Virtual learning environments are proving invaluable in sudden emergencies, but they're also becoming essential kit for everyday teaching in higher education. David Jobbins looks at the burgeoning VLE market's two key commercial players, Blackboard and WebCT
When Hurricane Katrina struck the US Gulf Coast earlier this autumn, the impact on the region's infrastructure was catastrophic.
Universities were as badly affected as other enterprises - staff and students displaced, communications systems disrupted, campuses flooded or otherwise damaged. New Orleans' leading universities were forced to abandon the autumn semester and planned to reopen in January. But the University of New Orleans, whose lakeside campus was inundated, announced within days that it was to resume online courses in a matter of weeks. It appealed to faculty to let administrators know if they would be able to deliver courses either through the internet or via Blackboard, a virtual learning environment (VLE), emphasising that it would be dependent on Blackboard delivery "more than ever before".
At least in the foreseeable future, British universities should not have to contend with a disaster on the scale of Katrina, but may still be caught up in complex situations such as the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak, when isolated agricultural colleges maintained some activity via then-embryonic VLEs.
But the philosophy behind the onward march of this technology is difficult to challenge. Matthew Pittinsky, chairman and co-founder of Blackboard, says: "The great challenge for e-learning is how to step beyond courses to incorporate all of the many other educational resources, both traditional and digital, into the online learning experience. How do we connect and integrate courses with libraries, research labs, advisors, peers, museums, alumni, parents, other institutions and other learning resources?
"A networked learning environment enables any student or teacher to collaborate with educators, evaluate academic performance and access learning resources at any time. Advanced NLEs include the ability to find people and resources not just at the home school, but at other universities and institutions as well," says Pittinsky.
Progress towards that goal has been rapid. In the US alone, according to the 2003 Campus Computing Project survey, 33.6 per cent of all college courses used course management tools, up from 26.5 per cent in 2002, 20.6 per cent in 2001 and only 14.7 per cent in 2000. If market projections prove correct, VLEs will become the norm at universities in Britain and Europe over the next few years.
The issue for most universities is which commercially available technology to buy. A minority may choose open source software - principally Bodington, originally developed at Leeds University and currently used by the UHI Millennium Institute, Leeds, Oxford, and Manchester universities.
But most academic institutions still turn to off-the-shelf suppliers who offer 24/7 technical support and other services. The market leaders are both American in origin: Blackboard with its Academic Suite and WebCT with its Campus Edition and enterprise-driving Vista. There is little evidence of universities switching allegiance. Once committed to one supplier, the logistics and costs of retraining academics and others to use an alternative verges on the prohibitive.
Tony Lewis, director of information services at Salford University, says Salford selected Blackboard after a thorough investigation in 2002. "I feel there was little to choose technically between the two products and it came down to where the academic community saw its usage." So far, there are no regrets.
Middlesex University may be the leading UK university in the rate of growth of VLE use. It opted for WebCT in September 2003 after a pilot project demonstrated strong student demand. Kyriaki Anagnostopolou, the university's head of e-learning, says: "Feedback was very positive - 90 per cent of students saw WebCT as a useful addition and 70 per cent asserted it helped them learn more. Eighty-five per cent of academics have taken it on, but students are still asking for more."
Stephen Clarke, head of e-learning at Birmingham University, says that introducing WebCT across the institution represented a "brave jump" for many academics. "No one was forced into it," he adds.
Now 80 per cent of undergraduates have one or more courses available via VLE.
A survey for WebCT shows that 93 per cent of its existing European university clients expect to extend their use of e-learning over the next two years. Three quarters of existing users say e-learning either already plays a substantial role across a majority of courses - or will do within three years. WebCT pinpoints a shift in the perception of e-learning to "mission critical".
A study by Kingston University found that student VLE usage was very high, with most logging in at least four times a week. A Kingston business studies student who uses Blackboard frequently says it has become an integral part of his study. He will access the VLE "just to see what's there" and "to keep abreast of things".
He finds that Blackboard helps him feel engaged and provides motivation.
"Some of the active stuff in Blackboard - external links and quizzes - helps a lot."
Since June, Blackboard has offered universities effective outsourcing of their IT operations by opting into its e-learning technology service hosted at a new European data centre in the Netherlands. The option will enable universities to concentrate on the front end of the application on campus via the web, while Blackboard manages the IT infrastructure (hardware, network, physical and network security and facilities). The first UK university to sign up for the new service is Derby.
Mary Hope, the university's head of IT applications, says: "Derby has a growing number of pure e-learning students studying in all parts of the world. It is vital that the learning materials can be accessed at all times, and this solution using the new centre enables us to have a fast set-up time and reliable 24/7 access."