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

Report 2: Delivering Staff and Professional Development Using Virtual Learning Environments

Colin Milligan
Institute for Computer Based Learning, Heriot-Watt University, Riccarton, Edinburgh EH14-4AS
October 1999


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1 Background

1.1 Introduction
As in all professions, there is a growing realisation of the importance of staff/professional 11 development as a mechanism for fostering a motivated, skilled and adaptable workforce. This is especially true of Higher Education, which is undergoing rapid and fundamental change in response to a number of pressures. These pressures include - expansion of student numbers (especially those who are part-time or mature students), new funding structures where students contribute to their fees, the introduction of new technology and working practices which rely on technology such as networked computers, and the globalisation of the education market. As customers who pay directly for (at least part of) their education, students' expectations of Higher Education are also changing fundamentally. Part-time students demand more flexible course structures to enable them to manage their learning time. Students are increasingly computer literate (whether through using home computers or through previous employment) and expect course materials to exploit technology where appropriate. Also, students increasingly see their education as a step towards gaining employment and choose courses with vocational content or which develop transferable skills. These students will increasingly reject poor quality teaching, inflexible course structures. Only those Higher Education institutions that examine and update their courses and teaching practice will flourish - and this requires staff that are motivated and able, to change and improve. Carefully planned staff development strategies can help the United Kingdom Higher Education sector respond to these changes.

Staff and professional development can be critical to career progression (e.g. formal management training), development of existing skills (e.g. sharing of best practise), and in the introduction of new systems and methods (e.g. student centred learning). The benefits of professional development should reward both the individual and the institution. The institution benefits through having a more skilled (and adaptable) workforce; motivation should be increased and individual employees more responsible. The workforce becomes a repository for expertise, ideas, and solutions to new challenges facing the institution. The individual benefits through gaining a wider range of skills; perhaps being more efficient (gaining more time to spend on research); being more employable; and even by earning more.

Recent studies of UK Higher Education [1,2] have highlighted the importance of professional development to the HE sector and suggested ways in which the skills of the HE community can be officially recognised.

The Dearing Report [1] recommended:
... (the establishment of) a professional Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education. The functions of the Institute would be to accredit programmes of training for higher education teachers; to commission research and development in learning and teaching practices; and to stimulate innovation.
Recommendation 14

and that in time,
... it should become the normal requirement that all new full-time academic staff with teaching responsibilities are required to achieve at least associate membership of the Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, for the successful completion of probation.
Recommendation 48

This critical requirement for formal professional development on a large scale throughout Higher Education is reflected in the importance being placed on professional development by the funding councils. But the commitment to a greater role for professional development has raised significant questions regarding how best to deliver it. The ILT (Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education [3]) is now established and plans to begin accepting members (initially through submission of refereed applications accompanied by portfolio's) professional development for Higher Education in the 1999-2000 academic year. ILT will not deliver professional development directly, rather, professional development will still be run internally by institutions or (increasingly) groups of institutions. Institutions already deliver staff and professional development themselves, however the advent of the ILT brings two specific changes: professional development will be undertaken with a specific goal, and is likely to occur on a much larger scale because almost all staff involved in teaching will be expected to undertake development.

The Atkins Review of the Computers in Teaching Initiative and Teaching and Learning Technology Support Network [2] recognised the growing role of computer based technologies and learning strategies in Higher Education. The review identified a critical requirement for staff development in these areas, ranging from basic IT skills such as word processing to pedagogic issues such as integration of Communications and Information Technologies (C&IT) in the support and delivery of teaching.

Professional development is usually seen as an ongoing process with staff working towards gaining recognition through a mix of formal and informal study, completion of assignments and production of portfolios. Far less importance is placed on learning from textbooks as so much of the work is based on reflection of individual experience. It is vital that professional development should be personalised and tailored to the needs of the individual, and relevant to their situation. For professional development, the participant should be able to relate what they learn directly to their own subject area. A critical benefit of professional development comes through sharing experiences with others (and reflection on one's own experience) and this can be maximised by establishing groups of similar experience who undergo their development together. Unfortunately creating groups can be difficult for a variety of reasons e.g. finding convenient regular meeting times, accommodating varying workloads (group members may fall behind at different times due to other commitments) and finding sufficient numbers of staff with similar development goals in smaller institutions. Similarly, mentoring, whereby a junior member of staff learns directly from a senior one, is an attractive and popular mechanism for professional development. This is also difficult in small institutions where an appropriate mentor might not be available.

Staff and professional development is normally delivered through training workshops, often all day or part-day events, usually (though not always) held within the individual's own institution. Although these existing structures for delivery of professional development work well on a small scale, they are not easily scaled up. Furthermore, if professional development is to be encouraged (and in some cases made mandatory), then new, more flexible delivery strategies must be developed. Flexibility will be vital to any increased use of professional development:

  • to allow combination of specific and generic components to create courses tailored to individual staff needs,
  • to allow staff to undertake development when they have time - perhaps devoting little time during term time and more time outside term time,
  • to ensure that the development achieved precisely fits the individual goals of each participant,
  • to ensure that similar benefits may be gained by staff at all institutions regardless of size.

It is likely that online delivery of professional development (especially through the Internet and institutional Intranets) will be vital to attaining this flexibility. Electronic distribution of materials is efficient and enables simple revision and expansion of course materials. Delivery of courses online avoids the time and place constraints that can hinder face-to-face development programmes. This is especially appropriate if professional development is to be seen as an ongoing process. The utilisation of communications technologies to create groups and communities of learners will facilitate vital relationships such as mentoring and peer communication. The establishment of virtual groups, which may be geographically distributed, can circumvent (to some extent) the problems that small institutions may encounter when trying to establish groups of learners with similar goals.

The TALiSMAN (Teaching And Learning in Scottish Metropolitan Area Networks [4]) project has employed several alternative strategies to deliver staff development, as reported previously [5]. This report draws on our experience in delivering staff development face-to-face and online, and will examine some of the key factors for successful online delivery of staff and professional development. In addition, this report will assess a number of special software solutions (termed Virtual Learning Environments or VLEs) which can be used to support the learning process in the context of professional development. Other JTAP projects [6,7] have been funded to examine the role of VLEs in learning generally. The JTAP report by Britain & Liber [7] attempts to evaluate several Virtual Learning Environments pedagogically and examines how their use might fit with existing structures for delivery of teaching and learning in Higher Education. Although concerned with teaching and Learning rather than staff development, the issues discussed in the report (particularly the types of learning that are supported by individual VLEs) are of relevance.

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