ensure consistency of student experience. Most tutors at the host institution have engaged with training on WebCT. Time has been allocated for support to be directly provided for partner college staff at their location.

Sharon Smith (Evesham and Malvern Hills College)
Scott Buckler (University College Worcester)
April 2005


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