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Changes and challenges of academic lives through the introduction of virtual learning environments

Julie A. Richardson
Kings College London

Paper presented at SCUTREA, 31st Annual Conference, 3-5 July 2001, University of East London

QUALITY teaching in higher education is generally identified with the promotion of effective learning opportunities for students (Broder & Dofman, 1994). 'The aim of teaching is simple, it is to make students learning possible' (Ramsden, 1992, p.5). Within higher education institutions the drive has been to accomplish this aim through the adoption of new online learning technologies.

This push comes from various directions. The 'cash-strapped' university often identifies the potential for entering new student markets, also hoping students will be attracted by the use of new technologies, and seeing that online course delivery is potentially cheaper (Bennett, Priest & Macpherson, 1999). As McMahon [1997) points out, it is cheaper to produce electronic rather than printed materials and in the longer term, the 'virtual campus' may lead to savings in both real estate and teaching costs.

From a pedagogical perspective the use of learning technology and distributed learning is increasingly seen as a vehicle for fulfilling the needs of students' lifelong learning however, benefits are still debatable. Many educators see the advent of online education as an opportunity to implement more student-centred approaches to learning.

Relan and Gillani (1997) compare 'traditional instruction' (teacher centred, face to face approaches) with their definition of Web based instruction as the 'application of a repertoire of cognitively oriented instructional strategies implemented within a constructivist approach '. However, it would seem self-evident that web based strategies have the potential to be just as inflexible and inappropriate as any other form of poor instruction. Thus, it's not the technology that is important, it is how its used by the teacher to create new experiences for the learner. Willis and Dickenson (1997) argue that rather than online instruction making teachers redundant, as some have suggested, teachers play an essential role for example in encouraging learner involvement, blending communication methods and fostering a sense of community amongst learners (Shotsberger, 1997). However, for most university teachers this is an enormous personal and professional shift requiring a great deal of support and training. Often university teachers come from widely different backgrounds and experiences, and these changes place a whole new set of demands on them. Few attempts have been made to place this transition within the lifelong learning needs and expectations of teaching staff.

How have the demands of adopting distributed online learning challenged university teachers? This paper reports the journey of university teachers during phase one of introducing distributed electronic learning.


During 1998/1999 two UK universities introduced virtual learning environments as part of their commitment to distributed learning considering this to be a form of flexible, autonomous learning, independent of space and time, and, in this case, being achieved electronically. Thus previously compulsory timetabled sessions e.g. lectures and seminars, teaching and learning activities became 'virtual', with students having the flexibility of when and where to study and communicate with each other and their tutors (see Richardson & Turner, 2001a). A key method of communication was asynchronous course rooms where tutors and students could discuss topics etc. Departments were offered funds to support module tutors to transform their existing face-to-face courses to online distributed courses over a period of about twelve weeks. A half-day workshop on how to use the software, etc., was offered to tutors, and technical support staff were on hand to assist with any technical issues and problems.

All tutors who took up this challenge necessarily became involved in the production and maintenance of on-line materials. However, beyond the initial training session they clearly came from a range of backgrounds and experiences.

Some had experience of producing multimedia materials, others had very little experience of educational technologies, but others had very limited experience of information technology at all. Some had a lot of experience with producing resource-based and open learning materials; others were fairly new to teaching or inexperienced in these areas.

Thus in many different ways by undertaking this challenge, staff began a journey of self and professional development to transform their own and their students' academic lives.

A university teacher's personal lifelong learning may be seen as 'development of their potential through a continuously supportive process which stimulates and empowers, to acquire all the knowledge, values, skills and understanding they will require to apply them with confidence, creativity and enjoyment to their professional lives '. The intention here was to discover the extent to which staff felt these lifelong learning needs were being catered for and valued.

To achieve this a broad evaluation model was designed to appraise the quality of teaching and learning experiences for both tutors and students. Using the vocabulary presented by Oliver (1998), the evaluation can be considered to be a hybrid system with formative, summative and illuminative elements. This paper explores the experiences of lecturers in their task of facilitating meaningful learning experiences using VLEs, particularly in terms of the challenges they faced, support they received and their perceptions of outcomes etc.

Evaluating learning with VLEs: the broader model

The evaluation model was designed from the belief that learning should be student-centred, and thus any evaluation should also be student-centred and work outwards towards the factors and influences that contribute to the learning experience. The quality of any learning experience is dependent upon an intricate interaction between the experiences, characteristics and attitudes that a student brings with them, and the attributes of the 'task environment' that interact and control them (Pask, 1976). Each element of the model has at least one associated instrument implemented over two semesters (Richardson & Turner, 2000).


36 tutors responsible for 14 modules utilizing Lotus Learning Space were invited to take part in the evaluation. 8 chose to opt out. For reasons of confidentiality names are omitted and comparisons between subjects or institutions are not discussed.


The key involvement for tutors was in-depth phenomenographic interviews (average length 50mins - 1hour) that were carried out at the start and end of the modules. Phenomenography aims to identify and describe the qualitatively different ways in which people understand phenomenon in the world around them. As such, interviews were very open and individualistic in nature with no predesigned structure. It was vital to the success of the study that tutors were given ample opportunity to raise the issues that were important to them.


Interviews Interview data was analysed using the typical techniques in phenomenographic inquiry (e.g. Marton, 1981). By the end of the interview analysis there were 6 major themes (judged as most frequent and strongest) as discussed below using direct quotations from the interviews.

1. Diversity of backgrounds and starting points

As already suggested tutors involved in the project came from a range of backgrounds and starting points. This topic was a very dominant theme during the interviews. In almost all cases tutors were keen to highlight how far they had come by talking about their starting points. This theme also revealed reasons for embarking on the project that were clearly both internally and externally driven. These selections represent the diversity: Well ... put It this way ... I can send emails ... but I've always been enthusiastic about producing useful learning materials for the students ... this seems like a good extension of that ... with lots of possibility for students independent learning ...

...Basically we were told we had to do it ... I told them right at the beginning that its silly to jump on the technological bandwagon ... we are tying the noose around our necks ... I have had some experience of this type of thing ... I worked on a project once to produce a CD-ROM but apart from that not a lot.

... They've made it clear to us that the future of higher education is in VLEs and distributed learning so I thought I better get on with learning how to do it whilst we were still given development time ...

I've been producing web pages to support my courses for a good few years now. Students can log on, see a video of my lectures, see past projects and get hold of lots of resources.

Thus, the stimulus for tutors' journeys varied among tutors. In some cases it was clearly internally driven, they wanted to learn more about the technology and then explore its potential. In other cases, it was seen as a top down initiative being pushed onto them, they felt they were being forced without being convinced of its value. The section below is taken from interviews once the modules were up and running, here tutors were discussing their overall impressions.

2. My overall perception of VLEs as a tool for teaching and learning

It's like so much of what we do ... it depends on how much you put into it ... I felt so nervous about producing online materials because of my lack of technical expertise ... I think I feel successful because of the students see they have taught me so much through their feedback.

it's an extremely difficult way to teach the students.

Rather than working on a weekly basis where one can be sensitive to their needs. One has to rely on predicting their responses etc ... it's made me understand the complexity of what I do normally.

I remain unconvinced. It's tiring, time-consuming and too generalised. Students don't like not having contact with tutors or other students and all of us are frustrated with technical problems that are out of our control ...

Although I've never been particularly keen on ...innovative teaching strategies... certain things just didn't seem to be working out ... the beginning of lectures seems to me to be a big waste of time ...increasingly difficult to get students talk or think for themselves rather than simply second guess what the tutor wanted from them ... One thing that I have been doing over the past couple of years is o find various kinds of mechanisms to get students into groups. This seems like a reasonable extension of that sort of thing ... My research has gone on to hold to do it though! ...Well I've been designing and using web-based materials for years now, so using LLS as a medium wasn't a problem at all. The only frustrations are it seems in many ways to be going a backward step. It is a very restrictive technological medium and students are often used to more sophisticated mediums. Maybe for tutors without skills it might be less frustrating but I don't think so because it's like a blank sheet with little guidance on how to actually think about how a learner will perceive the materials.

Throughout these there is an underlying theme that tutors have had to be self-reliant in the process of transferring their modules to VLEs. There are several references to a lack of support. The interviews have shown clearly that to produce an online distributed course, tutors need to have a good understanding of teaching and learning methods appropriate for this medium - it has made tutors take a step back and ask themselves 'what approach do I use?' The following comments are tutors reflections on their approaches to teaching and learning and how they have moved into this area.

3. My approach to teaching and learning and how I transferred across contexts

Well I usually like talking a lot and giving lots of handouts ...bores them to death but well, that's what it's about isn't it? [laughs] I thought it would really clash with how I wanted to do things but it isn't 'cos its easy to put your lecture notes on it.

I think they need structure ... I put the materials on each week and make sure its tight. That way I know what they should be doing and when.

I try to pose questions at regular stage to make them think and put links in to resources, which they might want to explore. I also make sure that they have mini tasks and everything fits in really well around the assessments.

.... It's [Lotus Learning Space] a clumsy thing to use in various ways ... paragraph styles, those sections, working out how to put things in the media centre ... my advice for people is just stick a lecture on it and then ask questions later about how you can get some neat technological effects ... I saw one that had a simulation of [...] where itrotated! the important thing is to get something out there that works ... well how I put the materials on really is an intuitive process I suppose ... sure you might say that peoples intuition is dodgy, but a lot of teaching is based on intuition.

The emphasis here is upon technical decisions. In many cases tutors feel this is where their learning has been greatest, however, the pedagogical journey that tutors have struggled with, often unsupported seems greater from the perspective of an observer. Perhaps the reason for this is lack of confidence and that technical expertise is much more easily demonstrated and 'measurable' than pedagogical expertise.

The lack of support and frustration that accompanied tutors through this process has been another very strong theme. Tutors felt that the time given to produce and run courses was underestimated and this, together with the lack of support, often resulted in anguish.

4. Time and frustration

I just can't tell you how may hours I've spent on getting used to it! It's so frustrating. What people don't realise is that we have had to learn all this from scratch. There have been so many technical difficulties for both tutors and students. I've really been pulling my hair out ... it seems to take so much time to monitor it and sort out problems and students ... want to see me in person so I'm still having face to face contact plus I've got the job of doing the Lotus stuff.

I can see that in the ideal it should make more efficient use of tutor time but it certainly doesn't now. It's the organisation that's wrong _ really tutors shouldn't be putting materials in the VLEs that should be the job of support staff _ they should be encouraged to think about the content and structure more. All I seem to do is sort out technical problems.

You wouldn't believe the technical problems we've had ... all the time reinforcing the students' negative views ... they think we don't care but we do ... they don't see us at midnight trying to sort out links or sending emails to support staff to sort out server problems. I've been very close to tears several times ... my wife thinks I'm mad and I haven't spoken to my kids in weeks!

5. Support

...We've just been left to get on with it I had no idea that it would make the teaching side of it so complicated... I think as well I've been so caught up in issues of a technical nature that I've neglected the teaching bit - so I'm probably to blame as well I've been working on this stuff in the evening and then it means I've had to try and make an appointment to see [a educational developer] ... they are busy and I have to go over there ... it makes it twice as hard ... I'm not saying it's not worth the effort but we need more help to make it work well.

Educational support has been severely absent.

6. The future

I'm not happy with the way we are going. Anything 'technological' is 'great!' - well that's the impression we're given ... Lecturers don't have the skills they need or the time to put everything on and the students are not independent enough to cope with it. There should be more of a transition period.

I love it. This is an effective and stimulating way to both teach and learn. It's a real case of the more you put in the more you get out! I've had to learn so much and immerse myself in things I would never have touched before.

My instincts now are quite positive - it seems like an ok way to teach ... I think the students like it 'cos they don't have to be in a certain place at a certain time ... I cannot say how much I've picked up along the way...

It certainly isn't less work for me ... but I do think it's possible to do a good job for students.

Discussion The results presented here taken from interviews with tutors as they have journeyed through their transition to electronic distributed learning have highlighted a number of important conclusions/issues.

First, tutors generally felt positive that during their involvement in the process of developing materials for online distributed learning, they improved their face-to-face to teaching. The production of materials forced tutors to evaluate and explicitly come face to face with their own approach to teaching. Fontana et al. (1993) support this conclusion by noting the successful integration of technology requires changes in educators instructional behaviours. They suggest that over time these behavioural changes occur as educators reflect on their own beliefs about learning and instruction.

Second, tutors devoted an enormous amount of time and energy to their projects and in doing so made great strides in their professional development. These strides may not have otherwise been made and thus the project, although having many weaknesses, may be seen as a valuable tool for these tutors. However, in this phase of introducing VLEs tutors either volunteered for the project or were targeted by department heads because of their experience in developing electronic materials or interest in innovative approaches to learning (Looms, 1993).These tutors may be classified as 'pathfinders ' who already had an interest and internal motivation to make this succeed.

Issues of support, highlighted below, must be addressed for the project to develop further.

Third, even the pathfinders, despite their willingness, often expressed scepticism about the value of this medium for their students. It seems that it wasn't 'change' that tutors were afraid of it was much more the social and political consequences of the change (Gayeski, 1992).

Fourth, also relevant to time and energy were the sacrifices made by tutors in order to make their individual modules succeed. In all cases tutors expressed a strong desire to do the best job they could for students, and naturally, there were also competitive elements and fear of showing 'failure' in some way. This together with a general lack of support and a large underestimation of time required to build an online module from scratch, especially for an inexperienced tutor, was a great strain on both tutors and their families.

Fifth, and perhaps the most significant observation, tutors did not have sufficient support both in terms of resources and even more importantly in developing appropriate pedagogies.

This project was a new top-down initiative where few people understood what is involved in the production of online materials. Writing a course for learners where you may not have the opportunity of seeing them face-to-face for long periods of time can mean two things. First, the materials are going to have to guide the students through a learning path. Second, tutors may not get as much student feedback on a regular basis about misunderstandings in learning materials. These two issues place an enormous amount of pressure on tutors to not only produce high quality learning materials, but to be able to explicitly decide the type of learning they wish their students to become involved in. Kearsley (1992) found that interactive multimedia can be an effective learning and teaching tool but only if changes are made to traditional learning and teaching strategies. Richardson and Turner (2000) carried out materials analyses on module materials and found that most tutors had chosen linear paths rather than resource based learning. They also report that with the VLE introduction there was an increase in more passive as opposed to active learning. This was largely due to a lack of support for tutors to develop their pedagogical expertise alongside their technical know-how. As Persky (1990) also found the usual notion of 'training' was insufficient to encompass the kind of knowledge and support educators need for this process, an issue that must be addressed in further projects.

Sixth, technical problems put staff and students off and as Rist (1996) states 'they ...may conclude that because the technology is flawed so are the LT materials ' (p.44) In conclusion, tutors not only demonstrated an enormous commitment to their students, but also to their own lifelong learning. However, this evaluation has highlighted that despite the initiative being 'top-down' both institutions have relied enormously on the good will and motivation of tutors to make it succeed. As suggested earlier, despite the diversity of tutor backgrounds these participants can all be referred to as 'pathfinders', and, if the project is develop successfully, clear mechanisms will need to be in place that cater for the less willing and experienced tutor.

Richardson and Turner (2001b) report on a pilot study aimed at increasing the support for tutors in this process.

They discuss a school-based 'Curriculum Advisor Scheme' where much closer and continuous support is available for staff embarking on on-line modules as well as rewarding dissemination of good practice.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 24 February 2003