Close-up of Excellence in VLE Awards trophy with text 'Winner 2021' and 'University of Southampton'

In a year of many challenges, one common story is that students feel short-changed by their online learning experience. It’s therefore been both heartening and humbling to receive 1235 nominations from students for our 9th annual Blackboard & Virtual Learning Environment Awards. Amidst all the hurdles they’ve had to overcome, it’s exciting to hear about courses that have offered them engaging and enriching learning experiences, “dare I say even better than the communication and involvement in lessons in many previous in-person modules.”

Shortlisting from nominations totalling nearly three times the previous record was a daunting task, as well as a rewarding one. The care and consideration our student judges put in to find the courses that most stood out from students’ comments has been tremendous. Having explored the shortlisted course sites, judges selected those to go through to the final judging panel, made up of Associate Deans for Education, past winners, representatives from SUSU, CHEP and iSolutions.

In spite of the extraordinary circumstances and all the limitations of remote working, we’ve seen the bar raised for what can be offered in a virtual learning environment. Re-imagining courses for online delivery has yielded some brilliant examples of innovative and student-centred practice. The sentiment below was echoed by many others on the panel:

“Every single one of the nominated courses was outstanding in different ways, and it was extraordinarily difficult to select only three.”

Awards event

There was no lunch this year, but plenty of food for thought! We asked attendees to sum up their experiences of teaching and learning online this year, and while the inevitable “challenging” takes centre stage, it’s encouraging to see the positive responses from attendees too – “innovative”; “exciting”; “inspirational”; “awe-inspiring”; “revolutionary”.

Vevox word cloud including: challenging, innovative, exciting, amazing, revolutionary, enlightening, different, seat-of-my-pants, commuinity, inspirational, hard work, struggle, complicated, electrifying, interactive, frustrating, enjoyable, unprecedented, overworked, intense, creative, nerve-wracking, fun, tough, tiring, satsifying, scary, busy, new tricks
What words describe your experience of teaching (or learning) online this year?

We also asked attendees to share their top tips and biggest successes, and “we’re all in this together” summed up the main theme of responses – to listen to students, to approach things from their perspective and to work with them. “Be honest and be human” was another key takeaway, and a willingness to experiment – “just have a go, if it doesn’t work move on and try something different.”

Things that had surprised attendees included the amount of time and energy involved in delivering learning online, and limitations of platforms, but also many positives:

“People are forgiving if you make mistakes”

“How much fun it was to create online stuff and how much the students enjoyed it too”

“We survived, and more than that, we triumphed, and our students loved it.”

Suggestions from attendees about what they might take forward into in-person teaching included: a flipped classroom model; blended delivery; Vevox activities; recording live sessions; moderated chat during lectures; building in regular Q&A opportunities; “helping maintain a student community beyond just module help”; and waving at the end of sessions!

Close-up of Excellence in VLE Awards trophy with text 'Winner 2021' and 'University of Southampton'

The winning courses

In a very close-run competition, the three overall winners offered something unique – but also something that other courses might replicate. View the video tours, accompanied by some of students’ comments and showcasing some of the features they highlighted, below.

MEDI6081: Foundations of Allergic Disease.
Judith Holloway, Liz Miles, Bernie Fernandez

“Huge thought and work is evident not just in terms of the subject content (which is outstanding in all of the nominated examples) but about what *else* students had available to help them study online.  An amazing ‘getting started with’ pack to help with online study was coupled with fantastic ways to engage remotely with students.  The course offers high quality content, easy navigability, synchronous and asynchronous learning, interactivity and is student-centric, delivering an enjoyable and rewarding learning experience that helps students feel supported and connected.”

Judges’ comments

COMP1206: Programming 2.
Jian Shi, Oli Bills, Enrico Marchioni, Milosz Gaczkowski

The level of innovation by the instructors is awe-inspiring and the amount of student engagement that has resulted is equally so.  It’s obvious a lot of care and attention has been taken.  The use of integrated technology into the VLE was commendable. The appreciation of the way students felt the module had been realigned to better address online delivery was great to hear. Very student centred and as well as conveying academic content had a sense of fun. From the feedback, student support, a sense of belonging and a real effort to build a sense of community was present in this course. This is invaluable for the students in the very difficult year they have experienced

Judges’ comments

MANG3034: Project Management
Nicholas Dacre, Vasileios-Krallis Gkogkidis, Fredrik Kockum

“The course is so clear and well organised, but what takes this course to the next level for me is the variety of online activities and obvious passion of the instructor.  Students are obviously motivated in learning what can appear a dry topic compared with other modules in the school. The effort that went into the layout, palette, and feel of the blackboard pages, along with the quality of the content makes a real difference. The layout and presentation struck that tricky balance of providing a great deal of content but in a clear way and such that students didn’t feel overburdened by the module content. The amount of material and VLE tools used is fantastic and the engagement from students is brilliant!”

Judges’ comments

Staff were also invited to submit their own course for consideration in a separate category, explaining how it met the seven elements detailed in the university’s Common Framework for Online Education. Judges were blown away by the quality of the courses submitted, ultimately voting FILM2015 as the winning course.

FILM2015: Contemporary British Cinema
Huw Jones

The judges were very impressed by all courses submitted in this category, but this stood out for the care and consistency throughout.  Students were offered an engaging experience that stretched and challenged their learning, but made their interactions with the course and its content straightforward and accessible for all.

Judges’ comments

For further insights into this year’s awards, check out the Twitter hashtag #VLEAwards2021 or watch the recording here.

What next?

Students’ comments give a rich picture of what works well in a virtual learning environment, and later in the year we’ll report on the key themes they highlight. We’ll also feature more of the wealth of good practice examples brought to light by students and staff nominations. If you have any suggestions or would like to know more, do get in touch with us at digital-learning@soton.ac.uk.

Blackboard & VLE Awards 2021

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