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University of Wolverhampton: Notes from filmed interviews

Page history last edited by Ros Smith 9 years, 1 month ago

These notes, taken during the course of filming for the University of Wolverhampton video case study, provide a further insight into the implementation strategies outlined in the Toolkit case study.


Dr Megan Lawton, Academic Adviser, University of Wolverhampton

Starting out

When work started on PebblePad, we were aware that we needed a tool that would take students through the PDP process in a way that was coherent and which gave them ownership of their work. Previously, PDP had meant paper files located within individual schools. We needed a tool that was applicable across the disciplines and allowed interaction and creativity. We didn’t want something that was simply about form filling. PebblePad was developed to meet our requirements and was piloted in 2004 within a few schools before going university wide in 2005/6.



The university’s Learning and Teaching strategy backed the implementation of PDP but without additional funding. We were, however, awarded Centre of Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) funding to work with the Schools of Art and Design, Applied Sciences, Education and Humanities, Languages and Social Sciences to investigate how e-portfolios can be used in these disciplines to enhance retention, achievement and progression.


Role of the Institute for Learning Enhancement (ILE)

We are a very small department. What we aim to do is to work with individual Schools, getting to know their context intimately so that academics can have ownership of what takes place rather than having solutions imposed on them. In fact we learn a great deal from working with different academic teams. I could never have got this far by working solely within the central unit.


The university’s Learning and Teaching strategy sets the objectives but how these are realised is up to the individual Schools. Having worked with the Schools, we feed back to the Learning and Teaching committee on how implementation is working out. But it’s up to the academics to make their own decisions, so Schools are using PebblePad in different ways. We don’t know how many students are using PebblePad for personal purposes and there is little sense in asking for usage statistics. All our students are given a PebblePad account which they can use anywhere, including overseas.


Changes and challenges

Since that early time, we have undergone changes in the curriculum model used at the university and have even moved away from using the term ’e-portfolio’ – this suggests that students are required to ‘parcel things up together’ into a portfolio. PebblePad is more complex and is better described as ‘a personal learning system’. But there has been increased uptake of PDP as a result of PebblePad and we have learnt to encourage students to engage little and often, developing patches of reflective writing at different points in their course, not leaving it all to the end.


Our real challenge is stopping staff from using the tool. Tutors need to stop and work out what they want to achieve then explore the functions best suited to that purpose. Over time, we have developed examples and case studies to give staff a concept of what can be achieved with PebblePad. When we set out we didn’t know all that could be done with PebblePad. Our innovators are finding new and different uses all the time.

When it comes to successful implementation, blended learning advisers are key. Then you need to get the different disciplines to showcase to one another what they have achieved –real, practice-based evidence is more powerful than a central team showing you what can be done. But you do need a combination of approaches. Button pressing on its own doesn’t get very far.


In summary, a successful implementation demands:

  1. Blended learning advisers working alongside subject experts

  2. Exemplars of use

  3. Academics talking to academics



In 2009, we were asked to complete an evaluation of our use of PebblePad. We needed a methodology that met multiple evaluation needs, including capturing unintended outcomes as we had no idea at the start how the tool would eventually develop. There have been quite a number of unintended outcomes – for example, the tool enables you identify early on students who aren’t engaging, thus reducing the incidence of non-completion of work. Tutors are better able to guide students through what is expected of them, giving feedback in short, timely comments as work progresses. This has turned out to be very beneficial. Pedagogically, we know that rapid interaction between tutors and students achieves results. The evaluation also enabled us to explore how different schools have used PebblePad and the different benefits that can be gained in different disciplinary contexts.


Statistical evidence of success is a frequent requirement of an evaluation study. Although we do have examples of use involving very large numbers (300-400 in Art and Design), we never intended that PebblePad should provide statistical evidence. A PebblePad account is owned by the student and we cannot see what goes into that account without the student’s agreement. An e-portfolio is not a VLE so the institution cannot ‘look into’ what takes place. What we can do is demonstrate how tutors are using the tool to work more effectively with their students.


The future

We are looking to expand into distance learning with PebblePad. This is an unintended outcome but PebblePad is not used as it was originally intended ie just for PDP.


Lessons learnt

I would concentrate less on the need to teach people how to use new software and focus more on what use of the tool can achieve. PebblePad was a completely new tool. Back then we simply didn’t know what could be achieved with it, its potential for iterative learning for example. We started in a largely text-based way, but now students are providing evidence in many different formats. That’s something else we couldn’t foresee at the time. But we never had a technology-driven approach and I wouldn’t change that.


Summing up what e-portfolios offer

  • As a curriculum manger, you can reduce the incidence of non-submission of work

  • As a student, you can show what you can achieve ( your graduate attributes for example)

  • For an individual user, an e-portfolio is a convenient place to dump stuff that might be needed later on in a learning journey… a ‘my space’ that I can revisit when I want.


Emma Purnell, Blended Learning Advisor, University of Wolverhampton

My role

I am a blended learning advisor in the university’s Institute for Learning Enhancement (ILE) which has a strategic remit to work alongside senior managers and feed into Learning and Teaching policies and decision making. It also supports staff across the curriculum in curriculum design, development and implementation. ILE staff are allocated to support different schools as learning is different in different contexts; campus-based, work-based or distance, all have different requirements. I support staff in the School of Law, Social Sciences and Communications, both at the designing and at implementation stages with a focus on embedding technology aligned with the overall curriculum process. I may even get involved in team teaching.


How important are e-portfolios?

How important is e-portfolio-based learning is more the question. The processes students go through are what really matters. e-Portfolios can encapsulate all the stages of learning from initial ideas to guided developmental feedback right through to an eventual presentation …. e-portfolios are holistic.


My first experience of e-portfolios came during a PGCE course when I was encouraged to become a reflective practitioner using PebblePad to record my learning journey. Reflection is a difficult skill, an art even, but the ability to create hypertext helps you achieve more. In an e-portfolio, you can hyperlink to different assets thus bringing in digital sound files, images and video files. You can even create a different story for different people.


As an example, I created a teaching placement portfolio as a PGCE student. Now I am building on that, linking my PGCE and other webfolios into my current CPD e-portfolio which can then become the portal to all I have done in the last five years. I still find creating an e-portfolio helpful – for example for separating out my thoughts or preparing for appraisal.


Distinctive features of PebblePad

PebblePad started in 2004–2005 as a pilot designed to meet the university’s PDP needs. Templates were developed to help students structure their PDP. The pilot ran across the institution. Now it’s run by a commercial company called Pebble Learning.


PebblePad is described as ‘more than an e-portfolio’. It contains pedagogically driven templates which are in effect tools within a tool. For example, there are templates for action planning, reflection and presentations which act as prompts to help students work on their own as well as using e-portfolios as part of a learning activity.


PebblePad places emphasis on the importance of dialogue. Any developing asset can involve discussion with another person. A reflective thread runs through it all – this is what makes PebblePad distinct from other e-portfolio tools, I think. However, building e-portfolios is only part of what can be done in PebblePad. You can use PebblePad to audit your skills, record your progress and for action planning. How you use PebblePad depends on who you are. Over six years, PebblePad has developed from a tool for PDP into supporting a multitude of uses – CPD, appraisal, formal teaching, assessment, work-based learning and, more recently, distance learning.


New developments

Recently we have focused on delivering distance learning via PebblePad in the workplace or elsewhere. The JISC-funded ePPSME (e-portfolio-based pedagogy for small and medium enterprises) project enabled us to trial ten-week courses delivered entirely in PebblePad – a new market and a new use of PebblePad for us.


The short nature of these courses initially caused administrative problems – for example, obtaining short-term student logins for students which did not disappear once the course was completed – but with the experience derived from ePPSMe, we are now developing a three-year undergraduate law degree using an adapted version of the ePPSME model. We have worked with staff in the School of Law to transform an existing traditional course into a distance learning one. Law tutors were already familiar with PebblePad but a materials developer was needed to work alongside them to produce online resources for the course.


Another short course we trialled as part of the ePPSME project was a communication skills module for the construction industry. For this, we worked closely with colleagues in construction and had to overcome off-site access issues. The students in fact never came on campus. They were all male, mostly mature but of different ages. Some had never used a computer before, so we also had to factor in IT skills development for students as well as the training needs of staff who were unused to delivering a course in this way.


We set up two pilot groups and their feedback was used to develop our approach further – for example building in the increased advice and guidance requested by students. On the whole, the construction students took to using PebblePad, especially the group blog. Group communication was a learning curve for some but the majority completed the course.


The ePPSME model has since been used to develop a short, bespoke course for the Institute of Clerks of Works (20 credits or 4 x 5 credit assignments over 40 weeks). This was a real achievement as the e-portfolio system was used right through from induction to delivery and finally to summative assessment and award in higher education. It’s under discussion where we go from here, but the ePPSME model is now being applied to a four and a half year distance learning undergraduate degree in law, proving that ePPSME is a sustainable and scalable model.



For staff, one of the key challenges is the time needed to learn online tutoring skills. However, feedback banks have gradually been developed and staff have the reassurance of ILE support. Setting up a group blog has also helped to support staff. Email queries are shared and answered communally via the blog.


A spin-off project from ePPSME, the ePCoP prject (e-portfolio community of practice), has received additional JISC funding to realise the benefits of ePPSME. We have used an expert facilitator to get the community started. From here on, we hope the community will be self-sustaining. Watch this space!


Lessons learnt

It’s difficult to articulate what has been learnt over the five years as PebblePad has been used in such a varied way. The tool can work as both a VLE and an e-portfolio system in some contexts, notably in distance learning delivery to SMEs. PebblePad has adapted continuously to meet these new needs and has gone far beyond what we originally imagined.


The key thing that has evolved on the way has been the development of e-portfolio-based learning. e-Portfolio-based learning encapsulates the whole process of learning: developing, reflecting, storing, evidencing, deciding who to share your work with, then showcasing the products of your learning.


Alison Felce, Head of Work-based Learning and Director of ePPSME, University of Wolverhampton

My role

The Institute for Learning Enhancement has a quasi-consultancy role with academic schools to support all aspects of their work around course design and development. In my role, this has been in the context of work-based learning, plus work-based activities within the taught curriculum. There has long been a drive to upskill the workforce in the Midlands and increase productivity, so as Head of Work-based Learning, I aim to get more businesses involved in education, enabling more people to gain access to a university education.



ePPSME created a new model for learning and teaching, opening up opportunities for people already in work to gain accreditation and helping businesses provide higher level training opportunities for their staff. Research indicated that we need to educate a wider variety of people. In particular, we needed to attract small businesses which have tended not to engage with higher education, as well as the professional and statutory bodies and the bigger employers who already engage with us. This need had been identified by the university and collaborative activity was already taking place dating back to the Leitch Report.


There was no typical ePPSME learner. If there was an average profile, most were mature in their 30s or 40s. Some were in senior positions, but most had no formal qualifications beyond the age of sixteen. They had learnt from experience and had to fit their learning into their already busy lives. Many had family responsibilities. Often they were short of confidence even if they were IT competent.


PebblePad enables learners to bring in all sorts of learning – formal, informal and work-based. Using PebblePad, we can help learners explore these different experiences, presenting narratives for particular purposes which draw on their life experiences as well as their formal learning, thus giving recognition to learning that has already occurred.



Our biggest challenge was fitting the ePPSME model around the university’s administrative systems which are set up for full-time three-year courses which started in September. Short courses didn’t fit the mould so we had to set up new registration protocols and new ways of creating IT accounts (these normally run over 12-month cycles.) We also had to get the online support right. By the fourth pilot, I think we had got it sorted.


There was a significant drop out rate at first. We had to talk learners through processes such as registration, activating their IT accounts and getting access to the content. PebblePad also had to be adapted to fit the requirements of this course.


We ran four pilots across a range of businesses and courses and were able to identify common learning needs. ePPSME has since delivered communication courses for the construction industry and courses in business organisation and employment law for a range of business sectors.


The future

We have taken the model forward with the development of a distance learning law degree which will be delivered entirely online in PebblePad. There is also a possibility of foundation degrees based on the ePPSME model and more five-credit courses, but this will depend on the market. There may also be e-portfolio-delivered units of study within other courses.


Lessons learnt

Two things stand out. Firstly, you need to scaffold student learning. In a virtual context, you need structures to help learners understand this new environment. Secondly, all background systems and procedures need to be in place. You need a culture change within university systems enabling them to become more responsive to work-based learning. It demands a different language, a different way of dealing with students.


Students have responded positively. There was a drop-out rate but mostly students were positive once their tacit knowledge was brought to the fore. Students don’t always realise how much they know. The ePPSME model gives them the opportunity to share their achievements with others.


We also needed to build capacity amongst staff. When we selected the participating schools, we identified proficient e-portfolio users to work alongside subject specialists. We produced tutor support material which gave step-by-step instructions on how to write a five-credit module. We have since set up the e-Portfolio Community of Practice project to provide a common space for tutors and to support a series of online discussions, asynchronous or synchronous, and a face-to-face event. People want to share but also to ask questions. Getting the pedagogy right is very important.


Robert Francis, ePPSME student

I am a student on the clerk of works course. A clerk of works inspects the quality in a construction project and identifies defects against the contract. The course will advance my prospects in the construction industry.


I am out at work and have a family of five. An e-portfolio-based approach to learning gives me the flexibility I need working in my own time and at my own pace. You can put more quality into your work when you can control the pace. Using PebblePad was also useful for building my communication skills. I have used group blogs, Web X presentations and, as you use these tools, your communication skills improve.


I was to some extent familiar with working online but the step-by-step guidance embedded in PebblePad, for example on creating a webfolio, was very helpful. PebblePad is a good communication tool and helps you reflect. You can set yourself targets and if you don’t achieve them, you can consider why not. It’s good for logging progressing and checking where you are. And if you’re not used to dealing with people, it is a good way of building the interpersonal skills you will need in work.


Key messages

  • You enhance your potential in the workplace with the skills you acquire from using an e-portfolio system. Good communication skills, for example, are needed in all industries.


  • Using e-portfolios, it’s easier to manage your time. You don’t have to attend classes at a set time. It’s all set up for you. I have been surprised how good the experience can be.


  • Students help one another and work as a team. We can go to the tutor for help but also assist one another. There are a lot of different ways you can get support: online tutorials, webcams, emails to your tutor and blogging with other students. With all this in place, I felt I was getting at least the same level of guidance as a campus-based student.

  • Tutors look at everyone individually and see where they are. At the beginning, everyone is at a different level but the team is there to get you on the same level. We come in and help each other too. Not only can people go to a tutor, they can go to each other for support as well.


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