This is a guest post by Julie Berry, who is the project lead for the UCB Discussion Forum project. This is one of the 2013 Teaching and Learning Innovation Projects funded by TALI. This is the first of 11 guest posts by TALI funded project leaders.
Last year the University went through a restructure resulting in a reduction in staff. From a support point of view, this meant that staff weren’t always available because they were tied up at meetings, etc. Many of the questions asked are repeated frequently and we thought it would be a good idea to put them online to free up staff time. So we created UniPal – “Uni” for obvious reasons and “Pal” is an acronym for peer assisted learning. It also ties in nicely with the theme of the resource which is “Your best friend at University – online”.
UniPal is a resource within UniLearn which has two sections; a discussion forum and a “Useful Information” section to which support staff can upload documents, videos, suggest websites, etc. As a web-based resource, it is accessible to students 24/7 and they are able to ask (or answer) questions of their peers. This means that the information they need is easily accessible and thanks to the search facility within UniLearn, it can be found easily.
The first obvious benefit is that students will have access to information when they need it – not when staff are available. Also, students who have already encountered a problem and resolved it will be able to pass this on to other students thereby creating an online community of practice.
Finally I believe UniPal will improve students’ digital literacy skills. Practice makes perfect and providing the opportunity for students to use forums such as UniPal will improve their online skills.
The aim of the project is to find out:
- Why the forum was not used previously. UCB Discussion Forum existed last year (now rebranded as UniPal), but because of the restructure there was no time to promote it properly. I used an online survey to find out why. This shows that students want better publicity, access via Unilearn and to know their questions will be answered quickly.
- How to motivate students to use UniPal. As a non-assessed resource I believe that students may be reluctant to use it.
- The extent to which students’ digital literacy skills are improved.
Research has shown that a resource needs to be easy to use and that students need to understand how useful it can be. This can be done by demonstrating the extent to which students can improve their work through performance or time savings. Students can also be motivated through the ‘feel-good’ factor of helping other students.
Attention, relevance, confidence and satisfaction are all identified as motivating factors. UniPal contains activities designed around improving students’ IT, academic and typing skills, etc. We have also issued UniPal USB sticks, created social network accounts, displayed posters, sent encouraging emails to draw attention to UniPal and we have just recruited two students to monitor and promote it. UniPal has been designed to cover our support services including careers, academic skills and information literacy amongst others. All of them are highly relevant and the answers are specific to University Campus Barnsley (UCB).
Some less confident students are more able to discuss issues in an online environment. Once they receive positive feedback, they will gain confidence and stay motivated. I am sending personal emails to students thanking them for their contributions. These emails will also assist with satisfaction as students are recognised for their assistance as well as having a sense of achievement through helping others. I am also giving out small monthly awards for the best question, best answer, etc.