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User Testing of the SIMPLE VLE - JISC TechDis

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					User Testing of the SIMPLE
VLE
Karen Counsell, Department of Law, University of Glamorgan

The project leader was awarded a laptop computer, digital video camera and digital voice
recorder. The department uses a VLE called SIMPLE (simulated professional legal
education) which was designed to simulate a transactional learning environment for law
students although it is applicable to other disciplines. The pilot ended in the summer of
2008. The developers considered issues of accessibility when developing the
environment but wished to conduct a more formal examination of the accessibility issues
when moving on to the next phase, particularly for the next version of this environment
which would produce inter alia, check lists for what they need to consider when dealing
with special needs students and to provide on-line support for staff. At the conclusion of
this project, we hope to be able to disseminate this information more widely within the
academic community, most likely hosted by the SIMPLE foundation.

The SIMPLE environment is used for the first year module called the Law of Torts as a
method of assessment. We divided the students in to 28 teams containing an average of
4 members who took on the roles of solicitors advising either a claimant (a victim of a
personal injury accident at work) or the defendant employer – the University of Cwmfelin.
Our environment invented a fictional welsh town called Cwmfelin, a map, a directory,
allowing students to receive information in the form of documents, photographs, from role
playing members inside the simulation, usually their senior partner (the tutors). We
allowed the students to choose their own team members. The simulation was divided in
to four states with teams needing to be closely supervised through the character of a
senior partner who would sign them off each state before they proceeded to the next.
They would also interact with a senior partner.

I initially used the lap top computer to work with these students in the classroom in order
to provide support. Once the project had been underway and the students had gained
some confidence, the lap top and digital video camera were used to allow the tutor
conduct interviews with the students interacting with the software whilst being filmed. I
had anticipated filming the computer screen to see exactly what they were clicking on,
how they moved from location to another (as I have some academic background in this
area), but this proved difficult to actually see on the recording disc. Use of the lap top in
class allowed the students to gain confidence in using the software within the classroom
environment and to raise any issues they might have. The 5 students were also given
digital voice recorders in order to maintain a log or diary of their experience. However this
was not a great success. Out of the five students, one has still to return his device.
Another student gave me back her recorder but had not recorded anything. A third
student used it to give me a blow by blow account of what they said and did in meetings,
no consideration was given to disability needs. Luckily two of the students did provide
excellent overviews of the software and I have incorporated their suggestions in to this
report.




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Significant Developments
The students provided very useful guidance regarding the issues of
inclusion. I have to say that it was fascinating to listen to their opinions
generally and I would suggest that the way in which this exercise was carried out allowed
them to reveal their own opinions in an uninhibited manner.

I thought at the start of this project would be reporting on the physical aspects of the VLE
e.g. layout, colour etc but came to realise that the method of working encouraged by this
environment was also an important factor for special needs students. The original
developers of this environment appear to have hit on a method of working that is very
beneficial to the needs of such students. The students appreciated being able to break
down tasks, to work at their own pace and to be given the opportunity to check their work
for presentation, spelling etc before communications. They would not feel so comfortable
in class doing this. Sometimes class work just moved at too quick a pace for them to
assimilate information or they lacked the confidence to participate in class work.

The student completion rate this year was excellent with only one team out of 28 failing to
engage. All of my project students completed and all gained marks over 60% which was
most encouraging. The students seemed to blossom within this type of environment and
appeared to enjoy this method of working.

I don’t think this saved staff time but would suggest that it would not take up much staff
time to consider these issues before such a project started. The benefits produced in
terms of student satisfaction, increase in confidence and development are beyond
measure.

In terms of unexpected developments, I mentioned that the audio diary did not work very
well. Obviously, I must take some responsibility for this in terms of supervision etc but I
would comment that the students were really quite shy about using such a device. This
did reinforce our experience with the final task which asked them to produce an individual
written log, a reflection on their work, their views and development of the law: they found
it a rather personal experience and seemed reluctant to produce their own feelings,
opinions etc. It might be because they are first year students.

Benefits of this approach for inclusion
    1. Staff gained a valuable insight in to how special needs interact with their learning
       environment.
    2. Students were able to identify practical issues which can now be passed on to the
       VLE developers:
                    Larger text
                    Tags should be alongside the icons.
                    Being able to change the colours, background text size in order to
                     match their particular dyslexic requirement.
                    Being helped to make decisions about how to deal with information
                     through better structure, or differing functionality
                    Even with one particular condition such as dyslexia, students
                     still have differing issues such as colour spectrum, the system
                     needed to be able flexible.
                    One line work removes pressures from class work.




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                    Having to take their documents out of the
                     environment in order to edit them was an extra
                     barrier to learning.
                    More effective use of colour to identify the
                     function/treatment of documents within the VLE.
                    Trying to reduce the amount of time they physically need to spend
                     looking at a computer screen.
                    More opportunities to personalize their team space.
                    Closer replication of the ‘look’, functionality of the site to correspond
                     with their experiences of social networking sites such as face book.
    3. The students valued being able to interact with these materials in their own time
           and in their own space.
    4. Inclusion does not mean students are different or separate; it is a means of
           ensuring as far as possible that such students are able to fully participate in all
           learning opportunities offered to them which can benefit all users.

Drawbacks and disadvantages
Obviously I’ve not yet had time to take forward these findings as the project has only just
closed. However, I don’t anticipate barriers to this from within the University. The
University of Glamorgan takes great pride in their care for special needs students. I
intend to take forward this approach within two modules offered for the Faculty of
Advanced Technology (computer law modules) and will liaise with their relevant staff.
However, as previously stated, our general approach to inclusion is good and I don’t
anticipate difficulties. Thanks to the equipment used during this project, I will now be able
to better support these students within the classroom. I cannot see any disadvantages or
draw backs to this approach. Indeed, the issues raised by the project members were of
value to all students and I can see this inclusive approach as being of value to all the
students in terms of their learning experience. Besides physical resourcing and staff time
(the usual constraints) I can only see positives in this approach.

Summary and reflection
I did think when I started on this project that I would be looking just at physical, technical
issues but discovered the issues involved were much broader than this. I’ve learned that
some basic changes (maybe not just in technical terms) to the SIMPLE environment can
greatly enhance the student learning experience but that already the VLE is providing a
positive contribution to their study of law. The students appreciated the opportunity to
experience the law as realistically as possible as they were better able to understand
what the legal rules were trying to achieve e.g. how to prove a personal injury has
occurred, how to ascertain an appropriate level of damages, what are damages really
trying to achieve. This method of working was providing definite benefits to these
students as they were able to break down the tasks, work in a less pressurised
classroom environment but still enjoy the close assistance of staff should they need it. I
intend to use these lessons within other modules I teach via SIMPLE but also to check
again my use of Blackboard to see if there is anything I can improve e.g. use of colour,
buttons, the way I structure files and information contained within, my approach to
assessment generally. I intend to provide more background guidance for my
students generally as I did not appreciate how overwhelmed they felt at times with
the amount of information I was passing on to them through the simulation.
This is not easy as the tasks are incremental and the subsequent tasks




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build on their earlier work. The Torts team contain three members of staff
plus one other lecturer who helped with the student training who are also
keen to use these lessons within their own modules.

I do believe this approach worked well in terms of pedagogical terms. It fits in well with
the University’s overall strategies. What I needed from my own personal perspective was
the opportunity to work more closely with my students in order to better understand them.
Nothing can ever be as satisfactory as actually working with the students involved and
gaining their feedback in as relaxed an uninhibited a manner as possible. You think
you’ve got a great way forward to help them but then find, that it is only when you’ve
walked in another man’s shoes (to quote To Kill a Mocking Bird) what the learning
experience is really like for such students. I believe the most important lesson I’ve
learned from undertaking this project is that inclusiveness is not treating students with
special needs differently it is integrating approaches which ultimately benefit all students.




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