Managed Learning Environments (MLEs) in Further Education: progress report
Heads of Institutions funded by the Further Education Funding Councils
Directors of Information Services at those Institutions
- This circular offers a position statement on the role of Managed Learning Environments (MLEs) in FE institutions and seeks to:
- clarify some of the concepts often associated with an MLE;
- present a view of what the MLE could mean in a typical College where Information and Learning Technology (ILT) is beginning to play an increasingly supportive role in all areas of College activity, but where traditional methods of working are likely to remain dominant for some time;
- help inform those colleges that have recently submitted an ILT Strategy Plan to FEFC (via BECTa) as to the plan's implementation;
- advise institutions that the MLE Steering Group is working with vendors to encourage them to offer product(s) during the coming year which will meet its recommendations on interoperability.
- The FEFC's Learning and Teaching Committee, (chair, Sir Gordon Higginson) report (Further Education Funding Council (1996). Report of the Learning and Technology Committee. [Chairman: Sir Gordon Higginson]. Coventry, Further Education Funding Council.) was published in 1996 and stressed the importance of ILT. Although significant funding could not be found at the time much useful work has since been carried out by NILTA (National Information and Learning Technology Association), FEDA (Further Education Development Agency) and BECTa (British Educational Communications and Technology agency) including the QUILT (Quality in Information and Learning Technology) and FERL (Further Education Resources for Learning) programmes. This ground-breaking work has done much to make it possible to think seriously about the relevance of MLEs in FE. Staff awareness, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure and the funding environment offer better prospects for success now than in 1996.
- Recent significant developments include the establishment of the FEFC's ILT Committee (FEILT) in Autumn 1999, charged with the development of a National Learning Network (NLN). The University for Industry (UfI) and National Grid for Learning (NGfL) initiatives, and the FE sector becoming a full funding partner of Jisc, are also significant positive actions in promoting ILT.
- Jisc is taking this work forward through its Committee for Integrated Environments for Learners (JCIEL). JCIEL has established an MLE Steering Group in response to the FEILT Action Plan (in FEFC Circular 99/45) with the objective of producing a specification and open standards for MLEs. This circular sets out the approach being taken by the group. Although focused on English FE at present, it is hoped that this circular will inform thinking in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and will be useful to HE.
- In Autumn 1999 BECTa offered the proposition that
"Managed Learning Environments are software applications that support on-line learning. They offer a virtual environment that supports all the educational activity that is normally associated with the learning experience. In this respect MLEs will offer functions to support pedagogy, the management of learning materials, student administration and a communications environment. MLEs have the potential to unify, monitor and co-ordinate all activity within colleges and, critically in respect of the promised national network for FE and the University for Industry, to link activity between institutions."
"Clearly the role of the MLE is going to be central as colleges increasingly look outward from their traditional learner-base to more challenging and demanding markets. It is probably true that no single MLE completely fits the bill as yet. For the sector as a whole it is time to grasp the opportunity and come to a broad agreement on what the MLE of the future must deliver to make on-line learning a viable proposition."
- Early in its meeting cycle the Steering Group determined that, whatever the contemporary use of the term might be, there needed to be a holistic view of what a "Managed Learning Environment" might be for a Further Education college. The Group felt that too narrow a focus on products described as MLEs would fail to address the real need to look at the processes that must guide the thinking on what "Management [of the] Learning Environment" should be.
- Coming to terms with the MLE concept is made more difficult by the ambiguity of the term's existing usage. Existing products described as MLEs, while sharing some superficial uniformity, vary considerably in their functions. Moreover, a variety of terms (Managed Learning Environment, Virtual Learning Environment, Learning Management System and On-line Learning amongst others) appear to be used without clear differentiation from each other. There is no particular reason why any one of these terms should be used in preference to another – the main concern is that they should be used consistently across the sector.
- While recognising that the world at large will continue to use terminology in different and often ambiguous ways, the Steering Group recommends that the term Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) be used in our own discussions and specifications to refer to the components in which learners and tutors participate in "on-line" interactions of various kinds, including on-line learning.
- The Steering Group further recommends that the term Managed Learning Environment (MLE) be used to include the whole range of information systems and processes of the College (including its VLE if it has one) that contribute directly or indirectly to learning and learning management.
- The diagram below is based on the one circulated widely in Autumn 1999 by BECTa. No attempt is made here to show the full set of interfaces that might need to be specified in due course. The diagram's main purpose is to position the VLE as a sub-system within the range of information systems and processes that a college MLE includes.
- The Steering Group has taken Paragraph 15 of FEFC Circular 99/45 as the starting point for its work, and has set it in the context of the rest of the ILT Action Plan and, indeed, of other changes imminent in the sector.
- The group recognises that the most widespread interpretation of the reference to MLEs in Circular 99/45 focuses on the on-line components of the learning system, which it has chosen to call the "Virtual Learning Environments" (VLEs). This does not include the range of administrative and other support systems that are a proper part of the wider MLE.
- VLEs are software packages that directly support on-line learning. There are currently several emerging systems for the management of online learning, some of which have already been implemented within the FE sector, but none is currently able to deliver the full set of functions and linkages shown in the schematic diagram above. The electronically published appendices to this circular provide a substantial, and growing, set of resources and links to help colleges examine what is available. These include reports of evaluations carried out on particular VLEs, indicating the various pedagogical assumptions that developers may make in implementing VLEs.
- The principal functions that a complete VLE needs to deliver are:
- controlled access to curriculum which has been mapped to elements (or 'chunks') that can be separately assessed and recorded;
- tracking of student activity and achievement against these elements using simple processes for course administration and student tracking that make it possible for tutors to define and set up a course with accompanying materials and activities to direct, guide and monitor learner progress;
- support of online learning, including access to learning resources, assessment and guidance. The learning resources may be self-developed or professionally-authored and purchased materials that can be imported and made available for use by learners;
- communication between the learner, the tutor and other learning support specialists to provide direct support and feedback for learners, as well as peer-group communications that build a sense of group identity and community of interest;
- links to other administrative systems, both in-house and externally.
- It is evident that these criteria imply substantial interaction between a VLE and its surrounding MLE. Any real enhancements in the learner-centredness of the facilities made available to students will have to be clearly connected into a coherent financial and business model, so that benefits gained through the new learning methodologies can be quantified, audited and able to deliver income to sustain the change.
- Most FE learners will continue to be resourced from Learning & Skills Council or UfI sources. It is essential that the amount of time learners spend "on task", the results of their on-line assessment, and similar parameters, are capable of being automatically fed into the College's information systems as a backdrop to audit and income earning relationships with these national bodies.
- The sector needs products that can sustain such a "Managed Learning Environment", but it is important to recognise that the real issue has more to do with College processes than with technologies. MLEs, and their use, are fundamentally about the process of managing change in our institutions. The possibilities and problems of the 21st century demand that we question what we do now.
- Virtual Learning Environments are likely to become essential tools for changing the culture of learning. Their very simplicity lowers the skills barrier to involvement of staff in using online techniques for delivery and support, since they require no knowledge of HTML or high level web-authoring packages to make use of them. They offer the ILT Champion a ready vehicle to drive forward college-wide engagement with new approaches to learning. The introduction of VLEs will provide, for many colleges, one of the first substantial tasks for their ILT Champions as they introduce staff to the new VLE and facilitate its effective use with the different learning communities supported by the college.
- The Steering Group will continue to work towards its objectives by maintaining a dialogue with FE Colleges, suppliers of products and the various agencies active in supporting the implementation of the FEFC ILT Action Plan. The group will use the Centre for Educational Technology Interoperability Standards (CETIS) as its primary reference point on standards.
- The group aims to specify the interfaces that will need to be established between different components of an MLE and then to work with suppliers to implement these in their products. Wherever possible the interfaces will be based on existing or developing international standards. It is hoped that this work will help Colleges to manage the changing environment in which they work, since there is wide recognition across the sector that without clear identification of standards for interoperability the sector's take-up of VLEs will be substantially limited.
- Some members of college senior management teams may find the book Managing Change in Higher Education (Peter Ford et al. (eds.), Open University Press 1996) helpful. It recommends the Learning Education Architecture approach to managing change. In addressing change colleges will need to build on their existing investments. Given the timing of resource availability, it is anticipated that many colleges will want to invest in VLEs soon while maintaining their other systems.
- The UfI is represented on the Steering Group and has made available details of its Learning Environment and the standards chosen for its implementation. However, colleges offering learndirect courses should note that the UfI system is only available for use by, and support to, learndirect learners. The software has been customised and adapted specifically to meet the requirements of learndirect learners and is unlikely to meet fully the needs of the FE sector. It is therefore both necessary and advisable for colleges to own and operate a separate VLE for managing and supporting 'non-UfI' learning.
- True integration requires that data which is input into any one system can be effortlessly and automatically shared, accessed, used and updated by any other system within the Managed Learning Environment. Student personal data, for example, would be entered once only, at enrolment, and be available for all authorised purposes, regardless of the specific software package employed to manage a particular function or activity. The facility to exchange data freely is referred to as interoperability. This requires common agreement amongst suppliers and users about the format of data and the ways in which it can move around and between systems. Interoperability is critical to the viability of the seamless learning and business information environment that the Steering Group defines as its goal.
- The Steering Group is paying particular attention to the issues of interoperability, both between Virtual Learning Environments and various administrative systems and between VLEs and various providers of learning content. Following discussion with a number of suppliers, and on the basis of professional advice received from its own members and external contributors, it is recommended that the standards to be used throughout the sector are those proposed by IMS, with agreed FE extensions where necessary.
The Next Stage
- Colleges will need to use the description of requirements for a VLE produced by the Steering Group, tailor it to meet their needs, and procure a suitable system. Colleges that already have a VLE installed should ensure that it meets the needs for student tracking and can be integrated with existing Management Information Systems, using the IMS standards.
- The Steering Group will continue to work on the definition of an MLE and the specification of the interfaces, liaising with suppliers to encourage implementation of the interfaces within their products.
- An MLE Co-ordinator has been appointed to work with the group, colleges, suppliers and others to achieve these aims. The co-ordinator will work with a range of FE colleges across the UK to pilot the new products and disseminate this information widely through Jisc Assist and the Regional Support Centres. The FEFC has made moneys available to fund this research and a further £5 million will be available for English colleges to purchase MLEs by April 2001.
- Further information on the progress of the work may be obtained from the Steering Group website and the Regional Support Centres.