At the moment, the main challenges facing VLEs in higher education are engagement and integration.
If we look at students first, we forget that they are often only given a few sessions to understand the VLE in their first year. We found in our Bloom VLE research that some students skipped their training classes because they assumed they were tech-savvy enough to deal with it, but actually it was more complex than they imagined. Making sure these kinds of lessons are run throughout the year may be a way to overcome this issue.
Similarly, if a student is not quickly able to see the benefits of using the VLE they will become disengaged. Learning technologists can prevent this by making sure they build well-crafted, useful online materials, and interactive contexts, such as forums and online quizzes. It should not just be seen as a file storage system, as that is not what students expect in this modern digital world.
Then there’s integration, which seems to be the buzzword of the moment in the IT world. The ability to seamlessly integrate material of all sorts from any source is seen as the Holy Grail. Think about it – a VLE needs to be able to host lecture captures; reading lists; meeting bookings; as well as being accessible from students’ tablets, phones and laptops.
Our research (which you can read at bloom.london.ac.uk/research) found that students view some of the top benefits of our VLE as ease of access to grades, feedback, and course materials. It was also apparent that the use of forums and interactive online discussions were things they were interested in, too. As tech advances, what else can we expect to see as a future benefits for students using VLEs?
The ability to seamlessly integrate material of all sorts from any source is seen as the holy grail
AI has made substantial progress in the last five years compared with the previous 50. For now, universities need to focus on ways AI can be used to complement their interactions with students, not only chat-bots monitoring help forums, but also in analysis and identification of weak courses and unengaged students.
You can use VLEs to analyse student activity, allowing pre-emptive intervention and the targeting of individual users’ needs. If a student is engaging less and less with the platform, the VLE can use this data to flag up a student at risk.
The potential of such systems was demonstrated last year when, during a pilot programme for a learning analytics system, an automated process running here in London flagged up a student in Pakistan as the number one at-risk member of the participating institution’s student body two full weeks before she sent a message through the VLE expressing suicidal feelings. Pastoral care staff were able to speak to the student about her problems and get her back on track.
Universities can prepare for technological changes by choosing a VLE which is open source. This gives them two major benefits:
1. Open source gives the user the ability to usefully plan their future requirements and take steps to have them fulfilled by the simple expedient of paying for changes to be made that suit them. Without access to source code, the users’ role is restricted to petitioning the vendor.
2. There is a security of supply – ultimately, the institute can take their VLE elsewhere if the original supplier stops supporting the system.
In conclusion, we have already seen VLEs come up against challenges such as mobile compatibility, and no doubt technological advancement will throw up more issues. However, by investing in a platform that allows flexibility and personalisation, universities are able to future-proof their VLEs and be ready for any change. They should use their VLEs to improve engagement with students, and make sure their students are receiving enough support during their time at university to become comfortable with the platform itself.