The diagram below is intended to give some historical perspective to learning theory and the development of educational technology. The starting point is the late eighties when TEL started to enter mainstream education in the UK higher education. Most of the new technological developments up to the 1990s remained limited in scope. It was really the development of CDRoms that enabled mass scale technology enhanced learning to take a foothold. The development of the internet and email had a significant impact in the 1990s which in turn led to the first VLE’s to evolve. This technological shift enabled a possibility that teaching could begin to shift from a teacher directed (Instructivist) to a more student centered (Constructivist) way of teaching. So that, VLE’s that were developed in these early years and the people who developed these systems were largely inspired by constructivist approaches to pedagogy. For example Boddington (developed at Leeds University), Colloquia (at Bangor University) and COSE at Staffordshire University) (Stiles, 2007) and Moodle (Dougiamas, 1998) used novel interfaces and were student centered in their approach.

Figure 2.“A Vague track of more recent times” Su White (2011).

 However, whilst the developers of VLEs were inspired by constructivist ideas this does not fully explain their ‘take up’ on such a wide scale in most HE establishments. The rise of the VLE fitted the ‘Managerial revolution’ that hit during the late 80 and 90s, especially in the UK.  Higher Education along with the whole education sector became obsessed with the idea that targets and league tables would provide the incentive to raise quality and improve educational standards ‘throughout the land’. So in turn, VLE’s became a standardised system to manage and market the educational system. It was easy for VLE’s to produce quantifiable data on their usage. Therefore its usage became measureable and understandable to managers who wanted to quantify their achievements and target. So quite ofen VLE’s were set up in a University or College by the senior management and their use and subsequent training was imposed on the teaching staff. The teaching staff often felt that this technology was just another imposition on the busy lives and in some instances cases led to feelings of resentment and frustration.

Teacher centered (Instructivist)

 The teacher centered model of education still remains dominant in most areas of higher education in the UK. In this model, knowledge is transferred from the expert teacher to the ‘open vessel’ of the receptive student in the lecture hall or seminar. Even today the lecture remains the dominant mode of communication on most courses. The early development of what became behavioural theory was heavily influenced by such psychologists as John Watson and more importantly B.F Skinner in the 1950s and 60s. Here the learner remains passive as the lecturer must direct the learning process. Students have to learn the ‘correct response’ as learning is about remembering information and seeing existing patterns of information. It also implies that learning requires an external reward, such as a grade or achieving the qualification. If this is such a dominant mode of pedagogy in face-to-face delivery of courses it is not surprising that these practices exist in the online world too.

 There has now been two decades where researchers have sort to evaluate the ways VLE’s have been used. Early research evaluating the impact of VLE’s on learning and teaching found that they do not alter the way academics teach. Their methods of teaching remain the same (Newland, 2003). Increasingly VLEs use seemed to be “driven by content delivery (course information, lecture notes, past exam papers, etc) and ‘e-administration’ (calendars, student email, assignment dropboxes). “Whilst useful, this was not the pedagogical transformation that many of us had hoped for” (Dalziel, 2007) .

Students centered (constuctivist)

 However the since the 1990s the possibilities for a more student centered approach to TEL has increased as the VLE has changed and developed. Blackboard, like most VLE’s contains numerous features and tools. Ros O’Leary (2003) in his guide to VLE’s divides these features up into six main headings: Communications between tutors and staff (discussion boards, chat rooms, email etc), Self-assessment and summative assessment (multi-choice questions and automated marking) Delivery of learning resources and materials (Lecture notes, video clips, links etc), Shared work group areas, Support for students and Student Tools ( individual web pages, drop boxes for assignments etc). Since this guide was written, VLE’s have incorporated Web 2.0 technology which has further increased the range of tools that Blackboard now has.

Web 2.0 technology can be defined as the new tools that facilitate online communication and interactivity. Users can now intact with one another using different types of social media. This marks a shift away from viewing content passively to the user engaging and creating new content themselves. Examples of Web 2.0 include social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter, Blogs, Wikis, photo and video sharing sites. These have now been incorporated into VLE’s (and labled ‘Mashups’ in the Blackboard VLE)

As the technology has changed the importance of more Constructivist and student centered learning theory has increased. Constructivism is an epistemology that says learning happens in a social context and that humans gain knowledge from the interaction of people and the environment that the learning takes place. The major theorists, like Piaget or Vygotsky agree that learning is an active social process where there is interaction between the teacher/ lecturer and the student. Learning is constructed from what the student already knows and that is enhanced where the students share their experiences and work collaborately together with the teacher facilitating that learning. Social Contructivists, such as  Vygotsky goes further in this with his notion of the ‘zone of proximal development’ where students should be challenged with tasks that relate to their current skill levels but also go beyond their current level of proficiency.

Diana Laurillard’s Conversational Framework (2002) updates and sets the social constructivists theory in the digital context. She argues that there are four main parts of learning and teaching. Firstly, ‘discussion’ between the teacher  and the students, mainly at a descriptive level. Secondly, ‘Interaction’ again between the teacher and the students which is done through tasks organised by the teacher; thirdly, ‘Adaption’ of the learning environment by the teacher and action by the student, and finally ‘Reflection’ by both the student and the teacher on their own performance. Phillips and Luca (2000) extended this framework to include interactions between students. In others words the learning environment is an area where students can discover their own learning.

However, since the publication of Laurillard’s theory there have been various criticisms labelled at it. Mainly, there is a lack of attention to the management of learning by the teacher. Also the need for negotiation between the student and the teacher is not smooth and uncomplicated process. Other limitations include the application of the Conversational Framework to online group work, although “In more recent work, student collaboration issues are acknowledged by Laurillard, but she believes that there is a need for further research” (Heinze, 2006:4).

As more research is done into the teaching and learning by the use of VLE’s such as Blackboard (Kramarski and Mizrachi, 2006; Saurers and Walker, 2004, Rodriques, 2006, Lobel. 2005)) there is a realisation that there are positive benefits to a more student centered perspective. Kramarski and Mizrachi’s (2006) study of secondary school maths classes found that students who engaged in online discussions outperformed their face to face counterparts in maths and real life tasks. Saurers and and Walker (2004) looking at business writing classes and Rodrigues, et al (2006) investigation into a biology class found similar results. Furthermore Lobel, et al (2005) discovered that students interacted more directly with one another rather than the classroom where they tended to relate more with the tutor.

 One critical success factor for establishing a functioning VLE is usability, relating to the ease by which the VLE can be used by staff and students is also an important factor in assisting and increasing collaborative learning. Bradford et al’s 2007 study of Blackboard highlights the fact that it has been criticised for being hard to learn. They quote a 2003 survey of staff and students at the University of Wisconsin who found the Blackboard VLE harder to use than they expected. Faculty members found the VLE “time-consuming and inflexible”. Cole Lewis’ (2006) study, based on a UK university found similar problems regarding usability for some its students. Although this evidence is contradicted by a UK study of first year Business Studies students who state that “‘usability’ is confirmed as the most favoured feature of Blackboard VLE…” (Roberts 2002) It must also be noted that these studies were based on a earlier version of Blackboard (Version 5.5) which has changed considerably in recent years.

 Yet there are still many who are sceptical of the effectiveness of VLE’s. There are some barriers for the VLE to help develop a student centered learning perspective, it lacks the opportunity for face-to face interaction and socialising which develops trust (Gibson and Manuel 2003) and therefore some individuals may prefer to operate on their own. Also,

“The Blackboard learning management systems provide mechanisms for students to interact directly with each other and the instructor. But these platforms have yet to move beyond fairly basic communication features. What has changed is the instructor’s ability to track student’s use of the class Web site; number of messages posted, number of messages read, and how many times various pages or sections are accessed” (Coopman 2009). Mullen (2002) goes further and argues that whilst this may seem to be a measure of how much students are participating in the VLE it is in fact recording something different, simply whether they are using the course or not. “Students are treated not as learners, as partners in an educational enterprise, but as users”, Mullen (2002).

From a much more critical standpoint, Rose (2004) argued in her critique of VLE’s that their structure, layout and tools used to teach the students is not value free. She states that “there is no acknowledgement of the fundamental transformations that must be wrecked upon content imported into platforms such as ….Blackboard, nor of the fact that the very structure of these systems constrains instructional possibilities and decision-making”,  Sandvig (2006) develops this point saying that once the structure is built into a VLE it becomes very difficult to change it.

One recent study on the evaluation of Blackboard’s use provided some interesting results. Yaneske and Bingham ‘s 2006 study of second year multimedia students at the University of Teeside found that mature students were shown to have a preference for face to face classroom techniques (which is not surprising) but their research also revealed that lecturers and students expectations of Blackboard were mismatched with each other and with its intended usage. In terms of usability both staff and students mentioned the need for a less confusing user interface. Students were also frustrated that not all modules and their resources were available on Blackboard. Also students had no single point of access for course related information (individual exam time tables, exam results etc). Staff felt that Blackboard did not effectively enable them to implement online tasks which prompted collaborative approaches to learning. The survey results suggest that some students use blackboard inappropriately as a distance learning tool with 22% of students saying that Blackboard enhanced learning by allowing them to work anytime, anywhere without the need of a tutor. The courses were not designed as distance learning courses with materials provided online intended to support face to face methods, not replace them. The finding suggest that both staff and students could benefit from being prepared in how to use blended learning and also in assessing how effective the technology has been.

In terms of assessment in In Higher Education there is a large body of evidence that formative feedback has an impact on the learners experience (Black and William, 1998; Knight and Yorke, 2003; Hounsell 2003). However, over the last 10 to 15 years larger student numbers, increased modualisation and increased diversity have all affected formative assessment. The knock on effect of these changes is that there an been an increased emphasis on summative assessment as opposed to formative assessment, a reduction in the times when students can meet lecturers individually and less time for lecturers to mark and give feedback to their students. It has also meant that both students and lecturers are increasingly concerned with increasing grades rather increasing the degree and type of learning that is taken place. The two are not necessarily the same thing! (Gibbs 2006).

David Nichol’s article (2006) on increasing success rates on first year courses clearly shows how learning technologies can be used to increase and redesign formative assessment. Based on the Re-engineering Assessment Practices project (REAP) it highlights two case studies, one in Psychology and the other in Mechanical Engineering and shows how a standard tool available in every VLE (a discussion board) can provide many opportunities to increase feedback both from the lecturers and from peer and self assessment. It article goes further by discussing the possibility to strengthen learner autonomy and further relax teacher control when discussing the use of electronic voting systems and the use of multiple-choice questions within the VLE.


Dalziel J. (2007) ‘Building communities of designers’ in Rethinking Pedagogy for a Digital Age, 2007 Abindon Routledge.

Heinze, A. (2006) The Theory and Practice of the Conversational Framework. Available at www.ece.salford.ac.uk/proceedings/papers/ah_06.rtf

Laurillard, D. M. (2002) Rethinking university teaching: A conversational framework for the effective use of learning technologies (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

Newland, B. (2003) Evaluating the Impact of a VLE on Learning and Teaching. Virtual Learning Environment Awareness Conference, Online Strategy Implementation Group (The University of York, England).

Stiles,  M. 2007. Death of the VLE?: a challenge to a new orthodoxy. Available at: http://uksg.metapress.com/content/55k7732dthrq6gk1/fulltext.pdf

not finished….