The Role of Virtual Learning Environments in the Online Delivery of Staff Development
Report 2: Delivering Staff and Professional Development Using Virtual Learning Environments
If we think back to the three models for online learning described by Robin Mason (content + support, wrap-around and integrated), we can see that different VLEs complement different models of course. For instance, WebCT and other similar VLEs are most suited to the delivery of 'content + support' courses because the critical requirement is to deliver the learning materials and provide opportunity for communication. The 'content + support' course model, with its emphasis on generic materials held and delivered centrally, is appropriate for delivery of 'training': software courses, procedure training etc. Communication on such courses is unlikely to involve in depth discussion of issues, but would instead focus on answering questions. There would be little requirement for participants on such courses to demonstrate their competence to other members of the group - so collaborative working facilities are less critical.
A typical 'wrap-around' course might involve a combination of theory and discussion, with all participants running through set learning materials with concurrent discussion of the wider implications of what they are learning. Establishment of a learner community is critical for such study and this type of course would require more robust communications tools than WebCT or Top Class would provide, whilst still not involving collaborative working. The Merlin environment, with its more developed community spirit provides an excellent medium for this type of learning.
Finally, 'integrated' courses, where considerable communication and collaborative working is essential should utilise a learner-centred environment such as CoMentor, COSE or Learning Landscapes. A typical integrated course might be one where participants utilise few if any set resources, instead concentrating on their own experience, and that of their peers. These collaborative learning environments provide all the facilities for them to construct their own resources and share their work easily with others. As the ultimate conclusion of such courses might be to build up a portfolio of work as 'evidence', a learning environment which values student input should be chosen.
How real are the above scenarios? Well, probably quite typical: it is important to remember that staff and professional development will cover a whole spectrum of course types, from pure training to post-graduate level research. The LOLA course included face-to-face components, despite being very much an online course, delivered at a distance.
In fact, organised and accredited staff and professional development as would occur in preparation for ILT membership might involve a lecturer going on all three types of course. This lecturer might gain IT literacy as part of a new lecturer program, gain associate membership of ILT through courses in developing teaching practice, and gain full membership through a more rigorous self-directed examination of teaching practice. Thus it is likely that a lecturer will (over a period of time) have to undertake course delivered in different VLEs.
Interoperability is a key here - it is conceivable that materials created (notes taken) during one online course could be directly relevant to a course delivered in a different environment. The IMS project (Instructional Management Systems ) seeks to address issues such as interoperability of learning environments by examining structures and publishing standards for the 'data types' involved - (how does the assessment system describe question types and how does it provide feedback, how does the student tracking system store information on how far a student has progressed through the course). Most of the VLEs described here are working towards being IMS compliant, which in theory would mean that a learner could seamlessly transfer to a different environment, taking their own 'preferences' with them.
For professional development delivered online, as with any learning, it is vital that the medium should not restrict the learning which is occurring. Nor should the technology be used just for the sake of it. Virtual Learning Environments help to manage the learning process which can be invaluable. Matching appropriate environments to specific course materials is the critical step. We should take this opportunity to design courses which exploit the flexibility offered by the Internet and online delivery. Whatever the learning environment, face-to-face contact will still be vital in creating courses which work. We aren't about to embark on a programme of development where everyone goes off and studies alone, instead we should attempt to use the technologies available to create real communities, committed to improving teaching quality and continued development.