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Contextual enquiry with members of staff working with course materials digitally

As part of our comprehensive programme of user research in support of the Learn Foundations project, the User Experience Service has conducted contextual enquiry to better understand the contexts and needs of staff members working with Learn.

We had already completed and analysed a series of interviews we had conducted with students about how they work with course materials digitally.

Interviews with students to understand users’ needs and contexts around Learn — blog post about our interviews with students

Findings from our research with students helped shape our research with staff members.


We wanted to learn more about the contexts of staff members working with course materials digitally, to help us better understand what was causing the issues we found from speaking to students. But we also wanted to learn more about what key tasks staff are trying to achieve in Learn themselves.

Our overall goal was to identify insights that would help the Learn Foundations project team design their solutions to better support staff using Learn.

Some of our research questions included:

  • Who is responsible for what? When are tasks carried out by academics, and when are they carried out by professional services staff — and how does this vary from School to School?
  • What materials do staff deliver to students online — and how does this fit within the wider teaching context?
  • How do people learn how to use Learn — and what are their needs around training?

What we did

We interviewed 11 staff members in total. These people represented a range of academics and administrative staff. They came from 8 different Schools, with each College represented by at least two people. We also spoke to people who were enthusiastic about the role of technology in learning, and less enthusiastic. We found people who made heavy use of Learn, and people who liked to avoid it in favour of a legacy or bespoke hand-built VLE.

Key findings

As with our findings from our interviews with students, we arranged the insights we gained from staff into categories on a foam board.

Foam board with sticky notes summarising insights from staff interviews

There are a lot of detailed findings represented here. So I’m going to focus on some of the most important ones:

  • Learning how to use Learn
  • Assignment Submission
  • Feedback
  • Using Learn as a communications tool
  • Frustrations with templates

Learning how to use Learn

Many staff members expressed frustrations around aspects of using Learn. But most of them had not yet attend any training in Learn.

This was for a variety of reasons. Many people were happy to just ‘muddle along’ by themselves. Others expressed concerns around having to travel from a different campus to attend training.

I could have chosen to attend a training course on how to use Learn, but I chose not to.
— Insight from an interview with a staff member

Meanwhile, some of those that did attend training felt that it wasn’t suitable for their role.

These findings are informing the new training offering being developed as part of Learn Foundations, including more local and online training options.

Assignment submission

Staff members noted that a wide variety of submission methods can be used not only across different Schools, but also within the one School. By speaking to staff members from different Schools, we built a picture of how different areas of the University can use very different systems and processes for dealing with assignments.

There is a wide variety of submission methods used throughout the School.
— Insight from an interview with a staff member

As a result of the findings, we are reviewing assessment processes over the next year in order to better inform what we need to do in this area.


In one fascinating interview with a member of professional services staff, feedback was described as an “emotive topic” for both students and staff.

Feedback varies. It’s difficult to get consistency in terms of quality and quantity of feedback — or even just what they write.
— Insight from an interview with a staff member

Staff members often spend a lot of time leaving good feedback. As such, they can feel demoralised when students don’t look at their feedback. This used to be the case when feedback was given on paper in the past. When students had to physically collect their feedback from the office, piles of it used to be left over, serving as a permanent reminder to staff of the time they spent giving feedback that was never looked at.

Using Learn as a communications tool

If there is one thing staff members like about Learn above all else, it’s the fact that it makes it easy to communicate with their students. Staff members told us that they love using Learn as a comms tool.

We love the announcements page — we use that quite strongly.

Learn is good as a one-stop shop for communicating with a class.
— Quotes from interviews with staff members

This has shown us how important it is that people are clear on when it is appropriate to use announcements in Learn. Guidance around this is being built into the Learn Foundations checklist and training.

Frustrations with templates

Staff members expressed a variety of frustrations around these existing templates. Staff members are often not told why templates exist, or why they’re set up the way they are. As such, different practices still manifest themselves despite the use of templates.

I even watched one teacher object so strongly to a template she was talking me through, that she deleted an entire section in front of me.

By some mysterious process that’s not clear to me, courses appear one day in Learn.
— Quote from an interview with a staff member

This highlighted to us the importance of not just providing a template without clearly explaining the reasoning behind the design. Scaffolding in the form of inline guidance, along with the checklist and training programme, will help ensure that staff members using Learn know why the template exists, and why it is designed the way it is.

What we’ve done

These insights — along with everything else we found out by interviewing members of staff — have been analysed by the Learn Foundations project team. The team have collaboratively identified and prioritised potential solutions to some of the issues raised by this user research. These will be fed into future phases of the Learn Foundations project.

Learn more about the User Experience Service

To find out more about the User Experience Service and how we can support you to carry out user research, visit our website to find out more about these approaches and to contact us.

User Experience Service

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