10 Change factors to consider with a new VLE

Image by Michael Heilemann

It’s taken a little time in the refining process, but last week we had our final Frog VLE training session before platform launch. Afterwards, we met to discuss how we would move forward. Part of the discussion highlighted natural concerns regarding implementing something new into an already successful teaching and learning programme. Concerns were linked to how we were going to introduce the VLE to a very busy staff, and the changes which it will bring to the way we’ve been doing things for some time –at a very effective level. It was only later that I realised that there is probably a fair amount which I should have dealt with well ahead of the training. The technical skills required of staff who will be using the VLE are not our biggest concern; essentially, any of us who have been trained could step in and help with the technical elements. However, we need a clear picture of how to manage the changes we’re about to introduce. I’ve put together some thoughts on this and hope that these might help us in further discussions about various aspects of change. (I have to admit to pilfering heavily from others’ resources on this issue, but I have given them credit.)

I first investigated a ‘Decision Making Template’ (based on the work of Sharon Drew Morgen) and used this to cement ideas on how we could manage the change the VLE will bring.

1. What criteria did we use to decide why we wanted a VLE? These criteria are standard and can be found in any simple online search. (Based on ‘Why would I want to use a VLE?)

a) It provides an excellent context in which to design the curriculum for the module or subject where planning the order of content, learning activities and assessment strategies have to be carefully thought out.

b) It’s an excellent way of being able to communicate with a number of students, or all of ones students, outside of normal class contact times (“any time, any place, anywhere” learning).

c) As ‘digital natives’ (dubious terminology) students are adept at using a computer and spend large amounts of time online. Time spent online can be ineffective and distracting. A VLE can focus and guide students in effective ways of studying during ‘down time’ at home.

d) It allows for student online communication, collaboration and creation in ways that emulate or reflect what is happening on the web right now. ‘Social’ features such as ‘friending’, ‘walls’, status updates, comments and ratings etc. are included in a VLE as these exist in the world in which students live. They should be able to learn about their uses, advantages, pitfalls and all. A VLE allows pupils to make mistakes – within the security of a ‘walled garden’ thus equipping them to be safe and literate once they have left our care. (Taken from Dughall McCormick, ‘VLEs, ‘Virtuous’ Learning Environments?’)

e) It enhances student retention levels, decreases failure rate and increases performance. Also, students are able to explore lesson units and topics at their own pace. (JISC: ‘Effective use of VLE’s’)

f) They allow a teacher to bring together in one place a variety of powerful resources, such as tasks and formative feedback, example coursework, notes and additional resources (videos, quizzes) which complement day to day teaching. All of these are aimed at adding value to student learning.

g) Large amounts of information can be made available to large groups of students, including them having easy access to resources such as a record of their own marks and online discussions, library catalogues, study skills help, past examination papers and other aids to learning.

h) It allows students access to the work of the best, a variety of, or all of the teachers in the school.

i) It enables easy sharing of the best course materials; some of these from outside of the specific subject domain.

j) They can go much of the way to freeing the teacher from the role of ‘information transmitter’ and allow space for the more important functions of motivating students and designing more interesting and interactive tasks, to encourage them to look more deeply into the underlying issues in a topic or subject.

k) Group work and discussions can be easily facilitated within a VLE. Students who may be too intimidated to contribute in face-to-face contact may be happy to add something electronically.

l) New forms of assessment become possible, for example though the use of discussion fora or the evaluation by students of the resources assembled in the VLE.

m) Additional student support is possible through opening up of chat facilities after school hours. I.e. to discuss a topic or offer assistance on a homework topic.

n) Student progress can be more easily checked through a ‘tracking’ function found in many VLEs.

o) With appropriate support mechanisms, distance learning is very much easier to manage through a VLE. (Consider if a student is ill or who has missed a series of lessons.)

2. Which aspects of teaching and learning should stay the same?

Day to day classroom teaching will not necessarily change. The VLE is an enhancement to good classroom experiences, not a replacement.

Reasons:

  1. The VLE is not as immediate at providing feedback to students in a workshop, seminar or lesson, and it can be difficult to manage feedback if a number of students are using an online ‘chat’ facility.
  2. The teacher cannot see the students, and therefore loses the non-verbal communication (body language) of the students which can be so revealing and indicative as to whether they are learning or not.
  3. It is more difficult for a teacher to convey their enthusiasm for the subject electronically, but, with the use of appropriate language, it can be done.
  4. In many face-to-face learning situations there are moments when opportunities arise for providing questions or stories that aim to push forward the learning – these tend to arise less frequently online.
  5. Students who need to be carefully encouraged into participation in the learning are easier to help along in face-to-face contexts than online.
  6. There is risk attached to changing ‘what we do well’ and disrupting the model of exam success.

However, there is a case for ‘blended learning’ to enable learning success. E.g. Face-to-face interactions (in classrooms) that enable students to discuss ideas with teacher and peers, together with online interaction through the VLE. (FAQ’s on VLEs.)

3. How did we decide who would need to be brought into the ‘change’ conversation to ensure we had buy-in from all parties?

Nominations and suggestions for VLE ‘Champions’ were invited from heads of department, senior management and from people who had a genuine interest in the project.

4. How do we plan on bringing VLE Champions into the decisions we need to make? How will VLE Champions disseminate these?

a) Hold monthly meetings in order to share progress, skills and ideas.

b) Champions will do similar with departments they work with.

5. How will we know that teachers are supportive of our changes?

By monitoring progress of agreed aims and expectations and the successes thereof.

I.e. Stage 1 progress:

  • Are individual teachers accessing their network documents from home via the VLE?
  • Have academic departments discussed possible structure of online materials?
  • Have academic departments uploaded files and constructed any unit/course folders?

6. How will we know if they are not supportive?

By the means outlined above and by discussion at monthly or other informal meeting opportunities.

7. How will we manage the situation if the staff show reluctance in the use of the VLE?

In the JISC post, ‘Effective use of VLE’s’ the authors include a quote from Robin Mason:  “In my view, too much is made of training tutors and this makes online tutoring seem more difficult and more unknown than it really is. The components of learning to tutor online are:

  • familiarity with the … software and how to get online.
  • comfortableness with the process of interacting online.
  • knowledge of what the particular online course requires of the student.

The rest is common sense and intelligent transferring of the art and skill of teaching to the online environment.”

Good points. However, there are other strategies. A general, but useful range of ideas for assisting reluctant staff is found in Strategies for dealing with reluctant staff from the Kentucky department of education.

8.  What Teaching and Learning elements of the VLE should be worked on first?

  • The reasons for the use of the VLE and the benefits for the teacher and students.
  • The different ways in which the VLE can assist students in achieving learning outcomes.
  • The student activities which are going to be used in the VLE.
    • Uploading notes into the VLE only partly deals with success in learning outcomes. Just reading the notes can be a very passive process. Encouraging students to work with the notes is far better practice and, with judicious selection of activities and questions, will motivate students into deeper study.
    • However, it’s not necessary to spend time designing and producing new learning materials to upload to the VLE.
    • Reuse any digital learning resources that already exist.
    • Shared resources are a good place to start.
    • Use formal resource collections (e.g. digital libraries, national repositories of resources.)
  • The type of content needed to support learning activities.

9. What will success look like?

Clearly, users are the most important in determining the success of a VLE. However, if we assume that this factor is covered in previous points, then it’s down to ensuring that the following factors of a VLE are applied to complete the picture:

System-Related Factors

  • Reliable
  • Secure
  • Learning-Process-Supportive
  • Interactive
  • Appealing
  • Transparent
  • Structured
  • Standard Supportive
  • Accessible

Information-Related Factors

  • Understandable
  • Consistent
  • Credible
  • Challenging
  • Multimodal
  • Enjoyable

(Read more at Design Characteristics of Virtual Learning Environments: An Expert Study.)

10. How will we monitor take up and ensure the VLE is embedded in learning?

  • Students need constant reminders to use the VLE and will need a specific reason to visit.
  • Keep reminding students about the VLE and its uses and role in classroom sessions.
  • Release materials from time to time to ensure that there are reasons for the students to return.
  • By releasing carefully planned modules, with activities linked to content and face-to-face sessions, students will return.
  • If the VLE is simply an information repository students will not engage. They will visit the VLE once or twice and print out all the materials and then not return again; it is better to focus on small sections which comprise a task and associated content.
  • Encourage feedback on the design and content of the VLE from students, staff and parents. Use surveys, focus groups and questionnaires to gain opinions and reflect on processes.
  • Seek the opinions of experienced colleagues and look constantly for examples of best practice.

(I have relied heavily on the JISC: ‘Effective use of VLE’s’ and (FAQ’s on VLEs.) here.) Further reading: Evaluating your VLE.

If we succeed in monitoring and regulating these change factors, the take up amongst students and staff for our VLE could be the teaching and learning success which we envisage.