For its ground-breaking My Learning Essentials blended learning programme, the University of Manchester Library received the 2014 Blackboard Catalyst Award for Innovative Blended Learning – one of five categories awarded each year to recognise Blackboard clients around the world who push the boundaries of their educational programs and technology in order to deliver innovative and effective learning experiences with Blackboard solutions.

Jade Kelsall, Learning Technologist at University of Manchester Library shared the project during the webinar series “Catalysts of eLearning”. Access the recording here.

The University of Manchester is made up of four faculties, each of which comprises many schools, spanning academic disciplines, and accommodating around 40 thousand students. Jade Kelsall heads up the development team for the online element of My Learning Essentials at the University Library. An ambitious project initiated by the University Library to improve access to learning across a diverse range of learning needs, My Learning Essentials successfully engages over a quarter of the university’s students in a blended learning programme that is already delivering results.

“We use Blackboard Learn to deliver our MLE online resources to over 70 course units across campus,” said Jade Kelsall, “Using the content management system allows us to maintain a grip on who is embedding our resources in their course units, which allows us to accurately monitor where they’re being used and what areas we need to target to engage with.”

Launched in September 2013, after a nine-month development project, My Learning Essentials provides Manchester students with access to an open programme of learning, a curriculum-linked programme and a library of interactive online resources.

Designed to provide students with the support they need, at the point they need it, My Learning Essentials’ open programme is open to all students on a self-selecting basis. Incorporating drop-in workshops and face-to-face sessions, the open programme is coordinated by the Library and links to partners across the University, such as counselling and careers services. The facility encourages flexible learning and appeals to the diverse community of students, who range from school leavers to individuals participating in professional qualifications and post-graduate study.

The second element of the learning initiative is the curriculum-linked programme, which is delivered by the Library’s Teaching and Learning Team, It offers introductory sessions, face-to-face learning and allows students to follow up with Q&A sessions as required.

Underpinning both open and curriculum-linked progammes are the online resources which have been developed to complement all learning undertaken in the programme, and encourage academic skills development regardless of the student’s starting point.

Jade Kelsall continued: “Using Blackboard to deliver the resources in alignment with students’ academic programmes enabled us to contextualise information literacy skills within their existing learning, rather than having it seen as an add-on.”

Student artwork has been used to illustrate online content and to brand the project, helping to emphasize the customisation of the programme specifically for the University of Manchester and the desire for the students’ involvement.

“My Learning Essentials taps into the Library’s position at the centre of the students’ learning experience, and allows us to extend our reach far beyond the walls of the Library buildings,” said Jade Kelsall. “The cross-disciplinary nature of the open programme allows students to engage in conversations that range beyond their own degree subject, which is very positive.”

The response by students and staff has been good. 99% of users found the Online Resources useful with many commenting on how enjoyable they were to use. The workshops feedback was also extremely positive – with 98% finding workshops useful. Blended learning is still relatively new to the University Library but it has already enabled the institution to reach out to more students. In the first year of My Learning Essentials over 10 thousand students were reached using this model (a quarter of the student population), through 70 Blackboard course units across the campus; 2,500 students attended the open programme workshops, and the online resources recorded 55 thousand hits.

Timescales were short in which to deliver the large amount of content required and Jade saw this as the project’s most significant challenge. “We were committed to making the content relevant and are continually adding to the programme. Feedback was good from the start,” she said “and we now have data on the most popular workshops, the most popular times of day and most used online resources. This information will inform new features and ongoing content creation.”

The University of Manchester Library measured the success of the programme against the teaching that had taken place prior to September 2013, which was all face to face, lecture-style hour-long presentations. The traditional teaching methods delivered a large amount of information but not always at a time when it was meaningful or completely understood. It was not totally effective and the Library got multiple requests from students – clocking up an additional 40 hours a month of work for Library staff to handle these requests. Following the adoption of My Learning Essentials, which was enabled by Blackboard, the Library was able to provide students with learning where and when they needed it. Requests by students have been reduced and now only require an additional five hours of support per month by Library staff.

“Over the next year or so we’re reviewing the curriculum-linked element of My Learning Essentials to establish a framework that we can use to tailor our skills development to meet the diverse needs of the different schools and faculties at the University of Manchester,” said Jade. “We are also constantly adding to the breadth of opportunities available via the open programme, developing new online resources and offering workshops on a wider range of areas.

Future plans also include the integration of social media to allow students to contribute in more ways to the shaping of the material and facilities. In the meantime, the students and staff are warmly adopting My Learning Essentials and the university is attracting worldwide attention for its achievements on behalf of its students.

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