Graham Lewis Centre for Academic Practice, University of Warwick
Placing learning materials online is becoming an increasingly common activity, or at least an aspiration. at Warwick and central services are attempting to find the best approach to support this. Virtual learning environments (VLEs) offer a convenient packaged solution but simply providing the technology is not enough to ensure successful uptake and innovative usage.
What can we do with VLEs?
The convenience of anytime/anywhwere (if you can access the internet) has been mentioned many times and the use of VLEs for training level education has been shown to be quite successful. Using them effectively for HE level education is a different matter and we are still learning both how to use the existing tools and what new tools we might need. To compare these environments with 'traditional' ways of learning is perhaps missing the point. These are new tools offering new ways to learn. We have learnt a little about how to use VLEs and the tools they include over recent years but really they are largely unexplored and most of us are still firmly anchored in the print and speech paradigm. The best approach for HE would seem to be an intelligent combination of traditional and new media. It doesn't end at course design and creation - how many of us have used these environments as students? Academics have as much to learn as online tutors as the students as online learners.
Embedding the Technology
Some universities have embraced the idea of online learning and VLEs by imposing a single VLE across the whole institution. The advantage is that this can be well supported, the disadvantage is that it may not provide for all possible uses. Also, the very features that make creating an online course easy, impose patterns of thinking on the way we build courses in these environments. These, combined with issues of interaction with other university systems and the different demands of local and remote use, make a decision about what sort of VLE to support a sticky problem for central services to wrestle with. It may be that none of the commercial packages suit our needs and like some universities we will build our own VLE either from scratch or from component applications. Such an approach offers flexibility but commits us to a greater level of technical support than would be the case with an off the shelf solution.
The university is currently reviewing VLEs and related tools to determine which we may support centrally and as part of this decision process, several of the front running commercial providers of VLEs have been invited to give presentations at Warwick early in 2001.
Warwick Online Course Construction (WOCC)
Whether the university chooses a standard system or not, placing courses online does require that staff develop not just new technology skills but new ways of thinking about structuring and delivering courses. Investment in the technology must be accompanied by investment in a support and training. Whichever technology we choose, it will be money wasted if few academics make use of it. The Warwick Online Course Construction (WOCC) programme, due to start at the end of February 2001, will use a combination of workshops, one to one consultation, lunchtime problem solving sessions, internet discussion and online courses to take participants through the various stages of putting together an effective online course. Despite the title, we are probably more often looking at online support for traditional courses rather than self contained online courses.
The programme is intended to be flexible enough to cope with academic workloads and the specific needs of the subject material. While the key technologies used will be the same, the final online courses are likely to be very different.
There is no reason why support staff should not also participate as they may be involved in the production of the online course but should accompany the academic who will be the primary designer. There will be a small budget available to the programme to assist staff in paying for additional technical or clerical work.
Participants will start by producing a project plan and over a period of 6 months will gradually acquire the necessary skills while putting together a real course. They will explore not only a range of applicable technologies but also what we know of good practice in this area.
All the courses will be developed within the same virtual learning environment (VLE), easing the support burden and enabling a self-support network to be developed. The selected VLE will be hosted on a centrally supported server capable of delivering the finished courses. A range of other technologies that can enrich the VLE will be addressed in additional workshops..
Some elements of the programme will be self study on the Web written within the same VLE that participants use to develop their own courses. These will act as examples and give staff an opportunity to see things from a learner’s perspective.
The programme will take place over 6 months with a negotiable but substantial investment of time by staff away from their departments in a communal development environment – this might be the e-Development lab or other facility depending on the activity.
This programme should be a lot more cost effective than funding individual programmes of this nature through the Research and Teaching Development Fund and far more likely to produce finished products.
At the end of the first programme run, not only will all infrastructure and training materials be in place and tested but a number of working case studies will be available for those in the next iteration to study and the experience of previous delegates might be drawn upon.
The programme was first announced at the start of 2001 and already there has been a great deal of interest, demonstrating once again that there is no shortage of enthusiasm at the educational coalface for these new techniologies.
Centre for Academic Practice
University of Warwick