Using digital learning technologies to re-shape the first year undergraduate experience

This article is an abridged version of one of two case studies that were part of an application for Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy (SFHEA). This case study focused on relatively small changes I made to the Year 1 programme while in the role of Year 1 Coordinator for a BA(Hons) Fine Art course within a small specialist arts institution, the University for the Creative Arts (UCA). Both studies reflected on the impact these changes had on my own teaching practice and on teaching and learning on the course in a wider sense. Some of the most significant developments discussed in the case studies were driven by my curiosity about the advantages of digital learning technologies, and two of these are taken up in this article: foregrounding UCA’s digital learning portal (myUCA) and exploring the use of blogs.

Published on 19th October 2018 | Written by Mary-lou Barratt | Photo by Ahmad Dirini on Unsplash


The aims of foregrounding UCA’s digital learning portal (myUCA) and exploring the use of blogs were, respectively: making better use of the University’s digital portal in order to improve the first-year experience of course management and organisation; and taking an innovative approach to improving that experience in terms of assessment and feedback. While these aims were driven by my own curiosity around digital technologies and inclusive strategies, they were primarily framed by: a motivation to continually develop the first-year experience; an awareness of changes coming into effect around Disabled Students’ Allowances; and, feedback from the Internal Student Survey (ISS), which had flagged up ‘course organisation and management’ and ‘assessment and feedback’ as areas requiring attention.

I was sensitive to the fact that sector-wide studies show Fine Art’s curricular style and staffing profile, and its implicit pedagogy of ambiguity, affect students’ perception of aspects of the course, such as organisation and feedback. However, it was clear that the team could not hold this up as mitigating circumstances. Rather, this needed to drive consideration of new strategies, and revision of old ones. To this end, while I felt somewhat intimidated by digital learning technologies, I could see that they offered a range of opportunities, and so were a potential way forward.

Digital learning portal: organisation and inclusivity

My aim to improve the first year experience of course management and organisation focused on making better use of myUCA, an existing university-wide intranet platform which incorporates a dedicated area for each UCA course. Historically, Fine Art (FA) tutors and students at UCA Canterbury have had a rather tenuous relationship with the platform as a whole, with both students and tutors reporting in Course Board and team meetings that information was difficult to find and material was inconsistently uploaded and updated.

So, I saw considerable potential for expanding the course’s use of this platform. I was particularly interested in making use of this digital portal to support first year students as they transition into HE, and present resources in a way that made them highly visible and accessible to those students, both of which could help address issues and perceptions of course management and organisation. Consequently, I took up the task of revising the Year 1 area of myUCA. I implemented some simple strategies, such as ensuring that labelling and presentation were clear and consistent across all units, and made more complex interventions involving working with others to develop an array of resources aimed at engaging students and enhancing the more traditional forms of teaching at play on the course.

A significant aspect of my approach to myUCA was the development of web-based resources that were closely aligned with the content of the taught programme. For instance, in line with a series of formal lectures, which can leave some students feeling rather disorientated, I presented a package of accessible material. I asked each lecturer to provide a handout a week prior to their session, which I then formatted to maintain consistency and uploaded to myUCA four or five days in advance of the lecture, asking students to read it in preparation.

Lecturers were also asked to leave a copy of their slides after the lecture, which I saved as PDFs and uploaded to myUCA. I also worked closely with one of UCA’s Learning Support Coordinators (LSCs) who had been looking for an academic willing to trial video capture software so that lectures could be accessed by students who missed, or wanted to revisit, them. This seemed particularly pertinent as a form of ‘reasonable adjustment’ in light of the high proportion of students with dyslexia within the discipline and the increasing number of students whose attendance and engagement is impacted by mental health issues. As the LSC noted, this was an important step in their research:

“I worked with Mary-lou to consider what impact recording lectures could have on student engagement … I appreciated [her] willingness to consider trialling this as it is widely recognised as inclusive practice” (email from LSC 28.7.2018).

It also added an invaluable dimension to my endeavour to provide a package of accessible digital resources to enhance the lecture programme.

The LSC recorded all sessions in the lecture series and used Screencast software to upload the recordings to myUCA via Estream. I then ensured that the handout, PDF of slides and video recording for each lecture were presented as a coherent easily accessible package on myUCA. I regularly demonstrated how to access these resources to students, and tutors: I made it part of unit briefings, asking students to demonstrate how they would go about finding and using resources, and I shared these materials with students during tutorials.

As part of the lecture capture initiative, the LSC conducted a voluntary online survey which invited feedback from students who had accessed the video recordings. 43 of the 76 Year 1 FA students responded, which indicates that over 50% percent of the cohort accessed the recordings. When asked ‘is having recorded lectures useful?’ 42 of the 43 respondents said ‘yes’ and there were no negative responses. 17 respondents specified this usefulness in terms of recapping, extending studies or catching up, and 34 linked this to issues such as attending study visits, dyslexia, mental health, anxiety, accessibility issues, work and illness. As one student noted:

“[M]issing lectures is super detrimental to my studies so the ability to watch them online and therefore never miss out on anything no matter the circumstance, is incredibly helpful” (data from LSC’s ‘Student Feedback Survey – Lecture Capture’ 28.7.2018)

The LSC’s survey indicated that the FA (Canterbury) area of myUCA was becoming a supportive, inclusive resource for a wide range of learners. Informal conversations with students and analytic data provided by myUCA in the form of activity summaries offered further evidence that students were beginning to use this platform as a key source of information, and the subsequent ISS showed students were gaining a better sense of the course as well organised. As a consequence of these initiatives, both the use of lecture capture and the more robust and accessible use of myUCA have become increasingly embedded in the FA(Canterbury) programme and now extend beyond the first year team. So, this was a significant success from my perspective as Year Coordinator. It was also a successful outcome in personal terms; it gave me a better grasp of the potential of digital resources that I had previously been unfamiliar with and of the potential for centralising myUCA as an accessible and engaging hub for the course.

Blogs: Peer Review and Formative Assessment

ISS feedback indicated that changes to assessment strategies across all Year 1 units could be fundamental to improving the first year experience. While the aim was to address this, I was also aware that assessment can be something of a threshold concept for FA undergraduates, in that it can involve ‘passing through a conceptual gateway leading to previously inaccessible ways of thinking about something’ (Meyer and Land 2003). As Orr et al (2014) point out, many first year students are looking for certainty, for reassurance and feedback that guarantees success on the course, but they encounter a context in which judgements are largely open to question and subjective, and there is neither one correct end-result nor one way to get there.

While informal discussion and critique takes place in a context of openness, creativity and exploration, if students are unfamiliar with such processes, they may not interpret this as offering formative feedback or as a positive experience (Gardner 2003: 9; Yorke and Longden 2008: 50; Vaughan et al 2008: 32 and 21). So, improving assessment and feedback was likely to be as much about enabling students to make this difficult transition as about changing the assessment strategies that were being used. Therefore, I was keen to develop inclusive resources that were better aligned with the first year experience and could help students to pass through this gateway.

I introduced two initiatives to the Year 1 programme aimed at helping students acquire an understanding of approaches to assessment in FA. One of these involved working with the Learning & Teaching Librarian (LTL) and Learning Development Tutor (LDT) at UCA Canterbury to produce an online Essay Guide Tutorial. This used text, audio recordings and animations to guide students through an example essay with direct reference to the Assessment Criteria used for that unit. Rather than position this as an additional resource for a few students with specified support needs, we embedded it in the course materials on myUCA. According to the LTL, informal student feedback and the analytic activity summaries produced by myUCA, this was widely accessed and students found it useful.

The other initiative came from working closely with the Learning Technologist (LT) and LTL to set up a Year 1 Blog, which I positioned as a platform for formative assessment of short writing tasks. Students were asked to post drafts of these short written pieces during the first term and then to read other student’s drafts and leave comments. This effectively centralised learner participation in formative assessment processes in a way that meant students could benefit from engaging with their peers’ writing, thinking critically about that writing and then taking that to their own drafts, as advocated by Richards and Finnegan (2014) and Broadfoot (2002). Students were also able to read tutors’ formative feedback on numerous drafts, which provided some useful models of critical feedback, and encouraged students to consider the relationship between feedback and the expectations for the task and enabled them to experience discipline-specific approaches to assessment at an early stage in their HE journey. MyUCA activity summaries for the Blog showed that students responded positively to this opportunity; all 76 students in the Year 1 cohort posted drafts as required, and individuals made up to 15 comments on their peers’ posts. While the analytic data available via myUCA showed that 28 students did not comment on a post, it also indicated that those 28 students were actively engaged with the material posted on the blog, each visiting it an average of 142 times.

According to a comparative analysis undertaken by the LDT, which involved collating summative assessment data from the year the blog was introduced and the previous year, the blogging initiative appeared to lead to an improvement in marks achieved at summative assessment across all grading bands, with a more significant improvement in terms of the lower bands and fails (email from LDT 24.7.18). Submission data also showed that a greater proportion of the student cohort submitted work for summative assessment by the stated deadline once the blog was in place than had the previous year. While there is no certain link between these changes and the introduction of the blog, the claim that a link is highly likely is supported by the feedback I received from students during tutorials and through informal conversations.  Furthermore, these outcomes promoted a wider recognition of the benefits of developing new approaches to assessment, particularly formative assessment and peer review. For example, one colleague stated:

“Mary-lou has shifted Year 1 and Year 0 learning away from individual, and often isolated experience, to an experience of an academic community that makes accessible and effective, the skills of the Fine Art and Learning Support teams, initiatives such as blogs for sharing experience of research, academic reading and writing skills, in ways that for most students they experience the course as a live community both on campus and on line. It is also of note that the step between ‘school’ style learning and expectations of Higher Education are addressed and reinforced by these practices” (email from colleague on FA team, 26.7.2018).

The LTL who worked on this project with me added that this approach:

“… introduces an interim deadline, which means most students get a draft completed (or make a start and produce a plan) … prior to deadline. … Students received comments on essays from two other students, this assisted them as they were able to take comments on board and reflect on them. By commenting on other students work they began to understand what staff were looking for when they are assessing essays.” (email from LTL, 24.7.2018).

In light of this, the practice has now become an embedded part of the FA(Canterbury) curriculum.

Concluding Thoughts

Looking back over the development and implementation of the initiatives described above, there seems to be considerable evidence that making better use of the University’s digital portal has improved the first year experience of course management and organisation, and generated innovative, inclusive resources that enhance existing provision; and, that taking an innovative approach to assessment and feedback, including centralising the draft text and peer-reviewing, has improved the students’ experience of those processes within the context of FA. Furthermore, with these initiatives discussed at team meetings, by the support tutors that I have worked with, and by students who have experienced them, the FA course team has begun to incorporate variations of these strategies across the curriculum.

There are also clear lines of influence extending to other courses. For example, reflective discussion with the LSC has flagged up the way in which interest in the lecture capture resource has spread beyond the FA course as, having a viable model to share, has made it easier for them to demonstrate a viable process for making lecture sessions available online and the benefits of doing so. Similarly, the LTL has fed back that the blog “has provided a working case study to show other courses that are looking at how they deliver theory to first year students” and made the pertinent point that this shows “how you can use formative feedback and peer feedback to aid students with understanding assessments, and to help them to get an idea of the level they are working at prior to a summative assessment” (email from LTL, 24.7.2018). Looking back at these initiatives, it seems that they have had a significant impact on teaching and learning across the FA course, and a potentially wider impact in terms of furthering the use of digital learning technologies across other courses at UCA, and the key driver behind this success seems to have been the emphasis on co-developing interventions and resources in a way that draws together a range of expertise in terms of inclusive and innovative pedagogies.

The above is an abridged version of ‘Case Study 2: Shaping the Year 1 Experience.’ In: Application for Senior Fellowship of the Higher Education Academy. August 2018: 11-16

Dr Mary-lou Barratt SFHEA has a specialist interest in critical pedagogy, grass-roots social change and post-disciplinary practices, and a background as a Sessional and Associate Lecturer working across fields such as Fine Art, Illustration and Visual Communication. Dr Barratt is currently Senior Lecturer with the BA (Hons.) Fine Art course, University for the Creative Arts (Canterbury). She has been Coordinator for Year 0 and Year 1 of the (BAHons.) Fine Art course since 2015 and, in that capacity, has undertaken sustained research around the first year experience, focusing on retention and engagement alongside inclusive practices.


Broadfoot, P. (2002) Beware the Consequences of Assessment. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice 10(3), 285-288

Gardner, H. (2006) Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons. 2nd Rev. edn. Orig. pub. 1993. New York: Basic Books

Meyer, Jan and Land, Ray (2003) Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising. In: Rust, C. (ed.) Improving Student Learning: Theory and Practice Ten Years On. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development (OCSLD). 412-424

Orr, S., Yorke, M. and Blair, B. (2014) The Answer is Brought About from Within You: A Student-Centred Perspective on Pedagogy in Art and Design. International Journal of Art & Design Education. 33(1), 32-45.

Richards, A. and Finnegan, T. (2014) Embedding Equality and Diversity in the Curriculum: An Art and Design Practitioners Guide. Available from:

Vaughan, S., Austerlitz, N., Orr, S., and Shreeve, A. (2008) Mind the Gap: Expectations, Ambiguity and Pedagogy within Art and Design Higher Education. In: Drew, Linda (Ed.) (2008) The Student Experience in Art and Design Higher Education: Drivers for Change. Jill Rogers Associates Limited, Cambridge. 125-148

Yorke, M. and Longden, B. (2008) The First-Year Experience of Higher Education in the UK. Final Report. York, HEA

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