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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The main purpose of this report has been to review our experiences of delivering staff development over networks. Can we now make some general conclusions regarding the design and delivery of online learning materials? This section of the report will reconsider some of the key issues and provide some pointers to the role of networks in the delivery of staff development within UK Higher Education. The second report of this project will review the suitability of commercial VLEs for this purpose.

5.1  Considerations for Online Delivery of Staff Development

Course Format
There are two distinct choices of format for online courses. The first is to follow a staged delivery model with cohorts of students progressing through course material at the same time (as we utilised with the Online Course). This allows close monitoring of student progress and provides opportunities for co-working and creating an community. The second option is to provide supported open-learning materials (as we did with the OSC). Although from the tutors point of view, the ideal option is to follow the first model, staged delivery is considerably less flexible than self-paced learning as it will require a regular (and rigid) time commitment from the user for completion. If participation on a course is supported through an employer, then this regular release from other duties might be possible. This would be the case for nationally accredited professional development or courses accredited internally within an institution.

It can be advantageous to have some face to face sessions in a course. A face to face induction session can activate a learning community (and can provide an opportunity for remedial training and necessary familiarisation with the online learning environment). Occasional face to face sessions can also structure open learning materials, if there are progression deadlines for each face to face event. Learner homepages, where individuals can tell the rest of their group about themselves (and if appropriate) make available some of their own work (a portfolio) are also of use in maintaining and building this community.

Course Structure
For any online study materials, consistency of structure will benefit students. A familiar structure will allow students to pace their learning. A standard, flexible structure for a lesson might include; introduction, clearly outlined objectives, course materials, activities designed to allow students to demonstrate their skills/knowledge, revision, and finally, further resources. Different sections might be colour coded to reinforce the underlying structure. Such a course structure should accommodate most materials. If some materials deviate distinctly (for instance presentation of a case study), then they should be presented in a different for instance as an 'interlude'). Interludes will also help to alleviate monotony. Whilst progression through course materials is normally linear, this can feel too regimented (and the students will feel as if they are being hand-held) so it is helpful to include sections of less rigidly structured materials, perhaps bringing together different sections of the course or presenting an alternative viewpoint.

Any large scale use of networks for the delivery of staff development will have to be modular. Such a structure is easily scaled, allows the incorporation of materials from different authors, allows highly customised learning programs to be delivered and is easy to revise. Modular delivery is especially suited to self-study materials and is flexible enough to cater for the occasional user. For national, integrated staff development programmes, a modular basis to all courseware is essential for administration and accreditation.

Any accredited course will have some form of assessment. Whilst network delivery of formal examinations is not practical, networks can be used to deliver (and administer) simple objective type tests and can be used to collect projects and dissertations. The CASTLE tools [15], the Clyde Virtual University Assessment Engine [16] and WebTest [17] can manage web-based assessment, whilst VLEs such as WebCT have assessment engines built in. Assessment scores can be logged and feedback returned to students. Such simple assessments can be helpful to tutors too. If score logs are analysed, tutors can see if specific parts of their course are not being understood by the student group as a whole. As well as being helpful for students' revision, simple assessment can be effectively used to structure the course materials. After completing a section of work, a student may be asked to complete an assessment which fulfils a number of roles. Assessment reinforces the learning material, can provide an indicator to the student of whether they have met the objectives of the learning material and can act as an identifiable endpoint for a section of work: once the assessment has been delivered and feedback obtained, that section of the course has been completed. If course discussion forums are used extensively, then some assessment should be made of contributions to these areas as students may have spent considerable periods of time preparing submissions. Student participation can be easily quantified by analysis of access logs (time spent online, number of submissions to bulletin boards and even number of responses elicited by a given submission). Qualitative assessment of contribution still requires the tutor to read the messages.

Active participation is the key to effective online learning, indeed it could be argued that electronic delivery is useful only in the transfer of knowledge and that any skills component of learning requires communication with others. Within an online environment, activities that work well include role-playing and debate, structured discussion, electronic seminars and collaborative projects, so VLEs that include facilities for collaborative working are especially useful. For longer term courses, students can be instructed to prepare portfolios to demonstrate their application of the skills and knowledge they have acquired. For assessment, contribution to these activities can be examined retrospectively from access logs and electronic submissions.

For large scale delivery, automation of administration is critical. WebCT and other VLEs provide student record and student tracking facilities which are useful within courses. In addition to logging scores and simple administration details, these tools can be used to examine participation rates for individual students and highlight potential problems.

Formal recognition of skills gained after leaving full-time education is becoming more important as we move to a culture of lifelong learning. Furthermore, the Dearing Report recommended the establishment of an Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education (ILTHE) to oversee and administer staff development within HE. This Institute, now being set up and to be named ILT (Institute for Learning and Teaching) is intended to provide a 'professional standing' for Higher Education teachers [18]. All probationary lecturers would be expected to undergo some training accredited by ILT.

Technical Support
Technically, there should be nothing special about a course delivered electronically. The technology must be transparent and any temptation to use special features (plugins, audio, and video) must be justified. Technical requirements should be determined before the course and these requirements checked with participants. It is advisable to check that required plugins and special software is functioning correctly, possibly by piloting before the course starts. It is also important that students are familiar with all course tools such as the discussion forum. This familiarisation could constitute a Week 0 for the course, or perhaps form part of a face-to-face induction event.

Supplementary Materials
Whilst it is important not to include extra material if it will merely distract the students, a bank of supplementary material can be very helpful as a starting point for a student's own exploratory learning. Whereas the core learning material will be tightly controlled by objectives; extra material can be more openly thought provoking. For network based materials, the WWW provides a wonderful resource which is easily exploited. In addition to informal resource banks, more formal directories of general resources are useful and encourage exploratory learning. Students can be encouraged to contribute information on resources they have found themselves. In the longer term, this can even be extended to collecting student assignments and making these available as resources for future students.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Although it is not always appropriate to provide an answer before a student has formulated an appropriate question, FAQs can address identified issues. If the FAQ is drawn from existing logs of discussion forums etc., then the questions and answers can be matched well to students needs.

Tutor Support
It is vital that students have some access to all tutors on the course, through access to course-wide discussion areas, but tutor support should feel personal and it is therefore important to assign tutors to individual students. Similarly, it also pays to create distinct study groups containing a single tutor and a number of students. Individual groups of students might be further split up for specific activities. For some courses, mentoring may be appropriate but for this personal email contact should be sufficient. If face to face contact is not possible, tutors should at least endeavour to make themselves more approachable, by having personal homepages etc.

Learning Skills, Learning Styles and Learner Streaming
For accredited staff development in HE, most learners will be graduates and will have considerable study skills already, but these may be ill-suited to online learning. Learning material which works well 'on screen' is likely to be radically different to traditional paper-based materials and require new study skills. Basic IT skills are an essential prerequisite for any course which utilises computers and online courses obviously involve intensive use. Learners should be comfortable with navigation through learning materials, working with multiple windows and electronic note-taking. Where contribution to discussion forums is expected as part of the course, some familiarisation is essential to ensure that participants do not come to see the technology as a barrier to their participation.

Even amongst those familiar with computers, there will be some who are disinclined to take part in course discussions and co-operative work depending on their learning style. Learners who may be vocal in face to face tutorials may be inhibited by the permanence of a discussion forum submission. In contrast, learners who would normally be quiet in class might welcome the chance to reflect on their ideas and prepare a formal submission. For courses conducted entirely online, it may be possible to organise synchronous online discussions (in addition to asynchronous activities). Synchronous sessions can be used to 'brainstorm' at the start of asynchronous discussions. Also, their informality makes them attractive to those who would normally feel stifled by the rigid structure of asynchronous forums.

In order to build strong communities, it is important that learners are streamed according to their initial knowledge. Within large courses, students can be allocated to groups of similar ability. Any progressive course structure would also alleviate this problem, as learners would be expected to have fulfilled certain prerequisites for a course.

Whilst there should be little need for revision, online course materials are at least far easier to adapt and revise than traditional printed materials or even electronic materials delivered on CD. Any errors found and suggestions for improvement will be recorded in discussion forums or emails sent to the tutors and should therefore be easy to act upon. If revision is necessary, there is no cost in re-printing, re-pressing CD's or administration involved in version control. Instead, a single, definitive 'instance' of the course is always present on the network (web site). It is important that changes are logged, and it would be appropriate to provide a 'revision history' online. For the materials themselves, instead of changing the core materials for the course, revision effort should be focused on improving the knowledge base available to the learners.

5.2  Conclusions
Online courses differ greatly from face to face courses. There is a trade off between the flexibility offered by online study and the learning culture engendered by face to face teaching. Good online delivery of staff development must retain this flexibility, and also create a community where learners can come together 'virtually' to share their learning experience.

We found that online course participants harbour very different expectations to face to face students. Managing these expectations is critical - whether by encouraging student-student communication or by anticipating the students desires and providing an extra resource for them to refer to; exaggerated expectations only become a problem if they are not addressed. Allied to this, it is important that course objectives are clearly stated, that navigation through the learning material is intuitive and also that activities (such as simple reinforcement exercises) demonstrate when/if objectives have been met.

Online students also require more explicit guidance on progress through the course - signposts which indicate the expected route through materials, and also the expected progression rate. These signposts may be concrete (as with staged delivery), formal (as with specific assessment deadlines) and informal (as with prompts from the tutor).

Assessing progress and performance in online courses requires new strategies which accurately gauge the success of the learning process. Assessment of activities is likely to be just as important as assessment of essays and projects.

At Glasgow Caledonian University, a course in learning and teaching for new lecturers is now delivered online [18]. This course uses web pages, three face to face tutorials, assignments and a discussion forum. The course has been delivered twice in 1997-1998 and changes planned for further delivery. As with our online course, the course leaders were disappointed with participation rates, and the changes they have recommended for the next delivery concur with the findings of this report: prepare participants (clarify expectations and familiarise them with components), make materials more interactive and introduce more activities, and encourage more use of discussion forums.

The new opportunities offered by networks for the delivery of staff development look capable of providing the flexibility required by workplace learning and professional development. Exploiting the World Wide Web for the delivery of these courses requires careful design of materials and courses, together with imaginative use of technology to build communities. Finally, managing the learning experience effectively is vital. Within reasonable constraints, Virtual Learning Environments can support and enhance effective learning, but although they provide new opportunities, their implementation and use must be carefully planned and adequately supported. This report has examined one (WebCT) and compared it to the facilities offered by traditionally created and administered web pages. The second report from this project will examine different VLEs and evaluate their suitability to the delivery of online staff development, given the issues we have discussed in this report.

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