The future of Virtual Learning Environments

In this review on the future of VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) I intend to examine how the VLE has been used to support teaching and learning, the current drawbacks with their use in education and consider the role of VLE in the future and how these might develop to support the needs of learners. Weller (2006) in his conference paper VLE 2.0 and future directions in learning environments suggested that whilst many UK Higher Education Institutions had some form of VLE that it is restricted by a number of limitations and does not meet the needs of different subject areas and is fairly basic operating ‘a lowest common denominator approach’, that it is quite difficult to ‘exchange content despite its claims of interoperability’ (Weller, 2006, p. 1). This suggests that the VLE is somewhat inflexible and not meeting the needs of teaching, however Weller does not address the question of staff motivation in supporting its development. Ofsted (2009) suggests that staff motivation is a key factor,

The common factor in effective VLEs was the enthusiasm of the subject teacher; that is enthusiasm for the subject and teaching and learning as much as any competence in computing (Ofsted, 2009, p. 5).

Based on the experience in the Further Education College in which I work there are opportunities to develop the VLE (Moodle) to enhance teaching and learning. Use of the VLE across Curriculum areas appears to vary depending on the teacher with many staff using this as a repository for course materials rather than for teaching, although this may be due to their competence as much as motivation.
Sharpe et al (2010) acknowledges that rapid changes in technology where the role of the learner’s voice in designing learning is stronger and there is greater emphasis on the social dimensions of learning between peers. Learners are ‘venturing into places that formal educators may never go, absorbing new kinds of knowledge, creating their own interacting learning arenas’ or spaces where they learn (Sharpe, Beetham, & De Freitas, 2010, p. 214). The VLE has a key role to play the development of students skills, the JISC funded Elisa (e-Learning Independent Study Award) explored the potential for Moodle and LAMS e-learning systems to deliver study skills and this and the follow on project ELIDACAMEL found that ‘learning activities mediated through these systems did enhance learner participation, performance and motivation’ confirming that students skills are enhance through VLE use (Sharpe, Beetham, & De Freitas, 2010, p. 215) .
Ofsted (2009) suggest some key recommendations for the future use of the VLE in teaching learning and ‘a good quality induction and early use of the system were essential in ensuring a positive attitude’ (Ofsted, 2009, p. 4) of learners in using the platform. Specific VLE strategies developed by senior management and ensuring that the VLE is used to ‘enhance learning’ rather than as a ‘storage facility’ with systems to monitor its use and impact on learning are key in ensuring success (Ofsted, 2009, p. 7).

Current projects in relation to VLE development indicate that VLE will not continue in their current form but will be extended, through the use of plug-ins, to support teaching and learning. The JISC (2010) Distributed VLE Programme recognises the changing use of the VLE in education and there are a number of projects which are looking at extending the function of the traditional VLE to incorporate administrative functions, links to library and social networking. At Teesside University the VLE is being used to incorporate a specially designed widget which extends the functionalist and flexibility of the VLE to meet the needs of learners with disabilities who may require the VLE to be adapted to meet their own learning needs, which is supporting an inclusive learning environment (JISC, 2010).

The need for the VLE to become more focussed on meeting the learner needs is apparent from the response of the education sector, at The University of Reading the DEVELOP (Developing and Enhancing VLE’s and E-Learning Options) project is developing the VLE (Blackboard) system to support student centred learning and allow content and resources held outside the VLE to be held within it. There are a number of projects which reflect the move towards developing more bespoke systems for academic institutions, at The University of Southampton the SLEP project ‘will integrate data from a range of sources, and will provide an intelligently, personalized view to the user (learner/teacher)’ (JISC, 2010, p. 1). This move towards an individualised approach is echoed by Shape et al (2010) who suggests that the vision is that technologies can now provide a more personalised learning model, based around the learners needs and desires (Sharpe, Beetham, & De Freitas, 2010).

In summary the VLE will develop in the future to better meet the needs of individual learners, the use of plug ins to support this will become more widespread. A clear strategy at senior management level and better support for academic staff and students in the use of the VLE are recommended.
JISC. (2010). Projects, Prorgammes and Services. Retrieved December 30, 2012, from JISC: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/elearning/distributedvle.aspx
Ofsted. (2009). Virtual Learning Environments: an evaluation of their development in a sample of eduational settings. London: Crown.
Sharpe, R., Beetham, H., & De Freitas, S. (2010). Rethinking Learning for a Digital Aga. New York: Routledge.
Weller, M. (2006). VLE 2.0 and future directions in learning environments. In R. Philip, A. Voerman, & J. Dalziel (Ed.), Proceedings of The First International LAMS Conference 2006: desgining the future of learning (pp. 99-106). Sydney: Lams Foundation.

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