This is part of a regular series of articles exploring some of the terms used in e-learning (view other articles in the series). We’ll do our best to break down the jargon and explain what things are from a basic perspective.
A Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is an online space that is used to support learning and related administrative processes. There are a range of different VLEs available; the one used at SHU, Blackboard, is widely used in higher education. VLEs provide dedicated areas for individual modules that allow students and tutors to interact in a variety of ways, such as sharing documents, submitting assessments, and communicating with each other. The VLE is usually linked to other institutional systems, such as the Student Record System or web portal (e.g. shuspace), and makes use of the information from these systems to help automate many administrative processes, for example enrolling students on modules in the VLE. The VLE is generally so embedded within practice at institutions that it often becomes the ‘online face’ of a university as far as most students and tutors are concerned.
This post outlines the main features of VLEs and highlights one of the emerging trends in VLE software.
Storage and Distribution of Learning Materials
As most VLEs are available to tutors and students round the clock over the internet they make an ideal mechanism to distribute files, such as lecture and tutorial materials. Tutors are able to upload information at a time and place that suits their working patterns and students can access them as they need, providing reassurance to both parties that the material is available when it is needed. Many VLEs have features that allow materials to be released to students automatically according to defined rules, such as on a specific date or after reading previous materials. This lets tutors upload a large amount of material, such as at the beginning of the course, without overwhelming the students.
Assessment and Feedback Tools
One of the most significant features of VLEs is their assessment and feedback capabilities. These help manage the administration of students handing in assignments and receiving their marks and feedback, meaning that students don’t need to hand-in physical copies at a specific place (and time) as they can submit online from wherever in the world they are at the time and receive their results in the same way. This makes it easier for students to submit on time and reduces the likelihood of submitted work being lost. For tutors it means that they no longer need to wait for administrative staff to process and distribute the submissions before they can begin their marking and, for draft work in particular, students can receive their feedback as soon as the tutor has completed it – though in most cases feedback would be released to all students simultaneously. VLEs also frequently support tests and quizzes that can be used as an assessment method. Students are able to complete these at any time prior to the deadline, rather than using timetabled sessions for everyone to take the test at the same time.
Most VLEs follow a ‘Social Constructivist’ attitude towards learning, essentially that learning takes place as a result of people’s interaction and new knowledge is built from the shared understanding that this creates. As a result, they have different tools for students to share their ideas and comment on those of their peers, including discussion forums, wikis, and blogs. These tools are generally asynchronous and this means that students are able to interact with each other without needing to be online at the same time and can result in more considered interactions because it is possible to think about posts and responses before making them. These tools are particularly important for distance and blended learning students because they allow everyone to take part at a time that suits their own schedules.
Progress Tracking and Monitoring
Most VLEs contain ways to check that students are engaging with the materials and activities in their modules, for example, the Retention Centre in Blackboard provides reports of students who have yet to submit their assignment through the VLE or has low (or no) activity on a module. These types of tools provide tutors with an early warning of students who may be at risk of failing the module or dropping out of the course and who would benefit from further contact. For students, tracking and monitoring tools can help them with identifying their progress, attainment relative to their peers and, sometimes, projected grades, helping them manage their time and priorities.
VLEs generally have tools that enable large groups of students to be divided into smaller ones. This is useful when working with large cohorts where subgroups are taught separately over a few days because it means that the students can be given materials and other information according to their personal schedule. Cohort management can also be used to divide students into groups for collaborative work, with each group having access to their own private collaboration spaces.
A major use of VLEs is to communicate essential information to students enrolled on particular modules, such as room changes and session cancellations. The advantages of using the VLE are that it guarantees that the message will be made available to all students on a module, typically through email, and that a copy of these communications will be visible on the VLE itself for future reference. The cohort management features mean that messages can be targeted at very specific groups of students without the need to maintain additional email lists. Some VLEs also include mechanisms that allow SMS messages to be sent to students’ mobile phones in addition to email.
Emerging Trends in VLEs
A major, recent trend for VLEs has been the addition of mechanisms to pull information from external systems and services, such as social networks or image and video sharing sites. This increasing use of services outside the institution has led to some people advocating a move away from institutional VLEs to an amalgam of free services, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr. However, while such services certainly have a role in students’ learning, VLEs provide a formal space necessary for universities to meet their legal, quality and accreditation requirements. Therefore, it is typical within the sector that, even when the VLE is acting as a hub for activity taking place in external systems, all essential information delivery and communications takes place through the VLE.
A briefing document (from 2013) is available for SHU staff and highlights some of the other developments that are taking place with these important systems.