Since 2001, Jisc RSC Scotland’s Electronic Training Needs Analysis (ETNA) survey has painted a vibrant picture of technology use across the Scottish further education sector.
Over a decade ago, the landscape was quite different when learning technology was just beginning to make an impact. Since then, technologies such as VLEs have become mainstream and technology use has evolved with good access to digital resources on and off campus, offering more flexibility. We’ve seen an increase in the use of mobile devices, and e-books has been an area of particular growth. Respondents’ skills levels and confidence have also increased over time.
Today it’s good to see that technology is firmly embedded in the daily working practices of a wide range of staff including lecturers, librarians, senior and middle managers. The findings of this year’s survey present many encouraging results, with the virtual learning environment (VLE) in particular going from strength to strength.
“Respondents displayed a high level of skills and reported confidence in their ability to use technology.”
ETNA vol. V, p. 7
Getting more out of VLEs
Survey respondents confirmed that VLEs are considered a standard technology in colleges, with most of them indicating they use the tool as part of their teaching practice. It was surprising however to see that there was still some variation in the way the VLE tools are used. Most of the functionality such as file storage, posting announcements and delivering learning materials were well used by the majority of academic respondents, but other useful features such as tracking student progress were less utilised.
Lecturers indicated that although the VLE has the potential to enhance the student experience, there might be a need to improve student engagement with it. I suspect that learners consider the interface of VLEs to be uninspiring, given their exposure to the many engaging features of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
I do think that VLEs can be used more effectively to engage students if features such as the assessment and communication tools were used to their full potential.
Facilitating learning in an online environment
Facilitating learners in an online environment requires a different set of skills than supporting them face-to-face. VLEs can be effective and engaging tools to support learners, however there is a need for lecturers to become effective e-tutors. Having e-tutoring skills will certainly help the digital practitioner as other technologies such as webinar software become more widely used for delivering learning and teaching.
I’ve been involved in facilitating an online communications and e-tutoring online course as part of my work at the Jisc Regional Support Centre in Scotland for a few years now and feedback indicates that participants are inspired by the skills they have learned during the course.
One participant said:
“This course has been very useful to me and exposed me to a wide range of tools and advice about online communication. I am sure my students will benefit from what I have learned on the course - it has been a real inspiration for me and I can't wait to get started!”
Moving forward: effective use of VLEs
There are many examples of effective use of VLEs as the following case studies demonstrate.
This case study from Dundee College shows that VLEs can be engaging learning tools by making use of chat tools and forums, and incorporating social media use via course specific Facebook pages. Reusable templates were also used for student placement portfolios and personal learning and development plans. Student feedback indicated that “students became active participants in their course, and felt valued with their ideas being fully considered.”
The key to getting the most of VLEs is ensuring that staff have the skills and knowledge to utilise the potential of these technologies.
The University of Dundee has developed induction pathways for college lecturers enrolled on their Teaching Qualification for Further Education (TQFE) programme, delivered fully online. These pathways ensure course participants are familiar with the course VLE and are engaged with all aspects of the course including the course blog. The additional benefit is that of modelling good practice; giving lecturers enrolled on the course experience of the benefits of learning via a well-designed and engaging VLE course.
With the fast paced evolving world of educational technology, it’s good to see the good old VLE is still considered a standard technology and has the potential to be the building block that can utilise technology enhanced learning. With appropriate support and investment, the VLE can be an effective and engaging tool for learners and help both staff and students become digitally literate individuals.
If you are interested in exploring the potential of VLEs, Jisc’s effective use of virtual learning environments toolkit offers lots of useful advice. The briefing paper on extending the learning environment offers advice about extending the potential of the VLE to incorporate social media tools and ensure students have a seamless learning experience by sharing data and linking systems.