The Role of Virtual Learning Environments in the Online Delivery of Staff Development

Report 1: Review of Experiences of Delivering TALiSMAN Online Courses

Colin Milligan
Institute for Computer Based Learning, Heriot-Watt University, Riccarton, Edinburgh EH14-4AS
November 1998


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1   B A C K G R O U N D

1.1  Introduction
The use of computers to support teaching in Higher Education has increased dramatically in recent years. Network infrastructure improvements and technology developments, (in particular the World Wide Web (WWW)) are providing exciting opportunities for the use of computers in all disciplines. These developments have coincided with an evolving role for education as more students wish to study part-time, at a distance, or wish to integrate their education with their professional career. In addition, the creation of a learning society, where individuals are encouraged to continue to learn throughout their life demands new models of teaching, which do not rely heavily on face to face teaching or strict progression schedules. Universities have recognised this changing need for educational provision and are investigating more flexible teaching methods to enter new markets such as distance learning, work-based learning and part-time study. Within Higher Education, there is a movement towards greater formalisation of staff skills and it is anticipated that new delivery mechanisms will be exploited to achieve this. The combination of new technologies and network delivery is ideally suited to provide flexible provision and also establish distributed learner communities to support the learning process. In the context of staff development, such a combination provides:

  • Flexibility: allowing material to be delivered on demand, enabling learning independent of time or location constraints,
  • Economy of Scale: allowing delivery of learning programmes which might not have been possible within smaller institutions, especially those specialising in a single field such as art colleges,
  • Extensibility: allowing the development of banks of modular materials for curricula, which can be tailored to specific staff needs over a specific period of time,
  • Co-working: extending the scope for collaboration (and sharing) with others in similar positions at different institutions, enhancing the learning experience,
  • Standardisation: enabling the adoption of recognised qualifications across the sector.

1.2  The Scottish MANs and UMI Projects
As an example of the improvement in IT infrastructure and its impact on staff development, consider the developments in Scottish HE. In 1995 and 1996 the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council (SHEFC) funded the creation and installation of a high speed, reliable network of Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs) linking the Higher Education Institutions within the sector. This network (the Scottish Metropolitan Area Network) provides a capacity of 155MBps (Mega Bits per second) split between Internet traffic (WWW, email, desktop videoconferencing etc.) and MAN (or studio quality) videoconferencing with extra capacity reserved for special uses such as parallel computing and music teaching.

To complement this investment in infrastructure, SHEFC funded a number of projects under the Use of MANs Initiative (UMI, [1]). These projects were intended to encourage the use of the newly created MANs. The projects funded under UMI phase one fell into three strands:

  1. Infrastructure Improvements: to upgrade local network infrastructure and allow individual users to benefit from a connection to the MAN,
  2. Applications: to encourage users to exploit the networks for teaching and resource provision and to encourage cross-institutional collaboration,
  3. Staff Development: to ensure that staff are aware of the potential of these networks and have the opportunity to acquire appropriate skills to exploit them.
The TALiSMAN (Teaching and Learning in Scottish Metropolitan Area Networks [2]) project was set up in June 1996 under the staff development strand of UMI to encourage the use of networks by staff at the 21 Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) connected to the Scottish MANs. A programme of events providing a combination of training and awareness was developed and delivered to the 21 institutions throughout Scotland.

Whilst most of the training was to be delivered face to face it was anticipated that some of this training would be delivered online to:

  • serve as an exemplar of the opportunities of using networks for teaching and training,
  • make use of an appropriate tool given the subject,
  • provide experience of electronic learning to staff,
  • reach a wider audience.
As part of its' first year activities, TALiSMAN carried out a Training Needs Analysis (TNA) surveying the training requirements of academic and research staff at all 21 HE Institutions in Scotland [3]. The TNA confirmed a willingness to accept this type of training: "Although staff expressed a strong preference for traditional methods of training and support, most were willing to receive training by a variety of non-traditional methods including network-supported open and flexible learning... ...TALiSMAN should offer a mix of traditional courses and training via on-demand distant methods such as network-delivered open and flexible learning..."

1.3  Other Relevant Studies
Since the TALiSMAN training needs analysis was completed a number of other studies have identified similar needs within the UK HE sector. A few are discussed below.

In early 1998, SHEFC began a comprehensive review of their C and IT provision by carrying out a consultation exercise with representatives from the 21 Scottish HEI's and other relevant bodies. The results of this consultation were reported in a circular letter in April 1998 [4]. On staff development, the authors were clear about the potential role of C and IT: "The most widely recognised need, for the further development of the use of C and IT in higher education and especially in Teaching, Learning and Assessment (TL and A), is an extended range of staff development activities. These range from the provision of training in basic IT skills for all staff to the rethinking of the processes of TL and A in the light of the enhanced facilities that C and IT can provide. Many responses emphasised the need to embed the C and IT development in the wider issue of the reformulation of the processes of teaching and learning, moving from conventional delivery mechanisms to more independent, resource-based learning, facilitated and supported by academic staff. The programme should be pedagogy-led rather than being technology-led." The report goes on to highlight the role of new technologies in facilitating this staff development: "The important contributions of CTI, LTDI and TALiSMAN to increasing the awareness and abilities of academic staff in the Scottish HE sector were recognised. In the next stage of development, the need was expressed to exploit C and IT itself (through means such as videoconferencing, and the production and use of IT-based staff development materials) to bring the development activities closer to the individuals who need them, and to allow a wide participation from experts across the sector."

The report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education (the Dearing Report [5]) was concerned with all aspects of Higher Education, but some of its findings relate to the use of C and IT in Teaching and Learning. Discussing students and learning, the report recognises the central role of C and IT along with the attendant need for appropriate staff development (Recommendation 9). Furthermore it is thought important to formalise such training within a proposed "Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education" (Recommendation 14). On staff development, the report stresses that whilst C&IT has much to offer, it is important to develop its potential carefully - with appropriate training, recognising the role already played by TALiSMAN: "Training and support in the use of C and IT is an issue in its own right. In such training we imagine that institutions will wish to draw on materials already developed in the sector such as the Netskills project at the University of Newcastle and the TALiSMAN activities being carried out by Heriot-Watt University on behalf of the Scottish Institutions" (para. 14.19).

The recent "Evaluation of the Computers in Teaching Initiative and Teaching and Learning Technology Support Network" report [6] scrutinises the current role of these initiatives in promoting the use of C and IT within the UK Higher Education community. This report recognised the importance of C and IT in enabling the development of new learning strategies, and satisfying the changing expectations of students and employers (para. 5).

Each of these studies recognises the future importance of C&IT to staff development and specifically the role of networks in making staff development flexible.

1.4  TALiSMAN Online Activities
TALiSMAN has now investigated and used a number of approaches to deliver courses online - as staged delivery courses and as open learning. The aim of this study is to report our experiences and to draw general conclusions as to the future potential for networks in the delivery of staff development. TALiSMAN first used an approach based on simple web pages, supported with simple discussion forum software. Subsequently, we used the Virtual Learning Environment software WebCT to manage and administer whole courses within a single environment. The next section of this report will examine and contrast these two distinct approaches. Subsequent sections will then consider course feedback, experiences and lessons learned, before re-examining these conclusions in the light of findings and recommendations from other initiatives.

A second report from this project will examine a range of other Virtual Learning Environments (VLE's) and evaluate their potential and suitability for the delivery of staff development online within the UK HE community, with special attention paid to the issues identified here.

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Colin Milligan, ICBL, November 1998 - JTAP-573
Comments to - - © Heriot-Watt University 1999