The Role of VLEs in the Online Delivery of Staff Development

Delivering Staff Development Online
Colin Milligan

0: Background
This text supports a talk given on 14 March 2001 at UCL London to the M25 Consortium of HE Libraries - Staff Development Group. The text below represents a commentary on the slides delivered - simple PowerPoint presentations with no commentary are of little use - as I try to emphasise below. The text is casual, and shouldn't be read as a formal paper, but rather as the notes I used when preparing the talk (no it's not what I actually said either). If you have any questions on the information presented here, please get in touch: more details from:
1: Information
Colin Milligan has worked for ICBL, at Heriot-Watt University for four years, on a number of projects supporting online learning and training in HE. With the TALiSMAN project (Teaching and Learning in Scottish Metropolitan Area Networks) he was responsible for writing, organising and running online courses. After TALiSMAN, he was funded by JTAP to document lessons learned and experience gained through two formal reports. For the last two years he has been involved in a number of smaller scale projects examining strategies for managing and increasing the quality of the online learning experience.

2: Scope

  • Introduction
    why develop, why go online, disadvantages.
  • Pedagogy
    online experience, what works, what doesn’t.
  • Technology
    tools, matching technology to need.
  • Experience
    courses, lessons learned.

This text will begin with an introduction to some of the issues involved in delivering staff development online. I’ll then move on to discussing how people learn online,and some of the types of learning that benefit from online delivery - concentrating on staff development and CPD. We’ll look at some of the available technology, and consider why it is important to match technology to need. Finally, I will draw on some of the lessons we have learned developing and delivering our own courses.

Online, for our purposes, will mean ‘using the Internet’, (email or the web) to facilitate the delivery of staff development courses and materials.

3. Why Develop Staff

  • New roles for library staff,
  • New technologies in the library,
  • Formalising staff skills,
  • Lifelong Learning,
  • Motivating the workforce,
  • Continuing Professional Development.

First of all we need to think about why we need to develop staff. There are a number of

Changes in the library:
Library staff are being asked to widen their role to be general information specialists - as capable of finding an Internet Resource as a book in the library. Alongside the increase in the amount of information, we have significant developments in the ways information is presented - through searchable catalogues online, to super-catalog searching as in the Agora project (see the address below), and to subject specific portals of information such as EEVL (EEVL: the guide to engineering, mathematics and computing information on the internet.)

Changes in Higher Education:
Library staff have always had specialised skills but with the advent of the Dearing report and the setting up of the ILT (Institute of Learning and Teaching) there is increasing pressure to formalise or ‘professionalise’ the skills of library and information staff, alongside those of academic staff. The Library Association has considered these issues, and commited itself to supporting ILT accreditation for LIS staff - this is important, the ILT structure makes it harder for non-traditional lecturers to attain membership - the support of a professional body is useful in working out appropriate routes to membership.

Changes within society:
Society is changing, and employers want a ‘flexible’ workforce which can adapt to new challenges and are willing to widen their skill base as they change jobs. This is especially true of ‘knowledge workers’, who can apply a broadly similar set of skills to a wide range of jobs. Professional development is therefore important to the individual as never before. A good employer will also want to develop their staff to ensure that they are well motivated and capable of adapting as their role changes.

The Dearing Report:
Institute of Learning and Teaching:
Library Association:

4. Why Deliver Online?

  • Flexible
    learner chooses when and where,
  • Efficient
    administrative, viability,
  • Easily Integrated
    truly workplace learning,
  • Easily Embedded
    truly continuous development.
… Another Option.

Online delivery has a number of things going for it, for instance
Flexibility - instead of the learner coming to the course, the course goes to the learner. Suddenly staff development doesn’t have to occur in lunchtime, half-day or full-day sessions. It can be whenever the learner wants, wherever the learner wants. This is especially useful for part-time staff, who might wish to undertake their development from home.

Efficiency - as well as being efficient for the learner, online staff development can also be efficient for the provider. Course sizes don’t have to be limited by physical or practical constraints (room size or group size). Nor is travelling time a consideration - specialised courses which might attract too few participants to be run more than once a year can be run online - meaning that no-one has to travel to the central point to participate in the course. This means we can build up communities of learners across the country (or just across the region) who have similar learning objectives and who can learn together.

Easy Integration and Embedding - as development takes place via computer, it can often be carefully integrated into the work schedule, in small chunks which create less disruption. Regular small doses of development quickly become embedded into normal working practice - creating an ethic for continuous development.

Finally, it is important to see online delivery as what it really is - another option. What this means is that you use it where it is appropriate, and use it appropriately. This might mean delivering only small portions of courses online, or having online support for courses which are still run largely face to face. This approach is a good way to start and a good way to continue.

5. Drawbacks

  • Computers and reading,
  • Social aspects missing,
  • Heavy reliance on personal motivation - easy to drop out.

But of course there are drawbacks:
Computers aren’t ideal for delivering information which is largely text-based. People don’t like reading off-screen, will have a shorter attention span and will take less in.

Staff development is a very social type of learning - where much of the learning comes from your peers. Creating a format of development where everyone sits alone on their office is unsatisfactory.

Without the social contact, individuals must rely on their own motivation to keep progressing through course materials.

6. Address these Issues

  • Computers and reading, Use printed materials,
  • Social aspects are missing, Combine face to face and online,
  • Heavy reliance on personal motivation - easy to drop out. Build communities to learn together.

Let’s try and address these issues straight-away - as it will help us to identify the best ways to use online delivery.

Recognise that people don’t like to read off the screen - keep producing paper based materials (even if they are distributed electronically) when necessary Keep the social benefits by combining face to face and online delivery where possible, even if this just means an ice-breaking session, Build communities by imaginatively using discussion and collaboration facilities of the Internet.

7. What CAN be done online?

  • Materials are delivered,
  • Support is provided,
  • Communication is encouraged,
  • Collaboration is facilitated.

Broadly, there are four types of things we can do online. We can:

  • Deliver Material (whether access to resources or distribution of electronic copies of workbooks for printing).
  • Provide Support - where we can take advantage of the immediacy of online communication - email lists to make announcement, web pages to provide support information which is always up to date etc. Obviously, technical support is important too - this has to be provided as required.
  • Enable Communication - not just mailing lists, but tutor-led discussions with precise goals - e.g. developing guidelines or resources.
  • Facilitate collaboration - where small groups work closely together. Working online can provide access to shared workspaces for posting and reviewing work.

Let’s go into each of these in a little more detail.

8. Information and Materials

  • Standard modules
    may be paper based, web based, or a combination.
  • Modularization - interoperability,
  • Structured training for new technology.

The web is very good at providing access to information (provided you have access to a computer!), as many different types of resources can be collected together, updating is easy and production costs reduced. Course materials can be prepared as hypertext documents, or left in their original form (as Word docs. or PowerPoint slide shows for example). Anything can be delivered over the web - from formal documents which a learner might have to familiarise themselves with to video clips of problem situations for a group to analyse and discuss. In addition, we can take advantage of the interactive nature of the web to assess a learners understanding or create online tools to help them analyse their practice.

Online delivery also allows modularization, which in turn allows specialisation - if course materials are made modular, then participants can take courses which are highly customised top their individual needs. For instance, some modules might be generic and studied as part of a large cohort, whilst others might be more specialised and studied by a much smaller group of people. I’ve run courses myself where 4/6 weeks were common, and 2/6 were specific to different subject areas. In these weeks, participants were able to learn alongside peers in their own field.

One important thing to remember here is the possibility of incorporating existing materials (e.g. NVQ modules) or at least structuring new materials to a specific format so that someone else's material may be slotted in - initiatives such as IMS ( ) are working towards providing specifications for this.

External resources can be utilised too, to incorporate directed web browsing, or walk-through tutorials of information sources and databases. This means that training can be quite small scale (and informal) - a new database could be introduced across campus (region) through a walk through tutorial and an online question and answer session.

9. Supporting Learning Online

  • Course Information,
  • Feedback,
  • Knowledge-base,
  • Frequently Asked Questions,
  • Technical Support.

Supporting online learning is critical to it’s success - as much as possible must be pre-planned as there are less opportunities for Just in Time problem solving. This means providing course information and guidance in an easy to access format so that if course participants need information (when an assignment is due in, location of next face to face session etc.), they have immediate access to it. Providing adequate support also means providing mechanisms to collect input and feedback from students, so that changes and improvements can be made continuously. FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) can be utilised to provide answers to commonly asked questions - in a special area of a web site devoted to support - FAQs can be added to as new questions emerge. Support can take the form of an online knowledge base, containing a searchable archive of information and resources built up over time through contributions from previous participants.

Technical support should be provided - possibly not online - the users problem might be that they can’t get online!

10. Communication

  • Social learning,
  • Developing a learning community,
  • Participants learn from their peers,
  • Enables specialisation.

Learning is a fundamentally social process - by talking to your fellow learners you iron out misunderstandings and integrate different bits of knowledge. In online learning, there is no photocopier to chat by, no lectures to hang around and ask questions after. To compensate for the lack of physical opportunities to communicate we have to use discussion boards (such as webboard) to enable communication online. Such communication is important as a tool for learning, but also as a social tool, to enable the participants on a course to feel as if they are part of a learning community, with common goals, common problems, common circumstances.

Online communication is hard work though - it is fundamentally different from class discussion (favouring those who like to refine their cointributions, as opposed to those with most confidence). Tutors need to be trained well to manage discussions - encouraging debate rather than merely answering questions which arise (which stifles discussion).

In staff development it is possible that the greater part of learning will come through peer-learning, as best practice is shared between groups. For this, discussion systems must be able to allow management of groups to allow participants to ‘manage’ parallel discussions, find old conversations and ignore uninteresting ones.

Of course having discussions virtually means you don’t have to be in the same room as your peers, and this allows groupings to become very specialised - and courses which would be impractical to run locally (because of lack of sufficient numbers of participants) can be run nationally.


11. WebBoard Discussion


Here is a screenshot of some discussions from a Masters Level course that I’m involved in. This is a f2f course, and I teach a session on communication and online learning environments. One of the first things I say, is that because it is a face to face course, the discussion board won’t be particularly busy. As you can see here, the thread on learning styles quickly degenerated into a discussion between myself and one student - but at least the discourse is there for the other students to read. The disucssion in the discussion board is quote informal - equivalent to email discussions. As it is carried out within a hypertext environment, messages can include hyperlinks, images, sophisticated formatting etc. - though generally plain text is adequate.

Building a community of learners that is happy to communicate in this way takes time - and as a tutor you need to work hard at creating the right conditions - can you make participation mandatory (and ensure participation by assigning roles to each student in the group) or do you have to rely on managing the discussions in such a way that individuals want to participate?

12. Collaboration

  • Mentoring
  • Sharing best practise,
  • Peer Review,
  • Portfolios.

Sometimes, discussion tools are not enough, when we actually want people to work in teams, or groups. But online delivery allows us to use various group-working tools.

For instance in mentoring, you need to provide a means for two individuals to keep in close contact. This can be done with email, but it might also be useful to allow diary/calendar sharing and provide access to online tools which would allow them to chart their progress through the period of mentoring. There are even desktop video-conferencing tools which provide rudimentary visual communication, along with text-chat facilities and access to shared workspaces for co-working.

Much staff development utilises the knowledge already within the group - instead of formal delivery of materials through notes and courses. In such cases, participants are urged to reflect on their own professional practice which can be helpful to others and to themselves (directly - through reflection, and indirectly - through feedback). By providing appropriate access to shared workspaces, online annotation and co-working facilities, individuals can work remotely on the same document - at the same time - to develop co-authored material for submission as group work.

For accreditation by ILT and other bodies, it is often important to bring together examples of your work in a portfolio of professional practice. Providing tools and support for creating online portfolio’s can be an effective way of creating a competent, public (and so open to peer scrutiny) record of one’s professional development.

Online Portfolios:
Mapping Project: http;//

13. NetMeeting


This screenshot shows (a mock up of) netmeeting being used to discuss software for collaboration. Although such tools require special equipment and more confidence (and more patience, though not more skill) with IT - they can be of real use in situations where close working relationships need to be maintained without regular face to face contact.

14. What Works Online

  • Simple training - Dewey Classification, guidelines,
  • Probation - mentoring,
  • Learning Communities - sharing of best practice,
  • Professional Practice - portfolios.

So, What type of courses DO work Online?
Lots - making very different uses of the medium. Simplest use is for ‘study pack’ courses where there is a set of notes for the participant to go through - at their own pace. Online delivery can be used to deliver materials which are more exciting than paper based materials - animations. video clips, colour pictures, as well as providing opportunities for integrating external resources - links to databases for which training might be given.

Next up, courses which involve close working between people - such as mentoring. You can provide shared private workspaces for pairs, along with communication tools to facilitate communication between groups of mentors and groups of probationers - to allow them to share and learn from each other.

Courses where you want to create a community of learners work well too - again you can use things like email lists to encourage people to communicate about their work. This type of course requires a good tutor - or facilitator to encourage high quality communication.

What types of courses DON'T work? basic IT - confidence is important, teambuilding and outward bound, highly interactive - mindmapping - etc. - but all of these could have online follow-up sessions.

15. Setting Up Online Courses

  • Web pages,
    materials, access to online tools and databases.
  • Communications,
  • Collaboration,
    shared space, video conferencing tools.
  • Administrative tools,
    support and management.

Everyone should learn to create web pages - simple and useful, when used day-to-day it becomes a very efficient way of presenting information: even if that information takes the form of word documents, PowerPoint presentations, and short announcements.

If you want to do anything special, plan it out and think how it will be used, then utilise the expertise in your computing service. Often things are easier than they seem because someone else will already have done something similar.

Communication and collaboration tools are readily available on the web (see the table in ). Even Office 2000 has co-working facilities built in which can be used across an Institutions Intranet.

When you have people learning online, you probably want to keep track of them, by collecting information about how they use the materials or recording when they hand in bits of work. Mass registration, password management and other issues also need to be considered.

16. Virtual Learning Environments

  • All in one solution,
  • Control remains with the trainer,
  • Individualise the learning experience,
  • Assessment,
  • Tracking progress,
  • Automation / administration.

Virtual Learning Environments provide (an) answer - an all in one solution - all the tools (almost) that you are likely to need to develop, deliver and support a course. Very powerful and easy to use tools means that the tutor can be given some degree of control over the online materials - assigning participants to groups, providing different materials to different participants, etc. One important tool included with many Virtual Learning Environments is for creating simple assessments. Whilst these might not be too useful educationally, they serve to break up the monotony of learning online by producing a bit of interactivity. VLEs also provide extensive administration tools - registration, student tracking etc. which all ease the management of the learner cohort.

Good Resources for Virtual Learning Environments:
573 Report 1
573 Report 2

Popular VLEs
Top Class
Lotus Learning Space

17. TALiSMAN Online


This course was run in various times in 1997. It was my first foray onto online staff development. Web pages were written and groups of 20-30 participants were taken through the course over 6 weeks - entirely online. Free discussion software was used to support communication.

TALiSMAN Online:

18. TALiSMAN Online Study Centre


As a means of recycling material created by the TALiSMAN project, materials were put into online form and placed within the Virtual Learning Environment WebCT. WebCT has built in discussion facilities, along with online calendars, progress records for individual students, assessment, personal webspace etc. The Online Study Centre was entirely self-study, with no formal tutoring (although support was available on request).


19. LOLA


This course was developed and delivered to 400 participants in 10 countries across eastern Europe. Again, webCT was used to manage delivery of material to students, log progress etc. The course was ‘accredited’ and each of 5 modules was followed with an assessment (TMA). Ten tutors each looked after 4 groups of 10 students. Tutors were in the UK. National facilitators arranged face to face events in each country so that participants had the opportunity to meet their peers. Due to access problems, it was necessary to design the materials so that the course could be completed with a minimum of online participation. This meant we were unable to exploit co-working, and specific communication tasks (such as debating) for which online access would be required.


20. Lessons Learned

  • Manage expectations,
  • Choose tutors well,
  • Train tutors well,
  • Don’t forget face-to-face.

One of the main lessons we learned was to manage expectations - if someone is learning in isolation, then they will expect their learning experience to be very individual - either by being demanding on the tutor, or being overly-critical of the syllabus, where it doesn’t directly meet their needs. Building a community is critical here as other learners are of considerable help in providing a context in which the learner sees themselves. Managing expectations also means being very open about the structure, aims, and running of the course - so that learners do not become disoriented. On LOLA, we found that the skills of the tutor varied dramatically - one tutor never initiated any online discussions, whereas others were able to sustain several in parallel threads.

Even if there is discussion occurring, the tutor needs skills to manage that discussion - knowing when and when not to send messages (one common fault is to stifle discussion by immediately answering any question that arises. This appears authoritarian and discourages debate. By having more than one tutor, no one person is seen as having the right point of view.

Neither of the TALiSMAN courses were accredited and both suffered from high drop-out rates. This is because it is much easier to fall behind in an online course if something else (usually marking in academic courses) comes along. Once you slop behind it is easier to slip further behind than catch up and the inevitable consequence is drop out. Accrediting courses - or running online versions of accredited courses can be very useful in enhancing the credibility (and the essential-ness) of the course. Online courses can benefit considerably from face to face sessions, especially at the outset of a course, when it is important that participants make contact with thier fellow learners. In LOLA, the tutors delivered a kick-off workshop in each of the respectivd countries before coming back to the UK to tutor the remainder of the course at a distance. Over the course of that first few days, participants were able to put names to faces, meet fellow participants with similar backgrounds and interests, and gain some picture of the course and their relation to it.

21. Advice

  • Keep it simple,
  • Justify technology,
  • Accredit, and co-operate,
  • Integrate with day-to-day activities,
  • Embed into organisations culture,
  • Don’t forget face-to-face.

Let’s try and summarise with some advice:

  • Keep it simple: be clear about what you want from the technology - just support and information pages, an area for discussion, or tools for collaboration.
  • Sometimes a Jiscmail list might be enough.
  • Justify the technology: from the participants point of view, it is vitally important that they see the technology as enhancing the quality of their learning experience, or at least facilitating staff development which would not otherwise be practical to deliver.
  • Make sure also that all participants possess the necessary IT skills to complete the course effectively. The user experience should be as simple as possible - easy to use web sites, discussion software etc.
  • Accredit the course, and try - where - possible to co-operate with other institutions to offer the same or complementary courses - sharing workload, allowing participants wider choice - mutual recognition of qualifications etc.

By integrating staff development with day to day activities, you can encourage participants to relate their development to their job (where appropriate). In time, this integration of learning and doing will embed itself into the culture of the organisation.

Finally, don’t forget face-to-face, it’s probably still the best way to learn.

22. Contact Details

This info: http://www/
Colin Milligan:

23. Advert

  • Scotland has many SD / C&IT projects:
  • Virtual Learning Space (communities)
  • Mapping (portfolios)
  • Elicit (online SD)
  • ToolCIT (C&IT Tools)
  • ...and many more.

Scotland has invested heavily in C&IT through the Use of MANs and ScotCIT initiatives. In each case, staff development has been an integral part of the funding - through TALiSMAN, and a number of smaller projects.

The Virtual Learning Space is an online environment designed to bring together learning communities for informal and formal discussions, online conferences etc. as well as providing a hub for resources and information for those interested in C&IT wrt teaching and learning. [a similar collaborative space could be set up for any community of practitioners - whether formal or informal]

The Mapping project has set out to collect electronic resources helpful in creating portfolios for ILT accreditation. Tools will be distributed on CD upon completion - some will be available online.

The ELICIT project is developing online staff dvelopment modules in various aspects of C&IT - effective online tutoring, teaching,learning and assessment etc.

The TOOLCit project is developing tools (e..g audit, decision making etc.) to help staff to choose and effectively implement C&IT in their teaching and learning. [Different tools could be developed to suit different needs]

ScotCIT: http://www/

24. Virtual Learning Space


Here is the VLS home screen: all the usual features of a virtual learning environment - search, notes, glossary, and support type facilities, along with:
  • Gateway - general information,
  • Community - for discussion and ideas-sharing,
  • Discovery - the resource repository - constantly evolving,
  • My Place - where you can control your experience.

Colin Milligan - ICBL, Heriot-Watt University -
last updated 16/04/2001