The Role of Virtual Learning Environments in the Online Delivery of Staff Development
Report 1: Review of Experiences of Delivering TALiSMAN Online CoursesColin Milligan
Institute for Computer Based Learning, Heriot-Watt University, Riccarton, Edinburgh EH14-4AS
4 FINDINGS AND LESSONS LEARNED
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.
4.2 Tutor Support
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.
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
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 . 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.