Blackboard & VLE Awards: Leveraging Student Feedback to Improve Learning Experience

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Quick Take: Learn more about how the University of Southampton is engaging with learners to receive feedback and disseminate best practices to improve the learning environment.

London, United Kingdom

Student feedback can be extremely valuable when used to create accurate learning strategies. Its importance is well known to academic staff, as this data helps them make the most of the tools and resources available. The information needed to achieve learning outcomes may come from many different sources, but it is especially enriching when it comes from the learners’ point of view.

The University of Southampton, in the United Kingdom, has been promoting its Excellence in Blackboard & VLE Awards since 2012, with the goal of discovering and disseminating existing good practices, and engage students to provide feedback through an organized approach. Now in its sixth edition, the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) Awards gathers students’ opinion on the features they find most useful on a course site and showcases selected good practices and innovative learning approaches.

This initiative gives students a clear opportunity to nominate exemplary virtual learning environment platforms and highlight what makes some courses especially notable. Learner feedback helps academic staff improve their virtual learning environment presence, and by sharing the most original and successful approaches to VLE usage, the event aims to enhance the learning experience across the university.

Photo Blackboard and VLE Award

The courses indicated by the students due to their appeal are then evaluated by a diverse panel of judges, including representatives from the Students’ Union, Centre for Higher Education Practice, Associate Deans, and the iSolutions Digital Learning team. The winners are chosen due to their innovative features and student support mechanisms, and, together, they create a framework of what a good VLE site should look like and include. To make the initiative more productive and ensure that winning courses help enhance the use of virtual learning environments at the university, the Blackboard & VLE Awards is followed up with tailored masterclasses aimed at academic staff.

We wanted to identify ‘champions’ who could share more authentic stories through their experiences. In our position in Professional Services, we can highlight external practices and wider ranging topics such as Universal Design for Learning, but it’s users involved in using the virtual learning environment who can tell us how practical our suggestions are to implement, or why it’s worth doing something in a certain way,” says Dr Sarah Fielding, specialist in learning design within the Digital Learning team at the University of Southampton, who has been supporting the VLE Awards since its first edition.

The masterclasses are taught by the Digital Learning team, alongside shortlisted and award winners and technical support for the virtual learning environment. “This builds the foundation for peer support within the faculty and enables Digital Learning to share good practice from other faculties,” comments Fielding.

 Staff only see their own courses, so it’s been really useful for them to have the opportunity to learn from peers and to see examples of good practice,” points out Tamsyn Smith, specialist in learning design within the Digital Learning team at the University of Southampton, who has been supporting the VLE Awards since 2012, alongside Fielding.


The Journey to Creating an Exemplary Course

Disseminating Good Practices

Students are encouraged to put forward favored courses and share their thoughts with the committee. The University of Southampton advertises the awards on posters, postcards and online announcements on Blackboard, and each student nomination is rewarded with an entry for a prize draw.

“I post system wide announcements on Blackboard during the nomination period informing students that they can nominate courses. The graphics used in the announcements are changed each week to catch the attention of students who have not yet voted,” says Matthew Deeprose, virtual learning environment manager at the University of Southampton.

“Students are good at recognizing the level of support that is appropriate for them. We heard a fantastic phrase this year: ‘It is a Goldilocks course: there’s not too much and not too little, the level of content is just right.’ We really like that as a definition of what’s good. Student voices are incredibly powerful. I can share any number of learning theories and academic papers with staff, but that doesn’t always mean as much as students saying what suits their needs best,” comments Smith.

 Winning courses from previous editions of the Blackboard & VLE Awards have already been shared across the university and best practices implemented in other courses within the institution. “In a previous year there were courses nominated which included ‘virtual field trips’ in their course resources. We have now put those academics in touch with a wider innovation group exploring immersive technology in higher education at the university, so we have widened the expertise and membership of that group,” says Fielding.

Another example was a 2017 module called ‘Academic English for Art and Design,’ which was part of the course ‘Introduction to English Language.’ The focus of the course was on the discussion forums in order to help distance learning students located in Dalian, China, to improve their English. By creating an interactive learning environment that allowed learners to contribute to the course content, the learning experience improved and increased student engagement. “The Blackboard module in their classes was very different to anything we had seen before, and it was a great example of how pedagogy can determine the structure of a course,” comments Fielding.

Creating Content to Improve Blended Learning

Blended learning requires activities both in the classroom and in the virtual learning environment, and benefits students by providing full-time access to content and multiple means of representation, for example. In the UK, students are introduced to this approach since elementary school, so they feel comfortable learning through virtual learning environments once in university.

Fielding mentions that besides being familiar with the digital environment, in recent years, learners are getting involved with content creation, which was showcased at the 2018 Blackboard & VLE Awards. “We are seeing increasing examples of students being involved as co-creators of content. This can be done using tools such as Peerwise or blogs, but there’s also a more innovative use of video creation and use of integrated systems such as Panopto, so that there’s a growing resource of student-generated content,” points out Fielding.

In addition to that, staff are increasingly digitally literate. We are starting to see them develop skills to communicate course content in ways that are more accessible to wider audiences. For example, we are seeing more modules that include a brief introductory video or trailer, which sets the context and scope of the module,” she concludes.

Choosing the Winners 

The award-winning courses are chosen after an initial shortlisting process based on the number of nominations, and the qualitative comments from students. The shortlist is then reviewed by learning designers and the university’s Blackboard Learn administrators, and the final judging panel includes a Student Union Vice President for Education, at least one Associate Dean of Education, a representative from the Centre For Higher Education Practice, a representative from the IT Training and Development team, a previous Blackboard & VLE Award winner, and members of the Digital Learning team.

“Usually I or one of my colleagues will help with the judging process, pointing out any particular technical innovations or examples of good practice,” points out Deeprose. In order to improve the judging process, Deeprose created a script that will add the judges to those courses by using the Blackboard SIS Framework. As more courses or judges are announced the scripts are updated. The 2018 winning courses have already been chosen and have received the laser-etched wooden awards created by Digital Learning’s Media Developer Joe Brett.

“It’s quite a lengthy process. We view all of the courses and discuss which ones we think deserve to win. It can be quite interesting seeing what some people value more than others. After the nominations are in, the longlisting begins, and we also read all student comments carefully. A team of learning designers and staff from the Managed Learning Environment team, including Deeprose, look at the courses and score them individually. It’s a wide range of people from a variety of disciplines,” explains Smith.

The Blackboard & VLE Awards’ organizing team is planning to improve the dissemination of winning practices and gather staff to share the chosen courses on a regular basis, as well as ensuring all nominated courses are seen. “We’d really like to evolve it so that there are interim judging sessions within faculties where staff are asked to present their courses to peers, to our usual judging panel, and some student reps. This would give staff more opportunities to learn from each other and be inspired,” says Smith.

5 Key Elements of a Good VLE

The Blackboard & VLE Awards 2018 saw a rise in nominations, and according to students, the five key elements to a good VLE are

Number one A clear planA clear plan: What is going to happen in the module? Students nominated courses where there is complete clarity from the start: the expectations, the outline and the intended outcomes.
Number two Good labelingGood labeling: Overwhelmingly, students put forward modules that stand out for their straightforward structure, consistent layout, and clear labelling. Being able to find and recognize what you need is fundamental.
Number Three Well-blendedWell-blended: Digital content should link to classroom content and students prefer modules where this is made explicit.
Number Four DemonstratingDemonstrating: ‘Show, not tell’ is a valuable approach and students put forward courses that offer plenty of examples such as linking to relevant video clips or recordings.
Number Five AdjustingAdjusting: Staff response to feedback, good communication channels, such as discussion forums, and content being adapted or added in response to student requests.
Expert Analysis

BITS Program: Why 94% of Participants Share With Their Peers

Sarah Fielding, Specialist in Learning Design, Digital Learning team, University of Southampton

Tamsyn Smith, Specialist in Learning Design, Digital Learning team, University of Southampton

Matthew Deeprose, Virtual Learning Environment Manager, University of Southampton


1 RUFF, A. (2018, March 30). Recipe for a good VLE site. Retrieved May, 26, 2018, from


Photo Credit Josef Brett 



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