Spotlight on Alternative Assessment Methods: Students using Xerte to create open educational resources

Photo Credit: Original: Unsplash, Remix by Joe Arton

In this ‘Spotlight on Alternative Assessment Methods’ post, Alison Christie and Brendan Owers describe how Xerte, a rapid content authoring tool, was used by students as part of a group assignment on the online Masters of Public Health programme.  

This assignment equated to 50% of the overall course assessment, with a percentage of that mark coming from students reflecting on their peers’ individual contributions. One of the purposes for choosing a group assignment was to allow students to call upon their critical skills developed throughout the programme and empower them to work in environments they will use in their own lives. It would also help to reduce isolation in an online setting and create an active environment for inquiry and collaboration. 

Students were asked to present their work in a way that was engaging, informative and accessible to a non-specialist audience. Rather than produce something that would be presented one time only, it would be developed as a contained resource that would, with their permission, become an Open Educational Resource for future students to access. We describe the method and the tools that were used, the efforts of staff and students, what students gained, and share some of the feedback we received. 


We asked students to form their own groups online. They were tasked to choose from pre-defined behavioural risk factors and identify a population where one of these risks is causing significant harm. Assignment information is made available at the start of the course, which is standard practice across the programme, allowing students to prepare their time accordingly. This is important given most of our students are working full time and will have time zones to contest with. As described above, groups were asked to create a presentation that justified their choice of topic, critically analyse the problem and propose one evidence-based approach to tackle it. Along with the assessment details, some short guidance was shared to help kick off working in groups (i.e. suggesting to assign group members with specific roles).  

We wanted to provide an environment to allow for learning through inquiry, collaboration and production, and to negotiate a shared output. Guidance on sourcing content and how to correctly attribute sources was also shared. 

What is Xerte?  

Xerte Online Toolkits is a rapid content authoring tool developed by the University of Nottingham and released with an open source license in 2009. The Xerte project at the University of Edinburgh is funded by the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences (CAHHS). Although the Xerte project is a College run project as opposed to a Centrally run service, the infrastructure is hosted centrally making it feasible to scale-up across the institution.  

Two of the key aims of the Xerte project have been to:  

  • Create Xerte learning objects for different pedagogical uses  
  • Embed the use of Xerte into courses for formative or summative assessment

Both of these key aims have been achieved in the first phase of the Xerte project.  

Effort involved – staff  

Initially staff attended a Xerte workshop and the course organiser created a Xerte resource to gain aunderstanding of what was expected of the students. Support for both staff and students was provided in four ways: short video guides, PDF guides, a webinar and a discussion forum in Learn.  

 Effort involved – students  

Students were able to utilise their critical thinking skills that they have been developing throughout the programme, in a real-world setting. They were provided with a group area on VLE to communicate. Some used this, others used WhatsApp groups and email chains which is something we support. Using the Xerte content authoring tool they were able to:  

  • Create their own content; text and audio, exploring how best to present their work  
  • Utilise critical thinking skills when sourcing data and information, and correctly attribute sources  

The key technical tasks that each student had to do within Xerte:  

  1. Log onto Xerte with their student username and password  
  2. One member of the group had to create a Xerte Online Toolkit project  
  3. One group member then had to share the Xerte project with the other members of the group to be able to collaborate 

What students gained  

In creating an assignment that was meaningful it provided students an opportunity to:  

  • increase practical skills, working in a group, collaborating online and across time zones 
  • think about creating content that would be accessible to a much wider audience  
  • further their digital capabilities whilst thinking critically about themselves in a digital world  
  • empower them to develop practical capabilities they can use in their own work and lives  


Most students appreciated the opportunity to work as a group on a task and being able to create content quickly without too much of a learning curve. Some students did experience technical issues surrounding initial login and submission (which are both very important!).  

It took a bit of getting used to, but was fairly intuitive after a while, and allowed you to do a considerable range of things. Being able to share your presentation with others & work on it together was very helpful in the context of a completely-online collaboration.

Fairly intuitive once you found your way in.

We can create a variety of beautiful projects without digging deep in to the new technology .

To be honest, because of the difficulties getting logged in and started, we just set up our presentation in PowerPoint, then transferred it.

It wasn’t easy to initiate the project and had to face multiple technical issues and needed technical help in initiating and submitting the project. 

 Next steps  

This was the first time we ran this and with the feedback received we are now aware of the main stumbling blocks that were experienced. We’ll be using this format again and will promote the benefits of content creation within this context, as well as the opportunity to develop digital capabilities. The programme is now using Xerte more widely as a result of this in terms of its own content delivery. The benefit of Xerte is that it caters for all levels of skill, allowing an opportunity for anyone to get started and quickly author and publish content.  

Useful Links 

Alison Christie

Alison Christie has been a Learning Technologist since 2010, with the last three years at the University of Edinburgh Business School. Prior to working in Higher Education, Alison spent fourteen years in the private sector providing software and hardware support and end user training. Alison is currently responsible for providing Xerte training and documentation at the University of Edinburgh. 

Brendan Owers

Brendan is a Learning Technologist at the Usher Institute, University of Edinburgh, supporting the delivery of the Master in Public Health online programme. He recently completed his MSc in Blended and Online Education, and is CMALT accredited. He is interested in how we can make effective use of technology in learning and teaching. You can follow Brendan on Twitter: @brendanowers

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