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To VLE or not to VLE: what are the questions for professional development in further education?

Alison Jane Hramiak
Manchester College of Arts and Technology, United Kingdom

Paper presented at SCUTREA, 33rd annual conference, University of Wales, Bangor, 1-3 July, 2003


This paper is part of an ongoing piece of research for a doctorate in education and describes a case study that was undertaken to determine the issues and challenges surrounding the application of a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) for use in staff development. The paper investigates the culture change and also the professional identity issues that arise when technology, specifically, online collaborative learning, is used for staff development.

The Institutional Context

The project set up for this research project is called Virtually Teaching (VT). The aim of the course was to raise awareness and provide experience of collaborative learning strategies for college staff in an online environment using an experiential model. The research was conducted at the Manchester College of Arts and Technology, (MANCAT) a large general further education (FE) college serving the City of Manchester and Greater Manchester. The study was also appropriate within the context of the institution because of its innovative nature, and because of the strategic directions of the ICT developments within the college across all curriculum areas.

This study was designed to build on work done previously in the field of networked learning, . The intention was to try to answer the following research questions:

Can online tutors promote a sense of classroom community within the VLE?

Can online learning be used to teach tutors about online learning and can collaboration be used as a tool to do so?

A Theoretical Framework for the Research

Networked group learning is a relatively new area of research, and there is little in the way of shared understandings at the conceptual level, that researchers can use to investigate these issues effectively. There are a number of theories of learning that can be usefully applied to analyse the findings of this work, from the socio-cultural ideas of Vygotsky, along with activity theory, and Wenger’s ideas of communities of practice, through to classroom community applied in the virtual world, and networked computer supported collaborative learning .

The framework for this study can be thought of as a combination of theoretical concepts, combined with the design and implementation of the VT course in order to determine strategies for future online learning experiences within a VLE for a college within the FE sector, such as MANCAT. Recognition of the organisational context enables the research to find its place in the reality of education within an institution. To do this, it is necessary to be mindful of the restrictions imposed on the processes involved, such as staff motivation, and financial and logistical constraints. This also avoids the risk of idealising the processes through which pedagogical frameworks, educational settings, task and so on are created and developed . This was able to be done in this study because the research was conducted in the institution in which the researcher was employed.

Methodology and Methods

The action learning/research approach used for this piece of research was chosen with the intention to improve and better understand practice within the college and to offer advice for others in a similar situation when embarking on this type of staff development. Action research is viewed as a methodological basis for learning from and about the practice within the college .

The case study approach, within an action research setting, was chosen for this research because it provided a means by which appropriate data could be usefully collected and analysed in an iterative fashion. The research methodology used provided an illustrative case study that explored in detail the experience of delivering staff development via the online medium. As with other similar studies, the case study was not meant to be representative of a wider online student body . The intent was to expose the issues and challenges facing this type of e-professional development for other similar types of educational institutions.

Case studies are generally the preferred strategy when ‘how’ or ‘why’ questions are being asked, when a researcher has little control over events, and when the focus is on a contemporary phenomenon within some real-life context . These conditions were met for this study in that the main questions being asked related to how participants learned online. There was little control over the extent to which participants would engage with each other or with the course, and the focus of the research was that of online learning through the medium of a VLE within an educational setting for staff development.

Data Collection and Analysis

A summary of the process by which data was collected for this study, and also a description of what happened to the data from that point is given here as follows:

All raw data was typed up within 24 hours of it being acquired. Data that was in electronic format in its raw state was simply printed and stored. The specific details of data processing for this study are as follows:

1. Interview data – this was recorded long hand and then typed up within 24 hours. For both the pre and post course interviews, a participant versus response grid was produced for all the questions asked at the interviews. From this grid, for each interview, a simple compare and contrast grid, containing the similarities and differences in the responses to the questions for the group was constructed . These grids were then combined to produce a grid that detailed the before and after group responses.

2. Discussion Board data – the messages from each board were printed and filed along with a summary sheet for each board that gave access details for that board. These were then analysed and the data typed up into summary sheets for each board.

3. Questionnaire data – the BlackBoardă questionnaire data was tabulated on a question by question basis for each participant . For the CCS questionnaire, as stated previously, the CSS Raw Scores and Subscale Raw Scores were determined for each participant . These were then tabulated for the whole group for comparative purposes.

4. Email data – the email messages pertaining to the course were printed and filed.

5. Tutor’s log – this was recorded as a tabulated word file and stored as such.

There were two types of data defined for the purposes of this study, primary and secondary. Primary data is that which is used empirically, that is, analysis of this data leads directly to specific themes or conclusions. The primary data is that which was specifically sought for the purposes of the research, for example, interview data, discussion board messages. Secondary data is that which is used to support the findings of the primary data. The secondary data is that which was a ‘by-product’ of the research, that is, it was not specifically required for the research, rather, it emerged as a consequence of the research, for example, email messages, and the tutor’s log.

The technique for data analysis comprised the following steps:

1. Each data set was examined individually for similarities or differences within the responses, or for themes emerging from the data. This was generally done by tabulating the data in order to get a clearer picture of the emergent results.

2. Once this had been completed for the individual data sets, a table was drawn up that comprised all data sets so as to examine any inter data set themes.

A sample from that table is given here to illustrate how the data was analysed:

Primary and Secondary Data Set Summaries

Interview Data

Both interviews were friendly and informal

Before Course:

Mixed feelings about e-learning Double edged sword Enhances teaching Alternative delivery method Difficult without IT/Research skills Implementation strategy required Specialist team needed to develop courses

Participants varied in: IT and teaching experience Definition of e-learning Experience of e-learning

After Course:

Non participation because of:

Motivation(lack of) Pressure of collaboration No access from home Reluctance to work from home Time is a problem for all

All interested in the subject matter of the course

Time a recurrent theme as was a requirement for blended learning

All agreed you need a synchronous meeting to engender a sense of community – without it collaboration is seen as a barrier .

Only felt connected at face to face meetings not online. Require a greater visual structure/maps in course

All happy with their IT skills and the VLE

All agreed ICT as an enabler/disabler depends on a person’s exposure to new technology

Discussion Board Data

31 messages in total. 11 from the tutor 20 from a mixture of three other participants

Short, shallow threads Five messages in one thread is the largest thread.

Message style is informal, friendly, often informative and open ended requiring responses.

Messaging/access is generally done in working hours

Very little participation (20 messages from three other people over six weeks is approximately one message per week per person, however it was not that even)

Never any interaction between the whole group . Interaction is always between two participants or between one to two participants and the tutor.

No response to tutor’s encouragement to participate. Never any response to each other’s questions from participants outside the initial two-way messages.

No pattern of access or timing, except that it mostly occurs within the working week.

Figure 1: Extract from Inter Data Set Analysis Table Summarising All Data

Initial Findings

From an initial analysis of the data, there are four main emerging themes or issues that have come to light thus far.

1. Time as a problem . This leads to low participation and short messages that are mostly done within the working week. It also resulted in participants being unhappy with their own contributions to the course, and with the contributions of others, and with them requiring more time to work with others. As one participant said; ‘time was always a problem’.

2. L ack of a sense of community . There was a need for synchronous meetings to engender a sense of community: ‘It didn’t get going enough online to have this sense of community’. Without it, there was never any interaction between the whole group, no response to requests from either the tutor or from other participants beyond the initial two way contact. Collaboration becomes ‘a barrier of how to do it’ without synchronous (blended) learning. The participants exhibit a need for social learning, with and from others. Contact and interaction with others is important, as is group identity, yet they did not get this from being on an online course. Responses to the learning styles questions point to socio-constructivist learning as preferred by the participants away from independent, individualistic learning, however, this is not exhibited in this online course.

3. I T is not a barrier once participants remembered how to log on. They were happy with their IT skills for the purpose of this course, but also gave pointers for improving the design of future courses; ‘…reminders or pop up messages would be useful to say what is happening, deadlines, meetings and so on’, and a course map/visual map and indication of course structure to show where you are in the course.

4. Good inter participant relations . Written and verbal communications between participants, though relatively sparse, is always friendly and informal, for example, near the end of the course this message between participants relating to help on the course: ‘I have just been violently strangled by Alison for not doing any of my course so any help would be great – neck brace, chafe cream etc.’.

In terms of what these findings mean in relation to the theme of language and lifelong learning, it seems that IT per se is not a language barrier in this study, even though it might have been expected to have been, given that not all participants work in this subject area, or had used a VLE prior to this.

What is also apparent from the findings is that staff became students, that is, as one participant said, they ‘go into student mode’ when they undertake professional development. They arguably lose their identity as professionals and become students, requiring the things that students need, such as time, space, and place for quiet study. Not all these requirements are met when staff development programmes are implemented in educational institutions. As such, they suffer the same anxieties and stresses that students do when they cannot keep up with a course because they do not have enough time to do it. The participants said that they were ‘too tired to do it from home’ when there were access problems at work, or were ‘reluctant to do it outside office hours as was becoming expected at MANCAT’, or ‘did not have time to do it in work’. They could not agree on a preferred time of day to do the course, there being, as one participant commented, ‘no easy solution to running staff development at any time of year’. One participant remarked that there would be ‘far better results if staff had time to do it’

A lack of time stood out as a recurring theme throughout the data sets. All agreed that more time was needed to work with others and to do the course. This plus a requirement for blended learning, for face to face or some kind of synchronous meeting during the course in order to engender a sense of community. Without this, collaboration was seen as a barrier rather than as a positive experience.

Collaboration is seen as the key to online networked learning by many researchers ( and indeed, I myself am one of its staunchest supporters, believing, like others, that it is pivotal to the success of true e-learning experiences. In this study however, the participants felt otherwise - collaboration was not any of the above. What collaboration was in this study is best given using quotes from the participants themselves. Collaboration ‘added pressure to do the course and if you missed a week you felt that you had got behind which made it even more difficult to participate’. Collaboration was given as a barrier, a ‘conception problem, a barrier of how to do it (collaboration) online without meeting people’. Collaboration was ‘an embarrassment factor when you got behind’. It was even given as a pressure, a guilt trap, for many of the participants, something that was not easy to get done because ‘there was no point in time when they met’, and something which made you feel ‘guilty if you couldn’t do it’ such that it ‘spirals to the effect that you never do it’. So much for collaboration then ! It seems that there was ‘virtual peer pressure’ felt by the participants of the course, and this was amplified by non-participation in the course because of the innate collaborative requirements it.

The culture change required for the change from face to face to online learning is not an easy one, as can be seen from the findings here. Before any course is run solely online, an institution needs to be very clear that this is the best method for a specific curriculum area and student group. Whilst lifelong learning, in the context of staff development, continues to be largely one-off short events, then online learning may not be the most effective method for imparting information and acquiring skills. Without a more blended approach, encompassing synchronous meetings, face to face and online, it is doubtful whether or not a sense of community can be stimulated so that collaboration becomes a useful tool for learning.

Further analysis of the data, as the research proceeds, may bring forth other issues, or refute initial findings. What can be concluded from the work done to date is that without quality time for professional development, and a quality space to do it in, collaboration becomes a barrier rather than an enabler, an embarrassment and a guilt trap.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 26 June 2003