All 3 entries tagged VLE

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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.

July 09, 2008

Virtual Learning Environment benchmarking workshop

There seems to be a demand from universities for a more realistic, learner/teacher-centric evaluation of Virtual Learning Environments. How easy would it be to evaluate and compare the leading platforms? Perhaps we could just get them all together (users not vendors) in one room, on a set of screens, and do an evaluation? That’s what I am planning to do, with the aim of publishing the resulting findings, but also giving developers a chance to steal the best features from each system.

We have a nice shiny new experimental teaching space called the Teaching Grid. It has lots of projectors, nicely spaced out, with moveable partitions that can be used to create separate zones. My idea is this:
  1. Divide the room up into 6 zones, each with a screen, PC and projector.
  2. In each zone, display one of 6 different VLEs (WebCT, Blackboard, Moodle, Sakai, Sitebuilder/Warwick Blogs, and WebLearn/Boddington).
  3. Have a team of VLE users (teachers and students) & admins for each of the 6.
  4. Create a matrix of requirements, features, design patterns, and analyse each one accordingly.
  5. Present a list of 5 best aspects of each one.
  6. Allow each of the 6 teams to visit all of the others.

There will also be a “beyond the VLE” section, for features and design patterns that don’t exist in any of the VLEs.

We have the technology. I can get money for a lavish(!) buffet. All I need are representatives from unis that use each of the systems.

I’m aiming for mid-September 2008 for this.

Anyone interested?

June 02, 2006

The death and rebirth of the MLE?

Writing about web page /caseyleaver/entry/mle_learning_platform/

Writing about an entry you don't have permission to view

In a recent blog entry, Casey cheered the demise of Managed Learning Environments. I suggest that new web technologies open up the possibility of a new kind of learning environment that is both lightly managed and decentralised.

Yes, the rotten decaying body of the corporate Managed Learning Environment stinks. We should bury it.

Hold on a minute, i detect a heart beat. Can it be revived? Should it be revived? Perhaps it will come back having undertaken some kind of near–death moral transformation. Born again.

Sorry, i'll get to the point. We are seeing the emergence of a kind of self–assembled, loosely coupled, lightly managed learning environment (LCL–MLE?). This is made possible by the increasing ubiquity of RSS data feeds, single sign on, and keyword tagging, along with service development and provision strategies such as agile development and managed diversity.

The idea behind the old fashioned centralist MLE (OFC–MLE?) was that the user could see a range of data about the learning process, all in one place. So they would see their timetables, list of courses, marks, tasks, courese content etc all together. And furthermore, it would be possible to join them up. OFC–MLE systems would contain all of this data in a single repository, as a tightly coupled system. Years of painful experience demonstrates that such monolithic systems are hard to develop, difficult to maintain, and harder still to engage the wide range of people and processes. The answer has been to grow more independent services, with responsibility distributed more widely and designed to meet the requirements of each type of user (academics, students, administrators, communications professionals).

The trick is for each of these two make its content available openly to the people and systems who need to use it, but in a filterable, secure and timely manner. This adds up to a LCL–MLE. And that means a data environment in which people can:

  • advertise information so that it gets to the right people (using directories and search based upon keyword tagging);
  • find relavant information (using directories and search based upon keyword tagging);
  • recommend information to others (by building their own style directories or by adding additional tagging);
  • combine information in a single location, and present it in a useful way (see how RSS feeds are blended in the left hand panel of the E-learning at Warwick web site.
  • allow the user to return information to the systems from which it was harvested, or to get diverse information to interact;

The last of these is enabled by Single Sign On, which is the key to allowing people to easily go from information, presented anywhere, to functionality that allows them to act on it. For example, on a page that I have constructed from a combination of sources, I could see that there is an interesting event happening, and easily add that event to my personal calendar without having to go off into a separate system.

Keyword tagging also contains some revolutionary force. Remember how OFC–MLE systems where built on the assumption that learning processes were constructed by a single individual (or well coordinated team) with a strong overview of all of the contents and connections that should be contained in the learning experience? That has always been the antithesis of the kind of research based learning (RBL) that makes a top UK university what its is. RBL is more like a mentoring and guidance model, in which less centred and hierarchical teams develop a shared understanding of the direction in which the students should be steared, and then input resources, links to resources, and feedback that does the work of moving the students in the right direction. The student is themselves expected to gradually (or sometimes quite quickly) take over the helm and navigational responsibility. OFC–MLEs tend to work against this. But imagine a technology that allows the teaching team to create and select resources, and then annotate, tag and connect them for the students. The students can then explore these resources, and even create their own tagging, annotation and networks of them, to be shared with others or even assessed by the teaching team.

The E–learning Advisor Team are already working on several projects that exploit these possibilities. Our web architecture (Sitebuilder, Warwick Blogs, Warwick Forums etc) provides many of the tools that we need to make this a success.

The second generation of online learning technologies are developing in a very different direction to the Old Fashioned Centralised systems. The direction is, happily, much more akin to the kinds of activities that a university like Warwick encourages.

See this interesting paper on Connectivism presented to Google by George Siemmens.