Learning lessons from VLEs

Val Proctor finds out how VLEs have adapted to a modern learning environment, and why they remain an important part of student engagement

Virtual learning environments (VLEs) are a growing trend for educational institutions, both for schools but more so for universities. In fact, digital technologies in general are now seen as a catalyst for change, particularly in higher education, and are impacting all areas, from teaching through to the business processes that go on in the background. 

VLEs can be viewed as digital classrooms that help teachers and students to increase their learning experiences. By their very nature, the flexibility of VLEs enables teachers to extend the kind of learning they deliver, as well as having the added advantage of interactive feedback and assessments. 

Bob Nilsson, director of vertical solutions marketing, Extreme Networks, reinforces this belief, and explains that while some universities have developed their own in-house VLE, others are tapping into the capabilities of established industry players such as Blackboard and Moodle. 

“While VLEs were originally used as repositories for reference materials or as a portal to submit assignments, universities are now rethinking the ‘traditional’ virtual learning environment,” he says. A recent IDC survey found that nearly half (46%) of European higher education institutions will invest or upgrade their solution within the next year. This suggests that universities are looking to add further value to VLEs for both students and faculty alike. 

The survey goes on to say that “disruption to the higher education sector has historically been driven by governments’ desire to expand access to higher education.” In the future, however, disruption will come from new issues, including the increase in cost of tuition, a decline in public sector funding, and the rise of alternative channels to learning. 

There are also questions over the ability of traditional teaching methods to deliver employable students, the survey reports, and a rise in the number of non-traditional students who will demand more competency-based education in line with demands from employers. 

The survey also says, “Institutions recognise the role technology can play in helping to plot a course through the changing landscape.”

A place for engagement

Nilsson believes that, rather than acting as digital storage, VLEs should evolve and become a place for engagement between students and faculty. Online discussion boards and group projects are a few examples of this. 

The next step that VLEs are taking involves including analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) to help provide more personalised learning and identify students at risk of falling behind. Application and network analytics can help model the behaviour of both successful and struggling students. These analytics are being incorporated into AI and machine learning models to raise the capabilities of VLEs.

VLE lead at Jisc, Lawrie Phipps, believes that over the next five years, universities will look to integrate VLEs with other university systems to deliver a best-in-class experience for students. A network management tool can help to pull insights across university systems to deliver real-time updates, event and schedule notifications, security updates, protect both student and school resources, and provide a range of analytics tools.

The emergence of new digital media such as AR and VR are making VLEs more engaging and also enhancing interaction between students and faculty staff. Technology in education is now ubiquitous, and universities should be looking to capitalise on new technologies to deliver a best-in-class educational experience for both faculty and students, adds Phipps. 

Carmen Miles, director of academic professional development at Arden University, says technology will continue to support the student experience through the increased use of data to provide a personalised experience that delivers customised resources and learning activities to the student, that best supports their success.  

“This type of learning, known as as ‘adaptive learning’, will utilise technology to deliver learning that is relevant, on-time, and meets the students’ learning needs. This use of learning analytics will drive forward human tailoring of responses,” she says.

Not a one-trick pony

we’re at a watershed, and we need to start asking questions about whether VLEs are relevant to the type of learning we want to do in the future – Steve Rowett

Nilsson also believes that VR, AR and mixed reality technology provide new and important learning opportunities in the classroom and will play an ever-increasing role in the VLE over the next five years. 

“VLEs enable students to access traditional as well as emerging digital media course materials, engage with faculty or classmates in discussion boards or collaborate on assignments while working on- or off-campus,” he says.

“In this way, VLEs aren’t one-trick-ponies, they provide a multitude of resources and benefits, and I think universities are only beginning to scratch the surface on this.”

University College London (UCL) has 7,000 courses listed on its Moodle VLE. Digital education futures manager, Steve Rowett, says the university has been using Moodle for the past 10 years and not much has changed with the technology in that time. “Although we like the system, it does have its restrictions,” he says. 

“We’re definitely seeing a consolidation in the market, and many universities are now using home-grown technologies. I think we’re at a watershed, and we need to start asking questions about whether VLEs are relevant to the type of learning we want to do in the future.”

In particular, he refers to the fact that learning is becoming much more inter-disciplinary and students are more inclined to want to get ideas from elsewhere, something current VLE systems are not very good at. 

Liz Avery, tutor support and training manager at Arden University believes that Big Data will have the biggest positive impact on HE students as we start to use technology to help us collect and interpret data in order to improve the student experience.

“The technology will do the heavy lifting and we will be alerted if a human intervention is needed. For example, a phone call to see if a student has a particular problem if they have not been logging in for a while.

“Although my mantra is ‘pedagogy before technology’, in this case we can use technology to enable us to provide a truly personalised learning experience and foster that all-important human connectivity,” she says. 

This view is reiterated by Lawrie Phipps who believes that, over the next five years, technology in the educational sphere will become a collection of tools which include VLEs, more collaboration and an ecosystem which will allow staff and students to plug and play.

“We’ll see students and staff bringing their own style to online learning, although they will still be using data and analytics and there will be much more personalisation,” he says.

Connecting students – anywhere, anytime

Nilsson concurs, saying that VLEs provide connectivity and access for students and faculty, anywhere and anytime. “Students are increasingly accessing VLEs while on the go and even during campus shutdowns. A Jisc survey found that 48% of university students access their VLE on their mobile phones,” he says. 

His advice is for universities to look to improve their VLEs based on analytics and feedback from students and staff. In order to gather this data, higher education institutions can look to network and application analytics, which will provide universities with information on how, when, where and by whom resources are being used. 

“In addition to providing insight to optimise learning and prevent drop-outs, this will give universities the confidence that network resources are being optimally allocated, while also furthering their understanding of how users are utilising VLEs,” he says.

In their current format, VLEs have certainly left their mark on higher education more than in secondary institutions. However, as all schools increasingly use a wider variety of devices in the classroom, the time is right for them to invest in VLE solutions that will support teachers with classroom management, while providing students with access to classroom materials while at school or from home.

So, the lesson learnt? The future of education lies in technology – as Steve Rowett says, students expect a coffee, Wi-Fi and a VLE – not necessarily in that order.