Effective Learning and the Virtual Learning Environment

M J Stiles
The Learning Development Centre, Staffordshire University, UK
 

This paper was originally delivered as a Keynote at the 2000 European Universities Information Systems Congress - EUNIS 2000 -  "Towards Virtual Universities" in Poznan, Poland on April 2000.   It has been published in Proceedings: EUNIS 2000 - Towards Virtual Universities, Instytut Informatyki Politechniki Poznanskiej, Poznan April 2000, ISBN 83 913639 1 0, and is reproduced here, in a slightly updated form, with kind permission.

Abstract


Using Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) poses important educational issues for Universities. Without addressing the issues of effective learning, their use can compound the mistakes of the past and leave the learner with a passive, unengaging experience leading to surface learning. Educators need to recognise that learning is a social process and that providing an effective learning environment which facilitates the active acquisition of subject-specific and general expertise, and addresses the need to adopt a specific subject or professional culture, requires more than electronically delivered course notes and email discussion. Quality of course design, use of appropriate tools and the context in which learning takes place are prime factors affecting success in the era of mass higher education and lifelong learning.

The COSE VLE, developed under funding from the UK Joint Information Systems Committee, and now published by Longman Software Publishing, is designed to facilitate active and collaborative learning and to address the educational issues which will be discussed. The system is learner centred and facilitates the offering of active learning opportunities, including specific tutor guidance, granularity of group working by tutors and learners, and varied peer and tutor support, feedback, and discussion. COSE is designed to support distributed learning.
 

The Context


There is an increasing worldwide drive to use the technologies based around the WWW as a means of addressing a number of challenges which face higher (and further) education. The WWW itself has brought about the prospect of a "global education marketplace" and with it the advent of non-traditional "corporate" higher education providers. At the same time individual governments have recognised the need for a greatly widened "mass" access to higher and further education and the need to equip national workforces with the initial grounding and "lifelong learning" skills which will be needed to provide the responsiveness and flexibility required for an ever-accelerating rate of change.

A leading feature of this drive has the advent of systems and approaches designed to make the pattern of learning more "distributed". Distributed learning is characterised as learning which can take place "any time, anywhere", but which encompasses the activities of on-campus learners as well of those of the "distance learner". Indeed the distance learner can be seen as a more tightly delineated subset of distributed learner for whom the option of face to face contact with tutors and peers is either unavailable or heavily constrained to a few specific occasions.

A plethora of names has arisen to describe the software and technologies which are being developed to provide for distributed learning. For the purpose of this discussion, a distinction will be drawn between two types of system. Firstly, a "Virtual Learning Environment" (VLE) or "Learning Management System" designed to act as a focus for students learning activities and their management and facilitation, along with the provision of content and resources required to help make the activities successful. Secondly, a "Managed Learning Environment" (MLE) which includes all of the wider features of enrolment, course options management, student record and profile keeping, the wider management, interchange and publication of content, and the features needed to allow learners to move or progress between courses and institutions.

There are a number of VLEs now available (examples include WebCT, Lotus LearningSpace, and the focus of this discussion, COSE) with more appearing. Despite vendors claims to the contrary it is clear that no true single MLE exists, and that indeed, given the varying needs of different institutions and national education systems, no single solution is likely to exist. This view is supported by the very existence of such initiatives as the US NLII Instructional Management Systems (IMS) Project1, the European PROMETEUS Project2, and the IEEE Learning Technologies Standards Committee3. These are concerned with aspects of producing standards for learning content, its interchange between VLEs, and access to content residing elsewhere (for example in digital libraries) by VLEs. Also being examined are the standards required to allow the interoperation of VLEs with the other systems required to allow the formation of MLEs which suit the needs of individual, organisations and institutions.

Whilst the following discussion will dwell closely on issues associated with VLEs, the author recognises that their mutual interoperation, and their interoperation with other management systems and sources of content is vital if the overall goals of the drive towards distributed learning are to be attained.

The Educational Problems

All the current enthusiasm for distributed learning is largely based around the flexibility and power that the WWW and its associated technologies offer, and the fact that, possibly for the first time in the history of the use of communications and information technology in learning, these technologies are increasingly "ubiquitous".

However it is the case that the prime foci of this enthusiasm are the technology itself and the large "agenda" goals which are striven for. Without focusing carefully on how the technologies will actually address these goals and how they will provide learners with an effective learning experience, the mistakes of the past could easily be duplicated in a new guise.

Some of the most serious errors have been errors of educational and course design and have included:

All the above are really all part of the same problem: namely, the adoption of view of learning as an information delivery process coupled with the practice of procedures4.

In addition there are the problems caused by:

Here the problem is still linked to the didactic approach in that the learner is seen as operating individually "for themselves". This can, in the context of VLEs, lead to a genuine sense of isolation, and in ignoring the social aspects of learning lead to less effective learning.

There is a wealth of published material on the undoubted value of computer based discussion as a vehicle for learning. However, the author would argue that many VLEs place an over-emphasis on "discourse" at the expense of learners working together to produce some artifact. Also the question as to whether the same tools should be used for peer support and guidance as for discourse, or whether different solutions are required for best results, as yet remains unanswered.

Coupled to this are issues of content design and creation. Often there has been an (understandable) desire to create content employing "rich" multi-media. This poses two immediate problems. Firstly, the effort and skills required to produce such content make it unrealistic in terms of both cost and development time as an approach to producing a significant body of content across higher education curricula. Secondly, higher education increasingly has as its learners a generation whose expectations of multi-media have been formed by the computer games industry and will be unimpressed even by relatively expensive multi-media educational content produced by commercial publishers.  Therefore the use of multi-media should focus on its value in the learning context, rather than a desire to excite with its "richness".

Effective Learning

We will now turn our discussion to the question: "what are the conditions required for effective learning?"

It is worthwhile to dwell on what is being developed in the individual learner. The process is concerned not just with the acquisition of subject specific knowledge and skills, but with the development of more general, or strategic, approaches and skills. The author has argued previously7 that this development must also take place in the context of the acquisition of discipline or professional culture if both sets of knowledge and skills are to be of value to the individual in, and applied by them to, new scenarios and fields of study and employment.

This argument is founded on a view of learning as an active process which must recognise, and take into consideration that:

This view leads to an approach to course design which is output driven and focuses on the learning process and the effect it has on the learner, rather than an input led view which focuses on a body of content and its absorption by the learner. This approach7 can be summarised as:

The COSE VLE and Learning

Virtual Learning Environments can be categorised as either Content or Learner Centred16. The COSE VLE was developed specifically to address the requirements of those tutors wishing to adopt learning paradigms which address the considerations for effective learning listed earlier. It is fundamentally Learner Centred in that it takes as its premise that a course consists of a group of people to whom learning opportunities are assigned. Content and course are decoupled, combining only when a learning opportunity, together with resources to aid the learner(s) in addressing it, is assigned to a course. This contrasts with a Content Centred system in which a course consists of an organised collection of learning content onto which learners are "enrolled".

The organisational features of COSE are designed to facilitate active social models of learning such as cognitive apprenticeship and encourage collaborative working which includes synthesis, but nevertheless are not constrained to such constructivist approaches and indeed individual and behaviourist learning remits can also be incorporated.

Users of the COSE system are organised into Groups:

Firstly, Learner and Registrant Groups ("Courses") managed by Tutors, to which Learning Opportunities are assigned. Learner Groups have access to the full range of facilities, whereas Registrant "Course" Groups are designed for learners operating in a context where their tutors wish them to be able to address and communicate about Learning Opportunities assigned to the group, but not to be involved in the creation of artifacts within the COSE system. Secondly, Peer Groups. These are ad-hoc groups set up and managed by Learners for purposes of informal collaboration. Lastly, Tutor Groups which exist to allow educators to work and develop course material collaboratively. A Group can have any number of sub-Groups set up to provide for such things as specific collaborative project work, additional coaching and peer support.

In order to facilitate sharing of work under the control of its author, but also to encourage the reuse and synthesis of material, content in the COSE system exists in two states. The first is referred to as Work-in-Progress and is material under construction by a COSE user or group. In the case of learners this would be work generated in the addressing of a Learning Opportunity, and in that of tutors, course material that is under development. Such Work-in-Progress can be shared under the volition of its author with any COSE user or group to, for example, request review and feedback in the case of learners, or, with tutors, to make available material which is informal or not deemed ready for wider publication.

In the case of tutors, content can be Published. This process renders the material, and its disaggregated parts, accessible to all registered users of the system, whilst maintaining its authorship. To provide for quality control, selected tutors, "Supertutors", are assigned the rights of approval or rejection of material submitted for publication. Modification of published content creates a new "edition" with the original left unchanged. Formal submission of work to tutors by learners renders the material uneditable by the learner until such time as the tutor has finished the assessment and feedback process and relinquishes control.

Published content is viewable, and searchable, by all users of a COSE system. This allows the reuse of content by tutors between and across courses, and encourages learners to look beyond the confines of their own course or discipline for resources, thus encouraging the development of synthesis skills. The original authorship of published content is recorded and maintained by COSE, even where it has been reused by another COSE tutor or learner.

Content in COSE is organised into Pagesets. Learning Opportunity Pagesets describe the remit given to the learner(s). There is a hierarchy of three types of such Pageset: Tasks, which are constrained or bounded opportunities concerned mainly with behaviourist learning centered around the memorising of information or the practicing of a procedure, Activities, which are more open problems which encourage the learner(s) to apply skills and knowledge, and finally Projects, which are "realistic" and require the learner(s) to construct learning in an authentic (but mentored) context.

The Pages making up a Learning Opportunity Pageset can have attached to them Pagesets of Hints (advice and guidance), Theory (informational resources), and also an index of External Resources (reading lists, Web links, journals, lecture time and place, etc.) and Internal Resources (other prerequisite, component, or related COSE Learning Opportunities).

COSE Pages are standard HTML files. In addition, standalone media objects can be attached as separately viewable resources. These can be any WWW compatible media file, a plain text or a file that can be launched using a local application such as MS PowerPoint or Word.

All COSE components can be described (and are internally indexed to speed searching) using keyword metadata. The keywords used can be chosen from a site-specific list of standard keywords, or be ad-hoc ones chosen by the author.
 

Cognitive Apprenticeship and COSE

One model of learning that can be facilitated using COSE is the Cognitive Apprenticeship model17; learning based on the way that apprentices learn from experienced skilled workers. Here, learning is "situated" in the contexts of culture and learning environment by involving the learner in realistic activities which involve collaboration with their peers and tutors, designed to assist them in adopting the specific culture and acquiring the tools needed to discuss and reflect upon practice.

The diagram above shows the COSE Tutor Group Manager tool, which allows a course manager to organise learners into sub-groups, assign specific published learning opportunities to those sub-groups, and communicate with the course group and individual sub-groups via Notice Boards and Email.

Additional private ("work-in-progress") content and advice can be shared selectively with individuals, groups and sub-groups. Learners have a similar Group Manager tool that allows them to create ad-hoc alternative collaborative groups in which to share content and communicate privately.

This next diagram shows the COSE Browser, used by tutors and learners to view content. The navigator on the left shows the path taken through a deconstructed learning opportunity to reach the viewed page. As well as ensuring that learners do not become "lost" in content, this also places the particular page in context with the main learning opportunity. A similar editor tool enables the creation of COSE Pagesets by importing HTML and media files from the client computer, and by creating links to COSE Pagesets and WWW pages in the indexes of COSE pages.

Whilst viewing content, tutors and learners can, by clicking on the small email icon, selectively email the author of the content in question, or any tutor, learner or peer group (or manager or member thereof) of which they are themselves a manager or member.

COSE email is out-going only, messages being sent to the address specified in the user's preferences and received and read using the email client of choice. However, COSE inserts precise information (target group name, nature of query or Pageset referenced) in the subject line of messages sent, thus both ensuring that the context of communication is clear and allowing easy filtering of messages to form discussions, group collections etc.

The Cognitive Apprenticeship model includes three specific forms of tutor activity: "coaching" - the offering of prompts, hints and other forms of guidance, "scaffolding"- the provision of support at a level appropriate to development of the learner, and "fading" - the important process of gradually withdrawing or reducing support as the learner is capable of owning and contributing to the learning context to a greater extent and operating on more equal terms within it.

These activities are facilitated in COSE Learning Opportunities by using the page indexes to provide a chosen degree of deconstruction of a learning opportunity and to reference previously undertaken, pre-requisite or related opportunities and relevant external resources, and, in addition, by adding appropriate informational (Theory) or guidance (Hint) Pagesets to any Learning Opportunity page. Similarly the ability to share private "work-in-progress" material with individual learners and groups, coupled with the notice board and communication tools, allows a dynamic and, where required, individual element to the same processes. Careful design and provision of Learning Opportunities and support can help learners to see for themselves how previous learning can be re-applied in new contexts.

Organisation of Learning in COSE

COSE provides tools allowing learners (and indeed tutors) to organise learning in such a way that the learner's own constructs can be placed in context with other resources found by them within the system, and reused and/or shared with peers or tutors.

Presenting learners with "authentic" learning opportunities makes the division between specific subjects less distinct11. It is important that learners can recognise how material and tools supplied by their tutors for use in their collaborative learning can be applied in both current and future activities12

The picture opposite shows the COSE Learner Vista tool, used by a learner to list and organise their own work-in-progress. The learners own Pagesets, including those which they have shared with others or Pagesets being shared with the learner by tutors or peers, are shown with icons indicting their type and sharing status. Pagesets in the Vista can be selected and launched for viewing or, if the learner has the right, editing. The Learner can opt to have the listing show the authorship of each entry.
 
 

In order to encourage learners to develop their skills of synthesis, COSE provides a tool, the Gatherer, which allows them to search all published content, including images and other media objects using keyword metadata. Searches can include title and author as search criteria. The image opposite shows the results of a learner’s search. Any item listed in the search results can be launched for viewing, and if thought useful or relevant, a reference (link) to it saved in another COSE tool, the Basket, for subsequent referral to or reuse. The Basket provides the same folder and listing features as the COSE Vista.

These features, combined with the sharing and communication facilities, are designed to allow individual learning to take its appropriate place with collaborative learning and the social learning of the wider group. The learning activities are mediated by tutors in the case of formal Learner (course) groupings, and by learners within the private Peer Groups.

This, coupled with the sharing of work-in-progress, provides for a rich range of collaborative activities mediated by tutor and peers (Learner groups) or private to, and mediated by, peers.

COSE in the Lecture Support Context

The COSE system has been designed to be of value when combined with other, more traditional, forms of course delivery and support by enriching the learning experience. Some of the earliest COSE "pioneering" work, undertaken in early 1999, was carried out with first-year English Literature Undergraduates, by staff from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Staffordshire University. This work was done as part of a wider project18, "Assessment and the Expanded Text", which involved other UK Universities. All quotations below are taken from a pre-print version of a report19 written by the staff involved. COSE was used to provide the learners with independent study tasks designed to develop the critical skills required to enable them to perform well in assessed work. These activities were carried out alongside a traditional lecture and tutorial support programme.

It is significant to note that it was the requirement to address the underlying pedagogic approach of COSE that challenged the staff themselves:
 

"The majority of the constraints that the COSE system placed on our presentation of materials were generated not by technical problems but by the challenges of working within a constructivist virtual learning environment. These constraints forcibly, annoyingly, and eventually productively, focused us on our aim which was to give students ownership of the vocabulary, critical approaches and practical skills they need when preparing assignments using critical theory."
"COSE has coaxed us to think less in terms of teaching opportunities and more in terms of the creation of a supportive environment for learning. This coaxing hasn't always been comfortable. Writing projects for COSE involved us in reassessing the more traditional ways in which we delivered material to students."

When these challenges were met, the impact on student learning was significant:
 

"[The resources] encouraged students to make structured and active responses to learning opportunities."

"…students used these resources alongside their own collaborative discussions of their assignments to produce diverse, but detailed and structured assignments."

"[The materials] help to promote ownership of critical strategies."

Conclusion

Whilst the ultimate potential of VLEs is unlikely to be realised until the standards and technologies are in place to facilitate their interoperation with each other and wider organisational and information systems, the view of the developers of COSE is that their successful deployment depends first and foremost on addressing the pedagogic issues associated with effective learning and ultimately on the overall quality of course design and learner support. The author contends that over-attention on the "features" provided by VLEs can lead to a "check-list" approach to VLE selection, which, coupled with inattention to the educational issues, can result in mere transposition of traditional teaching approaches to the computer, and result in a poor learning experience which is ineffective.

The success achieved so far with the COSE VLE20 can perhaps be evidenced by a final quote from the study described above:
 
 

"Working with COSE has made us more aware of the ways in which we promote active learning, not only in courses which make use of COSE, but in the teaching we provide in other formats."

See other Reports and Papers from Mark Stiles and The COSE Project

References
 

1 The IMS Project: http://www.imsproject.org/

2 PROMETEUS: http://www.prometeus.org/

3 LTSC: http://ltsc.ieee.org/

4 J. S. Brown and P. Duguid, 'Universities in the Digital Age', Change, (July/August 1996), accessed in updated form as http://www.parc.xerox.com/ops/members/brown/papers/university.html on 13 March 2000

5 E. Soloway, S. L. Jackson, J. Klien, et al., 'Learning Theory in Practice: Case Studies of Learner Centered Design', (University of Michigan), accessed as http://hi-ce.eecs.umich.edu/papers/ on 10 March 2000

6 W. R. Klemm and J. R. Snell, 'Enriching Computer-Mediated Group Learning by Coupling Constructivism with Collaborative Learning', Journal of Instructional Science and Technology, 1, No2 (1996)

7 M. J. Stiles, 'Developing Tacit and Codified Knowledge and Subject Culture within a Virtual Learning Environment', IJEEE, 37, No1 (January 2000) pp 13-25

8 L. S. Vygotsky, Mind in Society, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge MA, 1978)

9 J. S. Brown, A. Collins, and P. Duguid, 'Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning', Educ. Res., 18, No. 1 (1989), pp 32-42

10 G. Kearsley and B. Shneiderman, 'Engagement theory: A framework for technology-based teaching and learning', Educational Technology, 38, 5 (September-October 1998), pp. 20-23. accessed as http://home.sprynet.com/~gkearsley/engage.htm on 21 February 2000

11 J. Lave, Cognition in Practice, (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge MA, 1988)

12 G. Wells, 'Intersubjectivity and the construction of knowledge' (trans. in Italian), in C. Pontecorvo (Ed.), La Condivisione della Conoscenza, (La Nuova Italia, Rome, 1993) pp. 353-380, accessed as http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/~gwells/intersubjectivty.txt on 30 March 1999

13 G. Salomon and D. N. Perkins, D.N. 'Individual and Social Aspects of Learning', Rev. Res. Educ., 23, (1998). Accessed as http://construct.haifa.ac.il/~gsalomon/indsoc.htm on 29 March 1999

14 P. A. Alexander, and J. E. Judy, 'The Interaction of Domain-Specific and Strategic Knowledge in Academic Performance', Rev. Educ. Res., 58, No 4 (Winter 1998) pp 375-404

15 N. Entwistle, 'The use of research on student learning in quality assessment', in G Gibbs (ed.), Improving Student Learning - Through Assessment and Evaluation, (Oxford Centre for Staff Development, Oxford, 1995), accessed as http://www.lgu.ac.uk/deliberations/ocsd-pubs/islass-entwistle.html on 29 March 1999

16 C Milligan, 'Delivering Staff and Professional Development Using Virtual Learning Environments', in JTAP Report 573, (Heriot-Watt University, 1999). See http://www.jtap.ac.uk/reports/htm/jtap-044.html

17 A. Collins, J. S. Brown and S.E. Newman, 'Cognitive Apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing and mathematics'. In L.B.Resnick (ed.), Knowing, Learning and Instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser, (Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, 1989), pp 453-494

18 FDTL: 'The Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning', Higher Education Funding Council for England, http://www.hefce.ac.uk/

19 Holland and Arrowsmith, 'Towards a Productive Assessment Practice: Practising Theory On-Line', Assessment and the Expanded Text Consortium, University of Northumbria (In Press)  See: Assessment and the Expanded Text Homepage: http://www.unn.ac.uk/~hcr1/

20 The COSE Project: http://www.staffs.ac.uk/COSE/

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