The Role of VLEs in the Online Delivery of Staff Development

Virtual Learning Environments
There is no simple definition of what constitutes a Virtual Learning Environment. Strictly the term Virtual Learning Environment 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. for the purposes of the project we can 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. In fact, students won't see the point of the discussion forum, so don't just leave it in on the off chance that people will use it. If discussion facilities are to be used, make sure the purpose of the online discussion is made clear.
  • 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.

in addition to the survey of learning Environments carried out in the report, a number of other sites have examined and evaluated VLEs. e.g.

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Last updated by Colin Milligan, 22nd November 1999
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