The virtual campus

How is new learning tech being embraced in UK universities? Jenny Oldaker takes a look at virtual learning environments in UK HE

VLEs have been a fixture of the HE landscape for some years now, weathering debate about their viability at regular intervals along the way. These systems have certainly come a long way from their very basic beginnings, and today represent a ubiquitous form of learning support across HEIs. 

It’s important to note that VLEs are used differently – and to varying degrees – across UK universities, but they are certainly in evidence, in one form or another, in all modern establishments. “VLEs have become part of the fabric of our learning and teaching landscape,” explains Sheila MacNeill, Senior Lecturer in Blended Learning at Glasgow Caledonian University.

“Most universities have one central system that is integrated with their student record system to automatically create modules and enrol students into their modules at the beginning of each new academic year.”

As with many other universities, staff at Glasgow Caledonian employ a mixture of face-to-face and online learning activities. VLEs play a vital part, and are used in a myriad ways. “Increasingly, we are seeing the use of portfolios where students are encouraged to keep and share their reflections and work within their own dedicated area within the VLE,” says Sheila. “We’re also seeing more use of social media. For example, many modules have their own hashtag, and staff can embed a Twitter feed into the module in the VLE. That way staff and students can share resources and reflections throughout the term.”

In addition, many institutions are now making greater use of VLEs’ assessment and feedback capabilities, and placing more focus on group work and student-generated content that’s created and shared through the VLE.

At their best, today’s VLEs play a vital coordinating role within an institution, connecting students and teachers and providing a central place for learning, teaching and assessment activities.

And, in addition to their specific academic uses, VLEs are also widely used to set up community areas that students can access for non-teaching services (like libraries or careers services).

This all sounds rosy, but some institutions are still failing to take full advantage of the vast breadth of functionality offered by VLEs. “Sadly, the primary use of the VLE in contemporary academia is as a storage space for notes and slides, and as a student mass-emailing tool,” believes David Kernohan, Senior Co-Design Manager in the Jisc Digital Futures team.

“Much innovative technology enhanced learning work takes place outside of the VLE, on the open web. As far as I am aware, there is very little use of some of the more advanced pedagogic tools that many modern VLEs include – though we have seen a recent growth in computer-aided assessment.”

So while many establishments are making diverse use of VLEs and integrating them into teaching practices, it’s equally evident that there is room for greater uptake in embracing the manifold features offered by modern VLEs. But what do they offer, how have they improved – and how are they keeping up with the demands of modern HEIs? Greater flexibility and a better responsiveness to the demands of their users are two advancements often cited in modern VLEs. Recent years have seen systems adapt to become more personalised, while an increased mobility (through app integration or bespoke mobile apps in addition to web versions) has added to the convenience of learning through VLEs.

Richard Havinga, e-Learning Solutions Architect at the University of London Computer Centre, an IT service provider to over 150 educational institutions across the UK backs this up: “VLEs have adapted to deliver content more flexibly through both offline and mobile device support. Furthermore, modern VLEs are enabling students to do more independent learning where the lecturer is there to guide the student and use the contact time to target specific areas of struggle or need.”

John Baker, President and CEO of D2L sees VLEs’ main improvement as an underlying shift in the way they can be used. “VLEs are starting to evolve from systems institutions use to simply manage learning – to platforms that can help institutions transform it. The newest VLE technology can help institutions and instructors easily implement new educational models, tools and methods, such as gamification, advanced analytics, blended learning, etc, with the goal of personalising education and engaging students in the process.”

As well as improvements in the systems themselves, Sheila MacNeill notes that: “We, as a community of users, have become far more adept at using the functionality they offer in appropriate ways.” This is clearly an important factor in ensuring the future of the VLE: it is vital that the people who use them
are able to fully appreciate their abilities and to employ them to their greatest potential. 
It is here that we come to the challenges faced by today’s VLEs.There are still some staff who remain unaware of the diverse possibilities of modern VLEs and until such residual negative attitudes can be turned around, VLEs face an uphill struggle. Increased technical support for staff within HE could go some way to improving this, but it is far from the only challenge that the market faces.

The challenges of living up to (growing) student expectation in addition to user concerns about the consistency of the VLE experience and the quality assurance of online materials are all areas that need to be constantly assessed by vendors to keep their products relevant and useful. All the while VLEs must keep up with the constant evolution of education and the students who are passing through the system.

In addition, “Today’s VLEs must find a balance between formal and informal learning environments; between the walled garden of the classroom and the open online spaces,” as Jared Stein, VP of Research and Education at the Learning Management System, Canvas by Instructure, explains. And so we come to the rise of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). 

MOOCs are another important part of the ongoing transformation of HE towards ‘blended learning’, which sees opportunities for both face-to-face and online study increase. By contrast to conventional VLEs, which are designed to support course delivery at a specific university, “MOOCs offer a variety of courses from a range of education providers (which may include universities, but also other providers),” explains Mike Sharples, Academic Lead at FutureLearn, the UK’s first MOOC provider. “By definition, these courses are open and online, available for learners to study wherever they have access to a web browser.”

MOOCs are incredibly flexible and by their very nature offer wide opportunity: “[They] extend the opportunities for learning at higher level to people who would not otherwise have access to university education, and to study a broad range of courses for professional development or leisure.”

The main challenge facing the MOOC is that of sustainability and at this stage it is hard to tell what the future holds. If they don’t survive on their own, they “may become part of a mix of global online educational services that include degree courses and accredited subscription modules at higher level as well as short, free courses,” Mike Sharples explains. Whatever the future holds for the MOOC, its advent marks an important milestone in the evolution of the traditional VLE, and will doubtless impact on its continued development.

“An easy-to-use, robust, and adaptable VLE platform will be the foundation of learning in the 21st century as universities seek to deliver engaging and immersive educational experiences,” claims Jared Stein. And so long as systems can continue to adapt to the ever-changing needs of their users (and the varied challenges of the marketplace), there should continue to be a place for some form of VLE in supporting – and indeed enhancing – the HE experience.

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