Jay Dempster, Centre for Academic Practice, University of Warwick
A Virtual Learning Environment or VLE is a software package capable of providing an set of tools for producing an integrated web site consisting of information and resources together with email, conferencing and course administration, and can also include facilities for uploading files, publishing and automated assessment.
For a journal dedicated to the use of educational technology, some might say an issue devoted to the theme of Virtual Learning Environments* (VLEs) is a long time coming, even overdue. Certainly in most educational and training organisations, there has been considerable attention paid over the last year or two to the question of the best tool for the job. Home grown or commercial, cheap and cheerful or expensive and impressive, one tool or two, and so on. But what is "the job"? One reason for deliberating on giving over an entire theme to VLEs is that Warwick has moved carefully forward with selection of such tools to ensure validity and viability of our choices. Currently, the University is undertaking a crucial evaluation and consultation exercise for its emerging E-strategy http://www.estrategy.warwick.ac.uk (Warwick only). This must take account of all the University's missions for quality and innovation not only for teaching and learning, but also in research and enterprise.
There are few good examples of insightful reflections on the overarching rationale, implementation and support issues that such organisations might face in order to select an appropriate technological candidate. Yet, it is at this point of purpose that one would imagine discussions should begin. Often not. It is all too easy to be pressurised to adopt new technologies or to get wrapped up in the fantastic opportunities promised and to forego the vital question of whether such tools serve our true objectives. Do we harness technology systems or do they harness us?
Today's agenda for the use of information and communications technologies in HE is not simply a matter of providing tools or services to academic staff. Educational technologies have the potential to change the way we teach and the way students learn. We must therefore constantly remind ourselves to make pedagogically informed decisions about what these changes might be and whether they are desirable and appropriate for our own particular contexts of teaching and learning, individually or institutionally.
With this in mind and for a number of other reasons, universities have more recently developed learning and teaching strategies. These encourage us (even force us) to articulate a framework for developing courses and for implementing new teaching approaches, including those supported by ICT. Furthermore, they offer a form of structure alongside which we might wish to plan our continuing professional development as teachers. But to what extent can a learning and teaching strategy assist in evaluating whether a given VLE or similar ICT tool is a cost-effective solution to individual current and future teaching agendas? In what way can it help a institutional decision-makers understand whether a given approach - VLE-based or otherwise - will work effectively across departments and across the whole university.
Given the high cost of investing in networked learning, it would be dangerous not to link these strategies to decisions concerning the use of educational technologies. Such strategies must by their very nature guide us in making the required judgements for investing in new approaches using technology in teaching, learning and assessment. They should assist and be informed by the reflective process undertaken by academics and thus evolve in ways that harness the opportunities offered rather than being overshadowed by them. Overall, we should take measures to ensure that as we develop more challenging things to do educationally - led by or driven by technological innovation - the technology is our servant not our master.
There is always going to be an element of "keeping up appearances" and it has been felt for some time that the University needs to "get a VLE" - or equivalent tool(s) - in place. Indeed, the Director of IT at Warwick, Alison Allden in her opening slide at the recent ICT Symposium for senior staff at the University, reflected on the view of some organisations that "if we're not doing E-Business in three years time, we won't be in business at all". This may hold true for our distance learning and other commercial aspirations for expanding the University via the Internet, but to what extent is this true for our currently successful campus-based courses. What are the different needs of the two?
The outcomes of "scaling up" and "mainstreaming" of approaches and tools that have perhaps proved successful for individual "innovators" or "enthusiasts" are largely unknown. Proposals for generic teaching methods and production of learning materials are on unsteady ground if they are not flexible and adaptable to the specific needs of academics as the designers of learning.
Whatever the strategic answers, it is clear that the drivers for change will not be ignored. As Alison Allden also made clear the University must continually make plans to support ICT on a scale and with a diversity of needs that few businesses have to contemplate. Any VLE sits on top of the network infrastructure and its usability depends on it. So we need to choose wisely and consider both technical and pedagogical needs.
At the heart of the pedagogical issues for the individual lecturer is a simple rule of thumb. Maintain a strong rationale for developing - and particularly for changing - academic practice. Where are you trying to get to and why? What do you need to move from the "actual" current state to the "desired" state, what will it cost, how long will it take and is it justified on the basis of the pressure to change and likely benefits? This kind of analysis is the first stage of a fairly common sense evaluation process - call it "reflection" and "observation" - in considering those aspects of learning, teaching and assessment with which ICT might assist within the overall context of the course or disciplinary origin.
In exploiting the benefits of ICT learning environments and avoiding their weaknesses, departments and individuals might be wise to develop their own learning and teaching strategies to safeguard the unique culture and scholarly approaches within their discipline. At the same time, academic staff and departments might consider finding effective ways to articulate innovative approaches relevant and timely to the development of teaching and learning in their discipline. University provision for teaching development and ICT use can then respond appropriately.
The HE climate is changing rapidly and our best defence is to be adaptable. A VLE should enable us to respond to changes in what learners require rather than simply to achieve short-term goals.
This issue of Interactions on the theme of VLEs aims in a balanced way to support best practice in planning, implementing and evaluating the use of Virtual Learning Environments. The articles are based around these three aspects.
The first article is a simple message to ensure that consideration is given first and foremost to what learning is supported. Vicky Simpson at the University of Surrey urges us not to forget the L in VLE. Vicky has considerable expertise in supporting ICT implementation at course level and institutional level. She has worked for several years at Surrey, but also as part of the national support network of centres supporting institutions and subject-specific needs of departments.
The second contribution is from Graham Lewis, responsible in the Centre for Academic Practice for promoting and supporting innovations in teaching, particularly with regard to the use of ICT Here, in an article on the "Future of VLEs at Warwick", he describes the approaches being taken at Warwick to support academic staff looking at developing online elements of their courses using VLE type tools. The approaches are strongly driven by the University's strategy for research-based teaching and learning.
The third article by Frances Deepwell from the Centre for Higher Education Practice at Coventry University reflects on their experiences of university-wide introduction of WebCT, now a popular choice of VLE in many HE institutions. CHEP is responsible for implementing Coventry's Learning and Teaching Strategy and it has helped enormously to tie this role in with the evaluation and support of the VLE. Frances describes the educational and organisational factors affecting the decision to select a university-wide approach and discusses the ways in which the tool has influenced and driven innovation in teaching and learning.
Finally, an offer of support.
In the Centre for Academic Practice, we can provide valuable assistance (consultancy!) for thinking through, implementing and evaluating some of the issues raised above. Staff have specific roles and expertise in supporting individual academic lecturers and heads of department, supporting ICT development and planning for subject review. CAP staff bring a wealth of experience and examples of lessons learned from departments at Warwick and other institutions and organisations in order to evaluate (as far as possible) the potential and pitfalls of particular approaches.
Don't hesitate to contact us if you would like a friendly chat about some broad ideas or would like some specific assistance and advice. Contact details and roles can be found on the CAP website:
Dr Jay Dempster
Head of Educational Technology
Centre for Academic Practice
University of Warwick
Tel: +44 (0) 24 7652 4670