The virtual learning environment Blackboard: Uses and limitations in the teaching and learning of four languages

Authors: Barbara Scott, Christine Lyne and Cathy Pink


This paper aims to: demonstrate how a VLE has been exploited to include a variety of media and to provide a range of attractive learning materials to satisfy the needs of language learners; outline the practicalities & implications involved in setting up courses using a VLE; report on staff and student feedback on the project.

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Table of contents


This paper was originally presented at the Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education conference, 24-26 June 2002.


This paper describes a project undertaken at Sheffield Hallam University to develop a series of language learning materials for non-specialist language learners using the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) Blackboard. The materials, which include the use of audio and video files as well as Internet links, are aimed at beginners and elementary level students and are designed to supplement classroom-based work. Courses in four languages, French, German, Spanish and Italian, have been developed and piloted with students during the academic year, 2001/2002.

The criteria on which the development of the multi-media materials were based are presented together with a description of how Blackboard has been used to produce effective language learning tasks which engage students in the learning process and promote deep learning.

The paper concludes with an initial evaluation of the project from a staff and student perspective and presents suggestions for the future development of the project.

Background to the project

The University Language Scheme (ULS) is the institution-wide-language-programme at Sheffield Hallam University. For the academic year 2001/2002, a change in the delivery of the programme was introduced, i.e. class contact time was reduced from 3 hours to 2 hours per week. This change was driven partly by financial considerations, i.e. the increasingly tight financial constraints which the university is operating under, and partly pedagogical considerations, namely the need to encourage greater learner autonomy, to take advantage of developments in I&CT and to foster life-long learning skills as outlined in the Dearing Report into Higher Education (1997). In addition, with an increasingly diverse student population, universities see the need to be more flexible in the time, place and pace of delivery of courses, and have looked to C&IT (communications and information technology) to achieve this flexibility.

Faced with this reduction in class contact time, staff on the ULS had to consider ways of ensuring students could achieve the same learning outcomes as previous years. Students are expected to spend approximately 200 learning hours per year on each unit they study, but spend less than a quarter of that time in the classroom. Therefore, it is essential that they undertake work outside the classroom on a regular basis and use their independent study time effectively. In order to ensure this happens, the independent learning has to be embedded in the curriculum and form part of the assessment programme.

Kneale (1996) has coined the phrase ‘strategic student’ to describe the attitude of many students in H.E. today, i.e. they are primarily assessment led and not necessarily intrinsically motivated in the subject they are studying. Therefore, educators have had to come to terms with the paradox that to encourage autonomy you have to assess it. As Brown and Pendlebury (1992) state that ‘students take their cue from what is assessed rather than what lecturers maintain is important. Put rather starkly, if you want to change student learning, then change the methods of assessment.’

With these factors in mind, it was decided that the independent study would form 25% of the assessment programme, with the other 75% comprising a series of assignments set by the tutor, testing the four language skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing.

Students on the beginners and elementary stages of the ULS, i.e. stages 1 and 2, are usually relatively inexperienced language learners, for whom this option is a very minor part of their programme of study. Therefore, it seemed appropriate to design a directed and structured programme of independent study. This decision was based on our experiences of promoting autonomy with more advanced learners on the IWLP and also on theories of how best to develop effective autonomous language learners. For example, Nunan (1997) advocates a gradual approach to the development of learner autonomy through the design and content of the learning materials. He proposes five levels of learner autonomy, the first of which he calls the ‘awareness’ level, i.e. the pedagogical goals and content of materials are made explicit and learners have to identify the strategy involved in tasks and their own preferred learning style. However, they are not asked to select their own goals or choose from a range of options. Learners on stages 1 and 2 of the ULS could be deemed to fall into this category

Sheffield Hallam University’s adoption of Blackboard as an integral part of their e-learning strategy coincided with the search for a means of delivering and assessing a programme of independent study for the beginners and elementary levels on the ULS.

Overview of Blackboard

Blackboard is a Web-based Virtual Learning Environment developed in America with the aim of allowing tutors to make their own course or module. Using a password, students can access Blackboard courses from any location with a connection to the Internet, allowing them to undertake independent learning at their own pace and time. Within Blackboard there are a number of facilities available for tutors to choose from and these are represented by a series of buttons (see figure 1). By selecting which sections to make available it is possible to customise the interface and the learning experience.

Figure 1: The buttons/sections available in Blackboard

Figure 1: The buttons/sections available in Blackboard

Blackboard can be used to support student learning through course & content management, communication and assessment. In terms of content management, tutors can make course information (such as unit descriptions, assignment due dates, reading lists and staff information) easily and permanently available. Course content can be entered directly into Blackboard pages and links can be made to resources in a variety of formats (e.g. Word documents, Excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations). Through the use of HTML code it is possible to include access to resources from other learning environments. This includes linking to external websites and embedding multimedia (such as audio and video clips) directly into the course. Blackboard can also be used to enhance communication. Tutors can post announcements and students can support one another via the discussion board. A variety of interactive assessments can be created (e.g. fill in the blank, true or false, multiple choice and matching) and a score and feedback instantly given. Tutors can also track student activity and create statistical reports of student grades through the on-line gradebook. By bringing together a selection of the facilities described above, tutors can create a varied learning experience for the student. The University Language Scheme uses a number of these facilities within its course and these will be described in greater detail.

The Design of the Blackboard materials

The advantage of using Blackboard for the delivery of language learning materials was the opportunity to develop an interactive programme using a variety of media. In discussing the design of such a programme Cairncross and Mannion maintain that:

the key is to design learning activities which cognitively engage the learner, that is causes them to think about the material that is being presented, what it means, its relevance, how it can be applied and in what contexts. (Cairncross and Mannion 2001)

They emphasise that to be effective in the promotion of deep learning the programme should be fully integrated into the curriculum. In the design of our materials we sought to take into account such criteria as well as to adopt an approach which reflects a communicative philosophy of language teaching and learning.

The Blackboard materials took the form of five study packs to be completed over two semesters. The packs are made visible to students at intervals throughout the year with six weeks being allocated for the completion of each one. Packs are based on topics and themes in the language teaching syllabus and incorporate a variety of media and activities. These aim to practise in particular the receptive skills of reading and listening and to reinforce and supplement classroom activities where the focus is mainly on the development of oral skills. By reinforcing topics, structure and vocabulary presented in the classroom the Blackboard activities integrate on-line learning with face-to-face delivery. Within each study pack the activities are grouped under the headings shown below and are listed as separate ‘items’. Learners are instructed to first work through the core activities before moving on to the consolidation and extension activities. The aims of the latter are reflected in the terms used. Many activities contain quizzes which use a variety of question formats (e.g. true or false, multiple choice, fill in the blank, ordering and matching). Students are allowed multiple attempts at all the quizzes in order to emphasise the formative nature of this type of activity. At the end of each semester learners complete a self-evaluation sheet which encourages them to reflect on the work that has been undertaken. Apart from pack 3, which is completed off-line during the inter-semester break, all study packs take the following format:

  Core Consolidation Extension
Reading 2 ‘original’ activities based on Blackboard using the quiz facility 1-2 activities using commercially produced resources located in the open-access facility or library Internet-based activity
Listening 2 Blackboard based activities using audio files and the quiz facility 1-2 activities using commercially produced resources located in the open-access facility or in the library Internet-based activity
Video 2 Blackboard based activities using commercially-produced video clips and the quiz facility    
Writing activity outlined on Blackboard but carried out off-line.    
Internet 1-2 Internet activities, for example, learners are directed to a particular site in order to find out information relating to a given topic.   Learners are required to conduct their own search in order to locate certain information

Each Reading Activity has an associated passage (e.g. a letter, an e-mail or magazine article) written by language staff and a quiz to establish comprehension. Since the passages are embedded into the quiz, students are able to review the reading while undertaking the quiz questions. Some activities are supplemented by additional media such as a photograph or links to websites with relevant pictures, for example, of a town mentioned or a map of its transport system. Besides providing visual support this facility can offer a more authentic and cultural dimension to the task.

The Listening Activities consist of a recording (e.g. a dialogue, interview or radio broadcast) written and in many cases recorded by language staff. The audio recordings have been embedded directly in the quizzes, allowing learners to listen to the recording whilst viewing and answering quiz questions (figure 2). The student maintains complete control over the recording and may re-play the recording or individual sections they may have had difficulty with. Comprehension questions are sometimes followed by activities which require the learner to focus and reflect on the actual language presented. A ‘fill-in-the-blank’ quiz, for example, can draw attention to verb endings whilst ‘ordering’ may encourage awareness of word order patterns.

Figure 2: Embedded audio recordings

Figure 2: Embedded audio recordings

The Video Activities also make use of embedded multimedia. Video clips which reflect topics and language being learned in the classroom have been digitised for students to access on campus. The video clips are embedded into quizzes and are played through Windows Media Player (figure 3). As with the audio files the learner can view the video at the same time as reviewing the quiz questions and has complete control over the playback facility. The quizzes themselves focus on comprehension or language use. Utilising video clips in this way allows the course to draw on quality resources and offers learners easy access to additional forms of media which can add variety to the course.

Figure 3: Video clips have been embedded directly into the quizzes.

Figure 3: Video clips have been embedded directly into the quizzes.

The Writing Activities present learners with instructions for undertaking a short writing task related to previously presented language and topics. This may involve giving personal details, directions or replying to an email. The piece of writing is not, however, completed on-line but instead is handed into the tutor. The activity provides the opportunity for ‘input’ to become ‘output’, for learners to apply newly acquired knowledge and hopefully for reflection to be engendered.

Within the Internet Activity section students follow links to external websites. For the Core Activities they are led to specific sites with the aim of obtaining specific information. In the Extension Activities the purpose is to encourage greater independence and exploitation of the Web as a learning and research tool. By linking to high quality resources and activities already available on the Internet it is possible to create greater variety in the student learning experience. Also linking to authentic websites (e.g. Tourist Information or Travel Information) provides good examples of authentic language use as well as supporting the cultural dimension to language learning.

Assessing the study packs

The on-going debate on how best to assess independent learning is mainly centred around the issue of whether we are assessing the product, i.e. language competence, or the learning process, i.e. the development of independent study skills. Although students following our Blackboard courses were only expected to demonstrate a very limited degree of autonomy, in that it was really a programme of directed learning, we wanted to give credit to students showing evidence of good independent study skills, such as, self-correction of work, time-management and reflection on progress made. Therefore, the following criteria were drawn up:

  • content 70% (e.g. quantity and quality of tasks completed);
  • management of learning 20% (e.g. time management, presentation of off-line work, self-correction;
  • reflection 10% (e.g. ability to identify strengths and weaknesses and reflect on progress made).
  • Staff were issued with a grid to record the marks for each study pack. Because of the large number of activities, staff were not expected to award a mark for each, individual piece of work, but rather consider the packs ‘holistically’, i.e. looking at the overall performance of the student in all the activities, and provide one numerical mark per semester. By using this holistic approach to marking, it was hoped that the marking load for staff would not be too onerous. However, this proved not to be the case as can be seen in the comments received from staff in the evaluation section.

Evaluation of the project

An initial evaluation of the project has been carried out from both a student and staff perspective. To a large extent, similar issues were raised by students and staff and indicate areas for further research.

The Student Experience

Students' opinions were sought in two ways. Firstly, a questionnaire was distributed to ascertain the reaction to the study packs and to highlight any problem areas concerning the use of computers. Secondly, semi-structured interviews were conducted with a small number of students who had experienced learning on the ULS both with Blackboard and also before it was introduced.

The questionnaire revealed that the students were generally positive towards Blackboard as can be seen in the table below:

  Positive Neutral Negative
Blackboard was a valuable part of the language course 64% 20% 16%
Blackboard was a useful support to material covered during tutorials 60% 22% 18%
I enjoyed doing the tasks 50% 33% 15%
The tasks were useful 62% 27% 8%
I felt comfortable using Blackboard 80% 12% 4%
Having Blackboard as part of the language course was motivating 56% 25% 16%

During the interviews a number of themes recurred. All students unreservedly thought that using Blackboard on language courses was a good idea. Most appreciated the flexibility that the system offered in terms of choosing when and where to work. The majority also considered that their language learning had benefited, partly as a result of having to spend more time on it. One student commented that she had ‘developed a much broader range of language and vocabulary’ whereas another had been motivated to explore other sites which supported language learning, for example those offering grammar explanation and practice.

All the interviewees mentioned initial problems with using Blackboard but attributed the shortcomings in the system to the fact that it was a new initiative for both tutors and students. An issue of concern, however, was that of feedback and marking criteria. Students were not clear about the allocation of marks and were confused by the opportunity to make multiple attempts at tasks. The emphasis on listening skills at the expense of speaking was mentioned, as well as the inability to see a link between Blackboard and classroom activities.

Staff Evaluation

Staff were also invited to contribute to two evaluation processes. The first, at the end of semester one, took the form of semi-structured interviews with seven tutors, whilst at the end of semester two all tutors teaching on Stages one and two were asked to complete an evaluation form. The following is a summary of issues raised:

There was a general feeling that students were spending more time on their language work than in previous years, possibly due to the incentive provided by the attached credit and the use of computers. Although it was acknowledged that the benefit to learning was not easily quantifiable the reinforcement of classroom activities through the Study Packs was thought to help the acquisition of vocabulary and aid general consolidation. Students appreciated and enjoyed the extra support provided by the Blackboard activities but not all staff were convinced that it fully compensated for the reduction in contact time.

Almost all tutors were integrating Blackboard into their teaching but with varying degrees of success and more guidance was requested. Involvement in writing the packs, and therefore familiarity with the material, had made this task easier, according to one tutor. General satisfaction was expressed with the range and balance of activities although some changes were suggested. These included the omission of the writing task and a request for all activities to be completed and marked on-line in order to reduce the marking load.

On the negative side was the view that Blackboard was too confining and that it removed ‘spontaneity and creativity from learning’, as well as being a disincentive for those who do not enjoy working with computers. There was some criticism of what was considered to be an emphasis on testing rather than learning as a result of the allocation of marks and the way activities were delivered via Blackboard. It was suggested that more effective feedback could address this issue.

The marking criteria gave rise to the most discontent as the descriptors were felt to be over-complicated and overemphasised the extension activities for the achievement of higher marks. There was some unease about the allocation of marks for reflection since the activities were not optional but part of directed learning.

Overall, the feedback for both semesters was constructive and indicated that the first year’s experience of using Blackboard had been positive. Areas for further development were highlighted but views concerning the benefit to student learning and the greater opportunity for engagement and consolidation were reasonably unanimous. This may have been contrary to expectations, as one tutor wrote: ‘Having started out in October quite unsettled and disconnected with it all, I have found the work extremely beneficial to students – ensures learning continues away from the classroom.’

Further developments

Apart from addressing certain design weaknesses, such as clarity of instructions and ambiguity of answers, a number of fundamental changes are planned.

Firstly, to reduce the marking load activities in the study packs are to be adjusted so that they can be delivered on-line and for the most part marked automatically by the computer. The writing activity will be omitted and integrated into classroom-based assignments. This development, however, leads to an additional problem concerning the allocation of grades since students are able to achieve 100% in the on-line quizzes if they are allowed multiple attempts. We do not wish to alter our philosophy of using Blackboard for formative assessment and want to reward those who persevere with the activities, but we need to find ways of avoiding the potentially high marks gained on Blackboard from distorting the overall average mark of students. This issue has not been resolved yet, but we are considering solutions such as awarding simply a pass/fail for the Blackboard work or scaling the marks to fit in with the normal spread of marks for a language unit.

In addition we aim to address more clearly the issue of feedback and the role of Blackboard as a learning rather than a testing tool. The inclusion of links to support mechanisms such as on-line dictionaries, grammar exercises and cultural tips will help adjust student perception. A further refinement includes the need to make the presentation more visually appealing hence we intend to explore the use of software such as ‘Flash’ for simple animations to provide greater variety of interactive materials. The encouragement of peer support through the use of the discussion board is another area that we would like to develop.


Overall, we feel that the reactions to the project have been favourable. The enjoyment expressed by students in the questionnaires would suggest that it has had a positive effect upon motivation levels. Given that this has been our first experience of working with a VLE there is inevitably a need for refinement and improvement. However, it has enabled us to see the potential for providing a more varied and effective learning environment which can help the student on the road to autonomy.