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A UCISA survey (Armitage et al, 2001) has reported a 7% uptake of VLEs in 1997 compared to an 81% uptake by 2001: it seems reasonable to assume that, in the short term, almost all HEIs will have implemented or plan to implement one or more VLEs.
However, to date, the evaluation, subsequent support and use of VLEs has focused on staff rather than learners. Professor Mark Stiles reports from a recent survey (Stiles, 2002) of 127 HE/FE institutions that the vast majority of institutions have selected VLEs for one reason above all others: ‘ease of use by staff’. The UCISA survey substantiates this finding ‘…the focus of the impact of VLEs on institutions is on staff rather than students’ and concludes that ‘VLEs are widely recognised as an important component of an institutional strategy yet this is poorly matched by delivery’ and ‘mature support mechanisms have … yet to be comprehensively developed across the sector’.
The pedagogical focus of VLE use from a student’s perspective remains relatively under-researched both generically and at a subject level.
The ASTER project (Hammond et al, 2002), a cross-disciplinary project exploring the use of educational technology to support small-group learning and teaching, concludes that ‘lecturers need a framework, illustrated by a variety of examples, that provides insight into how networked learning can support different situations and an understanding of the factors that may influence success’.
There is currently a lack of empirical evidence to build such a framework and help guide people designing courses and integrating VLEs into their curricula both generically and at a subject level. We will collect evidence on student attitudes to, and usage of, VLEs both at the first time of use and after some experience of use. This will allow us to gauge not only initial difficulties before they become ingrained but also track which difficulties remain and how easily initial teething problems are overcome.
The pattern of difficulties is likely to differ across subjects. Over 50% of HEIs with VLEs have two or more (Armitage et al, 2001) which reflects the differing needs and drivers across subject. Studying a range of subject areas using the same research instruments will give us additional leverage in understanding the potential of VLEs across subjects.
Armitage, S, Brown, T, Jenkins, M: (2001) Management and implementation of Virtual Learning Environments: A UCISA funded survey. Available at: http://www.ucisa.ac.uk/TLIG/vle/
Hammond, N., Trapp, A. and Bennet, C. (2002) Small group teaching across subjects: setting the context for networked learning. In: Networked Learning Perspectives and Issues, edited by C. Steeples and C. Jones. London: Springer Verlag.
Stiles, M. Staying on track: why are we using technology in teaching? JISC Inform, Spring 2002. Available at: http://www.bath.ac.uk/e-learning/inform1.pdf