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


Online Education - Discussion

3 Delivering Learning Online
3.1 What is a Virtual Learning Environment?
As we have seen, it is critical to create an environment for online learning that is simple to use and easy to access. Various software packages have been developed to manage the different elements of online learning. These are often referred to as Virtual Learning Environments (though various alternative terms are used interchangeably - for instance: learning management tools, online learning frameworks, collaborative learning environments, web course design tools, online learning environments etc). There is no simple definition of what constitutes a Virtual Learning Environment. Strictly the term VLE should be used to describe software which resides on a server and is designed to manage or administer various aspects of learning; delivery of materials; student tracking; assessment etc. In this respect, a Virtual Learning Environment is essentially a database of objects, creating tailored web pages on request. Although there are various software packages that seek to control the entire learning process, there is no reason to presume that individual tools could not be brought together to create a loose (more flexible) environment for online learning. Here, I will adopt a broad definition of VLEs, considering not just single package solutions, but any attempt to create a unified environment for learning.

We can list a core set of features which it is expected a VLE may seek to provide.

  • Delivery and management of course materials,
  • Access Control: usually password based,
  • Administration: student tracking, collation of marks, record of progress,
  • Time-tabling facilities: some explicit means of pacing materials,
  • Assessment: usually formative (e.g. for self assessment),
  • Communication: on various levels, one to one, one to many, synchronous and asynchronous,
  • Personal space for participants to exchange and store materials,
  • A resource base: less formal than learning materials, perhaps an FAQ or database accessed by keyword search,
  • Support facilities: for instance, online help about the environment.
  • Maintenance tools for creating and updating the learning materials.

Other Factors
When using Virtual Learning Environments to deliver and manage online courses, it is important to remember a number of external factors which will greatly influence the format of an online course. It is vital to match the features of the VLE to the needs of the course. Some external factors might include:

  • Delivery mode: whether fully online or part face-to-face, part online, this will greatly influence the use of communication, and pattern of use for online materials. If there is a significant face-to-face component, it may be unnecessary to have a discussion forum.
  • Tutor support: depending on the level of support which is to be provided, it is important to make sure that this is provided 'in the right place, at the right time',
  • Class structures: collaboration, mentoring, projects and portfolios, are all powerful ways of encouraging learning, but the choice of VLE can greatly influence the natural communication avenues between students.
  • Length of the course: online courses work best when there is a flexible timetable - VLEs can be used to pace the learners properly.
  • Cost: most VLEs store the learning material as data in a database (this helps with tracking etc.) rather than web pages. As a result, students must be 'online' (and incurring phone call charges?) to access the materials. [TOP]

3.2 Types of Virtual Learning Environment
There are now many commercial Virtual Learning Environments, all of which offer a similar set of features. These VLEs typically place the learning material at the centre of the system and provide a set of tools which are of use as the learner progresses though that material. In other words, these systems manage the delivery of the learning material. Examples of such commercial packages include WebCT [9], TopClass [10] and Lotus Learning Space [11]. Within the United Kingdom , a few other packages have emerged which adopt a more educational approach. Examples include Merlin [12] and PIONEER [13].

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 [14] and Learning Landscapes [15].

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 [16]. Finally, another two environments, the CVU project [17] and the Nathan Bodington building [18], merit discussion although not strictly VLEs. [TOP]

3.3 Survey of Virtual Learning Environments
There are now tens if not hundreds of software packages which claim to be viable Virtual Learning Environments. Rather than survey all of them, I have tried to examine a representative cross section of different types. There are many bodies and projects which have carried out generalised comparisons and reviews of VLEs and anyone requiring this type of analysis should refer to web sites such as "the node" [19] and the Asynchronous Learning Network [20] or the Canadian Centre for Curriculum Transfer and Technology [21]. For a more pedagogy-based survey of available VLEs, the JTAP report, "A Framework for Pedagogical Evaluation of Virtual Learning Environments" [7] should be helpful. I have chosen to consider the following as representative of the range of VLEs available [Table 1]:

Traditional VLEs WebCT, Top Class
Extensions Merlin, PIONEER
Learner centred Learning Landscapes, COSE
Collaborative coMentor
Home-made CVU, Nathan Bodington
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 [5] 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
3.4.1 WebCT
WebCT (Web Course Tools [9]) provides a single environment for the delivery of learning material and management of learners. It has become popular for delivery of course materials within Scottish HE and is in use in at least 6 HE institutions within Scotland, as well as being used for the delivery of the TALiSMAN Online Study Centre (as described in [5]). WebCT provides an entirely web based interface for course designers, administrators, tutors as well as the student. Course designers have a number of tools at their disposal and they may add these to the student view as desired.

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 Top Class virtual learning environment [10] addresses the same issues as WebCT and provides the same range of facilities. Although it provides a slightly more attractive interface, its adherence to a linear structure is perhaps more restrictive than WebCT's. Whilst all learning ultimately does have a linear structure, it is widely accepted that learning requires construction and this benefits from non-linear structuring of learning material. Indeed the opportunities to move from a linear structure afforded by the Hypertext nature of the WWW has been one of the main reasons why educationalists have been attracted to the WWW as a teaching medium.

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.

The PIONEER Virtual Learning Environment [12] was originally developed at MEDC, a learning technology support unit for the Scottish Further Education sector and subsequently developed by SCET, the Scottish Council for Educational Technology. The VLE has similar features to WebCT and TopClass, including discussion, chat, whiteboard, calendar, and assessment area. Students can take notes in an electronic notepad.

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).

3.4.4 Merlin
Whilst bearing similarities to packages like WebCT and TopClass, the Merlin learning environment, developed at the University of Hull, provides significant benefits over these VLEs, at little cost to flexibility.

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 [22] 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
Why not make the student the centre of the environment and construct (for each individual student) a set of tasks, links resources, submissions, communications routes, which will allow them to construct their own knowledge of teaching and learning - bringing significant input from their own experience? Instead of creating learning materials, the emphasis of learner-centred environments is on providing resources, which the course participants then organise (modify), add to and share. An extension of this model is to create environments primarily for students to work together.

3.5.1 COSE
The COSE learning environment developed at the University of Staffordshire [14] tries to do just that. This Virtual Learning Environment is a Java-based client which works entirely within a web browser. In contrast to the VLEs described previously, COSE places the student (rather than the materials) at the centre of the course and provides them with a set of tools to construct their knowledge around learning material which is presented as 'pagesets'. Tutors and Learners can produce pagesets which can then be published and made available for viewing by all or a sub-group of students (and other tutors). These pagesets may include local resources, links to external materials, assignments etc. The general tools provided resemble file management tools and concentrate on ensuring easy organisation of information within tasks. Other tools provide access to course discussion forums, email facilities and, for the tutor, management tools. There are procedures for passing control of items in the COSE structure - when an assignment is submitted etc. Any file format can be passed through COSE, though HTML is the native format. Tutors (content creators) are encouraged to keep the HTML simple. As we discussed in the section on TopClass, sometimes it is better to leave the information you are presenting in its raw state rather than 'over-engineer' it.

3.5.2 Learning Landscapes
The Learning Landscapes Virtual Learning Environment, developed at the University of Bangor [15], takes a similar approach to COSE, by providing an efficient means to organise resources. Learning Landscapes differs from COSE in that it uses a stand-alone client, rather than residing within a web browser. In fact, the concept of Learning Landscapes is closer to that of an email client rather than a web browser. Learning Landscapes are structures of resources and students which have been organised by a tutor. These are made available by the tutor as modules within an individual student's client. This approach actually supports offline working rather well. Each time the learner opens their Learning Landscapes client, the content is dynamically updated rather like checking and downloading email. The connection to the Internet can then be broken, allowing the learner to work without incurring any cost.

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 [23], CASTLE [24], and WebTest [25], 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.

3.5.3 CoMentor
CoMentor was developed initially at the University of Huddersfield [16] to support final year philosophy students - to provide an online learning space for the management of resources, communication and collaboration. Students on the course met face-to-face and the CoMentor environment provided the opportunity for these students to effectively share resources and work collaboratively. The CoMentor environment uses a graphic metaphor of a series of linked rooms, the individual work room, the group work area, and the resource area, all linked to the entrance hall with communal facilities such as the course notice board. Extra rooms can be added as required. The individual work area contains resources for organising work within the system, whilst the group work area provides support for collaborative working and communication. The resource area contains individual learning resources made available by course tutors. The system can log use of the system, though as it is primarily a collaborative working environment, user tracking is of little importance. CoMentor is in fact MOO-based (MOO stands for Multi user dungeon, Object Oriented), so when you move to a new room, a message of the form 'x has now entered ...' appears on the screen, rather like a role playing game. Although the interface is idiosyncratic, the different parts of the environment have a very familiar feel, with simple tools at hand.

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
3.6.1 Clyde Virtual University (CVU)
A Virtual Learning Environment can be created from many smaller parts and such a system provides a very flexible approach to delivery. The Clyde Virtual University project [17], funded under the Use of MANs initiative by SHEFC (the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council) was initially set up to re-purpose existing CBL materials for web delivery. The original materials were being used in existing courses at institutions within the ClydeNet Metropolitan Area Network. Alongside the new resources created, it made sense to provide support for communication, collaboration and assessment separately from the learning material. Simple tools were chosen or developed and incorporated into a single, web-based environment. Access to the materials was restricted to computers physically located on networks at the participating institutions. When new materials are developed and placed within the CVU environment, the various tools are utilised as required. Thus a course might make use of the HyperNews [26] discussion forum, whilst another might make use of the integrated Assessment Engine [23]. CVU does lack student tracking and administration features, and these would be difficult to include in a system such as this where content is flexible. However these facilities are of less importance in professional development type courses.

3.6.2 Nathan Bodington Building
Another 'home-made' solution is the Nathan Bodington Building (NBB) at the University of Leeds [18]. This is a part of the University of Leeds web site and is the central store of teaching and learning resources, learning support tools and administration facilities for online learning at the University. As the name suggests, a building metaphor is used, with a reception area and stairs leading to different floors housing different schools/departments of the University. Within an individual floor, different corridors would represent different courses and different rooms correspond to different resources for a given course. Resources may be static (e.g. web pages), or interactive (e.g. discussion areas or assessment tests). The basement of the building is given over to Teaching and Learning Support, and it is here that course authors find tools to help them mount their material online. Navigation is clear, taking advantage of the building metaphor. Small icons representing the various levels (reception, floor, corridor, room) are visible on every page, and the learner can jump to any other level in a single step. Access control is provided with each student at the university having a unique login. Access to individual course pages is mediated through this single username and password.

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
It may help us to consider another example of an online staff and professional development course. This falls somewhere between being a 'course + content' style course and a 'wrap-around' course.

In 1999, the Institute for Computer Based Learning at Heriot-Watt University wrote and delivered a course called LOLA (Learning about Open Learning [27]) 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 [28] 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.

Online Education - Discussion

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