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Durham University Online: the Economics and Finance experience

This case study is included in the guide Virtual Learning Environments prepared by Ros O'Leary and Andy Ramsden for our Handbook for Economics Lecturers

The first priority of the University of Durham's Learning Technologies Team (LTT) had been establishing a virtual learning environment for the university: duo, Durham University Online. After evaluating various learning environment software, LTT decided in July 2000 to support Blackboard.

Economics and Finance use of C & IT

Prior to the implementation of duo, the Department of Economics and Finance at the University of Durham was already using C&IT. A large amount of teaching material was maintained on internal web pages, and email lists were commonly used to communicate with students. One member of staff routinely updated the intranet on behalf of the other academics. After discussions with the Head of Department, it was decided that the Department would provide resources for all its modules within duo for the academic year 2000/2001, and would then evaluate the impact (and expected advantages) of the learning environment after a year's use. As a result, all 35 modules offered within the department have a course area in duo, and students were directed to the learning environment from the beginning of the year.

Evaluation of duo in Economics, May 2001

In May 2001, 15 members of staff in Economics answered an evaluation questionnaire. They profess themselves to have been quickly confident users of duo, finding adding materials easy or very easy. Two thirds of respondents had completed basic training, and all had used the basic features and facilities to add module handbooks, course information, lecture materials and essay/assignment details. Almost all used the communication features, announcements and email. Some staff added staff information, interactive bibliographies and some external links. Few have yet made much use of the discussion board, online assessment or surveys or electronic submission via the digital drop box, but they show a desire to do so next year. Thankfully, most staff appear convinced of the overall ease of use of duo, its ability to save time and enhance their teaching in the longer term.

During April 2001, students were given an evaluation questionnaire about their use of duo and what effect they thought it had had on their learning. 131 Economics students responded. Many of the questions were specific to the software, and the way it is being used locally, but the following statistics may be of wider interest:

  • Students were asked how long it took for them to feel confident using the learning environment: 93% professed themselves confident in less than 5 visits.
  • Students were asked where (and when) they used the learning environment: 76% admitted to having accessed from home during university vacation.
  • Students were asked how often they logged into the learning environment: 46% said at least several times a week
  • Students were asked what contribution they felt duo had made to their learning: 51% said very good or excellent.

The results from the students both in Economics and Finance and across campus are overwhelmingly positive; but suggest that their expectations have been rapidly raised by the provision they have received this year. Aiming for enhanced quality next year is clearly essential to maintain the satisfaction rate.

Future development for Economics in duo

Most of the teaching and administration staff in the Department of Economics have attended at least one basic training session. Many of them have signed up for advanced courses prior to the start of the next academic session aimed at moving towards using the more interactive features. A number of modules will have extended features next year, including some short self-assessment tests providing formative feedback for different topics. A 'Good Practice' course administered by the Head of Department provides a good base for staff to use to develop their own courses. This includes basic skills such as guides for students on how to reduce printing costs, but also hints on how to use the learning environment to present different types of seminar and lecture material. Other tips such as choosing a 'new' colour to identify recent additions to the course are shared here, thus building an on-going area for self-development by staff in this new and collective experience of online learning. All academic staff and library representatives contribute to special courses in duo at first and second year level which support key skills training, enhancing core competencies and developing research skills. These are designed as an ongoing complement to a week of key skills activities following the Christmas vacation introduced by the department in January 2001. The Department of Economics and Finance considers the implementation of duo a resounding success, embracing the opportunities it offers. The Department undergoes QAA review in November 2001, and looks forward to demonstrating its advances in the provision of online learning resources.

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