One of the most common types of software employed in universities and colleges are virtual learning environments (VLEs). Used in many ways, they throw up many different concerns, challenges, and questions.
But as with all types of technology, reviewing a VLE means reviewing not only what it is capable of, but also how it is used; it’s not about the platform, but about practice and people.
At Jisc, a big part of VLE reviews is usurping assumptions. The review process is used to get to the bottom of what challenges an institution is up against and figure out what they want to achieve. We often hear from universities or colleges that are keen to replace their VLEs because they’re too ‘slow’ or ‘clunky’, or because they aren’t getting good engagement from students.
A lot of the time, the challenge lies in how the platform is being used, rather than the technology itself.
Our recent VLE review report highlights the VLE review service’s findings within the sector and aims to help highlight common mistakes, misconceptions and good practice. As the report shows, lots of elements need to come together to ensure a VLE is meeting an institution’s needs.
All on board
A key need is for all staff to buy into a clear approach for any kind of technology or process. This includes teaching staff, IT teams, and leadership. Where there is a lack of leadership and direction, we find there is often a real lack of drive and enthusiasm from staff. For instance, in many of the reviews we saw the VLE used in very different ways across organisations, which meant that some staff were unsure of how or why a particular function or method was being used. Some felt this stemmed from an unclear direction from the organisation’s leadership or unclear strategy around digital use. Many staff did not believe in or know what the strategy was for using the VLE.
Student needs also require careful consideration.
One of the biggest things we’ve learned from talking to students through the review process is that they hate inconsistency.
But again, it’s rare that we recommend a complete change of VLE platform. It’s much more common to have recommendations about practice and staff support, so that the platform can be used consistently and in a way that meets the institution’s needs. That’s why we recommend that leaders first define what they want to achieve before adjusting or changing their VLE.
Expert users lead by example
Historically, VLEs haven’t been prioritised in a strategic way. But as with so many parts of education, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted just how important they are.
In the past, we have heard staff comment that they have been teaching the same way for 'x' number of years and feel like they don’t need to change anything. And what they’re doing could be brilliant in terms of knowledge – their teaching ability hasn’t changed, but student expectations of delivery and accessibility have.
There is also the issue of staff not having the time to play around with different platforms and become familiar with their capabilities. When resources are constrained, learning to use something new on top of everything else can just seem too much. This is why our recommendations often include increased training or action mapping to address particular issues. Staff need safe spaces where they can experiment without fear of consequences. Again, this needs to be backed up by leadership.
A VLE is as much a part of an institution as its brick-and-mortar estate.
Digital learning spaces are becoming increasingly central to a good learning and teaching experience, and we need to be able to use them to the best of their capability. But the right changes need to be made for the right reasons – it all comes down to asking questions about what an institution’s strategic goals are, and where the VLE can fit in to help achieve them.
A lot of the time, digital is not about capability, it’s about confidence. When people and practices are put at the centre and staff are given the space to develop their skills, great things can happen.