As a general principal, you must have a very good reason to deliver learning online. If the reason is that face to face learning is impractical, then the online solution should aim to provide a learning experience approaching that of a face-to-face course. in fact, I would go as far to say that online courses should endeavour to create a perfect learning experience - using the advantages of the technology to create courseware which is tailored to the student, and to the precise needs of the content. This is in stark contrast to the 'simplistic' concept of a VLE as a unified environment for the delivery of all types of learning material, regardless of content.
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 (a textbook can do that more efficiently) or even a virtual lecture theatre (television can do that), 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.
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 [available from http://www.aln.org/alnweb/magazine/vol2_issue2/Masonfinal.htm] 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.