The modern buildings of the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, retain over 250 years of tradition in teaching veterinary students. Founded in 1765, Vetmeduni is the only academic educational and research institution in Austria that focuses on the veterinary sciences, and the oldest in the German-speaking world. Created by Empress Maria Theresia with the goal of treating livestock diseases, Vetmeduni is now a world-renowned institution in areas such as animal health, public health services, and food safety, with a cutting edge e-learning program that has been developed and refined throughout the last eleven years.
“It is very important for our students to have more flexibility on learning, so that they can prepare before going to the clinical practice”, says Mehrzad Hamzelo, Head of E-Learning & AV-Media at Vetmeduni. “For example, they have to know about the instruments and rules, which they can quickly learn through the different contents in Blackboard Learn courses.” For teachers, Blackboard Learn is a wide playground for their hypothesis regarding didactic concepts, points out Hamzelo. “If they have new ideas, they can experiment online, evaluate them, and get feedback from the students.”
Blackboard Learn has been the platform for Vetucation® since 2006. Today, the unique instructional design approach, developed by the university, includes training teachers, as well as training students to assist teachers. Annual awards are held as an incentive to innovate with various learning projects and best practices. Every two years, a survey is conducted in order to evaluate the way work has been done and to continuously improve it.
Developing an unique platform
“At the beginning stage of e-learning, a lot of the teachers involved showed skepticism,” Hamzelo says. “It wasn’t easy. We had to convince them of the advantages on accepting and using the new system along with their other running tasks. We started with the basic version of Blackboard Learn, and a few pilot projects and training programs launched campus-wide. Then, we began to promote more innovative and interactive learning projects.”
Customizing the platform for the needs and capabilities of their users was one of the main challenges. “However, over the years, Blackboard provided more functionality around e-learning and online education. For example, the concept of building blocks; those blocks made it possible to develop and offer additional functionalities based on the Blackboard API. These new functionalities include learning modules, integrated wikis, SafeAssign, Blackboard Collaborate, and Blackboard Mobile Learn. Today, Blackboard Learn is central for us; it’s the end-point of every e-learning component we create, and it serves to manage all documentation and interactions along that process.”
According to Hamzelo, the specificities of European rules regarding data security and protection along with the constant changes and improvements to the German language pack were challenging as well. They were among frequent topics of discussion in a growing process between Vetmeduni and Blackboard.
For the institution, establishing an instructional design strategy was a learning process itself. “Throughout the years, we collected a lot of data through surveys, face-to-face discussions, and consulting sessions. We then developed processes to create e-learning projects,” says Hamzelo. “We usually start a specific project with a consulting session. Then, we analyze and evaluate the current state and didactic concepts behind it. We also check what can be reused and what should be created from scratch, as well as the feasibility and the capabilities of the involved person or group.” Teachers and students are constantly trained on demand or within a running process.
Learn from Vetmeduni
♦ Support teachers so they can be great at both lectures and research. Teaching and researching are two different activities; sometimes, due to lack of time or motivation, teachers can favor one of them. “Teachers have to continuously learn new technology, tools, and methods to improve their skills and the quality of their lectures and keep the state of the art in their researching and teaching areas. They are under an enormous pressure,” says Hamzelo. “Students are also challenging teachers to produce more interactive learning materials. Therefore, if we have teachers who are doing research as well, we have to support them more intensively.”
♦ Have a pool of educated students in e-learning matters. One of the answers for the shortness of resources in Vetmeduni is the e-tutoring program. “We involve and educate students from higher semesters to assist the teachers by creating, improving, and evaluating online content, as well as organizing and managing online meetings and discussion boards. It’s a win-win scenario for all involved groups,” Hamzelo describes. Participant students gain three ECTS (European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System) after successfully completing this training course.
♦ Improve the user experience constantly. Ask students periodically for feedback. Question what they like about the platform, if they want more multimedia content or more interactive sessions, and what they miss in the e-learning environment. “We combine multimedia collaboration, wikis, and a lot of other functionalities to gain good experience for the students. We are continually improving the structure of courses, and also promoting the planning of self-assessment and feedback loops for online courses,” highlights Hamzelo. “One of our best practices is the integrated multimedia production used in online courses, so we have a link between Blackboard Learn and our archiving software for assets, and we can use all these multimedia elements in online courses.”
*Mehrzad Hamzelo, Head of E-Learning & AV-Media at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna
*Photos by: AFP Vladimir Simicek