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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As previously described, TALiSMAN is a staff development project serving Scottish Higher Education Institutions. All participants on our courses are academic, research, administrative or support staff at these institutions. TALiSMAN has investigated two very different modes of online delivery of staff development. This section briefly describes the two approaches we followed: the TALiSMAN Online Course and the Online Study Centre (OSC).

2.1  The TALiSMAN Online Course
In January 1997, TALiSMAN began planning for the delivery of the first online course, with the title 'Using the WWW in Teaching and Learning'. The course content was basic and aimed at staff with no previous experience of using the WWW for teaching, but who did have access to the WWW and had some familiarity with the Internet. (a course flyer is available at and included as Appendix A). In addition to the relatively modest aims of the course, it was anticipated that the course would provide a valuable opportunity for future practitioners to experience the benefits and frustrations of online learning.

In designing the online course materials we examined two existing courses: 'Using the Internet for Teaching and Learning', developed by Jackie Galbraith at MEDC (University of Paisley) for Scottish FE, and the short 'Finding Learning Opportunities on the Web' (FLOW) course run by the Open University [7]. We followed the structure of the MEDC course (6 weeks, staged delivery) and drew on the overall aims of the FLOW course, however we used our own content (revised from a face to face course) and delivery mechanism.

The initial implementation of the course ( - see Appendix B for an outline of the course) consisted of six 'lessons' made available at weekly intervals (usually on a Tuesday morning). Each lesson was announced by a brief email which summarised the week's activities. Usually, a reminder was sent out on the Friday urging those who had not yet participated to complete the coursework. Completion of the course required a commitment of 2-3hrs per week self-study, with activities mainly centred on the discussion forum. The courses were not accredited.

After requests from some participants, an extra break was added halfway through the course to provide a break for Easter. The course was advertised at TALiSMAN events, by mailshot to our Institutional contacts and from the TALiSMAN WWW site. 52 participants signed up and all registration and administration was carried out through email. Prior to commencement of the course, participants were given access to the course environment to enable them to familiarise themselves with its structure and interface. The course material was predominantly simple web pages, including links to example sites, and a course discussion area utilising the discussion software Dialogue [8]. After the course, feedback was collected by means of an electronic feedback form. This form is included as Appendix C.

A further 62 participants signed up for the second run of the course which started in May 1997 ( For this run of the course, very little content was altered, however significant changes were made to the environment and administration of the course. As before, we felt unable to 'force' participants to actively take part in the course, but we did ask them to give a commitment to the course by completing a 'declaration of intent' before starting. We also elicited participant information through a course 'expectation' questionnaire as well as detailed feedback questionnaires (all collected electronically) filled in during and after the course.

During the summer, a more significant revision of the course was undertaken. Changes were introduced to improve the structure, reflecting feedback from the initial two courses. The most significant change involved introducing an academic subject focus to the course material.

2.2  Academic Subject Focus Courses
A recognised problem with the initial course had been the lack of "community" and it was hoped that by introducing an academic subject focus, we could bring together people with a similar background and aspirations. We also arranged a half-day face-to-face induction, but attendance at this was not compulsory. A table summarising the dates of these academic subject focus courses and participant numbers is shown below [Table 1].

Date Course Participants
November 1997 Statistics,

Medicine and Biosciences,


Social Science,





March 1998 Land Use and the Environment,

Art and Design,



April 1998 Business Education,

Table 1: Academic Subject-based Courses

These subject based courses each attracted approximately 20 to 25 participants. The Statistics and Art and Design courses, were advertised throughout UK HE in order to enrol enough participants from these rather small communities.

For the subject courses, help was sought from subject experts to deliver part of the course. Week 2 (Finding Resources) was replaced by a lesson delivered by an external tutor with a specific subject focus. The external tutors were from Information Gateway Projects (EEVL, SOSIG, OMNI, and Biz/Ed [9]) or Computers in Teaching Initiative (CTI) Centres (Statistics, Land Use and Environmental Sciences and Art and Design [10]) and they drew largely on material from their own site to provide alternative content for that week. In some cases we also provided alternative material for week 4 (Developing Web-based Resources). A significant advantage of using external tutors is that it gave courses 'authority' and a more diverse input.

The structure of the course environment was also changed from being essentially one web page per week to being a series of short pages; mostly viewable as single screens and with a simple navigation structure maintained across the whole course. This change reduced the amount of text in any one page and emphasised the common structure running through the course. An example screen is shown below [Figure 1]. This shows learning material and navigation links for week 5 of one of the academic subject-focus courses.

Figure 1: Example page from online course

As different courses were being run in parallel, we decided to move to a more robust discussion system and chose WebBoard [11]. Whilst being a more sophisticated package than Dialogue, WebBoard was found to be somewhat daunting by those who had never used computer based conferencing systems before. An example screen from WebBoard is shown below [Figure 2]. For the standard view of WebBoard, the message thread is displayed on the left and individual messages on the right, buttons for submissions to the discussion are placed along the top of the browser window, below the standard toolbar and address panel.

Figure 2: Example screen from WebBoard

Some constraints governed the format of the course and our expectations for it. As the participants were novices, it was important that the course would be accessible with even the most basic web browser and email client running on an older computer. We therefore used a very simple design with no use of HTML Frames, JavaScript, audio or video etc. As the course was not accredited, we had no way of forcing the participants to complete the course within a specified time and could only rely on them completing the course at the pace and in the manner that we recommended. In addition, we thought it would prove difficult (given the short timespan of the course) to try to build up any sense of community amongst the participants.

The course environment which we created, whilst simple, was robust and flexible enough to act as an effective delivery vehicle for the TALiSMAN Online Course. If the course was to be delivered on a larger scale, then it would help to have administrative tools that could be used to manage the course efficiently. Furthermore, if the course was accredited, then delivery and administration of assessment would require new tools.

2.3  The Online Study Centre
Throughout the duration of the project, TALiSMAN has developed and delivered a variety of face-to-face training courses around the central theme of using networks for teaching. Courses delivered included 'Simple Web Authoring', 'Advanced Web Authoring' and 'Simple JavaScript'. With a potential audience in excess of 16,000 (academic, support, administrative and research staff at the 21 Scottish HEIs) and only 3 trainers, it was obvious that TALiSMAN could never satisfy the potential demand for our courses. Furthermore as new technologies appeared, we wished to spend time developing and delivering new courses whilst still providing access to the original courses.

The TALiSMAN Online Study Centre was created as a way of keeping our original courses accessible. We envisioned a single interface allowing access to adapted versions of our face-to-face training courses. Given its intended use, the requirements of the new environment were different to those for the original online course. This environment should provide tools for communication, student tracking and course administration. It must allow the management of a large number of students, and be flexible enough to incorporate different styles of course material. Finally, creation of online materials must be simple and quick. Rather than follow the 'home made' approach of our initial online course, we decided to use a commercial Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) package for the management and delivery of the courses within the online study centre.

One of several packages we considered was WebCT (Web Course Tools) developed at the University of British Columbia [12]. We chose WebCT because of the flexibility and customisability it offered. Learning materials can be created easily by experienced web developers and novices. Our second report will discuss WebCT and other VLEs in greater detail.

For the TALiSMAN Online Study Centre (OSC), we required a single environment, offering access to a range of courses, with shared communication facilities, a calendar, web based assessments and other features. Whereas some packages allowed no customisation, WebCT allowed us to include or discard individual tools and features as required. For instance we felt it inappropriate to force participants to use the WebCT email system for one-to-one communication, but felt the internal discussion forum was useful for one-to-many interactions. WebCT allowed us to separate these two modes of communication, unlike other systems, where one-to-one and one-to-many conferencing modes are integrated and cannot be offered separately.

The homepage of the Online Study Centre is shown below [Figure 3]. Generic materials reside in the left section whilst the right hand section holds the courses available, along with tools for the learner: student records, password administration, the course discussion area, an event calendar, student homepages and a keyword search.

Figure 3: The main Online Study Centre screen

As with the online course, the courses offered within the Study Centre were not accredited. Furthermore, no formal tutoring was provided (although there is tutor support). Users register to access a course or courses and are given a username and password. This initially provided users with access to individual courses and to the relevant course discussion forum. This was changed slightly so that registration provided access to all courses. Participants have to motivate themselves to complete the course - there is no tutor initiating discussions on specific topics at specific times. In this way, the materials are entirely self-paced and resemble open learning.

The Online Study Centre was expected to perform a dual role - that of providing access to our materials, and also to serve as a test bed for us to investigate how different course structures and different content could be fitted into a standard template. Of particular concern to us was whether the constraints imposed by WebCT on learning materials in any way compromised their quality or usability.

The OSC initially hosted two halves of a course 'New Opportunities in Teaching and Learning' which we had delivered on site at 19 of the 21 Institutions we serve. These courses ('Using Communications in Teaching and Learning' and 'Using the WWW in Teaching and Learning') represented approximately three hours face to face teaching each. The materials for the Communications course were already relatively interactive whilst those for the WWW course were more text based, having originally been designed as a stand alone booklet, to complement the face to face taught course. In fact the 'Using the WWW in Teaching and Learning' materials had already been utilised to create the original TALiSMAN Online Course. In addition to these two courses, the TALiSMAN Online Study Centre also contained a short 'Introduction to email' course which had been developed but never delivered and a web authoring skills course which represented approximately 2 days face-to-face teaching time. An example screen showing learning material is shown in Figure 4. The screen is divided into three frames, along the top are buttons giving access to general course tools such as the glossary and search facilities, along with navigation buttons. The main left hand frame provides an outline for the course and highlights the current page. The main right hand pane contains the learning material itself.

Figure 4: Learning Material in the Online Study Centre

Over the eleven months since its launch, further courses have been added. 'Simple JavaScript' and 'Sound and Vision' (adapted from day long face to face courses) and 'Web Images', written especially for the Online Study Centre. A further course, 'Online Video Conferencing' (originally delivered with tutor support via WebCT) is in the process of conversion to self study material.

In many ways, the TALiSMAN Online Study Centre was developed as a complementary approach to that used by the Online Course. The course materials were made available as open learning, in keeping with the initial concept of the Centre. Rather than groups of participants being given the learning material as a cohort, access to the Centre and its courses was provided - 'on demand' and the pace of progression through the course was entirely under the control of the participant. Tutor support was given as needed, but there was no formal course structure, or delivery schedule. The discussion area was used not to discuss specific topics (at specific times), but to provide a forum for users of the Centre to raise their own issues. The growing archive of discussions provides an additional resource for participants; here they will find advice on using the Centre, interesting issues, further materials and so on. We expected users to progress through different courses in the Centre, gaining a range of skills through the different materials.

The screenshot below shows the course discussion area [Figure 5]. The left hand frame allows the user to decide how messages are displayed. The right hand frames show message titles (top panel) and individual messages (bottom panel).

Figure 5: The WebCT Discussion Forum

2.4  Structure of Materials for WebCT Delivery
Our experience suggests that some materials were better suited to WebCT than others. Initially, materials were put into WebCT 'raw' and subsequently reworked. Some materials, such as the Simple HTML Authoring course worked well in this format. Course materials with a more rigid and uniform structure, such as the support texts for the 'Using the WWW in Teaching and Learning' Introductory Course worked less well. This is unsurprising, as predominantly text-based materials are known to work less well on screen. Most recently, we have created materials directly for use within WebCT. This has allowed us to create a style that meets both the constraints of WebCT and the needs of the materials themselves and these courses have proved popular with users of the Online Study Centre.

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