Baptism of Fire: Introducing Brookes Virtual to Theology Distance Learning Students



The electronic environment is perceived to offer a potential enhancement of the learning experience not least within a traditional paper-based distance learning context. This paper outlines the rationale behind the introduction of Brookes Virtual and a heightened ‘electronic mentality’ into a theology paper-based distance learning programme of long pedigree, through a targeted activity at a Residential School. An important dimension was a high level of team work, combining the skills of academic, administration, and learning technologist staff (and significantly blurring the boundaries between these in so doing). In order to achieve an ambitious set of goals, the resulting activity required students to engage with the virtual environment in such a way that it contributed directly to their learning and was not simply a support tool. The advantage of jumping in at Mode 2 of Brookes’s Modes of Engagement (a “baptism of fire!” lay precisely in the fact that students quickly saw the benefits for their studies and acquired the necessary skills to incorporate these once they had returned home. Emphasis was also put on group work in order to facilitate peer-to-peer discussion at a distance. The project was ambitious. While one or two aspects left room for improvement, overall it achieved its goals at a wide range of levels and we anticipate greater exploitation of the electronic medium in future assessed work.

Alison Le Cornu


The Wesley Centre Oxford (WCO) embodies the Methodist Church���s continuing links with Brookes���s Harcourt Hill campus. An important dimension of its work is the provision of theology distance learning courses, and currently around 150 students, aged between 22 and 75, are enrolled on its programmes at both BA and MA levels. A recent push has been to introduce Brookes Virtual into the BA, exploring its use at various levels, but primarily as a support tool for students and as a potential means of delivery. Both courses have a long pedigree carried through from their origins with the former Westminster College. As traditional paper-based distance learning courses, students are provided with study guides and reading materials which they work through independently. Recent changes to the programme structure have introduced greater flexibility through a rolling enrolment system and manner of submitting assignments, an increased variety of types of assessment, and a secure administrative and tutorial support system within the WCO. Residential Schools are held twice a year, but are not obligatory. The programme attracts students from all areas of the UK as well as abroad, and about 20% regularly come to the Schools. The programme has worked well for many years, and was highly commended in the 2001 QAA subject review.

The challenges presented when planning to introduce the use of a virtual learning environment (VLE) were therefore considerable. Most fundamentally, since the programme had run successfully for many years without the use of a VLE, the real need (or otherwise) for an electronically-mediated support system had to be ascertained. The now commonly-accepted recognition (see Carr and Duchastel, 2000) that electronically delivered programmes require very different pedagogical approaches to those employed in a traditional paper-based distance learning context meant that existing modules could not simply be ���uploaded��� to Brookes���s VLE, Brookes Virtual; considerable modification would need to take place. Thirdly, given the fact that all of our students live some distance from the University, and that only a small proportion come to the Schools, questions arose regarding how our immensely diverse student body could be inducted into the use of whatever Brookes Virtual facilities the course team decided to incorporate.

Reflection and discussion on these issues suggested that the integration of Brookes Virtual into the programme would be immediately advantageous on a number of grounds, in particular:

  • the easy availability of support documentation: student handbook, study skills guidelines, essay cover sheets, etc.
  • the provision of lecture notes and handouts from each School
  • the opportunity for students to discuss the content of modules via the discussion boards

We also realised, however, that we wanted to incorporate a greater  ‘electronic mentality’ within the programme, encouraging students to access electronic journals, use the internet and evaluate the wealth of material that can be found there, and potentially to submit different types of assessment which made use of and even depended upon the electronic medium. One newly-introduced form of assessment to the programme requires students to compile a portfolio in which an argument is developed with reference to a wide range of ‘evidence’, some of which could/should be electronically derived. At a distance, it is difficult to ascertain even a basic assessment of an individual’s computer literacy. Some continue to send in handwritten essays. Others are clearly comfortable and highly competent in any electronic environment, but the majority probably fall somewhere in the middle.

The Easter 2005 Residential School therefore provided us with the opportunity to address some of these issues. We set ourselves three primary goals, very conscious that this was already highly ambitious:

  • to introduce students to the Brookes VLE, Brookes Virtual, and to familiarise them both with its use and potential
  • to equip and encourage students to use the wider electronic environment, by accessing electronic journals through the Brookes library and using the internet
  • to focus on the portfolio as a type of assessment and to familiarise students with the underlying expectations

Feedback from the previous School had also indicated, however, that one of the drawbacks of the new programme structure was the diminishing of a sense of peer group and cohort. Since these are an important means of encouraging discussion, we were keen to find ways of cultivating renewed inter-peer contact. A further goal of the School therefore became:

  • to build a sense of community and to encourage higher levels of friendship through small-group work

The Schools must nonetheless have academic content. Typically, each has a theme, and this theme normally relates to one or more of the distance learning modules offered on the programme. Since we were asking students to reconceptualise what it meant to be a community, we decided on the theme of ‘Virtually a Community?’. This related to a variety of modules, including those on the modules Theology and the Body, Sociology of New Religious Movements (SNRMs), Ecumenism, and Contextual Theology. Since a stipulated learning outcome of the programme is that students should reflect theologically on contemporary issues, a final goal of the School became:

  • to encourage students to reflect theologically on the meaning of body and community, using these concepts in a wide variety of ways

A team endeavour

The WCO has four members of staff principally overseeing and administering the BA in Theology and Religion, one of whom, Alison Le Cornu, (ALeC) is classified as an ‘academic’ member of staff, the other three Emma Catling (EC), Elaine Langford (EL), and Tom Cosgrove (TC) as ‘admin’. However, EC and TC have theology degrees, and EL has a background as a careers/ educational advisor and mentor. Part of the restructuring of the programme involved making increased use of their respective skills, to the point that many academic support activities previously conducted by academic tutors now fall to them. During the academic year, with help from Westminster Institute’s Learning Technologist, Jim Hyndman (JH), TC has developed an expertise in Brookes Virtual and in the six months between the September and Easter Residential Schools has created an initial site for the programme, including modular discussion forums, and has uploaded much of the programme’s support materials. None of the other members of staff had significant experience in using Brookes Virtual, although all were comfortable using the internet and accessing electronic journals. To cover face-to-face lectures, academic members of staff would also have to be drawn from the theology and religious studies academic group, and one in particular came on board as the School’s lead academic Dominic Corrywright (DC). No one individual had sufficient expertise to hold the School together, and an important dimension of its eventual success was the collaboration of a group of individuals, each with different skills to contribute. An additional team member, Debbie Herring (DH), was co-opted in the form of an external tutor who has a longstanding involvement with the programme and whose PhD studies focus on cyber-theology and cyber-communities.


Planning a School is always a team event from the start. For this one, meetings began in early October, sketching out a provisional programme. The external tutor was given an opening and closing lecture to set the scene and then close the loop. JH was immediately involved as an IT advisor, and the lead academic (DC) proposed a lecture which would form the basis of a complete afternoon’s IT-based project. His continuing participation from lecture into project was important and he contributed significantly to the pedagogical discussions which principally revolved around the afternoon activity. We planned that the students should work in small groups, to undertake a task revolving around a particular type of ‘community’ by completing an electronic pro forma demonstrating the embryonic structure and content of a portfolio, thus fulfilling the set goals. In order to ensure the feasibility of the task, adequate time to lay the ground had to be planned for. This included an introductory lecture on the subject matter, an introduction to portfolios as a type of assessment, and a clear outline of the task itself. Given the anticipated diverse levels of computer expertise, the make-up of the groups would need to be planned carefully, and a high level of support staff would need to be on hand during the afternoon session itself. Simon Jenkins, founder of the Ship of Fools website was invited as keynote speaker to talk about his three-month trial of a virtual church, the ‘Church of Fools’.


Different members of the team assumed different responsibilities in the preparation. JH worked closely with TC, advising on feasibility and technical issues. DC’s lecture topic lent itself reasonably easily to both small group work and to the collection of electronic data. He prepared a small number of handouts in advance which were uploaded into Brookes Virtual. Using his material, ALeC prepared the pro forma which was also uploaded. Beginning these preparations well in advance was crucial: ad hoc conversations could take place between the major players, ideas could be tested and piloted, Brookes Virtual and computer glitches sorted out. Other members played a continued role in the planning team, contributing to problem solving and discussions of feasibility, and taking responsibility for the general organisation of the School. The whole team met together on two more occasions to talk through the entire weekend and to ensure as far as possible that all eventualities had been anticipated. The external lecturer was involved at a distance throughout, preparing her own electronic materials and liaising with the team to ensure these too were available using the Brookes Virtual platform.


Scene setting

A basic introduction to the VLE task was given at the welcome session on arrival. This was set in the context of the overall theme of the School and intended aims and outcomes were clearly articulated. This ensured that students focused early on the expectations demanded of them.

Essential skills

The success of the task depended on students being able to log on to Brookes Virtual and to access electronic journals. A preliminary session with JH and the subject librarian, Steve Kee (SK), in the computer suite, covered this ground and allowed for practice.

The task

The task began with a whole-class lecture on SNRMs. The importance of attending the class had been emphasised, linking it with the task to follow. Students had been put into groups of 3 or 4 and had been encouraged to meet and converse with other members in their groups beforehand. Using our knowledge of the students’ levels of IT competence, groups were mixed, putting non-IT users together with those more experienced in IT. Following the lecture (and lunch) everyone gathered in a computer room where the task was outlined to them. It was also provided in hard copy as a flow chart. It consisted of:

  • Filling out a pro forma (see Figure 1) that took the form of a skeletal portfolio. Four ���real-life��� portfolios which had recently been assessed were used as demonstration models, and an important dimension of the introduction to the task included a thorough discussion about portfolio construction. In part, this was what provided a high degree of motivation to complete the task. The pro forma was located on Brookes Virtual, requiring the students to log on, find the correct course, find the pro forma, fill it in, and upload their completed version. ���Brookes Virtual features a facility known as ���Student Homepages���. A number of Student Homepages were set up, each accessible by the members of one group. Each Student Homepage comprised a file, ���index.htm���. Each copy of this file was stored in a separate folder within the course structure, and it was this file���the pro forma���that was edited by members (usually one member) of each group, using the HTML editor that is provided within Brookes Virtual.
  • Accessing a series of electronic journals via the Brookes library catalogue, searching for a range of relevant Internet sites, retrieving the electronic versions of the morning lecture���s handouts on Brookes Virtual, and sourcing any other relevant material which would help them address the theme they had chosen. These resources had to be entered on the pro forma and given a score according to how relevant the group considered it was to the topic and whether or not in real life they would include it in their portfolio.
  • The pro formas were automatically made available for viewing by all students at a pre-set time, allowing all students to read the pro formas completed by students in other groups. A member of each group also physically presented the completed pro forma to the other groups at the end of the afternoon.

Five members of staff were available to help throughout the afternoon: JH, the learning technologist; TC who had done most of the spade work on Brookes Virtual; DC, the lead academic, the subject librarian (SK) and the external tutor (DH), with others hovering. Overall there were 24 students divided into six groups. Fundamentally, however, the groups were autonomous, and got on with the task independently.

At the end of the afternoon, each group, flushed with success (as well as frustration at times!) had a pro forma to present, using the Brookes Virtual platform. Frustrations had been principally in the malfunctioning or misuse of computer equipment. One group watched in dismay as the ���back��� button gradually munched up all their text. Another forgot to save, pressed the wrong (unknown!) button and lost most of the afternoon���s work. Successes, however, were more significant. One student who had never held a computer mouse before was thrilled to feel confident surfing the net at the end of the afternoon. Others had never accessed electronic journals, and even those who had previously put a tentative toe into Brookes Virtual professed themselves confident and increasingly enthusiastic. Furthermore most students had been unaware of just how much relevant and useful material could easily be amassed from the internet; in order to facilitate internet searches, each group was directed to the free online encyclopaedia, ���Wikipedia���, which itself had many links to sites of direct relevance to the group���s subject area.

Figure 1

Template for portfolio construction
Please fill in the relevant sections of this template as you construct your electronic portfolio in response to the worksheet provided. When you have completed it, click the update button.
Title of portfolio. ��
Which Religious Organisation have you selected? ��
What is your answer to the research question? What kind of Religious Community is it? ��
Summarise in up to 200 words why you came to that conclusion. ��
In the boxes below, list the sources which helped you to come to that conclusion, and give each a score according to how helpful and relevant it was to your group discussion. Please aim to make at least one entry in each category.
a) Electronic journal articles Article title Score
�� �� ��
�� �� ��
�� �� ��
b) Internet sites Article title and URL Score
�� �� ��
�� �� ��
�� �� ��
c) BA in T&R Brookes Virtual pages Name of resource Score
�� �� ��
�� �� ��
�� �� ��
d) Electronic images Image title and URL Score
�� �� ��
�� �� ��
�� �� ��
�� �� ��
e) Other sources Description and source reference Score
�� �� ��
�� �� ��
�� �� ��
If you were constructing a portfolio for assessment, outline below how you would organise it. What would you include, and where? The easiest way of doing this is probably to make a draft table of contents.

Now save this template and click ‘update’.

Comment, analysis, and evaluation

The event was a learning exercise for the whole team. While we are accustomed to working as a team on School planning, the nature of the content of this task took us beyond our comfort zone. We experienced a greater degree of dependency on each other and on the knowledge and expertise of the learning technologist.

A ���first impressions��� evaluation suggested that many of the desired outcomes had been achieved. Just the fact that each group could present a version of the pro forma was an achievement! Feedback was solicited in a variety of ways, both informally in later conversation, and formally through evaluation forms. This too confirmed our first impressions. One student emailed:

���I confess to having failed to fill in an evaluation form but I do want to thank you and all the others for such a well-organised and helpful weekend. I enjoyed all the lectures, especially as they were so varied in their approach to the overall topic, and as I said at the time the portfolio session was less terrible than it appeared and taught me some very useful new skills. It was also good to have been encouraged to keep in touch more with other students.���

As a seasoned computer-user, we were delighted that we had stretched her!

Analysing the task from an educational perspective, it would seem that we had moved directly to Stage 2 of Brookes���s three e-learning Modes of Engagement (Oxford Brookes). While Mode 1 (baseline course administration and learner support) is still being developed for the programme, Mode 2 (blended learning leading to significant enhancements to learning and teaching processes) requires students, tutors, and support staff to engage at a different level, incorporating the electronic environment into the learning process in an integrated way. It was ambitious both for the students and for ourselves to jump in at the deep end, yet the risk paid off. In our debriefing session following the School, we recognised the reasons for its success: organization, team work which brought in all the necessary skills, good staff presence and commitment, clear explanations, and the openness and honesty towards the students which pervaded throughout. They knew they were guinea pigs and we depended on their cooperation and patience if things didn���t go quite according to plan.

Our next School is scheduled for September 2005. We cannot repeat the Easter event in much of its detail, but planning meetings have already begun. We are considering giving students the option of working on a similar task, but this time focusing on an annotated bibliography. The optional dimension will be important on account of the skills-based nature of the task. Students who attended the Easter School may now feel they have mastered the necessary skills and indeed, have used them in the intervening period.

Important lessons have been learnt within the team. Individual members have acquired new skills and gained a greater understanding of each other���s work. Together, we have all advanced in our understanding of the electronic environment and how it contributes to learning, as well as what may not work so well. We have learnt not to assume any level of IT competence from our students, and that, given this inevitable disparity, a high level of staff support is essential. Perhaps a less successful dimension, paradoxically, was the group work itself. One student announced she ���didn���t do��� group work, and removed herself to an individual computer. Although there were pleasing signs of stronger students helping weaker, at times this disparity of abilities resulted in a lack of group cohesion. Nonetheless, our greatest satisfaction was in seeing students being prepared to have a go, take the risk, and gain more than they or we might have anticipated.

The electronic environment is a hugely significant resource both for face-to-face teaching and for distance learning students. In a distance context, familiarity and competence can enhance the learning experience immensely, yet the challenge is how to communicate this to students and to equip them with the necessary skills. We have yet to see whether the foundations laid at the School will bear fruit in assessed work, but the signs are good. Following the School, there was a considerable flurry of activity on the module electronic discussion boards, but, a month later, this began to wane. We have a lot further to go before we are confident of providing a quality product in all three Modes of Engagement. Nonetheless, for both students and staff, this was a good beginning.

Project Team

  • Alison Le Cornu
  • Emma Catling
  • Dominic Corrywright
  • Tom Cosgrove
  • Debbie Herring
  • Jim Hyndman
  • Steve Kee
  • Elaine Langford

Appendix: comments from student evaluation forms

���The portfolio construction activity was hard work but great fun. The technology held up well and the support staff were excellent at providing advice and encouragement. Of all the session this one will have given me the most confidence in tackling new tasks and approaches at home. Thank you.���

���A bit chaotic at times, but yes, it did achieve its objectives.���

���A useful learning experience and the staff were very helpful. The main usefulness was in learning to navigate the websites, rather than the exercise in portfolio construction.���

���It was a mighty challenge in which individual and team work was needed and even in a short time together we learnt skills from each other.���

���Excellent session, clear aims. I knew exactly what I was expected to get out of the session. The high level of staffing made this achievable. It was a good experience to work in groups and get to know people.���

���Superb. I appreciated the vast amount of preparation and support during the task and I learned a lot. It was amazing how many strands were threaded together!���

���I would need about a week to really get to grips with the task!���

���I fell flat on my face here, because it hit all of my ���insecurity buttons���. It was my fault, I did not ���holler for help���, ���cos I was just plain embarrassed!���


Oxford Brookes, Modes of Engagement, (Available from the world wide web )

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