April 07, 2009

Trends in the design of physical and virtual learning environments

Follow-up to What is the Warwick VLE? from Transversality - Robert O'Toole

Overview: How both physical and virtual learning environments are embracing personalisation and user-configurability, moving away from standardized models. What this means for the tools and services used to create and use learning environments. The implications for student and teacher skills.

In a recent article, I attempted to answer the question: what is the Warwick VLE? In doing so, some significant misconceptions had to be addressed. Most importantly, I argued that the virtual learning environment is best understood as being the environment in which teacher-learner and learner-learner interactions take place. Typically, these are web sites enhanced with learning designs and features (such as self-assessment quizzes), as well as all of the multimedia content available through audio, video and screencasting.

The common mistake when understanding and evaluating a VLE is to focus upon the mechanisms used to create that learning environment. Certainly these must be good. But at the end of the day, it's the actual teaching/learning experience that matters. The same is true of physical learning environments. We care about the actual environment, and wish to see the best possible environment created with the simplest, cheapest and easiest tools possible (or better still, we want someone else to get it right for us).

And this is where the comparison between physical and virtual learning environments gets interesting, for exactly the same rules apply, and exactly the same trends can be discerned.

What, in the past, have we expected from our physical learning environments? In higher education, not much. Just the basics: lecture theatres and seminar rooms that are clean, comfortable, functional, available, and fit to the purpose specified by traditional lecture and seminar pedagogy. Typically, this was the responsibility of service departments abstracted away from teaching departments. The responsibility for creating and maintaining physical teaching environments was kept well away from teachers and students, who in return had little option but to accept standard configurations and the pedagogies that they imposed. The mechanics by which physical learning environment was created were hidden from view. It was, in many ways, an easy deal.

Similarly, IT systems, student record systems, managed learning tools etc might have been expected to create virtual learning environments effortlessly. Of course, given that we've been doing physical learning spaces for thousands of years more than virtual learning spaces, achieving that aim would never be simple. But following the same traditional deal struck between the teacher and the provider of physical space, we could expect standardized and feature-poor virtual learning spaces created automatically or with very simple tools requiring little input from the teacher. And that's exactly where we were a few years ago. The earlier generations of VLEs (some of which are still being pushed today) were based upon the same deal that gave us the traditional lecture theatre and seminar room.

Things are, however, changing rapidly in higher education. There are many reasons for this, good and bad. Often it is planned, managed and well understood change. In other cases it is reactionary, responding to changes in the wider cultural and technical world. But it's happening and it's hard to escape.

Of all of the deliberate experimentation and service development that we have seen in the last few years, what has had most impact upon the student experience? Most probably the sometimes dramatic changes that are being applied to the physical learning environment. At Warwick, we have the Learning Grid (a high-tech and reconfigurable learning space for students) and the Teaching Grid (high-tech and reconfigurable teaching space). Both of these initiatives have been part of our library's modernisation programme. The Main Library itself has been transformed, with two floors dedicated to collaborative working, including much user-configurability. Many other initiatives are seeing similarly bold changes, including the Creativity and Performance in Teaching and Learning (CAPITAL) Centre and its Open Space Learning project, and the Reinvention Centre (with a rubber-floored reconfigurable teaching studio). We are starting to see teaching spaces across campus being refurbished along these lines.

The result of these trends has been an increase in the user-configurability of teaching spaces, along with the necessary increase in the design input that is expected from teachers and students. The expectation being that students and teachers will benefit from taking charge of the design of their own learning. It has been helped in two ways: improvements in the available technologies (even simple things, like tables that fold and stack); a drive to make teaching more effective and appropriate to the modern world of research and work (students as independent researchers and producers).

Is the trend towards user-configurable physical spaces being mirrored by a trend in virtual learning environments? Entirely, without a doubt. Personalisation and collaborative learning design are the hot topics. Some would go so far as to say that designing and constructing a personal or group learning/working environment is the most important skill with which we can equip our students. At Warwick this has motivated us to provide systems and features that can be used to create custom learning environments as required. Our systems are not yet perfect, but we've learnt a lot about how to empower students and teachers to design their own learning environments, just as the Library have learnt much about empowering people to design their own physical learning environments.

There is of course much left to do. Perhaps the biggest shortfall is in the distribution of the skills necessary to effectively and efficiently design and use a personalised user-configured environment (physical, virtual and hybrid). We may also learn of ways to make it easier for people to understand, communicate and re-use designs. The learning design patterns approach may well help greatly. I can see a degree of urgency in this. We are introducing new technologies and techniques at a rate that some might find alarming. My own intention is to research the situation thoroughly, and to seek ways to help teachers and students to become better designers of personalised and user-configured physical and virtual learning environments.

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