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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Over the last two years TALiSMAN has delivered a range of learning materials (task based, self-paced, discussion centred etc.) over the WWW using a variety of delivery and administration strategies. Some of the approaches we tried have worked well, whilst others were less successful. This section shall examine some of our findings, the lessons we have learned and highlight some of the issues inherent in the use of the WWW and Virtual Learning Environments for staff development.

The special circumstances of our courses should be reiterated. Had our courses been accredited, we would have been able to explore many strategies (such as collaborative working and assessment) more fully. Also, had these courses been run over longer periods, we would have been able to investigate optimum rates of delivery (some course participants asked for longer courses, others for more time between lessons) and course structure.

4.1  Expectations
In our experience, online learners tend to have very high expectations of the course; specifically, that the materials they utilise shall be individually tailored to their needs. Perhaps this is because they have less contact with their fellow course participants. We found that some learners seemed to expect almost personal tuition from the course tutor whereas others were reticent about communicating with the tutor at all - preferring to treat all materials as self-study. Without face to face contact, it is perhaps more difficult to manage the expectations of the group. To counter this, activities that build a community and encourage student-student interaction in addition to tutor-student communication should be developed. But this type of activity relies on full participation by students, and can only be effectively implemented in accredited courses. Another way to address high expectations from the learner is to try and customise courses to individual needs, perhaps by providing alternate lessons and allowing the user to choose. A rather simplistic example would be the subject specific online courses we delivered where one lesson was unique and the other lessons common to all courses. Rather than split up participants by subject interest (which had other benefits) we could in future offer a single course, but with 7 choices in week two. A second option is to provide an extra body of optional material to augment the core course materials. In our online course (and indeed in the OSC), we utilised a CGI script that allowed participants to add useful or interesting web site addresses (with short descriptions) to a web page. The resources collected in this way provided a large store of examples for future use. Over time, re-use of materials from discussion forums can form a knowledge base - filling in gaps and catering to individual interests. It is likely that such information would have to be edited to make it coherent, again perhaps to create a FAQ.

4.2   Tutor Support
Support strategies for online learning are very different from those required for face to face learning. Whilst administration and delivery of the course can be very efficient, the tutor has to be prepared to communicate far more with individuals, either through email, or in discussion forums. Again, co-operative exercises set for students can be effective here (encourage them to answer each other's questions), but ultimately most communication is with many individuals, rather than a single class.

In our experience, a single tutor can support a large number of students, but the tutoring itself will require an almost full-time commitment; answering individual queries, checking regularly on discussion forums etc. Rather than all activity on a course being concentrated into a single face to face meeting each week, online courses effectively go on all day every day. The tutor will need to check the discussion areas at least twice a day and reply to email queries within a day of receipt, as well as prepare lessons and assessments, carry out administration and send out 2 or 3 messages a week to pace the learning process. For the online course, I spent about 2 days per week supporting the course, though had I been able to spare the time, I could easily have spent more time tutoring.

The way in which the discussion forum is used can also be important. If the forum is relatively unstructured, it is the tutors' responsibility to ensure that all questions raised are answered promptly. If a question is raised and not immediately responded to by other students then it becomes in danger of being lost in the discussion forum as new questions are raised. However a single tutor immediately answering all points raised in the discussion forum can stifle discussion initiated by the students. The use of a team of tutors would be helpful as students will appreciate the variety of styles and will perceive that experts are answering their questions. Tutors can adopt alternative viewpoints to encourage students to think, rather than unreservedly accepting the view of a single tutor.

4.3  Assessment
New strategies for assessment can be used in conjunction with online learning - but they must be carefully implemented. The WWW offers great scope for objective type testing - where responses can be automatically collected, graded and logged. Careful design of materials can enable scores and limited to be feedback delivered to individual learners - perhaps integrating assessment into the learning process - formative assessment. This type of assessment appeals to the learner as he or she can benefit from the feedback provided. Of course, objective type testing is often too simplistic a measure of a learner's grasp of the course materials and computers are less effective when used for other more complex types of assessment - so the burden falls back onto the tutor. Although we carried out no formal assessment in our online courses, course activities normally involved submission to the discussion forum and these submissions could have been assessed.

The assessment facilities offered by WebCT are rudimentary, but as they are already built in, they are easily utilised. There are a number of standalone assessment tools available (see section 5) but implementing them can be time consuming and technically demanding, and this can deter course developers from integrating assessment into web based courses.

4.4  Format of the Course
We utilised two very different course delivery formats. The very structured delivery of the online course was contrasted with the almost open-learning nature of the WebCT based learning materials in the OSC. No one delivery strategy is right for all course materials or subjects and it would likewise be wrong to suggest that there was an optimum format for all online materials. It is vital that the course content is not compromised by the delivery mechanism. The structure of the online course was governed by the educational needs of the materials, rather than constraints imposed by the delivery medium. We were able to design the exact layout of the pages, the way they were interconnected and the individual external tools utilised (such as WebBoard and customised CGI scripts). We were able to deploy the best tools for our requirements, for instance when choosing WebBoard because of its robust interface. With WebCT, the layout of the web pages is configurable by the author, but the way the pages interconnect is more rigidly controlled - there is little scope for anything other than linear progression through the teaching materials. Like other VLEs, WebCT does not force the course authors to use the tools it provides (email, conferencing, assessment), but it does encourage the author to take the easy option and use the included tool rather than the most appropriate tool.

A further issue regarding WebCT and other VLEs is their unsuitability for offline working. If the participant pays for their Internet access, then they are likely to want to minimise the time they spend online. Software such as WebWhacker allows groups of web pages to be collected for offline viewing. The learner need only log on to initially collect the pages and subsequently to take part in any online (synchronous or asynchronous) activities. This strategy does not work for WebCT because the web pages are stored in a database and cannot be collected by offline browsing software such as WebWhacker.

We should recognise that efficient delivery of accredited staff development is likely to have a significant modular component and it would make sense to consider the scalability of any system. Within reason, (again, there is no sense in compromising the materials just to make them fit a specific template) the learning materials should have a common structure (objectives learning, materials, tasks, discussion, assessment, reinforcement etc). Students will learn more efficiently if they are familiar with the structure - an important consideration if we remember that online students require more guidance. Within that structure, there should be clear sign-posting of a route through the learning material. This guidance can serve to pace the learning process. The use of simple reinforcement exercises can also reassure the student that they have satisfactorily completed that section of the material.

The online course delivered by TALiSMAN consisted of self-made web pages (conforming to a simple standard template) supported by a discussion forum (which could be changed). Administration and course announcements used email. Student records were kept in Microsoft Excel, which was also used to collect and collate feedback form data. Adding new materials would have been relatively easy, but adding large numbers of new students would have strained the administration structure. Any formal accreditation would have required more extensive administration (student tracking, collection of assessments etc.), and this would certainly have overstretched the existing structures. The WebCT environment used for the Study Centre has many administrative tools built in and once participants have been registered with the Centre, the WebCT system itself holds student records, showing access logs, student progress and the scores of any assessment carried out. One of the main advantages offered by networks for the delivery of staff development is the scalability. For efficiency, large scale courses must be modular, easy to manage and easy to administer.

Standards for these factors are being developed by the Instructional Management Systems (IMS) Project [14]. The IMS project is an international initiative whose task is to recommend and create a standard architecture for online learning. The framework will be flexible and allow interoperability without constraining developers. Materials which comply with the IMS standard criteria will be branded as IMS-enabled. IMS standards will cover not just the learning material, but also methods of administration, student tracking, communication, assessment, structure and interface.

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