Entries to the E-tutor of the Year 2002 competition indicate old universities are catching up with newer institutions in the take-up of e-learning, according to the panel of five judges, writes Pat Leon.
Of the 38 entrants, 16 were from old universities, 14 from new, four from colleges or institutes, two from abroad, one from a distance-learning university and one from a commercial firm. It is the second year of the competition. Last year, there were more entries from new universities than from old.
The winner of the £1,000 prize and two runners-up will be announced at the Association for Learning Technology's annual conference at Sunderland University on Tuesday. The competition is organised by the Learning and Teaching Support Network's Generic Centre and sponsored by The THES .
Judge Kathy Wiles, senior adviser to the LTSN generic centre, said: "We were amazed by the scope and range of uses of virtual learning environments. It is good to see that lecturers are not sitting on their laurels and saying 'been there, done that'."
The 21 male and 17 female entrants represented a broad spectrum of academia, from traditional lecturers, librarians and teaching assistants to teams working in central e-learning units.
Ms Wiles believes the UK is at the leading edge of what can be done in terms of e-learning in higher education. She said: "The UK should be proud. It might not have implemented it on the scale of the US or Australia, but in terms of usage, innovation and thinking about students and putting them at the centre, the UK is the frontrunner."
For judges, it was not the product or technology that mattered but how people were using e-learning to communicate, learn from one another, access the internet, find materials and bring them back into discussion and work.
Judge Laurie Phipps, service manager of Techdisc, which helps universities and colleges use technology for students with disabilities and learning difficulties, said: "What was outstanding this year compared with last was the way tutors were taking off-the-shelf products, such as WebCT and Blackboard, and using them creatively. No one was reinventing the wheel but rather building on what has been done before."
Ted Smith, head of the Technologies Centre, a service funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee, said: "Most of the entries showed a good use of virtual-learning environments, but we were looking for something different, not just in the VLEs themselves but in their applications and the fun way they are being used in traditional subjects."
One of the more unusual entries was a virtual art studio/ gallery for students at Nottingham Trent School of Art and Design.
Frank Abbot, senior lecturer in fine art, wanted to capture online that sense of the studio as a working space and forum for creative ideas.
He commissioned the university's IT Development Group to design a virtual/studio gallery, an online portal to the college and the work going on there. Rather than using off-the-shelf software, the IT group designed their own based on Microsoft Exchange 2000.
Most academics were using the portal to put their course material online. Mr Abbot wanted something different. He wanted students to provide the content, visual and sound, in the form of animations, scanned-in paintings and photographs, videos, soundtracks, slideshows and texts.
Mr Abbot said that creating a digital portfolio would help students prepare for work. More than 500 pieces of work have been uploaded since the studio/gallery went live last February. There is space for viewers' comments.
Mr Abbot said it was up to the students to decide whether to use the gallery. "They can put work on and take it off with no staff involvement. It is our role as a course to discuss the choices made by students. This has stimulated some strong debate in tutorials about the value of the digital environment," he said.
Lack of visual clues is often seen as a negative aspect of discussion boards. But for students at the Royal National College for the Blind, a discussion board gave them greater confidence, according to entrant Shirley Evans.
Students from 16 to 19-years-old formed an Electronic Soap Group to meet online to chat about soap opera story lines involving themes such as safe sex, alcohol abuse, personal presentation and assertiveness.
Maths had proved a big problem for some students on a compulsory sports biomechanics course at the University of Central Lancashire, so lecturer Sarah Jane Hobbs created a resource to help.
Using WebCT, she designed Bliss - the Biomechanics Learning Interface for Sports Science students - to take students through four sporting scenarios using video clips of performing athletes, such as Preston Harriers triple jumpers. Course notes, graphs, illustrations, diagrams and information sources are embedded. Students are set four assignments and four quizzes.
Judge Jane Core, director of learning resources at Northumbria University, said: "This entry tried hard to engage students. A lot of technology is used to reduce contact hours with them. People chuck material on the web and think that's enough. It's not."
Global healthcare finds the right blend
Quality is the key selling point of University College London's web-based MSc in primary healthcare, which Trisha Greenhalgh, professor of primary healthcare, set up in 1998. It recouped its development costs in three years.
The three-year course, one of seven related to health, involves senior clinicians and policy-makers in distance part-time study.
Among the first 33 graduates are a pharmacist from Surrey, a community midwife from Norway and a former paediatrician from Croatia's health ministry.
Two students have physical disabilities, seven are from ethnic minorities and six speak English as a second language.
Professor Greenhalgh said: "When we set up our course, some senior decision-makers at UCL were convinced that quality was an inherent problem in online courses.
"Three years on, we were delighted to be asked by UCL registry if our quality framework could be made available more generally at UCL for course teams running face-to-face courses to adapt to their own needs."
Health-online, entered by Jeannette Raymer of University College Northampton, was one of the newest courses and was cited as a good example of "blended" learning by the judges.
Aimed at pre-registration nurses and midwives, the course started in May using Northampton's managed learning environment, NILE, derived from Granada and Wolverhampton University's Learnwise.
The idea was to introduce students to the technology they would use to manage information in the health service. "Courses for these students have, for many years, been taught in very traditional pedagogical formats with students in similar age groups and circumstances," Ms Raymer said.
"All students are expected to take this module as part of a core year. Not all of them have the same level of computer expertise or have computers at home. The students are encouraged to use the UCN's facilities on campus."
E-tutor of the year entrants and judges
Frank Abbott , fine art, Nottingham Trent University; Andreas Alexander , marketing, LJ Group; Malcolm Andrew , pharmacy, De Montfort University; Anthony Basiel , research supervision, Middlesex University; Chris Beaumont , computer networking, Edgehill College; Jon Bernardes , family studies, Wolverhampton University; Margaret Bray and Jonathon Leape , micro-economics, LSE; Caitlin Buck , statistics, Sheffield University; Susan Burton , pharmacy, Nottingham University; Stephen Clark , architecture, Sydney University, Australia; Cathy Dantec , language, Hull University; Phil Davies , computing, Glamorgan University; Shirley Evans , Royal National College for the Blind; Judith Gair and Peter Shaw , teacher training, Northumbria University; Nicholas Gaskell , maritime law, Southampton University; Catherine Gerrard , online learning materials, Paisley University; Demessie Girma , electronic processing systems, Strathclyde University; Trisha Greenhalgh , primary health care, University College London; Tracy Harwood , marketing, De Montfort University; Sarah Jane Hobbs , sports biomechanics, Central Lancashire University; Peter Hollands , biomedical science, Anglia Polytechnic University; Mickey Keenan , psychology, Ulster University; David Kennedy , nursing/health, Paisley University; Dina Lewis , work-based learning, Hull University; Judith Margolis , business, Open University; John Milton , English, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; Beverley Milton-Edwards , Middle East politics, Queen's University, Belfast; Brian Murphy , chemistry, Manchester Metropolitan University; Celia O'Hagen , lifelong learning, Ulster University; David O'Halloran , radiotherapy, Leeds University; Chengzhi Peng , architecture, Sheffield University; Ashley John Pinn , model design, Hertfordshire University; Susannah Quinsee , geographic information, City University; Jeanette Raymer , healthcare, University College, Northampton; Chris Thornton , computing, Sussex University; Dominic Upton , psychology, University of Wales Institute, Cardiff; Irene Watt-Mitchell , online tutoring, Aberdeen University; Robert Josef Williams , rural financial management, Plymouth University.
Jane Core , Northumbria University Laurie Phipps , Techdisc Pat Leon , The THES Ted Smith , Technologies Centre Kathy Wiles , LTSN generic centre.