Perspectives on E-learning at Brookes

Greg Benfield and Richard Francis


This paper aims to present a brief reflection on how e-learning at Brookes seems to be taking shape. We work very closely with Brookes practitioners of e-learning and are presently engaged, as members of the Centre for e-Learning (C4eL), in helping to revise the University e-learning strategy. We are able to describe current e-learning developments at Brookes with some accuracy, but we should warn you that our musings about perspectives are just our opinions. We are only too well aware of the serious possibility that we are mistaken.

Let us begin with a story. Just a short while ago, near the Gibbs building at Gipsy Lane, one of the authors was approached by a young woman speaking into a mobile phone in one hand and clutching a wad of papers in the other. Pointing to a room number on one of her papers she asked for directions, repeating them into the phone as they were relayed to her. Satisfied that she (and her invisible friend) had enough information to reach their destination, she offered her thanks and set off, loudly exclaiming into her phone ‘See you there in a minute!’ Moments later, the two young women rendezvoused cheerily on the other side of Gibbs, put away their phones and set off for their destination together.

‘What’s your point?’ we hear you ask. Our purpose in telling this story is to reflect on the most natural, even ordinary way in which this young woman simultaneously handled textual, verbal face-to-face and telephone communication and information streams. It strikes us that this nonchalant handling of multiple, simultaneous communication and information channels typifies a dramatic – possibly even revolutionary – change in human society in this early part of the 21st century.

The example says a lot about what the University has to adapt to and cater for in coming years. New technologies such as the mobile phone are taking their place alongside old ones (voice, pen, and paper) without replacing them entirely. The expanding multiplicity of communications and information channels can be accessed more flexibly, in more places and at more times than ever before, including very often whilst on the move. This will, and in many ways already does, permeate how we learn and teach.

How will it do so? A sensible way in which to begin answering this question is by considering Oxford Brookes’ key strategic objectives, one of which is to be

‘a premier learning and teaching institution that is student centred. It will have a distinctive academic portfolio that promotes human understanding and creativity, and is focused towards the professions, employment and continuous professional development.’ (Oxford Brookes University, 2003)

The question now becomes: how will e-learning contribute to this distinctive academic portfolio? Well, e-learning per se will not contribute to ‘distinctiveness’, unless it is conspicuous by its absence, i.e. if no e-learning is going on at all. In fact it is a matter of government policy to ’embed e-learning across the education and skills sector’ (Department for Education and Skills, 2004). A recent survey (Browne and Jenkins, 2003) found that 86% of the HEIs surveyed (there was a 54% return rate) had a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) like WebCT. While learning technologies of course encompass far more than VLEs, the survey is a good indication that e-learning is quickly becoming mainstream in HE.

It seems to us that, while e-learning holds transformative potential, the realisation of this potential is profoundly shaped by the University’s culture, interest, strengths and strategic objectives. So if we return to the University objective mentioned above and unpick the notion of ‘academic distinctiveness’, we may begin to discern how e-learning is likely to unfold at Brookes in the near to medium term.


Let us leave aside the issue of being a premier learning and teaching institution and start with being student-centred. E-learning offers the possibility for improving ‘flexibility’ and student choice in a number of ways. Here are some examples. This year, first-year Biology students are able to use extensive online formative quizzes that give them choices of when and where they can practise skills and obtain feedback on their learning; in Business, online diagnostic testing supports first-year students in their elective module choices and can be accessed by them 24/7 for the first few weeks of the semester; in the Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education (‘new staff course’) and the Business School Team Challenges module WebCT supports collaborative work and eliminates some of the restrictions of time and place.

Choice of mode is another type of flexibility. For the first time this year all full-time, on-campus, first-year History students are taking a fully online module, called Oberon. This offers them flexibility to progress through the module at their own pace, and gives the course team more options in how to use available face-to-face contact time with their students. We are hopeful that in coming years there will be many more modules and programmes that allow students to choose between studying on or off campus, according to their circumstances and preferred way of learning. This sort of flexibility also points to how the University can support its widening participation agenda and its regional and international partnership objectives.

Here is another story involving the authors and exemplifying another kind of flexibility -the flexibility of access to multiple information and communication channels all concerned with the same learning issue or problem. We recently attended the Association for Learning Technologies (ALT) 2004 conference in Exeter. While keynote speaker Vijay Kumar, Director of Academic Computing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, spoke about MITs Open CourseWare initiative, we were able to wirelessly connect to MITs website, browse areas that Kumar was speaking about, and send off emails to colleagues about the presentation.

Brookes has a wireless technology pilot underway and it is no great stretch of the imagination to envisage lectures during which, for example, education students browse online video clips of classroom interactions and make notes of their observations, or environmental science students view and analyse real-time seismic data.

Wireless and mobile technologies challenge ‘traditional’ ideas about learning spaces, especially the notion of internal ‘fixtures’, and demand that the physical environment for learning be flexible and adaptable. There are already plans for Brookes to build polyvalent spaces of various kinds: spaces that combine social and academic functions, incorporating cafes, food and drink vending machines, movable seating and wireless computing; and spaces for teaching that use mobile computing and presentation devices and seating arrangements that can be configured in a variety of ways.

Promoting human understanding and creativity

The previous point about flexible access to multiple information and communication channels brings us to the second element of the University strategic goal that we need to unpack: promoting understanding and creativity. This implies being active, and more often than not, collaborative. In practice many of the extant examples of e-learning at Brookes are about fostering and supporting active learning and collaboration.

‘Activity’ takes many forms. The self-directed, online activities supported by immediate, automated feedback like the Biology quizzes mentioned above are one example. Often the product of such online activity is useable in more than one way: it can be tracked and used to inform subsequent curriculum decisions such as offering specific forms of support; it may be used to authenticate student work; or maybe it is used as input data for a subsequent student task.

Increasingly ‘activity’ at Brookes has a collaborative aspect, supporting the formation and re-formation of a multiplicity of learning communities that can continue to be active despite barriers of time and space. For example, multi-disciplinary groups in the PCTHE and student teams in Team Challenges work together to create group artefacts. In the School of Health and Social Cares Partnerships in Practice modules involving over 450 students, multi-professional groups share and evaluate ‘good’ practice in health care. It is notable that the School of Business e-learning strategy foresees all of its programmes incorporating online communication skills by 2005.

Collaborative learning techniques have a tendency to push the boundaries of the curriculum. There are parallel and symmetrical developments in course design and development. We are likely to see more and more large, multi-professional course teams that, as well as the usual academic members of staff include several of the following people: advisors from Media Workshop; one or more school Learning Technologists; educational developers from OCSLD who assist with the e-learning design, staff training and module evaluation; subject librarians; and school administrators. The Health and Social Care PiP development is an example of a course that is being developed and implemented in this way.

Focus on the professions, employment and continuous professional development

The final aspect of the University strategic goal that we need to look at focuses on professional relevance in the curriculum. We think e-learning has a very important role to play in this regard at Brookes and there are many precedents. For example, web-based environments have been used for some time now to provide ‘virtual field work’ in Social Sciences and Law and Biological and Molecular Sciences (Suthren, 2003). In Languages multi-media and web-based resources have been extensively used to expose students to realistic practice of language.

The past two academic years have seen a sharp increase in e-learning applications focussed on the development of professional knowledge and employing rich multi-media and/or web-based communications. The aforementioned Health and Social Care PiP and Business School ‘Team Challenges’ modules are two examples of this. Some other examples: in the Built Environment students have used proformas and templates distributed via WebCT to complete group Cartographic assignments to professional standards. At Westminster Institute of Education Performing Arts students use WebCT to share video clips of their performances for peer review and to explore issues of representation. In each of these cases e-learning is used to attempt to achieve a more authentic than hitherto engagement by students with real professional practices.

We have told a few stories, so here is one more – a statistical one. During the month of September 2002, 44 new WebCT courses were created; during September 2003 that number rose to 59 and in Sep 2004 over a 100 new WebCT courses were created. As of the end of September 2004, Brookes had 1,200 WebCT courses. By way of comparison, in January 2001 it had about one. There are now 10,400 individual Brookes students using WebCT, and 44,000 student-course relationships, which is close to three times what it was the year before. We could well be wrong about, or blind to trends in how e-learning is going to be used at Brookes. But it seems very unlikely that we are wrong about the growing importance of e-learning in helping Brookes to deliver quality higher education.

In summary then, it seems to us that e-learning at Brookes will make a major contribution to the University’s ‘distinctive academic portfolio’ by enabling us to provide learning experiences that are resource-rich and perhaps more professionally ‘authentic’ than more traditional methods; that offer students flexibility and choices, especially in mode, time, and location of study; and that are active and collaborative and support multiple and overlapping learning and researching communities.

Biography and Contact Details – Greg Benfield

Greg Benfield is an educational developer at the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD). His work focuses on supporting e-learning and he is a tutor on the Postgraduate Certificate of Teaching in Higher Education. His particular areas of interest are

  • Computer Mediated Communication (CMC), with a research interest in the use of CMC in ‘blended’ or ‘on-campus’ contexts
  • Online course design
  • Online assessment
  • The impact of adopting online teaching and learning technologies on the views and pedagogical philosophies of experienced teachers

Address Correspondence to:

Oxford Brookes University
Wheatley Campus
Oxford OX33 1HX
Telephone: (0)1865 485774
Fax: (0)1865 485937

Biography and Contact Details – Richard Francis

Richard Francis is Head of Media Workshop in Learning Resources Computer Services and Oxford Brookes’ first Learning Support Fellow. His work focuses on the management of Brookes Virtual (the University’s Virtual Learning Environment) and co-ordination of staff e-learning support. His particular area of interests are

  • Professional development of Learning Technologists
  • Computer Assisted Assessment (CAA)
  • Online course design
  • Pedagogic frameworks for flexible, blended learning

Address correspondence to:

Media Workshop
Oxford Brookes University
Headington Gipsy Lane Campus
Oxford OX3 0BP
Telephone: (0)1865 484470
Fax: (0)1865 484342


Browne, T. and Jenkins, M. (2003), VLE Surveys: A longitudinal perspective between March 2001 and March 2003 for Higher Education in the United Kingdom, UCISA, online at , accessed 21/10/2004.

Department for Education and Skills, (2004), Moving Further Towards a Unified e-learning Strategy an update, Strategy Update Bulletin – July 2004, online at, accessed 21/10/2004.

Oxford Brookes University (2003), Strategic Plan, online at, accessed 15/10/2004.

Suthren, R. (2003), Cross-disciplinary Virtual Field Work Development. Teaching Forum, 51, pp. 46-47, online at

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