Use formal project management
So many virtual learning environment (VLE) initiatives fail in HE because they aren’t treated as a major project. There needs to be clear business case from the start, a scoping phase to set out what’s being aimed for (why do we need VLE for in the long-term? is it to deliver fully online learning, as part of a distance learning package, or to support forms of blended learning?). The objectives need to be specific, and there needs to be a risk analysis in terms of implications for resourcing and development over time. A VLE isn’t a ‘nice-to-have’ or a gimmick; with the right level of thought, it can be an increasingly central part of the institution’s development and offering. A project management regime is needed from start to finish.
Involve people with the right skills
The role of Instructional Designer – someone who specifically looks at finding the best ways to deliver information, to meet needs and improve engagement – hasn’t yet taken off in the UK. In the US – where online degrees have become accepted as an entirely credible option among students, academics and employers – Instructional Design has become a common degree offering. Here there tend to be only modules as part of a few wider degrees. But in the context of VLEs and online degree offerings, instructional design is critical, and should be a part of the teachers’ toolkit – thinking beyond the traditional delivery via lecture hall and seminar room to translating material into effective online resources.
Ensure there’s the right level of resources
Setting up the VLE is the start of the journey. In order to be effective and a real platform for developing the university’s offer there needs to be long-term commitment. That means ensuring the university has a sufficiently robust IT system to cope with the demands of VLE courses; ensuring technical support for both staff and students is available; and thinking in terms of staff time and funding that’s needed for developing content. Producing good quality on-line materials is time-consuming.
Ensure engagement among students
Learner analytics are an important means of identifying and monitor individuals who may be at risk of dropping out. There are four basic measurements of student engagement: course activity – measure of the time a student is logged on; grades thresholds – flagging students who have fallen below the threshold values; using a flag for course access is set when users fail to access the system within a defined number of days; and missed deadlines – triggered when a deadline is not met within a set number of days or when a specified number of deadlines have been missed. In the midst of all the asynchronous activity of VLEs, an offer of synchronous support can be valuable for individuals – via skype, through an organised webinar or just phone and email. This is a particular area where it’s important to factor in implications for resources – plan ahead what level of support can be made available to students who might need more personal contact.
Think about ongoing relationships
Integrating an e-portfolio feature – where students record and store reflections on learning, achievements and capabilities – is a great way to create ongoing contact with alumni. Usually once a student has completed the course, the access to a VLE is turned off. HE providers do already provide ongoing access to e-portfolios for alumni but have not fully appreciated the social networking dimension that e-portfolio applications provide. They offer a potential route to keeping in touch with alumni (how are you doing? how can we help?) who are in businesses or schools and colleges where there are opportunities for partnerships and collaboration.