What is the challenge?
Simply moving existing learning content to online platforms for students to consume is not the same as having an engaging course.
Although students do benefit from access to materials such as slide decks, lecture notes and content capture, these alone can make for a passive experience.
What questions do you need to ask?
There are a number of considerations to reflect on when addressing the challenge of designing an engaging course on the VLE:
What staff development opportunities are available to support you?
Consider what channels are available to support staff to develop their own digital practice and build their confidence to explore and experiment in new ways of delivery. This could range from bespoke staff development sessions to online bitesize video tutorials demonstrating specific functions of the VLE.
Does the institution have a policy on the use of technologies?
Check your institution’s guidance on which technologies are supported and deemed safe. You may find specific technologies are not supported and any which are subject to GDPR restrictions.
How can you include students to make a more engaging course on the VLE?
Building in opportunities for students to engage with your VLE course makes it more likely that the VLE will be used effectively. Consider how the tools available within the VLE align with the overall learning objectives for the course. Technology provides many new opportunities to re-evaluate how are you interact with your students.
Find out more
If you want to explore these topics in more detail the following guides and blog posts offer further support:
- Jisc VLE review (service).
- Solving the Virtual Learning Environment headache (member story)
- Jisc digital resources in FE toolkit
- An opportunity for creativity and inclusivity: an entirely asynchronous online first-year history course (blog)
- Tooling up to teach online (blog)
- Great expectations? University libraries, learning and student experience (blog)
How can digital support the pedagogy?
Delivering learning in online contexts requires an adjustment in thinking and the time students spend learning online needs to be structured differently from face-to-face sessions. For example, what might make up a two-hour lecture could be split up into different sections with activities throughout the day, or even week, in an online VLE course. Digital technology allows us to rethink the traditional lecture mindset and design learning in such a way that is more flexible and manageable for learners to access.
Many students accessing online content on your VLE may struggle with online learning and need further support. For some students this may be bandwidth issues or inadequate home study spaces to work effectively; others may find remote working a strain when they are distanced from their peers and support network. Student Minds, the UK’s leading mental health charity, have developed the Student Space site which provides tips and support to help students feel more confident about working online.
Being mindful of the challenges students face with remote working helps when planning your VLE course. For example, providing students with a range of both synchronous and asynchronous activities allows students to study flexibly whilst still feeling connected with their tutors and peers.
Wrexham Glyndwr University have a dedicated area of support materials on the platform that staff will be using to create learning activities with their own students.
Synchronous sessions provide opportunities for consolidation of learning through live activities, such as learner presentations, discussion, learner pair and group work, learner self-assessment and tutor feedback.
They can be an invaluable and engaging way of keeping learners connected with their peers and tutor, but do need to be timetabled and require learners to be available at set times with good connectivity.
Asynchronous sessions provide opportunities for learners to consolidate their learning through a range of means; for example, independent study through videos, podcasts, course work, shared documents, assignments and assessment. Although students can complete these at a time that suits they still need staff to provide guidance on what they need to complete and in by what timeframes.
The description of the work may be usefully ‘chunked’ providing the learner with an initial idea of the learning objectives they should achieve by the end of the section and engage the learners in activities, such as reading, researching, organising their learning and views, writing assignments.
The University of the Highlands and Islands provide academic staff with a set of recommended activities that they can embed into their online courses, including:
- FAQ section for students to raise any questions or concerns
- A social announcements discussions board so students could organise their own study spaces with peers outside of the institutional platforms if they wanted.
- A virtual office hours drop-in sessions for students to have live conversations with their tutors.
This provides staff with a good starting point and ensures that learners feel connected to their tutors and peers. Staff were also provided with placeholder text for all of these activities which they could adapt to suit their students’ needs. Further recommendations relating to achieving the right mix of synchronous and asynchronous activities is also available for academic staff can be found on the university's website.
Do staff have access to tools and frameworks to assist with blended learning curriculum design?
Many institutions have developed a specific learning design process and encourage its use when designing modules and programmes of study on the VLE. One of the most widely known is Gilly Salmon’s Carpe Diem, a team-based approach to learning design that brings together course teams, learning technologists, subject librarians and even employers. Other flavours of Carpe Diem have also been developed, such as the Course Design Intensives used by Oxford Brookes University, and UCL’s collaborative ABC toolkit for blended learning curriculum redesign (see the video below).
Adopting a collaborative approach to the learning design process across the institution taps into expertise across departments and ensures a degree of consistency within VLE courses.
What are the barriers to meeting this challenge?
What are the skills factors?
Can staff meet (are they aware of) accessibility standards?
Making digital content fully accessible can help improve student engagement with learning and improve outcomes.
The Further and Higher Education Digital Accessibility Working Group has prepared a digital accessibility toolkit that contains sector-sourced guidance.
Baseline staff capability
Do staff have a baseline of digital tools and techniques necessary to deliver active learning?
What are the motivation factors?
Supporting reluctant staff
Delivering live online learning may push digitally-shy staff out of their comfort zone, making them reluctant to take part.
Consider how good practice in live online delivery is shared and celebrated across the institution to help build confidence and participation.
Ensuring staff buy-in
The technology is not always the primary barrier to introducing new ways of working for some staff, it can also be about people and culture change.
For a successful outcome, students and staff need to feel supported and given due recognition in their use of technology.
What are the knowledge factors?
Are staff aware of what a good VLE course looks like?
Staff need an understanding of what a good VLE course looks like and guidance on how to work towards it.
They can often lack understanding of the potential of the VLE to enable them to go beyond a ‘repository model' approach. They need to be able to experience what “good” looks like and explore new ways of teaching, in a safe space, to build confidence.
Is staff induction carried out using organisational platforms, tools and techniques demonstrating good practice? Do staff know how others are designing VLE courses?
Another approach would be to incorporate good practice into any induction programme for new staff and build this into CPD channels.
What are the environmental factors?
Is there an agreed role and clear direction for the development of the VLE and how is this communicated to staff?
Having a strategic approach in place that encourages collaboration helps to mitigate barriers, such as accessibility issues for students and join-up with digital resources available from the library.
Access to platforms, equipment and software
Do staff have access to the appropriate functionality to design an engaging VLE course?
Once these systems have been identified it is worth checking that all staff have the equipment and software required, such as mics and/or headsets, webcams, and sufficient licences for accessing any specialist software.
What are the myths associated with this challenge?
A number of myths surround the VLE, which can often have an unhelpful impact on staff when approaching the topic. Some of these myths are more common than others, but many of them are likely to surface in your conversations with peers.
The following myths are worth reflecting on with colleagues and include strategies that you can adopt to mitigate them.
Myth: if I put teaching content on the VLE, students won’t turn up for live sessions
Materials on the VLE can complement live sessions by providing opportunities to:
- Prepare for live sessions
- A chance to catch up if the student is unable to attend live
- Needs more time to explore a topic
- Opportunity for revision
With some of the content available asynchronously rather than live, the teacher can devote more time in the live session to active learning experiences and interaction with and between students.
Myth: all digital content may be shared freely for teaching purposes
Unfortunately this is not the case. UK copyright law was last changed in 2014, bringing in a number of new or updated exceptions intended to support teaching in digital contexts. Government guidance on copyright exceptions relating to teaching states:
“the copying of works in any medium as long as the use is solely to illustrate a point, it is not done for commercial purposes, it is accompanied by a sufficient acknowledgement, and the use is fair dealing. This means minor uses, such as displaying a few lines of poetry on an interactive whiteboard, are permitted, but uses which would undermine sales of teaching materials are not.”
However, this does require a certain degree of what Secker and Morrison (2020) call “copyright literacy” on behalf of the user and it is unlikely that you can teach online without having to deal with matters of copyright. If you are unsure, check with the copyright specialist in your university or college for a second opinion.
Myth: the students all use social media so it makes sense to use that
Using popular social media tools may well be simple to use with learners, but the risk of your work life bleeding into your personal life is higher. Boundaries between personal and professional can easily blur on social media.
The move to online relationships with staff and students could affect the assessment of risk or the effectiveness of existing measures. Make sure code of conduct and acceptable use policies are revised accordingly, so staff and student expectations are clear.