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


Introduction - Delivering Learning Online

2 Online Education
Computers (and above all computers which are connected to the Internet or some other computer network) are increasingly being used as a medium for the delivery of teaching and training; supporting, supplementing or replacing face-to-face learning. The use of computers can offer significant advantages over traditional teaching, e.g. providing organised access to many types of resources, more flexible delivery structures and new learning opportunities. Critically however, many of the benefits offered by computers can be lost if the medium is not properly utilised. Careful implementation (and integration with existing teaching delivered face-to-face or via directed reading) is vital. This is also true for professional development and for this reason, the decision to use computers for delivery must be taken not just for reasons of economy or flexibility, but also justified on the basis of quality of the learning experience and suitability of the technology to the learning objectives.

We will first consider some general principles and issues of online learning, before considering how online staff and professional development differ from straightforward online learning and how this impacts the design and delivery of online courses and materials for professional development.

2.1 Why do people teach and learn online?
We have already referred (briefly) to the benefits of online delivery of education and training. Let us consider some of these benefits surrounding online delivery in more detail. We will then move on to examine some of the problems associated with online delivery.

  • Online delivery can be extremely flexible. When learning materials are delivered online, they need not be static as materials delivered on paper are. If errors are found they can be rectified quickly and easily. If new material needs to be added, then it can be integrated seamlessly rather than being delivered as a supplement. There is considerable scope for providing different paths through the same learning material, allowing courses to be tailored for different audiences. Similarly, within the same course structures, individual participants have considerable freedom to customise their own learning experience by choosing different blocks of learning material. This is especially true of materials which are highly modularised, and which support a task-based or resource-based approach to learning.
  • Online delivery is economical, scalable and efficient. Online materials are far cheaper to deliver than printed ones with distribution costs being minimal by comparison and printing costs being negligible (or rather any printing costs are passed directly on to the learner). When delivery is online, there is no difference between providing access (we will discuss support issues later) to 5 or 5,000 learners. In a face-to-face course, larger lecture theatres would have to be found. Furthermore, learners need not be within travelling distance of the host institution and need not undertake their learning at set times. Together, these factors mean that online delivery of learning can be a viable option when traditional delivery is not feasible.
  • Online material can be of superior quality. The very act of collecting together materials and resources for online delivery can significantly increase the quality of those materials as they should inevitably be revised and refined. In addition, a re-examination of the objectives of any learning experience can lead to improvements in the way that topic is taught.

This all paints a rather rosy picture of online learning. In reality, there a number of further factors to take into account. Consider the following.

  • Online learning is at best a substitute for face-to-face learning. In reality, online delivery is only utilised when face-to-face delivery is not possible, for any of the reasons already considered (constraints of time, place, economy etc.). The benefits (formal and informal of everyday contact with other learners can not be underestimated),
  • Online learning is actually rather inflexible. Being computer based actually places a number of restrictions on online learning. Although often billed as 'any time anywhere', the slogan forgets to mention, 'as long as you are sitting at a computer, (probably with a connection to the Internet, and certainly with some IT skills).
  • Good online learning is expensive to deliver. Although the general perception is that economies of scale, reduced overheads and savings on building costs or printing and distribution means that online delivery is cheaper than other modes of delivery, the reality is rather different. Merely providing materials and basic support for learning online is cheap, but it doesn't work. Dropout or non-completion rates are high and the general quality of learning is perceived as being poor, perhaps on a par with reading from a book (but not as convenient). Good online learning requires far more imaginative design of materials, and far more effort in supporting the delivery of learning. This involves tutors, and tutors cost money to employ.

2.2 What makes good online learning?
Good online learning relies on engaging the learner in the learning material. Merely using electronic delivery as a means of enhancing the presentation of learning material is not enough. This is because the face-to-face learner gets far more from (for instance) a lecture than merely the information that is written on the blackboard or spoken by the lecturer. In addition to this formal learning, they get the chance to meet and discuss issues with their peers, they have the opportunity to interrupt their lecturer when they fail to understand, they get an indication as to how quickly they should be progressing through the materials etc. This type of interaction also helps to reinforce learning, and catch misconceptions early. All these 'extras' have to be delivered alongside any online learning material.

Good online learning material must provide not just the knowledge or information, but also the opportunity for communication and reinforcement of learning through reflection, an inviting environment for collaborative activities, and clear information regarding the pacing of the course. Ideal online learning material should extend beyond being a virtual coursebook, to being a virtual classroom.

To create high quality online learning, the whole course must be re-visited and appropriate online technologies selected and uitlised to create a rich learning experience. Inevitably, this will involve re-engineering of materials to make them something more than 'online texts' (where the first thing the learner does is to print the materials and read them on the bus). Materials must be made flexible, modular, formalised (so that they may be re-used in different courses, or different instances of the same course). Considerable thought should be given to making materials interactive (where appropriate) and to structuring materials in such a way as to make them stimulating. As far as supporting the learner is concerned, face-to-face learning is normally delivered through a mix of lectures (one lecturer and dozens if not hundreds of learners) and tutorials (one tutor and a dozen learners). For online learning, lecture style materials may be largely or wholly unsupported (and delivered as self-study materials), but the vast majority of the 'learning' will occur in tutorial-sized (or smaller) groups. Thus in reality, the tutor:student ratio for online courses approaches tutorial level (1:10 or so), rather than that for a lecture. Although one tutor might be responsible for more than one tutor group, it is unlikely that individual tutors could support more than forty or fifty students effectively, both in terms of workload, and developing effective relationships.

Of course, we have been discussing a rather restrictive scenario: one where learning is delivered entirely online. It would be far more appropriate to consider online delivery as just one of many modes of delivery of learning, to be used to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the demands of individual courses. The following section describes some scenarios for learning which combine online delivery with face-to-face delivery of learning.

2.3 Forms which online learning can take
The term 'online learning' has come to represent a wide spectrum of learning scenarios, from courses which are supported in any way by learning technology to courses delivered entirely online (with no face-to-face contact between tutor and student, or between individual students). Within this, however, we can detect various types of online learning. Indeed, Robin Mason [8] has proposed a simple framework for categorising online courses, which works well and is described below. Her framework identifies three models of course: 'content + support', 'wrap-around' or 'integrated' in nature. A 'content + support' style course would be one for which the content might be delivered as booklets (perhaps distributed electronically) whilst support is delivered online. Assessment of the online components of the work is often trivial (in fact the online component may be non-compulsory) and could easily be dispensed with. As the content is separated from the support, it is possible to change the way in which support is provided whilst leaving the content unchanged. A 'wrap-around' course would be one where online interaction is far more important to the delivery of the course and where the delivery medium is wholly or primarily online, though perhaps still incorporating non-online elements such as face-to-face tutorials. Generally for a wrap-around course, participation in the online component would be essential for completion of the course. In a wrap-around model, course materials would still be static. Finally, an 'integrated' course would be one where the different teaching opportunities offered by online teaching would be exploited. Online communication, collaborative working, resource building etc., would all contribute to make a course fundamentally different to one held mainly or wholly face-to-face. In an integrated course, there is inherently less use of static learning material and more emphasis placed upon the establishment of a community of learners.

For staff and professional development, any of the three models above might be used. The integrated model, where most benefits of online delivery may be realised is more difficult to run. In contrast, the 'content + support' course, whilst easy to establish, brings only a few of the benefits of online learning. We will consider each type of course in the light of staff and professional development.

Content + Support Model
This model represents an evolution (in many cases a first step) of traditional face-to-face delivery. Instead of providing paper texts for reading, the course tutor may direct participants to resources held online. Mailing lists may be used to encourage discussion away from face-to-face meetings, though contribution to these would not normally be compulsory. This type of course model is not easily scaled however, as most support is dependent on face-to-face meetings. In terms of accredited professional development, there is scope for this type of model to be used with local staff development courses drawing on a central bank of accredited training materials available for use by staff at any institution. As highlighted, the online component (discussion lists etc.) performs a peripheral role and could be easily disposed of.

The Wrap-around Model
A wrap-around model could still make use of centrally written and held materials, but critically, some greater or lesser part of the learning process would come through online discussion and collaborative activities. This actually fits quite well with our view of professional development being more about reflection and discussion than learning by rote. An appropriate example here would be the delivery of staff development in the use of computers for teaching. Some of the course time would be devoted to delivery of centrally held training materials providing the fundamentals of using a particular computer technology or package. This could be delivered on site (in training rooms) or as self-study materials. In addition, discussion groups (working online, perhaps organised by subject, bringing staff from different institutions together) could be established to explore some of the pedagogic issues surrounding the use of computers as tools for teaching. A critical part of the course might involve the production of some learning material using the skills provided by the training materials, and ideas formulated in the discussion areas. This type of model would support learning on quite a large scale, with participants being assigned to small tutor groups where they form close working relationships with a small group of peers (chosen to be of similar background - subject and previous experience). The typical mix of face-to-face and self-study suggested above provides a reasonable degree of flexibility.

The Integrated Model
The integrated model relies heavily on active learning and collaborative working. There may be little in the way of formal learning materials (more likely there would be a list of web-based resources and well-defined course objectives); most of the benefit to any participant will come from critical assessment of their own and others' work. It could be argued that online delivery is perfect for this type of learning, as the interaction that must occur need only be asynchronous and not face-to-face (as in tutorial sessions). A more likely scenario would be that one participant might make a piece of material (or comments on it) available to others in the group via email or a shared collaborative workspace. Other members of the group would then comment on the work (or even annotate it using online tools), or submit their own pieces to complement it. For this type of highly collaborative learning, it is probably vital that participants in the same groups meet each other face-to-face as there is such an importance placed on developing a close working relationship. Once this is established though, face-to-face contact need not occur frequently.

Offline vs Online
I have used the term online learning to refer to learning which is undertaken via computer and made the assumption that the media for delivery of that learning will be a World Wide Web browser. One of the critical issues in learning online is whether learning materials (and any resources created by the participant or their fellow learners) can also be accessed offline. (i.e. without connection to the Internet). Requiring a connection for participation can be restrictive and costly, and if the cost is to be borne by the participant, then this may be a disincentive. On the other hand, for professional development, many participants will have free Internet access from their desk (or at least from their department) and so this may not be a problem. It would be normal for professional development to be carried out during normal working hours. Another advantage of online delivery is that, by holding all materials remotely, the participant is not tied to using a particular computer.

For some courses, an alternative approach would be possible, combining an online component (accessible only through an Internet connection) and course materials delivered separately. Offline materials could be provided on CD or even on paper, especially if they are static materials as may be used in a content + support style course.

As has been discussed already, professional development is a fundamentally interactive process. It is less about learning from textbooks, more about learning from others, by sharing experiences and by reflection upon your own experience. For this reason, the development process will require little in the way of reading pre-prepared materials, (though it may involve searching the Internet for resources) but will require facilities for communicating in a number of different modes. Also the system must allow the learner to publish his or her own materials. For this reason, although it would be desirable to be able to work offline, it is recognised that many activities will take place online. Of course, submissions can be prepared offline, then up-loaded when complete.

2.4 What are the special requirements of professional development?
Professional development differs in many ways from traditional learning and can take many forms. There are a number of critical issues that should be considered:

  • Motivation is different. Whilst the desire to succeed may be every bit as strong as with a traditional student, the everyday demands of work are always likely to take precedence over any staff development, so it is important to design courses that are flexible. Formal professional development (for instance as carried out towards gaining membership of the ILT) might be accompanied by relief from teaching duties. It is important to remember that many university teachers are also active researchers. The pressure to continue research will also make demands on this non-teaching time.
  • Learners will be part time and will almost certainly require a flexible timetable. Even if a group goes through a course as a single cohort, it is unlikely that that they will all be able to devote a set number of hours each week or even month. Rather, it may be prudent to run courses over longer periods, with few set times (for face-to-face sessions).
  • Examination will be atypical. As most professional development will require the participant to draw on their own experience, submissions for final assessment are more likely to be dissertation, projects or portfolios. A specific aim of these courses is likely to be to create an environment where staff can develop and practice skills concurrently. In this respect there should be considerable flexibility to allow participants to report on changes they are making in their own teaching (rather than requiring that they prepare pieces which are not relevant to their current teaching).
  • Peer learning and mentoring will play a significant role. Participants will learn by sharing good practice, examining failures etc. and it is vital that they have access to colleagues at all times. Online staff development may well be a powerful mechanism for bringing together new groupings of staff of similar types (who may feel isolated in small departments or institutions).

2.5 Helping People to Learn Online
Building a community of learners and creating an environment for learning is by no means a simple task. The flexible nature of online learning also means that it is easy to put off or do the absolute minimum (e.g. read the course materials, do the assessments, but miss the discussion sessions). If peer contact is lost, it can be easy to fall behind without noticing. This would not happen in a face-to-face course where regular contact with the lecturer or fellow learners would provide a natural pace to the course. Careful structuring of course materials, to provide this pacing, and careful design of collaborative tasks, learner groups and general support structures can all help to alleviate this significant problem. Let us consider some of the factors which will affect a learners enjoyment of their learning experience.

Availability of materials
In general, the learner should have ready access to all materials, to allow them to complete the course. This means providing materials in advance and retaining access to materials to allow participants to work at their own pace. Of course, it may be necessary to dictate routes through material - to ensure that access to some materials is only granted once earlier materials have been studied. Presentation of materials also extends to providing a clear and consistent look and feel to materials, to ensure that the learners can navigate efficiently through the materials. Subtle cues (like colour, or icons) should be used to lead the learner through materials. For materials where there is more than one route which may be followed, some sort of 'site map' can be used to allow the learner to orient themselves easily. The learner interface should be simple - a single password or single web address to remember etc.

Access to other learners
The participant should feel that they can communicate easily with other learners. This might be through email lists, or 'social' discussion forums (in addition to those set up for discussion of specific topics). For larger groups, it is impractical to expect all learners to get to know all others, so small sub-groups should be set up and maintained throughout the course. These might be allocated according to background, geographical location, level of previous experience etc. It might be useful (and critical for courses where collaborative working is important) to set up face-to-face events (either social or practical) at set points in the course. If face-to-face meetings cannot be arranged (and even if they can) then photographs and biographies of the learners can be very helpful. Some participants may not wish to post photographs of themselves, as this can prejudice other participants perception of them. For this reason it may be preferable to make display of photographs voluntary. Creating biographies (as student home pages) can be an initial task, designed to break the ice and allow participants to familiarise themselves with the learning environment. Participants will be much more at ease in discussion forums if they know (or at least can form a picture of) the person they are communicating with. On the other hand, anonymity is a powerful tool and for some discussion forums, it may be useful to permit anonymous posting as a means of encouraging candid discussion.

The online learner needs more support than a traditional learner, as they do not have regular informal contact with their peers. Simple problems, which could be solved by a quick answer during or after a lecture or by short discussions with peers, can be difficult to clear up in isolation. All the responsibility falls, by default, on the course tutor.

Providing sufficient support for the online learner (whether it is information about when completed assignments are due, clear procedures for reporting of technical difficulties or providing appropriate forums for asking questions about course materials) is critical to the eventual success of any course delivered online. Stable channels for delivery of information and support must be established. Support structures should be created which pre-empt all general enquiries perhaps through the use of a regularly updated course calendar or comprehensive course manual. This should be backed up with a group listing any new issues which arise. FAQs FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) may subsequently be incorporated into updated versions of course manuals. Email can also be a powerful for providing general and pre-emptive support. Even if a course does not have a set timetable, regular email messages can subtly pace the course, reminding the learner that they are not alone, and providing critical (and not so critical) information. This can also be a good way for the tutors to develop a relationship with their groups. Even if personal emails are not sent, email messages can be easily personalised (using a mail merge facility) to create individually addressed emails (Hello Stephen, Hello Judith etc., rather than Hello Class.)

For general support, it is acceptable to create FAQs, showing common questions and answers. To support the actual learning material however this may be inappropriate. Instead of being able to browse a list of questions and answers, it may be an important part of the learning process that the learners formulate questions regarding the course material themselves. For information that is not already in the course material, participants can be encouraged to ask questions either to the tutor (personally or in an email) or to their tutor group (through the course discussion forum). For this reason, it is important to create a forum for discussion, rather than a forum for answering questions: if the tutor answers all the questions all the time, any debate is stifled as the tutor gains too much authority. The use of more than one tutor in each discussion forum (though more effort for the tutors) can be helpful in creating an atmosphere of debate as no single voice has ultimate authority. Of course, encouraging participants to ask questions of their peers fits with our general concept of professional development, where the individual learners should be learning from themselves (through reflection) and each other as much as from a tutor or coursebook.

In this section we have looked at some of the advantages and disadvantages of online learning, discussed some of the ways in which online learning can be delivered and described some of the critical issues for effective delivery of online learning. The next section will survey some of the emerging tools for delivering and managing online learning; collectively termed Virtual Learning Environments.

Background - Delivering Learning Online

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