Vicki Simpson Teaching and Learning Support Unit, University of Surrey
First published in ALT-N 31. Reproduced by permission of the Association for Learning Technology. Copyright ALT 2000.
Like many of you, I have been following the recent and increasing interest in the phenomenon knows as VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments). At the University of Surrey, we started looking at and comparing the available systems in 1997 when there were relatively few around. For me, the key features the systems offer are:
An integrated set of tools in a consistent format, giving us a single multi-function environment. There are disadvantages in opting for a single solution but the simplicity of an 'all-in-one' package has certainly proved popular with our academic staff.
Provision of ready-made content as well as framework as illustrated by WebCT's e-learning hub, the partnerships between WOLF and Granada Media (LearnWise) and Blackboard and Pearson Education. This is a developing area but one that will help overcome copyright issues.
Many of these new environments put the academic in the driving seat by requiring little specialised knowledge, as illustrated by one system's promotion that 'now setting up your online course is so easy, you can do it in under 15 minutes.'
I am excited by all these developments and like many others am keen to promote their use within my institution. But surely what I have described is a virtual environment - where is the learning? These systems support course management and access to a variety of resources but to promote them as 'learning environments' is a little misleading. Virtual learning is not a set of tools that provide access to information and space for discussion, just as learning is not a library and a lecture theatre.
I think it is a step forward that these new technologies facilitate the greater involvement of the academic. We have learnt from previous mistakes in producing electronic materials and realised for these systems to succeed, the academic must be involved and empowered. However, I am a little concerned that the emphasis is placed on technical empowerment of the academic - for example, the ease of use on making Word documents and PowerPoint presentations. But making resources available electronically does not constitute learning for the student, nor does it empower the academic pedagogically.
By promoting these products as VLEs, are we giving the message that virtual learning is about tools and content, and thereby doing both the student and academic a disservice? Surely it would be more accurate to say that we can buy into a virtual environment, which gives us technical empowerment and resources and the potential to be a learning environment. Only academic and student interaction can create a VLE from a VE. I think there is a danger that in the eagerness to adopt and implement VLEs, we will produce virtual environments rich in content and tools but lacking in learning.
For me, the definition of whether a software system is a VLE or not is how it is being used, not what it is technically capable of doing. I have seen some excellent examples of virtual learning communities working very effectively, with the students firmly citing the tutor's input as the key to success. It is therefore essential that academic staff should have access (should they require it) to guidance on teaching within an electronic environment. Without supporting this pedagogical development and empowerment of the academics, the technology is of limited use.
We as advocates of teaching technology have a responsibility to ensure that not only are the technical skills developed but that pedagogic skills are too. When purchasing a VE, we need to look at the educationally-orientated features that are supported, not just the technical (Sandy Britain and Oleg Liber's JTAP Report:
A Framework for Pedagogical Evaluation of Virtual Learning Environments has been a valuable guide).We need to be open with academic staff about the limitations as well as the potential of VEs in teaching, and to offer practical advice and examples of good educational practice. Staff development is therefore the key.
I will certainly be continuing to evaluate and promote these new environments. But I also recognise that this is only half the solution and once adopted, we then need to support their effective implementation. If not, we may be in danger of repeating the old mistake of being driven by technology, and in the process of forgetting the learning.
Manager, Teaching and Learning Support Unit
University of Surrey