Virtual learning environments (VLEs) are used widely in universities, typically to deliver learning materials and other types of content. The use of a VLE as a “content repository” is a popular choice – indeed, sometimes the VLE is used as nothing more than a “filing cabinet” to provide administrative information to students, such as course handbooks, regulations and other documentation (JISC 2016). Such an approach does not take advantage of the digital teaching and learning tools within the VLE. The situation is compounded in institutions adopting a strong face-to-face approach, since students are on campus and in regular contact with each other and their lecturers. In this paper we analyse the effectiveness of using a VLE as a content repository for blended learning in undergraduate and graduate study at a research-intensive university in the UK that has a distinctive model of individual and small-group teaching. This will be contrasted with some examples of an alternative “learning pathway” design that attempts to optimise the use of pedagogical tools in the VLE, with the aim of enriching the student learning experience. Early ideas about learning pathways emerged in the 1990s in the fields of multimedia and “interactive courseware”; such pathways enable the learner to “construct personalized transitions between the information to be accessed and their own cognitive structures” (Jih 1996: 367). In our context, a learning pathway refers to a tailored collection of learning activities designed to allow the learner to make choices and build knowledge progressively.
In working with staff users of the VLE and deciding which approach is most appropriate, we are guided by a user engagement model (adapted from Bonk et al. 2000): web-supported; web-enhanced; and web-dependent. Our approach considers a number of factors, including the level of study, the type of course, the subject material, and individual needs and preferences. In practice, the conceptual model contributes to decision-making about adopting a preferred level of engagement.
We are conducting a project to fast-track the development of VLE sites across 20 academic departments. The aim is to deliver an enhanced and consistent student learning experience, and a satisfying experience for staff. We present findings from focus groups and student usability testing sessions. Working with staff in small groups we analysed barriers encountered in engaging with the affordances of the institutional VLE. The main finding is that the VLE continues to be used mainly as a content repository due to a low student-staff ratio and frequent face-to-face interaction. The institution’s nascent Digital Education Strategy aims to integrate digital tools into the learning and teaching process, and encourage academic staff to consider using the VLE as a learning pathway to complement their teaching practice.
VLE, content repository, learning pathway, student experience, usability
Bonk, C. J. et al. 2000. “A ten-level web integration continuum for higher education”. In B. Abbey (Ed.), Instructional and Cognitive Impacts of Web-Based Education (pp. 56-77). Hershey, PA: Idea Group.
Jih, H. J. 1996. “The impact of learners pathways on learning performance in multimedia Computer Aided Learning”. Journal of Network and Computer Applications 19 (4): 367-380.
Jisc. 2016. “Use of VLEs with digital media”.