Template for ILRT reports

Institute for Learning and Research Technology

Biz/ed: A Jigsaw of tools to model and enrich learning

Grainne Conole, Kate Sharp and Andy Beharrell

ILRT, University of Bristol, UK g.conole@bristol.ac.uk

IKeywords: Biz/ed, Virtual Worlds, constructivism, Internet resources, Internet gateway, economics, business


The use of the Web to support learning and teaching is now widely recognised as being an integral part of the development and delivery of learning and teaching materials. However, there is still a tendency to simply use the Web as a relatively static medium, with little thought to the underlying pedagogical guiding principles. Learning objects are defined as digital items, which can be used to support learning. They are modular units comparable to Lego blocks that can be assembled together to form lessons and courses. This paper describes a resource built up of an aggregate set of learning objects and tools that can be used to support learning in a variety of different ways. The paper describes an online resource for business and economics students, which aims to provide a rich, engaging learning environment. Biz/ed consists of a set of interlinked learning tools. The underlying philosophy behind Biz/ed is that it can be both viewed as a top-down framework of inter-linked resources and as a jigsaw-kit of self-assembling learning tools, which can be repurposed in a variety of formats for different local contexts. The underlying assumptions for the development of the site will be described and key aspects of the main facilities outlined. The paper shows how the underpinning pedagogical principles were translated into practical online interactive resources.

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  1. Setting the context
  2. In recent years developments in Information and Communication Technologies have led to a growth in the range of Internet-tools which can be used for learning and research. Research and development into the creation of content-rich digital libraries has developed to a large extent in isolation from research and development into the creation of online learning resources and virtual learning environments (VLEs). What defines and distinguishes a VLE from a digital library? This paper contends that we need to first examine the components already in place, to look at how they are related and will help users to better understand the power and offerings of the current technologies to support our learning and research activities.

    In recent years there has been an exponential increase in the range of online learning environments and associated tools to support learning and research. These range from stand alone communication tools such as email, discussion boards and synchronous chat, authoring facilities and assessment tools right through to more integrated learning environments such as Learning Space, WebCT and Blackboard. Coupled with this there is now supposedly a range of tools to facilitate searching, ranging from search engines like Alta Vista and Yahoo to more subject specific information gateways and portals. Despite this there is little evidence of wide spread uptake in the use of these technologies within education (Jones, 1996; MacKenzie and Wajcman, 1985; Bijker, Hughes and Pinch, 1987). A recent report concludes amongst the factors that are slowing the uptakeis the lack of a coherent framework within which to evaluate both the pedagogical benefits and the organisational changes required to effectively implement it (Britain, 1999). Evaluation research to date shows that it is difficult to encourage true virtual learning or collaboration. Discussion board use, for example, often shows a pattern of peak use directly related to teacher intervention or responses to particular hot spot topics. Collaborative group work needs to be carefully set up and orchestrated to achieve desired results and despite this may still end up as a rather stilted collaboration exercise not comparable with direct face to face equivalent group work (Jones, 1999). Integrated learning environments are still predominantly used as a shell to display Web pages and rarely get beyond basic information dissemination and administration. With respect to information seeking and handling, the volume of information available to researchers and learners is increasing exponentially, unmatched by the sophistication of the searching and handling tools (Lawrence and Lee Giles, 1999). Information overload, coupled with confusion as to where to look, is becoming increasingly problematic and despite a growth in the range of searching tool and portals, it is still not evident that the right information is being dispatched to the right users in a timely and quality assured fashion.

    This paper will describe an online resource (Biz/ed) that attempts to address many of the issues outlined above. It provides a subject-based focus for learning resources and integrative models and simulations to enhance learning and provide a rich student-centred flexible environment. The paper will describe the main features of the resource and map it to underlying pedagogical frameworks, which will be outlined in the next section.

  3. Background to Biz/ed

Biz/ed is an economics and business gateway specifically designed for students, teachers and lecturers of business and economics across the educational spectrum (http://www.bized.ac.uk/). It was launched in January 1996 and has since then grown significantly. The site currently often receives in excess of 1 million page accesses per month. The site has an international focus as well as UK specific material.

The site is designed to provide a comprehensive one-stop shop of educational resources in business and economics. The aspiration is to work towards the development of an enriched learning experience which maximises the benefits the Internet offers whilst maintaining a clear pedagogical basis.

There are five main sections to the site.

  1. The Internet Catalogue this was funded initially by the Joint Information Systems Committees electronic libraries (e-Lib) programme in the UK. The aim is to create a catalogue of high-quality Internet resources, focusing on the business and economics subject areas. There are currently over 1,700 resources catalogued and every resource is checked against a set of quality criteria to ensure its quality. All entries in the catalogue have an abstract and keywords and the catalogue is both browsable and searchable.
  2. Company Facts this section aims to add a real life focus by linking directly to useful up-to-date information on key international companies. It has the answers to frequently asked questions about companies. The questions cover a range of topics from marketing to human resource management to social and ethical policy. They are provided by the companies themselves, but are vetted by educational advisors to ensure the educational value of the content.
  3. Learning Materials this section aims to provide a variety of learning materials to support students from school through to masters-level. It encompasses the economics and business subject domains and in turn covers specific accredited curriculum pathways including GNVQ, MBA and the International Baccalaureate. For each area there are a variety of resources including Internet-based worksheets, downloadable PowerPoint presentations, interactive questions, resources databases and notes.
  4. Data this section has a variety of UK and international data. It includes data from the Office for National Statistics in the UK, Extel company data, Penn World data and also a chronology of UK and international economic events.
  5. Virtual Worlds this section contains a variety of large-scale learning resources developed by Biz/ed and it is these that this paper will be mainly focusing on. Available are the Virtual Factory (launched in June 1998), the Virtual Economy (originally launched in March 1999), the Virtual Bank of England (to be launched in September 2000) and the Virtual Developing Country (to be launched in October 2000).
      1. Biz/ed Framework Concept
      2. The success of Biz/ed is due, in part, to the development of a number of separate learning tools which are used to highlight/access different features on the site. These tools are essentially highly scaleable and could be rolled out for use by a range of users. This paper documents the Biz/ed framework, the different tools that have been used and provides a clear vision of how pedagogically sound learning materials can be developed and made more widely available. The generic framework can be used to enable others to develop their own tailormade jigsaw-kits for creating subject-specific VLEs.

        An examination of the types of learning tools used by Biz/ed illustrates how different learning tools can be used to support different aspects of the learning process. For example, some tools can be used to enable resource discovery, while others might facilitate group work and the development of communication skills. These are described in more detail below.

      3. Tools for modelling and simulation the Virtual Learning Arcade
      4. In association with the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Warwick and Oxford Universities, Biz/ed has helped to develop methods for making complex models available online for experimentation by users. For the Virtual Learning Arcade we have taken this work one stage further and developed the basis of a generic tool for making spreadsheet models available over the Web. Such models, and the generic system developed by Biz/ed, are highly transferable into other subject areas, as the initial skills required to develop the models are those that many teachers and lecturers already have. Models and simulations are a very effective learning tool, enabling iterative experimentation for students of a number of different scenarios. These models and associated learning materials can help to encourage a variety of both lower and higher order skills. The project workshops will support users in producing their own Web-based models and associated learning materials.

      5. Interactive tools
      6. In association with key publishers and the FT (Financial Times), Biz/ed has created a series of interactive questions and worksheets using a unique tool called CALnet. This has led to the development of interactive banks of questions, case studies and other resources, which are used in a variety of ways to support learning. This approach can be adapted for other subject areas, to create a generic version of the interactive question and worksheet tool. A range of other scripts and interactive materials could also be developed and developed into generic tools for use in other subject areas.

      7. Tools to support discussion
      8. Biz/ed has developed a wide variety of other approaches to enhancing discussion. Sections like "Wanna Argument" can be very effective in applying theory to real-world problems and issues, and the On the Case has shown how a case study approach can help to apply theory to current events and issues. Topical perspectives on a subject can be highly motivational for students and help them to apply theory and the underpinning methodology in an every day context.

        Biz/ed has also been involved in developing synchronous communication tools to support learning, with online chats with examiners. The project will look at the ways in which users can effectively incorporate these tools into an overall package of learning resources.

      9. Access to datasets
      10. In the TimeWeb project Biz/ed and MIMAS have been developing a Web-based interface to the MIMAS data and producing learning materials to help support the use of this data. The subject-specific sections of the TimeWeb project could also be re-purposed for use in other subjects. Access to these kinds of large datasets is clearly of significant benefit in terms of supporting learning.

      11. Tools for creating online tutorials the RDN Virtual Training Suite (VTS)
      12. Biz/ed has also been closely involved in the development of the RDN Virtual Training Suite, a suite of nearly 50 online subject-specific introductions to the Internet (www.rdn.vts.ac.uk). In particular, Biz/ed staff wrote the Internet Business Manager, as well as co-writing Internet Economist. Biz/ed staff are also now involved in the development of the new VTS tutorials for the FE community. These resources sit alongside the JISC-funded Resource Discovery Network (RDN) which provides access to a set of quality assured subject based resources and digital libraries.


      13. Tools for modelling and emersion - Virtual Worlds
      14. The Virtual Worlds concept attempts to provide a rich, contextualised learning environment, which is both stimulating and educational. The users are encouraged to actively participate and engage with the resource.


        1. Virtual Factory
        2. The original conceptualisation of the Virtual Worlds section began with the Virtual Factory (http://www.bized.ac.uk/virtual/cb/). It is becoming increasingly difficult for students to get access into firms to try to apply the theoretical principles they have learnt to real-world problems and issues. The aim behind the Virtual Factory was to give students the opportunity to get inside a factory from a distance and see how the various business functions (production, marketing, purchasing, accounting and so on) are carried out. A further aim was to help raise a variety of issues that were faced by this company in trying to maintain its competitive position in the market.

          However, that alone was not felt to be sufficient. One problem with online materials is the tendency for students to take a cursory look at the resources and feel they have done enough. They tend to be less willing to read as great a volume of text on-screen as they would with more conventional resources (Nielsen, J. 1997). To encourage students to explore further, we felt it was vital to integrate the information about the company with supporting educational materials based around their curriculum. The intention was to encourage students to learn by exploring and questioning. This meant creating an integrated package that also contained worksheets and sections that raised issues and problems for them to consider. This approach ensured that the resource fitted in with the design criteria set out for Web-based constructivist learning (Lefoe, 1998) and prevented students from simply being "passive recipients of information". Using the power of hypertext to link all the materials together and integrating the worksheets with the rest of the information delivered this outcome. The design therefore required a consistent user-interface to be used throughout the site. In this way students could explore at their own pace and take their own direction through the site. There was no need for a conventional linear approach, but they would be able to tailor their learning to their requirements. At the same time there would be worksheets and other resources available to help them focus this learning and to help give them some suggested directions. Navigation around the site is done mainly by clicking on a floor plan of the factory. This was felt to be a straightforward and intuitive user interface and subsequent evaluation has shown this to be true. Text-based links are always available and there is also a universal navigation bar (done as a server-side include (SSI)) at the head of each page. (See Figure 1 Virtual Factory Home page)

          The Virtual Factory will be upgraded and further developed in the latter half of 2000 to add a greater degree of interactivity to the site. There will be some interactive on-screen worksheets on the basic business principles and in the rest of the worksheets students will be able to type their answers and submit them. They will then receive back a sheet with their answers lined up against some suggested answers or questions they should perhaps have considered.


        3. Virtual Economy
        4. The intention behind creating the Virtual Economy on Biz/ed was to use the power and reach of the Web to give students the ability to experiment on a high quality and sophisticated model of the economy. The idea stemmed from work that had been done by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in the UK. They had a tax and benefit model (Tax-Ben) that showed the impact of different tax and benefit changes on a variety of different families and income groups. They made this available on the Internet in 1997. At the same time The Macroeconomic Modelling Centre at Warwick University created a ready-reckoner which enabled examination of the comparative properties of a variety of well known macroeconomic models (Church, K.B. et al, 2000). This package distilled three different well-known macro models and made the results available to people on a floppy disc based version. We felt that if we could combine a macro model with a micro model, then users would be able to try out a variety of policies and see the effects, not just on the principal economic targets but also on the individuals.

          Having received a grant from the Nuffield Foundation to develop this work, we began in 1998. The IFS Tax-Ben model was integrated with an adapted version of the HM Treasury model developed by the UK government. These were combined technically and given a universal front end where users could input the policies they wanted to try. The input is done through an HTML form where users can choose to change a wide range of variables ranging from interest rates and government expenditure to income tax and the taxes on alcohol and cigarettes. Users then select the change they would like to make from a range of options and submit their policies. The model is solved (using a block of Fortran code) and the results sent back as a long HTML page including graphs and data to how exact changes. The first thing to load is a series of summary graphics for both the macro variables and the families and these show the approximate changes. Clicking on any of these takes the user to a detailed breakdown of the change.

          Figure 2 Results page of the Virtual Economy

          Surrounding all of this is an integrated set of materials that give full details about all variables in the model. For each economic outcome (economic growth, inflation, unemployment and public borrowing) and each economic instrument (taxation (direct and indirect), government expenditure and interest rates) there is a full explanation of the meaning of that variable, related economic theories and a set of worksheets.

          The worksheets are all carefully differentiated and developmental in their approach. They are intended to help students to develop both lower order skills like knowledge and factual-recall, but also higher order skills like evaluation and synthesis. They aim to achieve this by being progressive in nature. Early questions may encourage them to reinforce their knowledge of a particular area by linking across to some of the explanations or theoretical material. Gradually the questions then move up in an incline of difficulty and suggest strategies and policies that they can try on the model. They can then try to apply the theory to the results they get and see the extent to which theory matches reality. Open-ended questioning then raises further issues and gets them to consider where the assumptions made in the course of developing theory may break down in practice. In this way they can look at the application of theory to reality through a process of experimentation, but also develop a better appreciation of the interconnected nature of much of the subject matter of economics. This vital higher order skill of synthesis is the ultimate aim of a large-scale integrated learning resource of this nature.

          The development of a consistent user-interface for the whole site was vital to achieving this outcome, and much thought went into the development of this. User evaluation had shown that the symbolism of the clickable factory floor in the Virtual Factory had been a very powerful navigation tool, but this was more difficult to achieve with a Virtual Economy. After all just what does symbolise an economy? We chose to use the concept of a floor plan once again, but this time we chose Number 11 Downing Street the home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. By having a number of floors where the materials progress from the more general introductory material through to the more complex economic theory we felt users would have a logical navigation structure throughout the site. On each floor they can click on a variety of different offices to access the available resources. One of the floors is also a library where there is a full glossary and a timeline of the development of economic theory and the economists who created it. To follow the theme of integration throughout the whole site, every glossary item is highlighted throughout the site and linked to the glossary in the library. The Virtual Economy can be found at: http://www.bized.ac.uk/virtual/economy/


        5. Current Projects: Virtual Developing Country and Virtual Bank of England

The Virtual Developing Country will follow a similar structure to the previous Virtual Worlds and will be a resource rich in data and images. The principal aim of the Virtual Developing Country is to raise the level of awareness among students of development issues. It is intended to be a resource that they can return to time and time again throughout their studies as they cover different aspects of development. The case study approach taken should also help to raise the level of awareness and understanding among students of theory in context issues in development studies. Resources presented will not only outline economic data and theory but also encourage practical application through worksheets and activities.

In 1999 Biz/ed was commissioned by the Bank of England to create a Virtual Bank of England. They wanted to create a resource that would help raise awareness of the role they play in the management of the economy and the control of inflation and saw the Internet as the ideal route for the dissemination of such a resource. As with other Virtual Worlds, the Virtual Bank of England will be rich in images and data. Users will be able to take slideshow type tours through the various areas of activity of the Bank and these will be carefully cross-referenced with other resources available elsewhere on the site. Also available will be theoretical analysis of the work done by the Bank, worksheets and full details about senior members of the Banks staff and the work they do. The Virtual Developing Country and the Virtual Bank of England will be launched in Autumn 2000.

  1. Underlying principles and methodology

The underpinning principles behind the development of the components of Biz/ed are:

  • Usability
  • Efficiency
  • Skills development
  • Integration
  • Interactivity

    1. Usability
    2. A key starting point for all of the components of Biz/ed has been the issue of usability. We have always felt that learning resources of this nature should allow students to learn flexibly and at a pace that suits them. It is only then that they will be motivated to explore the site and get the optimum learning outcome. The sites have therefore always needed to be stand-alone integrated sites and not just a series of web pages. The user-interface design has always looked at the basis of navigation around the site and aimed to use some sort of symbolism that the user associates with the area they are studying. In the case of the Virtual Factory we used a floor plan of the balloon factory and in the case of the Virtual Economy Number 11 Downing Street (the home of the Chancellor of the Exchequer). This navigation is consistently available wherever the user is in the site so that there is always a degree of continuity about their work. Evaluation has shown that users navigate in a variety of different ways and so all the Virtual Worlds have alternative methods of navigation to suit as wide a range of users as possible.

    3. Efficiency
    4. The components of Biz/ed have all been designed and constructed to encourage students to use and re-use the resources available. By ensuring that each resource gives broad subject coverage but still retains carefully focussed navigation and site architecture students are encouraged to return to the site frequently. Each visit will tend to yield different experiences and information, but on each return visit familiarity with the site ensures an efficient learning outcome. Many of the users of Virtual Worlds will be schools, colleges and individual students who may not have the benefit of a high-speed Internet connection. For this reason all the Virtual Worlds have been designed to be very efficient in their download times. Much of the navigation is done with server side includes (SSIs) to speed up the download of the core navigation features and the designs are carefully chosen to be as efficient as possible in terms of file sizes. All images are carefully and individually processed to optimise them for the web. In light of the fact that many institutions are still struggling to develop the quality of Internet connection they would like, we have also made all the Virtual Worlds downloadable. This enables users to download a single self-extracting zip file which expands to give them a full version of the site on either their hard drive of local area network or intranet.

    5. Skills development
    6. The components are intended to help students to develop a variety of skills both lower and higher-order. They are thorough in their coverage to give students all the information they need, but also try to raise questions and encourage further investigation. In this way students have an opportunity to apply the theory they have learnt to a real-world situation and develop analytical and evaluative skills. All associated worksheets are progressive in nature to try to achieve this and use a variety of different questioning techniques. Careful differentiation of the materials and worksheets enables students to progress at their own pace so that they can choose to focus on the areas where they are least certain. All resources are designed to be readily accessible to teachers or lecturers and there are always printable versions of all worksheets and other resources so that they can be used in a classroom or lecture theatre environment without adaptation.

    7. Integration
    8. Perhaps the key to the success of each of the components is that they are stand-alone integrated resources. Throughout the site hypertext is used to cross-reference all information on the site. All sites have their own glossary and all terms in the glossary are highlighted in the text and linked to the glossary definition (often by a small book icon). Worksheets always refer to the relevant theoretical, descriptive or numerical material to give the student the necessary stimulus material to start thinking through the issue or problem concerned.

    9. Interactivity

A constructivist approach to learning requires students to interact with the site. They must be encouraged to develop critical awareness of the materials they are looking at and to develop analytical and evaluative skills. This will only happen where they interact. For example, all of the Virtual Worlds have elements of interactivity. Each of them will be constantly updated and developed to enhance the interactivity of the sites as technical developments enable this.

  1. Evaluation
  2. This section will describe the ongoing formative evaluation of the site that is carried out. This takes the form of statistics about site usage, case studies of how lecturers are using the materials and feedback from users.

    1. Statistics
    2. Statistics on the use of the site and the ways in which users are navigation through the materials is logged as routine, users are also encourage to submit feedback online. Figure 3 illustrates the exponential growth in the use of the site over the last 18 months. It is perhaps significant to note that this growth can be directly correlated to the increase of enhanced features of the site, particularly the development of the Virtual Worlds section of the site. Statistical reports are regularly generated from the Biz/ed server logs and these allow us to determine the relative usage levels of different parts of the site, right down to the level of individual pages. Some attempts are also made to determine where users are located. For example, we can determine relative usage of particular HE or FE institutions, although this is problematic, because many users connect from ISPs (Internet Service Providers) at home. The dramatic growth in usage of Biz/ed is also monitored in other ways. For example, in the last week of March 2000, 15864 distinct hosts were served, of which 8571 had not been served to in the previous 15 months. Biz/ed will shortly be attempting to track users more carefully using a cookies-based method. This will allow more detailed monitoring of how users actually use the site by providing, for example, information on the exact route taken through the site and how long was spent on each page. Each section of Biz/ed is tracked individually and regular analysis is undertaken of the way in which users interact with the resources.

      Figure 3 Biz/ed Access Statistics January 1996 October 2001

    3. Case Study: Using Biz/ed to support teaching and learning at the University of the West of England (UWE).
    4. At the University of the West of England, Biz/ed has been used very successfully with all 800 first-year students in their business school. The Virtual Economy, while based around the UK economy, also has a series of fictional case studies of firms and individuals to encourage students to consider the impact of economic policy on these groups. The Virtual Economy has been incorporated into lectures and was the basis of a 2,500-word assignment on how different economic policies affect business.

    5. Feedback

    Feedback from users confirms that they react positively to the advanced features of Biz/ed particularly those in the Virtual Worlds section as the following quotes illustrate:

    "Fabulous sitebrilliant resourcesexcellent ideavery well done. This will be used time and time again. Thank you!" Peter Thompson, lecturer, The Isle of Wight College

    "Excellent work. These pages are enjoyed by both me and my students." David Jones, Anglo European School

    "This is an exceptional site. Im pleased to have blundered across it. From all appearances this will be useful for my beginning economics students. Thanks." Will Fowler, teacher, Novato, California

    "Thank you for providing a well structured, innovative site with exceptional content. Simply one of the best and certainly most informative sites I have come across!" Ryan Harris, student, Canterbury, Kent

    What is evident from this is that users are engaging with the learning materials and find the multifaceted interactivity of the site stimulating. Equally important is the fact that the materials are within context and there is a cohesive learning environment for different activities and work packages.

  3. Conclusions
  4. The work described in this paper has investigated two main areas: the design and development of Web sites to support learning, A review of the underlying theories has been presented and examples of the ways in which researchers and developers are trying to apply theory to develop better, more educationally focused online learning.

    A specific attempt to provide a stimulating, engaging online environment has been described. The general architecture of the Biz/ed Web site has been described along with descriptions of each of the components and their purpose.

  5. Acknowledgements

Biz/ed has been a collaborative development in partnership with a group of consortium members. With respect to the Virtual Worlds work the following people have been integral: Graham Stark and Jocelyn Paine, Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and Keith Church, Warwick Economic Macromodelling Bureau for the modelling aspects of the Virtual Economy. Martin Belcher, Jan Chipchase, Ian Sealy, Internet Developments, ILRT, University of Bristol for user interface, Web architecture, usability and technical developments on all Virtual Worlds. Mark Waterson, International School Amsterdam, author of the Virtual Developing Country.

Funding and support for developing this area of Biz/ed has been provided by the following:

JISC Joint Information Systems Committee

Cameron Balloons for the Virtual Factory

Nuffield Foundation for the Virtual Economy

Bank of England for the Virtual Bank of England

Anglia Campus, Unilever, Just Business for the Virtual Developing Country







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