Environmental concerns

Is the virtual learning environment the unsung hero of the HE sector? Only if it's used to its full potential, finds Charley Rogers

The virtual learning environment (VLE) is no newcomer to the education sector. Having been used as we know them now for over a decade in higher education, and for decades before that in various digital and non-digital forms, a virtual learning environment is something that is now an expected element of any university course.

Although educational practices, and, of course, technological involvement have changed over the years, the presence of the VLE has endured in higher education. It has, however, gone through various iterations and usages, and is an element of HE that is constantly being questioned in relation to the benefit it provides to both staff and students.

First and foremost, it is important to note that the majority of opinion maintains that VLEs remain an essential element of higher education. Despite their ubiquitous nature, many experts in the field seem to concur on what elements make a successful VLE, and how proper implementation and training is the cornerstone of this success.

For example, Professor Steve Molyneux, Chief Executive at Tablet Academy, maintains that although future-proofing of tech is essential in an HE environment: “Staff development in the effective use of the system is probably even more important, for without this the system really does just become a repository for files.” The use of a virtual learning environment merely as a place to store and passively disseminate content is a gross underuse of its abilities, and “suboptimal use of powerful enabling technologies,” commented Dr Demetra Katsifli, Senior Director, International Industry Management at Blackboard.

Deciding how and why to use a VLE will ensure a constructive use of the tech, and will avoid the common pitfalls of unsure staff, unenthusiastic students, and a waste of resources

So how can an institution fully harness the abilities of their VLE? And where do they start? First of all, universities need to “talk to users and understand what they want,” said James Silcock of CoSector, University of London.

Curating feedback forms or focus groups for both students and staff on what their expectations of a VLE are, and what they want to gain from it is an invaluable resource in the planning stages. In research undertaken by CoSector on the subject of successful VLEs, five areas of application were identified as key to this success, including mobile responsiveness, the ease of submitting assignments, cooperation with applications such as Facebook chat and Whatsapp, well-trained lecturers, and ease of navigation.

Gareth Kirk, Senior Project Manager, IT Services at the University of Wolverhampton, agreed, commenting that the first thing that educators need to consider when choosing a VLE, is to “be explicit about the requirements, business processes and key objectives,” and that these requirements should be tested with the “relevant stakeholders,” namely, staff and students that will be using the VLE.

Indeed, in order to address the worry that VLEs will be used merely as a ‘dumping ground’ for content, rather than being utilised as meaningful and interactive digital spaces, universities not only need to consider the needs of your stakeholders, but also how the products available can address these needs. Avoiding the dour fate of ineffectuality is something that can be addressed before the VLE is even in place, suggested Frances Quirke, Regional Director at Canvas: “Choosing an option that is easy to use, intuitive and engaging makes it more likely that staff and students will immediately see its benefits, rather than it languishing in the same role as a hard drive,” she says.

So then, strategy is essential in preparing for the use of a VLE. Not only do you need to figure out what exactly your staff and students will want to use the tech for, but also which options available are most suited to these needs. There are numerous types of VLE on the market at present. Some are purpose-built and maintained in-house, some are open-access and fully customisable by the customer. Each option has its benefits, and as such your decision should largely be based on the specific requirements your institution highlights as most important, and, of course, should take into account the level of in-house support you have at your disposal.

“The majority of opinion maintains that VLEs remain an essential element of higher education.”

For instance, the University of Wolverhampton have historically used their own in-house VLE (WOLF) and have recently moved over to Canvas. This process entailed detailed analysis and tender processes, which culminated in choosing Canvas’ ‘Software as a Service’ pathway, allowing for a more service-oriented approach, greater scalability, while removing a lot of the support and maintenance overheads of the previous in-house VLE.

However, “the right partner is just as important as the functionality within the product,” warns Gareth. He said: “From a pedagogic perspective, obtaining a solution that is also used by other institutions is enabling better sharing of best practice and the building of a larger community of practice. In our experience, partnering with a good supplier will also enable you to feed into the development and benefit from others doing the same, with new functionality based on research and community discussion.”

This ‘community discussion’ and subsequent collaboration is surely what makes a VLE so attractive. After all, if it is truly to be a virtual ‘learning environment’, it should allow all the facets of communication and collaboration that education and learning require, rather than merely providing a more streamlined system for content dissemination. “The ‘Deep Pedagogic’ approach of having students engage with content in teams, and create rather than consume, will, I am certain, have a profound impact on leading in the same way as it has with compulsory education in Finland,” commented Steve Molyneux.

However, it cannot be taken for granted that a shiny new VLE is something that students are necessarily open to. Remembering my own university days, and anecdotes from colleagues and friends, if the initial implementation of a piece of tech does not necessarily work well, trying to relaunch it can be met with a less than enthusiastic reaction. In this case, edtech providers have a duty to “address these fears and prove that there has been significant progress since the ‘bad old days’,” said Frances at Canvas.

Again, this comes back to the needs of the users, and the institution’s wider strategy. A good way to introduce tech before implementing it across the whole university is to use it to deliver professional development courses, suggests Frances. This way, she said: “Tutors get to experience what it is like to be a student first.” This first-hand experience with the VLE will not only help staff to access the tech as students do, but also to understand what elements of the technology are most (and least) useful in the learning process.

“Curating feedback forms or focus groups for both students and staff on what their expectations of a VLE are is an invaluable resource in the planning stages.”

James Silcock, and Dave Kenworthy, Director of Digital Services at CoSector, suggested that there are also three specific points to engaging students with a VLE that has previously lost its sheen in their minds. First of all, the content needs to be specifically designed to the VLE; “Don’t just ‘lift and shift’,” said James and Dave. Trying to use content designed for traditional teaching within a virtual learning environment, then, is like trying to write on a tablet screen with a pencil. It seems like since they are both educational tools it might work, but really you’re just going to do damage.

The second key aspect is to find a provider that can help you to alter your content and optimise it for the digital space. There are various VLE providers out there who can talk you through their options, and how each one can address different needs. Before getting in contact, make sure you have an outline of what you want from the VLE in terms of teaching and learning outcomes, and what budget and resources you have available for maintenance and tech support.

The third point raised by James and Dave to ensure high-quality student engagement, is to entrust as much admin as possible to a trusted provider, so that your university staff can focus on the educational content and academic engagement.

It seems then, that the period leading up to a VLE’s implementation is as important if not more important than the implementation process itself. Deciding how and why to use a VLE will ensure a constructive use of the tech, and will avoid the common pitfalls of unsure staff, unenthusiastic students, and a waste of resources. VLEs are an incredibly useful tool, and these days, pretty much an unquestionable requirement. But how they are implemented, and what they are used to support within each institution is up for interpretation. As with so many elements of education, one size doesn’t fit all.