Virtual learning environments mustn’t lead to module silos

We must ensure modules complement one another by establishing consistency in their form and functioning, says Maurice Kinsella

Maurice Kinsella's avatar
12 April 2021
Virtual learning, book and laptop merged
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The parallels between virtual learning environments (VLEs) and traditional, in-person learning environments are clear. Log in to a module’s landing page, and you’ll find the resources for staff to educate, students to learn and higher education institutions (HEIs) to maintain service delivery amid unprecedented disruption.

At the same time, our abrupt full migration to the digital domain in the wake of Covid has highlighted crucial differences between these two environments. Similar DNA; different creatures.

In a cross-section of even the most dynamic and user-friendly VLEs, questions arise – unjustly, perhaps – regarding their ability to substitute for on-site engagement, especially in cases where they were intended as a supplementary resource, not a surrogate.

The reality is that, indispensable as they’ve been in keeping the show on the road, VLE dependence has also brought fresh challenges to our campus doors. Especially notable is the risk that our current reliance on digital engagement may lead us to an overly devolved approach to module coordination. The consequence is what might be called module “siloing”.

How so? At its heart, student engagement – forming healthy and constructive relationships with one’s educational community – is what leverages the range of activities offered by universities; it’s the fire within their furnace.

Of course, delivering on-site courses and activities can pose difficulties; coordinating institutions’ finite resources of time, space and staff availability does not come easy. And yet, on-site timetabling and resource management subtly provides structure, clarity and transparency within and across academic programmes. It requires a consistent and holistic approach to managing, monitoring and, especially, motivating students’ engagement with their programme. Importantly, it offers a buffer against imbalances in the expectations met and resources required by students across their individual programme modules.

By comparison, students currently cut off from in-person activities are constrained to engage within different VLE modules. Module coordinators have been pivotal players at the centre of managing this seemingly interminable shift, steadfast in their efforts to maintain teaching and learning strategies and uphold curriculum standards.

While module coordinators share a digital “home” within their respective programme’s VLE, there can nonetheless be considerable variation in what they choose to do with the space they’ve been provided. Their choices will, in turn, affect how welcoming the programme feels for students.

These variations can and do lead to discrepancies in, among others, the number of learning materials provided, how content is populated, how the interface is organised and, crucially, how students’ participation is assessed.

In short, in HEIs more “traditionally” set up for in-person instruction, we have stumbled across a coordination issue in the design and delivery of student engagement strategies that hadn’t previously been envisaged.

This poses two distinct risks. First, these differences may undermine students’ motivation to engage proportionately with their various modules, potentially hindering student outcomes (a kind of “academic arbitrage”). Second, these differences may also relativise cross-module monitoring of students’ participation, preventing the painting of an accurate programme-level picture of their engagement.

Responding to these issues and ensuring that students have a sense of coherence across their modules may well influence whether the VLE-centric model will in time be regarded as a short-term response to a seismic shock or, instead, a segue to the emergence of a new primacy in teaching and learning methods.

So, VLEs are currently ubiquitous; they’ve, in essence, been the sole means of engagement for many first-year students. This doesn’t necessarily guarantee them as the best fit for students’ capabilities and expectations. For module coordinators to overcome the risk of module siloing and help VLEs live up to their potential, the big ask is to recognise that modules form part of, and contribute to, students’ broader programme goals. Every module will offer students a different learning experience, not just in terms of what is presented, but also how it’s presented. This diversity is good and should not be abandoned. But there is an important caveat.

It’s not about pursuing module uniformity through overly prescriptive management or oversight; rather, it’s a case of supporting module complementarity by combating siloing and ensuring consistency in their form and functioning. This will help ensure that when a student knocks on the door by logging into their programme’s VLE, the rooms within it, despite having different furniture or layouts, still feel familiar and can be explored and engaged with confidently.

We can pursue consistency in various ways: the number of learning materials and resources provided to students; the scheduling and uploading of classes; the opportunities for meaningful interactions with staff and peers; the way class announcements and communications are made; and the availability of academic supports.

Thankfully, more than a year into the large-scale adoption of the predominantly VLE/digital learning model, much of the heavy lifting to implement efforts such as these will already have been shouldered by academic and support staff.

Nevertheless, given that technological innovations, such as VLEs, are continuing to change the higher education landscape, it’s important to build on these efforts by exchanging best practice for overcoming siloing. This issue is not solely educational; for the student, it’s experiential – reinforcing their willingness and ability to engage at both a module and a programme level.

Maurice Kinsella is a Live Engagement and Attendance Project (Leap) research assistant at University College Dublin in Ireland.

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