The Role of Virtual Learning Environments in the Online Delivery of Staff Development
Report 2: Delivering Staff and Professional Development Using Virtual Learning Environments
3 Delivering Learning Online
We can list a core set of features which it is expected a VLE may seek to provide.
3.2 Types of Virtual Learning Environment
Alternative models of VLE have arisen, particularly within UK Higher education. These adopt a learner centred approach and provide a set of tools to allow the learner to construct (around themselves) an environment for effective learning, by collecting together and constructing a set of resources relevant to the way in which they have understood the learning material. Examples of this type of VLE include COSE  and Learning Landscapes .
An extension of this learner centred model can be found in environments which support collaborative learning. Collaboration may be synchronous (through the use of video conferencing, audio communication or white boards) or it may be asynchronous (through the provision of shared workspace). An example of this type of VLE is CoMentor . Finally, another two environments, the CVU project  and the Nathan Bodington building , merit discussion although not strictly VLEs. [TOP]
3.3 Survey of Virtual Learning Environments
Table 1: A range of Virtual Learning Environments
We will use WebCT as a benchmark, as it is an archetypal VLE, and because it has been discussed in detail in the first report of this project  and should be familiar to many readers. All the VLE approaches discussed here use the World Wide Web (WWW) to some extent, and almost all use it as their prime or sole method of delivery. The WWW is an incredibly flexible medium and the current accessibility of online learning materials is largely due to the advent of the WWW. However the WWW does have its limitations and it is important not to be restricted by it. [TOP]
3.4 Traditional VLEs
The course tools include support for asynchronous and synchronous communications. Synchronous communication is through the shared whiteboard and chat facilities, whilst asynchronous communication is supported as either one to one (email like) or one to many (as in the discussion forum, where individual students can be assigned to sub-groups). In WebCT, there is in-built (though rather rudimentary) support for assessment tests. This extends to multiple choice type questions, with automatic logging of scores and an opportunity for the test author to provide feedback for each answer. A calendar facility provides a convenient means of distributing announcements regarding the course, and the student can add notes to this calendar, either for their own private use, or made visible to the whole class.
Students have a presence in the WebCT environment through the provision of home pages which allows them to post a single web page of information about themselves or link to external pages. Students create their home pages through a rudimentary WYSIWYG editor, so no knowledge of web page creation is necessary. Students with these skills can write their own pages, gaining more control than if they used the in-built editor alone.
As it is web based, WebCT material can be linked to external resources, though this is not encouraged - elements within WebCT can be easily tracked, resources outside cannot; so for administrative reasons, the WebCT environment is structured to discourage the use of external resources. Course materials, though created as simple web pages are held as database objects, allowing WebCT to track access to individual pages by each student. Individual resources within WebCT are arranged linearly, and extra internal links are not encouraged (though not prohibited). Again this is to aid management of the access tracking process.
When a student logs in to the WebCT environment, they are given access to all courses on which they are enroled, together with access to the course discussion forum, calendar, other student's homepages etc. The course materials themselves are arranged linearly [as described before, see the left hand pane in Figure 1]. This provides a temptation to make the course material resemble an electronic textbook, with sections and sub-sections. For course authors, it is important to exploit the multimedia capabilities of the web, with pop up windows etc., rather than just create pages of text or text and pictures.
Although present, the communication tools are not directly available from within the course material. This makes discussion of the learning material a less natural process - a student might read a section of text and not realise that there was a discussion about that page and its contents in the course discussion forum. In contrast, a facility for making notes is available, and any notes made are tied to a particular page, providing them in context for future reference.
Figure 1: Example screen from WebCT, showing Linear Structure
3.4.2 Top Class
The creators of TopClass have invested considerable effort in creating a set of authoring tools which are simple to use, allowing content to be created quickly by non-experts. For instance, a set of 'wizards' are available which can take Microsoft Word and PowerPoint Documents and convert them automatically for presentation within TopClass (they are in fact adaptations of the Internet Assistants previously made available by Microsoft). Unfortunately, this rather misses the point: a word-processed file designed originally to be printed out and read has not been designed for reading on screen, and as such won't make for appealing electronic learning material. Why not provide the original document (or an Adobe Acrobat PDF version of it), and allow the student to choose whether to view online or print out? By presenting the document in its original form it is kept as a distinct resource, rather than lost into the learning material.
WebCT and TopClass provide a simplistic environment to manage the learning process. All the tools for delivering learning online are present, but only just. These packages do succeed in a modest aim to provide support tools for online learning, however the compromises taken to allow these tools to work together is detrimental to the overall worth of the package. As a result, WebCT and TopClass excel as delivery mechanisms and are able to track students' progress through learning materials and provide useful feedback to the tutor/administrator. But they are poor for assessment and fail in communication, an important feature. WebCT and TopClass will be useful in the delivery of 'training' for self-study. Anyone wishing to use them for activities that require extensive communication may well see their limitations.
PIONEER provides simple to use student management tools available on an extra set of menus seen only by tutors. Students can set their own preferences for the environment as well as update their own information. Organisation of the learning material is simplistic (as with WebCT), but the initial aim of PIONEER was to aid delivery of material within Further Education where materials are traditionally objective driven and naturally simple in structure. Within PIONEER, navigation is particularly good, with colour coding and standard layouts making the structure of the materials transparent and navigation intuitive. This can be critical for online learning where guidance is not immediately available.
PIONEER also offers a reflective log, a modified discussion area where individuals can post their thoughts on a particular topic then invite others to respond, or add further ideas themselves. Although developed in the Further Education sector, PIONEER is being marketed as a commercial product, and the release of a second version (PIONEER 2) is expected in late 1999. PIONEER is being used for training and professional development in the Scottish School of Further Education (SSFE) and the Glasgow Telecollege Network (GTN).
First, Merlin is far more attentive to the benefits of communication (the initial implementation of Merlin was actually for teaching languages). The Merlin environment makes use of Real Audio streaming  as an efficient and simple means of allowing users to create audio messages. Participants are encouraged to 'post' an audio portrait of themselves. In fact the same technology could extend to the recording of video for streaming. Real audio is also used throughout the environment, to provide commentaries for presentations, feedback on discussion etc. Many users of online conferencing systems bemoan the impersonal climate of the text-based bulletin board. Using audio (sparingly - it could easily be overused) can alleviate this and personalise the community feeling within any course. Of course there are specific implications in the use of extra technology such as audio files. Participants may need to upgrade their machines and install extra software (which may in turn mean that they always have to work from a specific computer).
Second, the Merlin environment provides explicit support for the tutor to provide specific pathways through learning material, freeing them from an imposed structure. This freedom can be critical in tailoring courses to the needs of the student. Merlin encourages synchronous communication and has a 'who's online' area to allow individual students to page others on the course. Thereafter they can communicate via the chat facility, or post audio messages and 'virtually' converse. With its sense of community, Merlin 'feels' more like an environment for learning, than simply an environment for training.
Whilst Merlin tries to use audio to bring alive the communication process and make the learning experience a more communal experience, it is still firmly centred around the learning material. The next section describes VLEs which use a different approach.
3.5 Learner-centred and Collaborative Environments
3.5.2 Learning Landscapes
Although fundamentally an extended email system, the Learning Landscape client contains a rudimentary web browser and all materials are created as web pages. As external WWW resources are identified, individual students can add links from their personal Learning Landscape.
Both COSE and Learning Landscapes recognise the importance of activity in learning and each present environments which are ideally suited to task based learning approaches or methods of online teaching which encourage communication, collaboration and a significant amount of input from the student. Each of these environments provide options for access to web-based learning materials and courses, though for the most part, tracking of the student's use of these resources is poor. It could be argued that the student tracking offered by WebCT etc. is of little practical use, especially in an area such as professional development. Neither COSE nor Learning Landscapes have built in Assessment tools, making it difficult to collect information on how the student is performing. Objective type testing at this level of professional development is likely to be used only for formative assessment. In this respect, the stand alone assessment tools provided by CVU , CASTLE , and WebTest , can be easily implemented, with the only loss being slightly limited integration (e.g. no link between student records and assessment test scores).
A final feature missing from both Learning Landscapes and COSE is navigation and pacing information. These environments rely wholly on the tutor to provide information about how the student should be progressing, and this in turn requires a commitment to provide feedback on their progress. This is permissible, as the ultimate success of the environment will depend on the interpersonal relationships built up between students, their peers and their tutors.
Although navigation is also lacking in these environments this should not be a significant issue. For the most part, students will be creating their own structure - so navigation will be intuitive. Within individual sections of learning material, good web page design and careful integration of course tools (course discussion, guidance etc.) should be sufficient.
Learning Landscapes and COSE clearly provide a less structured approach to learner management. They seek to enrich the learning experience, leaving construction of knowledge to the learner. This is in contrast to some of the other VLEs, which primarily seek to aid delivery or administration. COSE and learning Landscapes provide the type of learning environment which would be perfect for online professional development, with emphasis on the learner.
There is an intrinsically synchronous nature to CoMentor. Chat facilities are always present on screen (in a frame at the bottom of the web browser window) as are details of other students online. For synchronous communication, role-playing is possible - the original philosophy students could choose to adopt the persona of specific philosophers and argue from their standpoint. Similar activities would work within a professional learning environment. The group work area is where CoMentor excels. With powerful tools to allow students to organise themselves into individual (ad hoc) discussion groups for individual topics. Sharing of resources is simple and students can annotate each other's work within the shared environment.
Aside from the use of the course notice board, there is little opportunity for pacing or moving on the course. But in a way, CoMentor is less an environment for the delivery of learning material and far more of a collaborative workspace. This is borne out by the apparent emphasis on synchronous communication.
3.6 Home-made Environments
3.6.2 Nathan Bodington Building
The NBB is an example of how a simple metaphor and simple idea can be scaled up easily. By creating their own structures, simple discussion and assessment facilities and security, the authors have been able to tailor the system carefully to the needs of the University of Leeds. Like CVU, the Nathan Bodington Building isn't an off the shelf software solution, though it does highlight the benefit of tailoring (or creating, if the skills are available) tools to specific purposes.
The nine systems described above highlight the range of Virtual Learning Environments available. There is no single software solution for delivery and management of online learning. Rather, the delivery mechanism should be matched carefully to the type of learning it is mediating. The final section will revisit some of the critical issues governing the delivery of staff and professional development, and provide some general guidance. Before this, we will consider one further real life example of delivering staff and professional development online.
3.7 LOLA: Learning about Open Learning
In 1999, the Institute for Computer Based Learning at Heriot-Watt University wrote and delivered a course called LOLA (Learning about Open Learning ) as web-based open learning delivered to 400 participants throughout Eastern Europe. All participants on the course were from post-secondary education and the professional development delivered would utilise ten UK-based tutors, each responsible for forty students (in groups of around 10, grouped by country). In addition, there was a local co-ordinator for each country involved. Tutors met their students once, for a workshop at the beginning of the course. Thereafter, all communication was through email, mailing lists and the course discussion forum, although the participants in each country did attend further workshops and were of course able to meet separately. The course lasted six months, with assignments due at approximately monthly intervals, allowing considerable leeway for students to work at their own pace whilst still being a cohort-based course. The course delivery medium was WebCT, which suited the largely linear structure of the course (a paper copy of the course was also distributed, though all support and communication was carried out online). During planning of the course, it was recognised that the in-built communications facilities offered by WebCT were not sufficient to support the type of discussion expected to occur during the course. As a result, WebBoard discussion software  was used in place of the inbuilt discussion forum. This ability to replace components is in fact a significant strength of WebCT and is not possible in many other environments.