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.
Black, P. 7 Wiliam, D. (1998) Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education. 5(1), 7-75.
Coopman S.J. (2009) “A critical examination of Blackboard’s e-learning environment”. First Monday, Volume 14, Number 6 – 1 June 2009. Available at: http://firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/fm/article/viewArticle /2433/22
Gibbs, G. (2006) Why assessment is changing. In C. Bryan & K. Clegg (Eds), Innovative assessment in Higher Education. London; Routledge.
Gibson C.B & Manuel J.A. (2003) Building trust; effective multicultural communications processes in virtual teams. In Gibson & Cohen (Eds) Virtual Teams that Work. San Fancisco. Wiley & Sons.
Kramarski B. and Mizrach N. (2006) “Online discussion and self-regulated learning; effects of institutional methods on mathematical literacy”, Journal of Educational research, Volume 99, number 4, pp. 218-230.
Mullen M. (2002) “‘If your not Mark Mullen, click here’: Web-based courseware and the pedagogy of suspicion”, Radical Teacher, number 63 (Spring), pp14-20.
Nichol D. (2006) Increasing success in first year courses: assessment re-design, self-regulation and learning technologies. Available at: http://tltt.strath.ac.uk/REAP/public/Papers/DNicol_Ascilite_26oct06.pdf
Rose E. (2004) “‘Is there a class with this content?’ WebCT and the limits of individualisation”, Journal of Educational Thought, Volume 38, number 1 (Spring) pp. 43-65.
Sandvig C. (2006) “The structural problems of the Internet for cultural policy”, in Silver D. and Massanari A (Eds). Critical cyberculture Sudies. New York: New York University Press, pp. 107-118.
Sauers D. and Walker R C. (2004) ” A comparison of traditional and technology-assted instructional methods in the business communications classroom“, Business communications Quarterly, volume 67, number 4 (December),pp 430-442.
Lobel M., Neubauer M. and Swedburg R.(2005) Comparing how students collaborate to learn about the self and relati0onships in a real-time and non-turn-taking online and turn-taking face-to-face environment, Journal of Computer-Mediated communication, Volume 10, Number 4 (July), Available at: http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue4/lobel.html,
Yaneske E. & Bingham A. (2006) Mismatched expectations of staff and students towards Blackboard. Part 1 Paper 721 ALT-C Research Proceedings 2006