Bringing professional expertise into the virtual classroom


Blackboard Collaborate is our supported webinar (online seminar) platform, allowing for synchronous text, voice and video chat, remote delivery of presentations and real-time discussion activities. In this case study, we look at the way that the Department of Health Sciences has used Collaborate to enable distance learners to interact with module tutors working in professional contexts.

Case study courtesy of John Blase, Health Sciences e-Learning Development Lead.

Aims and Objectives

The use of Blackboard Collaborate aimed to:

  • Allow tutor and students to get to know each other and personalise the learning experience through interaction.
  • Address questions with immediacy and support deeper understanding of content.
  • Provide a better way to explain complex ideas orally/visually than via text alone.
  • Reduce time spent by tutor on responding to email queries.


Three modules on the distance learning MSc course in Haematopathology, within the Department of Health Sciences, utilised Blackboard Collaborate for online synchronous learning activities. The module explored in detail here was taught through use of a series of case studies. Each week students were given 3 or 4 case studies to analyse and interpret, using the virtual lab to undertake tests based upon real patient data and develop their understanding. Students might not be provided all the information they need to understand the case studies at the start of the week, but through dialogue with each other and the tutor they develop their response to the case studies.

Students were either medically trained or laboratory trained, with each group of students bringing their own knowledge base, but not necessarily being aware of the whole picture. Therefore interaction and discussion with each other and the tutor was key to the learning experience. As this module was taught through distance learning, students came from all over the world and were juggling competing schedules. Originally, the module utilised text-based discussion boards to facilitate the discussion asynchronously when students found time. However, the uptake of the discussion board was low and there was a sense that students weren’t visiting the online space regularly to participate. In addition, the tutor noted it was sometimes a struggle to develop students’ understanding by using discussion boards or email alone, which elongated the conversation and made it difficult to ascertain students’ grasp of key concepts.

Collaborate was used as a way to provide synchronous interaction, bringing tutor and students together at a specific point in time to address questions and support understanding of the case studies. If lack of time was the reason for not using discussion boards, the risk was that students wouldn’t be able to find the time for a synchronous activity either, however this did not appear to be the case. Students participated with the online seminars via Collaborate, focusing both their time and the tutor’s time for learning.


Access to the online seminar was via the Collaborate link in the VLE module site. Sessions run once a week per module. In addition to the tutor who led the session, a moderator was also on hand to set up the webinar and make the session run smoothly. The moderator dealt with uploading of resources and any technical issues, leaving the external tutor to just focus on the interaction with students.

The first webinar session took the form of an introduction to Collaborate and how it works, an ice-breaker task to begin to form the community of learners, and a technical walkthrough of the case study virtual lab software they were to use each week.

Thereafter, Collaborate online seminars were used weekly during the module. Within each webinar the tutor would go through the case study from the week before to recap learning so far. The students could ask questions about the cases and address any technical issues, for example with the virtual lab simulation. Sessions usually last about an hour, but duration can be dependent upon the questions in the session. Some of the induction sessions would be longer to allow time to go through detail, later sessions could be shorter.

The first 20 minutes of a webinar usually addressed questions posed by students from their case study analysis. The sessions involved going through each case study step-by-step, with expected results and highlighting particular problems experienced by the students. This may be followed by a short lecture based upon common concerns from the previous week or additional information to support understanding of the case studies coming up. Most of the interaction uses the text chat tool, as this was easier than requiring everyone to be equipped to use voice chat.

Near the end of the module the webinars were used to allow students to make presentations to demonstrate their understanding. For student presentations, students upload their PowerPoint to an assignment submission point into the VLE in advance. The moderator uploaded the presentation on the students’ behalf into the Collaborate session before the start of the webinar. Control is given to the student to forward the presentation slides during the webinar.

In another module, the focus of the online seminars was to develop skills in critical appraisal. Using the breakout rooms feature of Collaborate, small groups worked on appraising a journal article before coming back into the main room and presenting the outputs from the sub-groups. Acting as an editorial board, the groups made a decision on whether the paper being reviewed should be published.

Sessions were recorded for the students to watch again later. The main reason for recording was due to the distance cohort being spread across multiple time zones and difficulty in finding a time slot to suit everyone.


The main benefit was to get everyone together at the same time. Students responded better to oral explanations, with sessions acting as a regular contact point throughout the module. One of the main drivers was to reduce the amount of time that the tutor was spending trying to respond to the same questions from different students by email. The tutors are not based at the University, but at a hospital and therefore their time is tight and it’s not ideal for them to be spending time going over the same issues by email. The focus of time in the Collaborate online seminar meant that common questions could be discussed collectively, supporting everyone’s learning in the module and understanding checked more immediately.

Students turned up and appear to understand content much more effectively. The students enjoyed the synchronous sessions and they are more engaged with the content. Similarly, the tutors valued the contact time they had with the students, that wasn’t possible through text-based discussion boards alone. They are also able to allocate time to one evening, rather than having to spend time answering email queries. The webinar recording was also useful for the students to recap content and benefited the tutors as they could revisit the following year to check their session plans and consider improvements.

An unintended consequence was that students ended up using the asynchronous discussion board more as a result of participating in the synchronous webinar session. They carried on discussions from the webinar and planned what they would do in the next online seminar session. This may have been down to participants becoming more familiar with each other in the synchronous space, building an implicit community of learning. Perhaps one of the issues was that text-only interaction didn’t build a connection between the students and the instructor. With the immediacy of the webinar session, there was scope to understand the student and tutor perspectives.

Transferable lessons learned

  • In the first instance, set aside plenty of time to ensure students have access to the system. Set up a room and give students access to the room a few days before so they can test it out on their own before a formal teaching session.
  • In terms of running a session, it’s useful to have more than one person involved where you have a presenter and someone who could be on hand for moderating discussion in the text chat. This is particularly useful if you have external tutors who are there for specific periods of time. If you and your students use Collaborate regularly, you will be able to develop approaches to managing an online webinar without an additional moderator.
  • For the sessions, it depends on your intended learning experience, but usually include a catch-up at the start to find out any questions the students want to address, followed by new content and rounding up with final questions. In many ways similar to a face-to-face session, but with the advantage of having an ongoing text chat that can be monitored and involving students throughout.
  • Ensure that the session is not just a one-way presentation, make the most of the interactivity it offers.

Next steps

Case Study last updated: January 2017