This case study outlines and reflects on the role of the Learner Ambassador, supporting the use of Xerte on a third year inquiry-based research module on the BA Social Science programme at the University of the West of Scotland. During module development, a central commitment was made to transform the learning environment from one where students took part as passive consumers, to one where they were active producers, creating tangible research outputs that could be used by others in the future. The role of the Learning Ambassador was introduced to support the organisation and coordination of peer support during the module around the use of the Xerte Online Toolkit, which learners used to develop and showcase outputs from small-group, desk-based research projects. In order to ensure that all 72 learners on the module would have access to support when required, and to encourage a student led and collaborative learning environment, the Learner Ambassador’s first task was to set up a team of Xerte Champions to support the class during the production of Xerte learning objects, which were to be assessed as part of the module.
About the Institution
The University of the West of Scotland is a multi-campus institution, with campus sites in Ayr, Dumfries, Hamilton and Paisley. Through its Learning, Teaching and Assessment Strategy, the institution is committed to providing transformative learning experiences by engaging in partnerships with students by way of ‘growing their independence and resilience as learners’. It also has a commitment to embedding active e-learning elements on all modules in its portfolio. These commitments are reflected in the case study below.
‘universities should treat learning always as consisting of not yet wholly solved problems and hence always in a research mode.’ (von Humboldt, cited in Healy & Jenkins 2005: 9)
Burton Clark (1997) argues that research activity acts as an important means of teaching and a valuable way of learning. Within the UK’s higher education system, teaching has often been seen as the poor relation of research, and undergraduate students have been excluded from this area of the university, with these activities often concentrated in select universities where research staff have little or no involvement with undergraduate students (Healey & Jenkins 2005). The challenge for advocates of active, inquiry-based approaches to learning is to find ways “to move ‘undergraduate research from a marginal, privileged role for a few students to make it a significant structured curriculum experience for all students” (Jenkins & Healey 2009: 1). To engage this process on the BA Social Science programme at the University of the West of Scotland, the landscape of teaching and learning has been changed with the aim of inculcating the research process in undergraduate students through the curriculum. By encouraging students to learn in ‘research mode’, the aim is to not only to engage them in the core activities of the university, but in doing so to transform their learning experience from one where they act as passive consumers in the classroom, to one where their role is one of active production. The Xerte online toolkit has been used to support this approach, engaging students in learning in creative and collaborative ways.
The Learner Ambassador role involved organising and coordinating a team of Xerte Champions, who were introduced to the Xerte toolkit prior to the commencement of the module that formed the focus of this study. After initial training, it was the Ambassador’s responsibility to ensure they the support team were competent in using the technology and able to fulfill the commitment to supporting their peers. A key part of this was process involved to liaising with members of the teaching team in order to negotiate the peer-assisted learning aspect of the Ambassador’s role. This led to the Ambassador organising a Xerte demonstration event for the 72 students enrolled on the module, facilitating a series of student-led workshops, where the ambassador and Xerte Champions were on hand to provide support and guidance regarding the use of Xerte, and monitoring the online forum set up within the Moodle VLE, where students would post any questions and/or problems they encountered.
Writing about student engagement in inquiry and research, Levy and Peterullis (2012: 96) observe that “the purposes of open-ended exploration could be puzzling and unsettling to students who held strongly reproductive conceptions of learning”. Key areas identified as providing particular challenges include: personal self-confidence, peer collaboration, and inquiry framing and direction-setting. When the Xerte Ambassador encountered similar challenges, solutions had to be quickly found to navigate these potential barriers. As Xerte was a new learning experience, and a tool that was to be used as part of the assessment regime, there was an initial feeling of unease amongst a small proportion of the class, especially those who were hesitant about moving beyond traditional forms of assessment. However, through the support and guidance provided by the Learner Ambassador as well as the Xerte Champions, these initial inhibitions soon disappeared, as the students’ confidence in their ability to navigate the Xerte toolkit grew. Within a single two-hour workshop, all students had created their first Xerte learning object.
A number of students held reservations regarding the merits of group work prior to undertaking this module. Previous experiences had left many questioning its value, whilst some would simply go out of their way to avoid any form of group work. Xerte was introduced to the students as a tool that would enhance peer-support and peer-assisted learning – as soon as the inquiry process was underway, and students began working to create their group Xerte, a high level of peer-collaboration became evident. Using Xerte to frame the inquiry process resulted in a learning environment where students lost any inhibitions they had about working with their peers, and engaged extensively in intra- and inter-group support. A high proportion of students have cited the collaborative aspects of using Xerte as the assessment tool for a group project as one of its major strengths.
Whilst most students found Xerte relatively simple to use, with queries easily resolved, a small number felt worried about how they would frame and structure their research. Moving away from a didactic lecture based approach proved to be worrisome for those students who doubted their ability to direct their own learning. Using the workshops to enable a ’hands on’ approach, and through the immediate support available from the Learner Ambassador, Xerte Champions and peers, students were able to quickly ‘work’ through any problems they encountered. While many of the concerns did not relate explicitly to Xerte, the cohesion that had developed around the Xerte support mechanisms put in place extended beyond their initial role.
Using Xerte as an assessment tool on the third year inquiry-based research module meant that students not only had the opportunity to learn how to engage with a new digital tool, but also that a space opened up for collaborative and peer-assisted learning to take place within an active inquiry-based learning environment. According to Healy (2005), learners are likely to gain most benefit, in terms of depth of learning and understanding, when they are involved in research and inquiry. Xerte proved to be the perfect tool to facilitate active inquiry-based learning, allowing students to present their knowledge of their chosen academic focus in a collaborative and creative way. The student-led workshops soon became the focus for active collaboration, enabling students to become co-creators of their own learning experience.
Embedding Xerte in the module not only enabled peer-to-peer support in the lectures and workshops – which completely changed the classroom environment – it also meant that barriers between students at different stages of their degrees were removed, as it was possible to have students from second year supporting third year students in the use of the tool. And as Xerte is easily sharable, students from any year of the Social Science programme can now access research carried out by other students. From the position of the Learner Ambassador, it was clear that a key positive aspect of the whole experience was seeing students who previously wanted to avoid taking part in group work actually opting in to it. Feedback suggests that this was the result of a transformation in the learning environment into something which was dynamic, engaging, productive and student-led. Although other institutions may utilise the Xerte toolkit differently, the experience on this module demonstrates the potential for the technology to become a central part of students’ learning in a vibrant and creative environment.
As the process developed, the input and experience of the Learner Ambassador extended beyond organising and coordinating support on the module, taking up a central role in a change initiative funded by the Higher Education Academy. This has involved the Learner Ambassador engaging in change workshops at the national level, presenting the work of the UWS team and collaborating with staff and students from a number of other HE institutions. A key part of this process involved attendance at a two day residential event in Leeds to work with HEA staff to ensure the development of a sustainable model for partnership learning that located Xerte, as a vehicle to encourage active, inquiry-based learning at its centre. The development of the students as partners aspect of the project was also the subject of a paper presented at the British Conference of Undergraduate Research 2014, where the Learner Ambassador presented to a national audience, demonstrating the positive results yielded by using Xerte to engage undergraduate students in an authentic research experience.
Learners were initially cautious and a little concerned that they would not be able to use the technology. However, with the support of the Learner Ambassador, the initial apprehensions quickly disappeared. Feedback focused on the experience of the process rather than the tool:
“I think its a great tool to use as it allows the students to be more creative within their assessments”
“Xerte is an extremely useful/flexible collaborative tool that allows groups to work together online at times convenient to students & a key benefit of peer assisted workshops is that they encourage interaction, creativity and communication”
Leading the Xerte Champions in providing peer support in the use of Xerte was a rewarding experience for all involved. It was a transformative learning experience and supported the development of key transferable skills. From the position of Learner Ambassador, it showed the potential of the learning in partnership model to be developed around the use of Xerte, but also that the support networks which emerged extended far beyond the use of the technology. The experience demystified the research process and highlighted the potential of undergraduate students to become active producers of knowledge. Lessons were learned in terms of the way in which the intervention by the Learner Ambassador and Xerte Champions was managed, particularly in relation to the initial support, which could be provided earlier to allow students to experiment with the technology prior to the module running. This would create greater potential for peer support as the module progresses. On reflection, it is clear that undergraduate students are an untapped potential in relation to the university learning experience. The Xerte project has clearly shown this.
Jade McCarroll (Xerte Learner Ambassador) JMcCarroll59@gmail.com
The Jisc Regional Support Centre Scotland supports the development of educational e-Learning. We may refer to specific products, processes or services. Such references are examples and are not endorsements or recommendations and should not be used for product endorsement purposes.
Burton, R. (1997) ‘The modern integration of research activities with teaching and learning’. Journal of Higher Education. 68(3): 241-255.