Case study: Engineering Support Forums

DiffusionOfInnovation.png Origin

Faculty of Engineering, University of Bristol

Tools used

Blackboard discussion forums and the batch copying tools.


Dr Mike Barton,


  • Heads of Department thought that students wanted to feel more supported
  • Encourage peer interaction and support


Project was rolled out to most of the Faculty of Engineering, around 300 Units, 300 staff and 2500 students

What was done

Engineering Heads of Department agreed that each of the taught units would have a Support Forum in their Blackboard course. This is accessed through the course menu on the left-hand side of the page. Students are encouraged to post queries to the forum, rather than emailing staff directly; students are also encouraged to answer each other's queries, unit teachers post replies themselves when necessary. One aim of the forum is to reduce the number of individual email responses staff have to make.

A support forum is also provided in Department Blackboard Organisations for each year cohort

Every forum is "on" by default. Staff "subscribe" to the forum and are emailed when a post is made. This helps staff reply to posts and correct misconceptions in a timely fashion, so that students feel well supported in their studies.

The overall aim is to use the discussion facilities in Blackboard as a time-effective way of improving the support offered to Engineering students.

The TEL team worked with Mike Barton to create a support forum area with instructions for staff and students. This was copied into all the Engineering Units (around 300) reducing the work for staff and providing a consistent experience for students across all units.


What worked well

In the first year of the project there was a increase in both the number of Engineering courses using discussion boards and in the amount of activity happening on those discussion boards. The Faculty of Engineering has become the most active Faculty in the University in both those areas. Over 150 Engineering units saw discussion activity in this year showing around 50% adoption of the new working practice which is fairly high and probably relates to the process of setting up the spaces for staff rather than requiring staff to create them.

Upon looking at units with more active discussion boards, there is evidence of not only the staff answering questions but also of students providing answers and guidance. Threads with multiple users working out a problem between them are not uncommon.

In the second year there is increasing use of the discussion boards with 80+ units a month using them (an increase on the 70 units a month in the first year), we are now 6 months into the year and 130 units have used discussion boards, we expect this to rise to 150-200 by the end of the year.

Problems and/or issues

In the first iteration of the project it was not made clear enough to students that they had to click on the title of the support forum, so some students were waiting for a forum to appear. The title was changed to include the words "Click Here to Enter" which resolved this problem.

Staff and Student feedback

We intend to survey the students at the end of this academic year to see how useful they have found the forums. We will also compare the National Student Survey results with previous years to see any changes in the responses to questions in this area.

Tips and suggestions for future projects

Where a change in practice or culture is desired, and this change is supported by senior staff, then it appears that providing  pre-configured tools and spaces is a really effective way to increase initial adoption as staff can just start using them.