What's New with e-Learning at CityU?

by Eva Wong
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As e-learning evolves into an integral part of our academic learning environment, the Blackboard platform (Bb) is now a mission critical system at CityU, enabling both staff and students to maximize their productivity.

The e-learning project is the major focus of CityU's Information Systems Strategic Plan 2005-2010 (ISSP) and it underpins the strategic development of outcomes-based teaching and learning (OBTL) at the University. Since its launch in the 2005-06 academic year, there has been continuous and significant growth and demand in usage. Over the years, we have maintained our effort to ensure use of the platform to facilitate all forms of academic and related activities. By deploying state-of-the-art functions and features, we try to engage students in active, collaborative and self-directed learning.

The e-learning platform has become the learning and communication hub for 30,000 energetic and creative students and staff, and provides integrations to essential administrative, messaging and specialized learning facilities. Around 70% of courses offered each semester have active sites on Bb; it is thus a mission critical system where performance, stability and security are expected. The performance tuning and capacity planning exercise done in mid-2007 allowed us to map the demands and growth of the system with its capacity. We planned and acted accordingly by upgrading the entire system to sustain reliable performance.

The central aim of the e-learning project is immersion, one of the four cornerstones of the ISSP. Our students are immersed in an IT-rich platform which is part of their default learning environment, giving them that extra edge on graduation to excel in today’s place of work. To ensure that appropriate tools and features are made available to staff and students for learning-centred activities, the e-learning platform is enriched with self-developed and add-on packages continuously. A major initiative of the University is language enhancement. A couple of online voice tools, Wimba and Tell Me More are deployed on our e-learning platform for both in-class use and students’ self-regulated learning. The two major Web 2.0 features, blogs and wikis are deployed as collaborative learning tools, offering more flexibility and possibility for student-centred learning activities.

Collected usage data from system logs and surveys on both staff and students continue to show that the e-learning platform is an essential system serving its students, staff and alumni, all of whom have a 24 by 7 expectation on system availability. Furthermore, the surveys of staff and students suggest that for the active users at least, the system is perceived as having a significant impact on student learning.

Leadership in e-learning

To continue ascertain CityU’s leadership in e-learning, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region, we sent representatives to the various Blackboard and e-learning conferences and forums to showcase our successes and share our experience either as invited keynote speakers or papers presenters. The largest of the Bb conferences is the BbWorld held in the US each year. Despite keen competition, CityU’s submission was selected for presentation at the BbWorld ’08 in July 2008. This was the first time that an Asian university had given a presentation at a BbWorld conference. Furthermore, CityU’s success in deploying e-learning was showcased at the conference with an 8’ by 4’ billboard and a case study published at

To maintain our education leadership in e-learning, the e-Learning Forum first organized by CityU in 2006 will return to us in 2009. We will co-organise this Forum with Taiwan’s Feng Chia University and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. As the University celebrates its silver jubilee in 2009, the 2009 e-Learning Forum Asia will be one of the celebratory events for our 25th anniversary. Details of the Forum are available at http://www.cityu.edu.hk/edo/elearning_forum/2009/.

System upgrade to enable latest features and functions

CityU firmly embraces the idea that IT is transforming education. We have taken, and will continue to take, the necessary action to make full use of IT to incessantly enhance our learning-centric environment.

On the technical front, we have to ensure that our e-learning platform continues to be a reliable utility for teaching and learning, thus periodic upgrade and health check exercises will be part and parcel of our proactive systems administration and management. The Bb software is scheduled to be upgraded to version 8.0 at the end of January 2009, during the Chinese New Year break when usage is customarily low. The upgrade will enable the latest functions and features, in particular, the long-awaited Grade Centre, to be available to our users. It is also likely that we shall engage a Bb consultant to run another health check for our system in April 2009 to make certain that the upgrade to version 8.0 has not inadvertently over-burden the system. The data collected and analyses drawn will also help us to plan for September 2009 and beyond.

New capabilities to enhance student learning

For the users, the enrichment of the platform will continue to allow for more learning-centred activities as the University moves forward into outcomes-based teaching and learning while preparing for the transition to the 4-year degree structure.

In the last academic year, we piloted an institutional deployment of the "blog" function added onto our Bb platform to further engage students in improving their English writing skills while learning their chosen subjects. Over 600 CityU students in 10 credit-bearing courses of various disciplines were involved in this pilot project whereby CityU students submitted their course assignments into the blogs, and students in TESOL or Linguistics programmes of our partnering universities in North America and Australia served as online language coaches to provide feedback via the blog on students' English writing based on a standardized comment bank developed at CityU. Hence our new model deploys the state-of-the-art Web 2.0 technology to engage students in collaborative learning on a global network. With a stable and function-rich e-learning platform, we envisage the innovations on its use to help students improve their English and Chinese will continue given the University’s emphasis on language enhancement.

In our endeavours to encourage students to engage in self-regulated learning, an add-on system, Echo360, to record lectures and classes, and then publish them via the e-learning platform will be piloted in 2009. Useful packages, like Wimba and Tell Me More will continue to be deployed with extended usage anticipated.

Engaging students in self-directed learning

With the focus of helping our students to become motivated and self-regulated learners, the Student Computer Notebook Long Term Loan Scheme (LLS), will be launched in January 2009. The rationale of the scheme is to provide a truly personalized, educational and productivity knowledge tool for each student to further immerse them in a mobile, business environment, hence better preparing them for their future workplace. In line with the launch of this scheme, Backpack will move from pilot stage into deployment by having it incorporated into the notebooks to be loaned out. This will help each student to learn as an individual as they can still work on their own Bb courses while offline through pre-downloaded courses, organizing their studies and personalizing their materials with their notes. This functionality will also allow students to keep archive copies of their courses for later use and record purposes.

With the LLS ensuring that the majority of our students can have a laptop for work anytime, anywhere, the scope of student engagement, particularly in large classes, can be enhanced. Proven effective learning techniques such as the one-minute paper, personal response system, even peer and self assessment can be deployed in class using the laptops and the e-learning platform. The EDO has devised some new Bb workshops to further explore this area of engaging students in learning, please refer to the section at the end of this article.

In order to show what students have learned, they have to be able to apply the skills and knowledge to solve problems, and then reflect on what they have done to truly internalize their learning. In this regard, the ePortfolio is being recognized as an important tool. Since an initial pilot in 2005, we saw a major expansion of the ePortfolio project at CityU. When the project on ePortfolios was first piloted, it was deployed as English Language ePortfolios only with about 250 students who were enrolled in ELC courses. The ePortfolios project has since been further promoted at CityU across different disciplines for subjects beyond English language learning. It aims to research and implement the learning ePortfolios with the partnership with colleagues from a number of Departments in the three major Faculties with over 500 students involved. With our emphasis on using e-learning to help students evidence and showcase their achieved learning outcomes, we plan to expand our work on ePortfolios to incorporate not just the learning portfolios, but move further onto careers portfolios. We will continue to strengthen our seamless learning environment with Web 2.0 and 3.0 functionality to facilitate social and personalized learning for our students.

Online Guides and Further Assistance

We strongly believe in making use of Bb to help users learn e-learning, as “doing” is an effective way to learn. To introduce these newly released or piloting functions, Blackboard user guides with examples are available online to help students and staff get started. The respective URLs are:

The EDO has also scheduled instructor workshops to introduce the use of the various functions and packages to teachers(http://www.cityu.edu.hk/edo/teach/eLearn/index.htm). Furthermore, we are inviting interested teachers to work with us to recommend and try out the various new packages and systems in pilot projects. Interested colleagues, please send an email to edo@cityu.edu.hk. But it should be noted that with all pilots, we need to monitor the stability and performance of the tools under trial, so colleagues have to be tolerant of defects and deficiencies and take appropriate measures to protect essential materials.

Our achievement in the area of e-learning has clearly shown that CityU has endeavoured to shoulder educational leadership in the strategic development of IT supporting education, putting major investments into IT to guarantee optimal services for all students and staff. Now that e-learning is mission-critical at CityU, we must maintain our effort to stay at the forefront of using IT to support education such that e-learning becomes so transformative that we can drop the “e”, subsuming e-learning completely into student learning.