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 Every once in a while I will get a simple question from a lecturer  that surprises me. Someone last week asked me “What is a Virtual Learning Environment?”. A bit surprising as all lecturers at my College are supposed to be using it. Anyway I tried to give a non technical answer and said ” basically its a website to support your teaching and has lots of interactive stuff you can do with your students”. I thought that maybe I needed to do a bit of reserach into this definition, so with the help of Dr Google I found this definition:

“A ‘Virtual Learning Environment’ (VLE) or ‘Learning Management System’ [is] designed to act as a focus for students’ learning activities and their management and facilitation, along with the provision of content and resources required to help make the activities successful.’” (JISC: 2008)

JISC’s definition of a VLE is a useful starting point in understanding its purpose in today’s educational settings. It makes the point that the VLE is designed for learning. The major providers of VLE’s, such as Blackboard and Moodle, have designed their products with the sole intention that they will be used for education purposes. It is not a product that has been designed for a commercial process and then been ‘converted’ to an educational use. It’s essential purpose is that it is a place, where teachers and students can come together and interact with one another to achieve a learning outcome. In most universities the VLE is part of the ‘Blended learning’ experience where the students  still have face to face lessons but increasingly this is augmented with online activities and tasks using the VLE.

 In addition, Pierre Dillenbourg (2000) makes some useful additional points about VLE’s. The virtual space is ‘explicitly represented’ and this can take a variety of forms. For example, Blackboard and Moodle (used widely in Higher Education) have a ‘textbook-like’ format where the student simply just clicks on a link to take then to the next page. In contrast, the Frontier VLE (used predominantly in primary and secondary education) has ‘virtual classrooms’ where the student will walk into one of these classrooms and pick up their handouts or other resources and even see and speak to other students in the room. He also makes the point that ‘students are not only active but actors’, this means that students can create their own content and resources in the VLE but they can also initiate  and shape different types of learning activities in the VLE, for example setting up their own wikis, journals or discussion areas. Finally, a VLE provides an area of ‘integration’, whilst most VLE’s have their own learning tools they can also be used to integrate any number of Open Educational Resources (OER’s), wikis, blogs, journals, discussion boards, email, voice boards that are so freely available on the web.

The practical benefits of using a institutional VLE is that there is usually good technical support for staff and students. In particular, there is usually good access to training, courses and online material and personal support from a dedicated VLE support team. The role of the learning technologist is a relatively new phenomenon in universities, providing advice and practical support to the teaching staff. This has allowed staff to experiment and use VLE’s to enhance the teaching and learning experience.  But the ‘flip side’ of this development is that VLE’s can restrict what the teacher can do with their students, “…..VLE’s can lack flexibility. They are fairly standardised, and teachers may find that certain things cannot be done in the way they intended. This is frustrating, and leads some teachers to reject VLE’s. Creative teachers do not want to be locked into fixed ways of designing their courses.” (Kear, 2011:175)

However, there use is wide spread in terms of UK Higher Education, which mainly consists of universities and HE provision in the FE sector. The 2010 Survey of Technology Enhanced Learning for higher education in the UK (USICA) surveyed 167 HE institutions across the UK. It reported that all Institutions were using a VLE and that the sector was dominated by two main types of VLE, Blackboard (40%) and Moodle (55%), “Commercial VLEs (Blackboard Classic, WebCT and Version 9) remain the most used main institutional VLE, but of the open source VLEs only Moodle has increased in usage. Moodle remains the most commonly used VLE platform overall. Adoption of other open source platforms is negligible across the sector” (USICA: 10).

So at the end of this litle bit of research would I have changed my answer?…probably not!

Some useful links:

JISC. (2008) Available at:    http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/elearning/tele/definitions.aspx [Accessed 31st May 2012].

Dillenbourg, P. (2000) Vitual Learning Environments. Available at http://tecfa.unige.ch/tecfa/publicat/dil-papers-2/Dil.7.5.18.pdf [Accessed 31st May 2012].

UCISA. (2010) 2010 Survey of Technology Enhanced Learning in higher education in the UK. Available at: http://www.ucisa.ac.uk/groups/ssg/~/media/groups/ssg/surveys/TEL%20survey%202010_FINAL.ashx [Accessed 31st May 2012].

References:

Kear, K. (2011). Online and Social Networking Communities. A Best practice Guide for Educators. Abingdon. Routledge.

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