The perfect medicine for virtually all users

May 16, 2003

Flexibility is the key to creating a VLE that benefits students, lecturers and universities, says Gilly Salmon.

Exposure to an allergen in early infancy can lead to serious and sometimes incurable problems in later life. Foisting an inappropriate or weakly supported virtual learning environment (VLE) onto an unsuspecting audience of students and lecturers can produce similar results. At the first sneeze, they become convinced that online learning is a waste of time.

I have noticed a variety of reactions from teaching colleagues around the world to their initiation into VLEs. They can range from wild enthusiasm and unconditional technology adoption to resigned minimalism or even strategic undermining of attempts at implementation. Most academics look in vain for a compensatory incentive or contractual position to use information and communication technologies in their teaching. In the end, universities rely on lecturers' goodwill and readiness to re-skill. But what about the students?

At the Open University Business School, we recently conducted a survey of students on our professional certificate in management, which attracts up to 5,000 module registrations a year from western and eastern Europe. The course deploys well-rehearsed OU open-learning methods, including print-based materials and tutor support for individuals and groups. We have our own website and first-class online conferencing.

We asked students how flexible they wanted their courses to be. To our surprise, respondents defined flexibility in 73 different ways. New technology is fine, they say, if only if it were better and more readily available. Some of their flexibility wish-list could be provided through a VLE, if it was up to it.

For example, many want more searchable, portable course materials. They need help with routes and pacing through the material. They want any-time, anywhere assessment and to receive feedback on exams similar to their individually crafted feedback on coursework assignments.

We asked students how much they would be prepared to pay for seven aspects that increased flexibility for them. Nearly half were not prepared to pay for flexibility in start dates, and more than a third were unwilling to pay for flexible pace, study breaks or individualised programmes. The selection of study methods proves to be most appealing, with half of the students prepared to pay £100 or more.

Students also want to find like-minded others easily - perhaps those who speak the same mother tongue, those from the same industry or those living in a similar location. Since all students are online this should be easy, but the VLE requires restriction and cuts through this flexibility aim. This is a technological challenge rather than a conceptual one.

In the OU we have 15 years' experience of online group conferences, but we are still waiting for a technology that offers web access to pedagogically sound group tools, rather than old-fashioned message boards. The students' greatest wish of all, however, is unrestrained access - not to technology but to other people - instant online "broadband" tutors. This is not just for convenience but to make their learning more friendly, achievable and satisfying.

Can we provide this? Lecturers are ill-prepared for the different online world. Many of the most enthusiastic and successful online teachers are those "gypsy scholars" working in portfolio ways. They have acquired their skills and understanding in the idiosyncratic online world itself, learning to teach through the medium. Most regular lecturers, however, may have been offered nothing more than a short technical workshop. Faced with a VLE and online students, they jump straight into their trusty pedagogical vehicles, framed by a complex disciplinary view acquired through their formal education topped up with sprinkles of advice from people they admire and their own good and bad learning experience. They haul all this online. The innovators and the early adopters persist with more or less grace and with blended learning at best. For the rest, the allergy kicks in and flexible teaching opportunities are lost.

What we know of flexible online learning should be exploited for teaching staff. To change what they do, they need opportunities to shuttle back and forth between what they already know and what they are prepared to develop, between specific details and their implications in wider contexts and between practice and reflection. They need experience in creating and managing virtual learning without gobbling up huge amounts of personal time. These skills are more important but harder to acquire than, say, posting PowerPoint slides in a VLE. Lecturers can then gain confidence and professionalism in their new roles.

I suspect that the first VLE to offer students true flexibility at low cost to the university will corner the market. The anti-allergen medicine arrives packaged as properly prepared, enthused and competent online teaching staff.

Gilly Salmon is senior lecturer in management teaching and learning at the Open University Business School and visiting professor at Caledonian Business School. Her new book

E-tivities was recently published by Kogan Page.

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