altYuan Wei, Associate Professor, Assistant of Dean for Faculty of Science & Engineering, the Open University of China (OUC)
Overseas Based University: Sheffield Hallam University
Adviser: Alison Hudson
Study Area: Virtual Learning Environment


Report on the Academic Visit in Sheffield Hallam University

Many thanks for the support of the Sino-British Fellowship Trust (SBFT), to give me the opportunity to spend time at Sheffield Hallam University (SHU) in UK as an academic visitor from mid March to the end of July in 2003.

I was located in a very nice working space in Learning and Teaching Institute (LTI) of Adsetts Learning Centre with its gull's wing roofs. I was made very welcome by Mrs Alison Hudson, head of Centre for Multimedia in Education (CME) of LTI. I took part in a series of academic activities, which made me acquaint the main work of LTI, carry out my study and research quickly.


As a computer teacher in the Open University of China (OUC), I focussed my research interests on e-Learning and Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) according to my former teaching experience and the work based on my three colleagues from system of China Radio & TV University, who had been in Sheffield Hallam University in the past two years (Yu, 2002).

1. Introduction

Sheffield Hallam is one of Britain's most progressive and innovative universities, committed to anticipating and satisfying students', employers' and clients' needs, and to surpassing their expectations. Sheffield Hallam has earned that reputation over many years, and it's confirmed by a number of official measurements and assessments which cement Sheffield Hallam's position as a leading UK modern university.
The e-learning environment is a growing aspect of provision at SHU, underpinning much innovation and progress. There is a positive and widespread commitment in the University to e-learning that facilitates and supports students' work. In this way they achieve the objective of making the best educational use of what technology has to offer.
OUs emphasis is to enhance modern distance education in China to meet the state and local demands for economic and social development. The huge amount of distance learning students makes it urgent to improve e-Learning environment, develop more web-based courses and provide helpful support to keep them. In order to make the magnificent plan reality, we need to do a lot of work not only in theoretical research, but also in practical operation.

Above all my research focus is to learn "How to design web-based courses and establish a virtual learning environment".

About e-Learning
Now learning environments have been developed which are based on principles of active learning thus reflecting the change in the culture of education from teacher-centred to learner-centred (Butler, 2000). E-Learning, or Internet-based online learning, has become the main stream of modern distance education (Figure 1) (Liu, 2002). The personal computer is the main tool, and Internet is the main channel used to deliver interactive learning experiences.


Figure 1: Shifts from teacher-centred learning to student-centred learning

2. Methods

I worked in the LTI, which provides a focus for supporting developments in learning, teaching and assessment within the University through staff development, educational development projects and educational research. LTI offers active research atmosphere. It is a member of some educational organization, and every year LTI invites many academic visitors from all over the world. As its important position in the University, I get to many aspects of the University through the following activities.

• Visits & Interviews
Sheffield Hallam has three campuses in Sheffield. I'm in the biggest one, city campus, a welcoming modern environment with some of the finest learning and teaching facilities in Europe. There are almost ten buildings in the area, and I was directed to get a carefully visit to the Adsetts Learning Centre.

I met different people of the University, such as director of Learning Centre, information specialist and advisers, academic researchers, lecturers, tutors, multimedia courseware developers and so on., and got to know their work, their research area and their interests. I think I gained a lot from around 30 interviews.

Colleagues here are very friendly. Most of them prepared necessary articles or leaflets, presented me relevant web pages, web-based courses and courseware, introduced Blackboard or taught me how to use the Catalogue. Some of them posted me useful information or web links later by e-mail. These interviews are very important for me to fully understand SHU.

• Seminars & Conferences
The LTI hold a regular seminar every week. I attended 14 of them. Topics of these seminars are a great diversity, such as "Update on the eUniversity", "Plagiarism-current SHU thinking and implications for information staff" "Broadcast searching of databases" "Portals/eCPD (Continued Professional Development", "Learning Set on Assessment", "Progress File Evaluation" and so on.

Sometimes I can’t quite understand due to limited background knowledge or the lecturer's particular accent. But these seminars made me open the eyes on some research field, in addition they give me useful enlightenment about methods of engaging in research work. Lecturers have many kinds of interaction with audience that make a dry topic be active, vivid and humorous.

I attended two mini conferences in LTI; one about "Enhancing the quality of learning through research-led teaching" by Dr Angela Brew from the University of Sydney, Australia, and another focus on exploring the relationship between real and virtual learning environments, that has a very meaningful name "Bricks and Clicks".

• Reading
The Teaching and Learning Resource Centre (TLRC) of the LTI offer staff some available resources include almost 3000 books, periodicals and conference papers. I read some books about e-Learning, VLE, and web-based teaching and learning technologies. I also bought two books searched from Blackwell on-line bookstore. These books make me excited about the future of e-education. I also combine my teaching experiences with the relative knowledge and think about how to improve my work in future.

I spent a huge mount of time on the Web to do the following visit: (1) some nationwide education organization such as QAA, QCA, ALT, JISC, LTSN, SEDA and so on. (2) other universities in UK, such as OU, UKeU, Oxford, UFI etc. (3) education software tools web sites, for example, Blackboard, WebCT, Open2. (4) electronic materials about e-learning.

• Taking courses
I took the whole 7 days IT training courses such as "Using FrontPage 2002", " Dreamweaver and Dreamweaver 4 Extras" and "Access 2002 for Database Developers". Two of them are used to produce and deliver web pages, and Access is very useful database used in many fields. In addition, the IT training is very helpful to improve my computer English.

I also had 5 English lessons about pronunciation, grammar and skills of spoken English, operated by University of English Scheme to help international students.

• Communication and Practice
By Introducing the system of China Radio & TV University to colleagues of LTI , presenting the platform and web-based courses developed by my university, discussing the software tools with project developers of CME, we got along well with each other due to these common topics.

I also made researches on Blackboard, a virtual learning environment used by SHU, web-based courses and multimedia projects developed by CME in recent years.


3.1 Using a VLE to simulate a real classroom

VLEs are becoming a standard feature of university education. They can be used to support teaching and delivery of materials to students, facilitate administration work, and help students manage their workloads more effectively.

Blackboard is such a VLE used by SHU. It's web-based software allows lecturers and students to share learning materials, communicate and collaborate on-line. Blackboard also allows lecturers to administer assessments and monitor student progress.

I'm very interested in Blackboard (Figure 2 of Appendix). Tutors can make unit descriptions, staff information, assignments, reading lists and useful web sites available on the Internet without knowing any HTML, and make existing Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations available online. Tutors also have an opportunity to make important announcements, create interactive tests with instant feedback to students, track student activity and create statistical reports of student grades. Students can work together in small groups, and share files with each other through the use of discussion forums. In a word, Blackboard is an ideal forum for discussion, learning, and integration outside of the classroom.

Blackboard is very powerful tool, and the Blackboard platform can be extended by enabling integration with external systems, tools, hardware and content, to meet the special needs of the campus. Here are two components extended to Blackboard.

• the Catalogue
The Catalogue is a database, which indexes all of the resources hold by SHU in its three Learning Centres. Resources listed on it include books, reports, journals, directories, videos and CD-ROMs. It also contains links to electronic resources, including all public domain educational resources and digital library services. So Students can take advantage of additional educational resources, beyond what the university providers.

The catalogue is quite convenient for students and staff to use off-campus, and offer them immense learning and teaching resources.

• Student Intranet homepage
Students also can link to the homepage of SHU student intranet by using Blackboard, and get a lot of learning support (Figure 3 of Appendix).

Blackboard provide a virtual student campus as a substitute for real campus, where students can get to know each other, form study groups, and maintain social contacts.

3.2 Supporting staff and students'web-based teaching and learning technologies

Using the Web to its full pedagogical potential requires a high level of self-study ability. Researchers show there is no correlation between the computer skills and the acceptance of e-Learning; it depends on student's attitudes towards new technology-base education methods (Erlich, 2002). So SHU does its best to offer learners powerful supports to make them benefit from e-Learning.

Resources on SHU Student Intranet are very rich. I quite appreciate its learning supports on e-learning below. They are really useful to help students.

• how to use computer
This topic explains the basics of what computer facilities are available to a SHU student, such as the interface on SHU computers, the software packages used most often, how to login to the network and how to work on files.

• help with key skills
Key Skills are seen nationally as those relevant to all educational and work contexts. They enable an individual to learn and to demonstrate their learning, and seen as essential to a flexible workforce (Drew, 2001). SHU develops its key skill resources including Key Skills Online, Skill Packs and IT Skill Packs, Paper handouts on a range of topics, Oral presentation interactive computer package, and Essay writing video. Those help students acquire vital study skills; make them feel very confident in their subject area. I also use a skill pack, Report Writing, to finish the report.

Straff of the LTI support e-Learning@shu developments with information and resource. They help teachers of schools to design web-based course, develop courseware, consult VLE information and offer research assistant, they hold SHU Blackboard User's Forum to discuss questions on using it.

Mrs Alison Hudson, my supervisor, manages a group of 7 people to develop multimedia products in education. She has been doing this for over 10 years. I studied about 26 products they developed in the past for the University or for commercial purpose, some of them got awards such as "European Academic Software Award in 2000". They also showed me some work developed in recent years. They have been identified as a qualified supplier of learning material to the University for Industry.

They have spent much effort on enriching the design, construction and presentation of course materials and allowing for more interaction and feedback in the e-Learning system. I notice some course modules they developed are not big, but very useful to help students to understand some particular issues. Most of web-based courses have interactive and interesting self-test and feedback part, and also taken into account the total 1,367 disable students.

3.3 The successful experience of Learning Centre

It's no doubt the Learning Centre of SHU is a successful example for new modern university not only for its particular team structure but also for its role of the university.

With specialist resources on all the university, the Learning Centre is a visionary concept that brings together a range of services in a new way, providing a seamless access to information and the means to exploit it.

The Adsetts Centre integrates: library collections, including books and journals; IT provision, access to electronic databases and the Internet as well as desktop services; production facilities such as graphic design and photography units, a TV studio, a multimedia production team, print unit and publishing house; the LTI; teaching accommodation, including two lecture theatres, seminar rooms and meeting/tutorial rooms, all equipped with high specification presentation equipment for use with audio-visual and electronic material (Bulpitt, 1997).

To sum up, the Learning Centres function in effect as "campuses": they serve as a site for tutorial sessions in lecture theatres and a meeting place for students. The centre also provides library and other services such as IT facilities, television broadcasts, and so on. Now the Learning Centre model is being adopted by a number of institutions in the world.

SHU's vision is to set the standard for a modern and progressive university with a leading national role in the 21st century. To this end, the University has developed a Learning, Teaching and Assessment (LTA) strategy, approved by Academic Board in June 1999, as a focus for schools, support departments and University activity.

The LTI's research is on supporting the LTA strategy agenda of the University. LTI staff, working with colleagues in Schools, are active in research and evaluation to underpin LTA activity across the University. During my stay in UK, I felt strongly that everything goes well by planning it in advance, just like LTA in the University.

4.Conclusions and Future Work

I really enjoyed my fruitful stay in Sheffield Hallam. I want to quote a word of Mr Graham Bulpitt, Head of Learning Centre of SHU, that learning and discovery are exciting experience.

Now is the best season of UK, it's my harvest season too. I have widened my academic vision on e-education, improved my research ability and study skills, enriched my former practical experience, and increased the insight about the future higher education. Most of all, I made rapid progress on speaking and writing English. For me, there is no doubt this academic visit has been an important experience in my career.

For further works and studies, I would do the following:
• consider high quality design web-based course materials, make them more visual imagery, interactive, adaptive learning and effective communication;
• continue to focus on e-Learning and VLE, analysis good education software tools;
• introduce success points of SHU to system of China Radio & TV University.


I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to Professor MN Naylor RD and Mrs Anne Ely of the SBFT for their generous support to the training program of distance education.

I’m very grateful to Mr Wangrong Li and other officials in the Education Section of Embassy of P. R. China for their kind assistance in arranging this program.

During my stay in Sheffield Hallam University, Mrs Alison Hudson, Mrs Jane Brewer, Dr David Mowthorpe, Mr Graham Bulpitt have provided learning support for my research work. I’m deeply grateful for that.

And many thanks to Mr Andrew Middleton, Mr Mike Bonsall, Mrs Sue Drew, the Barletta's and all the colleagues in LTI for their help in my research work or in my living.

Butler, J. (2000), Is the Internet helping to create learning environments?, Campus-Wide Information Systems, 17(2), pp. 44-48.
Bulpitt, Graham (1997), The Adsetts Centre at Sheffield Hallam University.
Drew, S. (2001), Integrating Key Skills: Guidance Notes for Staff, LTI, Sheffield Hallam University, pp. 1.
E-Learning of SHU, See
Erlich Z., Gal-Ezer J. (2002), 'Traditional vs. Technology-Integrated Distance Education', In Jain, L. C. (eds.) Virtual Environments for Teaching & Learning, World Scientific, pp. 66.
Liu, J., Chan, S., Hung, A. (2002), 'Facilitators and Inhibitors of e-Learning', In Jain, L. C. (eds.) Virtual Environments for Teaching & Learning, World Scientific, pp. 76.
SHU homepage, See
SHU Student Intranet, See
Yu, Y. X., Li, W. R. (2002), Collected work on practice and research into Sino-British Distance Education I, China Central Radio and TV University Press.

26 June 2003