Do Virtual Learning Environments improve the quality of education?

W.J. Kerkhofs*

Introduction

According to the innovations within Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) the year 2000 will in the future be characterized as a year of major changes. Most applications, currently based on content delivery and time and place independence, will evolve into more user-centered applications to support flexible educational programs. In this way, more individual oriented concepts of learning take advantage of this evolution. The new environments will have the quality to adapt to the learnersí individual characteristics. The use of portals and agents will not only strongly supports the creation of personal virtual environments, but also the way students learn collaboratively.

During the implementation of current learning environments the main pitfall is the straightforward translation of curricula into on-line learning courses without the reflection on new ways of learning. It is an empirical fact that these courses have a negative effect on the quality of the program.

The main question is "How to implement the new environments in a way they improve the quality of education and support an explicit view on the theory of education?" The answer is based on experiences at Hogeschool Enschede, a University of Professional Education in the Netherlands.

Trends

As a result of dizzying evolution of the technical and telecommunication environment the education and training sector develop the concept of a "Virtual school". Time and place independence become key words. Learning has to be accessible to everyone, be it on the job or in less formal settings such as at home, in libraries or on the move.

A number of key trends can be identified (European Commission, p. 8).

These involve wide-scale uptake of new Internet technologies, use and re-use of multimedia content, new forms of content delivery and innovative approaches to knowledge acquisition.

Meeting Point

In 1998 a project team at Hogeschool Enschede, a University of Professional Education in the Netherlands, started to make a study of VLEs as a tool for full-time and part-time education.

The project team was called "Meeting Point". After two months this team proposed two important keynotes: - to reduce costs, to converge knowledge and experiences, to share and re-use products, it is important to establish one platform for virtual learning for the University as a whole, - a phased project organization should support the implementation in the different schools. The board accepted these recommendations and Meeting Point became a University-wide project to implement a VLE.

Now, after two years, it is one of the successful reforms in education at the Hogeschool. There are about 85 on-line courses and 40 virtual communities to support project work, all based on the Lotus Notes Domino platform. "Meeting Point" became a service organization that organizes application training sessions, didactical training sessions, planning of the working groups, the maintenance of the VLE, quality control, counseling, and a help-desk. The experiments so far tend to support existing social, institutional and pedagogical arrangements.

On the other hand, there is a growing interest in implementing new educational methods, such as student-centered education, collaborative learning, competence learning, on-the-job and just-in-time learning. There is a shift in paradigm from teacher-oriented to a more student-oriented learning approach. The more "traditional" teachers have great problems translating these new methods into learning opportunities. Our experiments indicate that VLEs can enable learning situations that give more control to students (Eurelings). And perhaps our most important finding is that teachers working in a VLE have fewer problems to change their instructive roles into more coach-oriented roles.

Learning technologies can provide significant benefits to learners either by supporting traditional modes of teaching - releasing the teachers from a number of repetitive tasks - or by offering new ways of learning. Collaborative learning through computer-mediated conferencing tools leads the way to new forms of learning involving learning from peers rather than just from tutors. This is linked with "constructivist" principles of learning. Most software tools for learning are "delivery based". They are based on the dissolution of information rather than the management of learning processes. During the Meeting Point project the focus changed from "place and time independence" via "interactivity" to "learning process support". This shift is inspired by a growing insight into the possibilities of the VLE and the positive interaction between technology and new views on education.

A substantial proportion of learning activities have to be based on high-quality content and services that are relevant and differentiated according to the student's particular needs. Collis predicts the need of three major types of Teleware, called Cyberlibraries, Learning-experience environments and Course-support environments (Collis, p. 10). The Cyberlibraries are the already-familiar collections of resources that can be found in abundance on the WWW. These libraries are most successful when they are (a) didactics-free, (b) platform independent and instructionally neutral so they can be used in a broad variety of contexts, (c) in a distributed environment like the WWW, and (d) have a meta-data system to facilitate indexing and searching (Collis, p. 11). The possibilities of use and re-use in different educational contexts is one of the major advantages.

The project tries to establish an environment that supports the following features. For instruction:

The use of multimedia, various information sources, realistic situations for problem solving, use of different didactic models, and the possibility of applying various learning situations.

Coaching:

The possibility of feedback, the reports on studentsí activities, adapting to different learning strategies and learning styles, the possibility for students to reflect, different teaching roles.

For communication:

The possibility of the following forms of communication: Student-student, student-coach, student-external, conferencing, and cooperation.

For stimulation:

The possibility for knowledge networking, independent learning, tasks orientation and intrinsic motivation (Onstenk).

There is still an urgent need to conduct more research into the way the new technologies can improve the way we learn. The next step in our project is the development of new paradigms for learning in a virtual environment. Pedagogical research needs to look at new forms of teaching and learning, as well as new materials. Learning to learn and learning to use information will be essential in the information society. Understanding how to cope with globalized, rapidly growing masses of information, helping the learners to manage their own learning processes, teaching these skills, supporting active, self-paced learning, and finding effective models for assessment and evaluation of the learning and teaching process will be critical. Implementing a VLE in a prototyping way is a continuous interchange between experiments and evaluation. A university-wide service organization to support that implementation and which controls the innovation, was one of the best choices made. In the near future the project establishes a research and development center to stimulate teachers to explore technological novelties. One of the main challenges for the team will be the development of a Knowledge Management (KM) system and the fusion of the virtual learning environment with this KM system. The development of the "Raven" system in relation with their new VLE called "Athena" at Lotus Notes is most interesting.

 

References:

Collis, B.A. (1998, October). Teleware: Instrumentation for Tele-Learning. Inaugural Speech for the position of professor of Tele-Learning at the Faculty of Educational Science and Technology, Twente University, The Netherlands

European Commission. (1998, July). Review of Research and Development in Technologies for Education and Training: 1994 - 1998. European Commission, Directorate General XIII, Telecommunications, Information Market and Exploitation of Research.

Eurelings, A., Gastkemper, F., Kommers, P., Lewis, R., Van Meel, R., & Melief, B. (1999) Integrating Information & Communication Technology in Higher Education, Deventer, The Netherlands: Kluwer

Onstenk, J., Meijer, J. (1998) A Virtual Learning Environment for Community Colleges. (De elektronische leeromgeving in de BVE-sector) CINOP Research and Development, 's Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands. ISDN 90-5003-260-5