Central to my work as a lecturer in the Built Environment within the Construction Centre of Vocational Excellence (CoVE) at Barking College is the belief that e-learning can, through effective course management, enhance the learning process by enabling learners to become self-motivated, self-reliant and self-managing. Having had an interest in e-learning for over twenty years, I have developed a number of learning packages based on industry standard software and used applications and programming languages, databases and artificial intelligence. Mostly, these took hundreds of hours to develop, only to fall short of expectations for one reason or another in terms of accomplishing the goal of effective learning and teaching.
I have used the College's network share facility to enable learners to access learning and teaching materials but this was problematic because learners could quickly become confused or forget the paths to the resources, which were often quite deep and complex. In extreme cases the resources would be moved around or even removed completely without notice. A key limitation was that remote access was considered too much of a risk, as a network share always presents security issues.
During 2002 I developed a website-approach that offered many positive aspects but also presented complications such as learners getting distracted from the original goal or task or becoming confused by following inappropriate links. Web development was also time-consuming and it was difficult to keep the resources and their links updated. Intriguingly though, this made me aware of the possible benefits of using a virtual learning environment (VLE).
Using a Virtual Learning Environment
In the Built Environment, as a part of our involvement in the ICT Test Bed project (BECTA 2006), we first piloted the VLE with the Edexcel First Diploma and the first year of the National Diploma in Construction courses in 2003-4 and this provided immediate, albeit if somewhat limited success. However, straight away the raised level of interest and motivation in the learners was noticeable. Of the nine students enrolled on the First Diploma course, eight completed the course successfully, as opposed to the frustration of the previous year when nine students completed the course but significantly failed to meet the national benchmark.
Disappointingly, progress was halted as the college took the decision to change the VLE provider due to technical problems and the limitations of the VLE. This setback initially affected my will to continue. However, the inspiration and trigger for me to carry on my development work with the VLE came when two former First Diploma students, who had progressed to the National Diploma in Construction course, asked if they could use the facility (the VLE) that they had used in the previous year. This was the first time in my educational career that students had independently and without coercion expressed a preference for a particular mode of learning. A lot of the work I had completed the previous year had to be repeated but I accepted that this often happens when in pursuit of progress. I decided that this fresh start should be based on a firm vision statement and clear aims and objectives.
A further consideration at this stage was to try and picture what the learners would want from the VLE and what they would see as being the important resources and information. My overarching ideology was that there should be no secrets from my colleagues or students and that everything connected with the development of materials and information for inclusion on the VLE should be transparent and that I would take every opportunity to promote e-learning internally and externally to the college.
Presenting materials and resources
There are many ways in which a course can be structured and supportive resources presented using a VLE. One example would have been to use the scheme(s) of work as the template for lesson-by-lesson breakdown. The model I chose to adopt and develop was to present the documents that the learners would find important to them such as the course plan, course specification and assessment plan and offer these as the first topic outline for the course (See Figure 1: Important documents).
This proved to be a ‘eureka’ moment. I had been trying to get the students to complete their portfolios since the beginning of the course but they were always quite reluctant to do so and seemed to find any number of issues that appeared more important. When they suddenly had access to the course assessment plan, (see Figure 2) and could now chart their own progress through their own assessment summary sheets, the impact on their interest and enthusiasm was palpable. This certainly was a defining moment as the group developed a growing awareness of the opportunity to take greater control of their learning. This would seem to be in agreement with the “Assessment for Learning” movement, which emphasises the need for learners to have a clear understanding of their learning needs and progression requirements.
As development work proceeded, I quickly recognised that some of the resources, such as the in-house developed course materials (see Figure 4), the University of West of the England (UWE) Video Project and Technical Indexes Info4education were ‘common’ to all units within the course and that these should be placed as high as possible in the Topic Outline (see Figure 1). The decision was taken to present the Unit Structure in the format of scheme of work, assignments, supportive resources and supportive activities. (see Figure 3)
This also appeared to have a profound effect, as instead of acting as the gatekeeper to knowledge by spoon-feeding students with chunks of learning in a rigid timetable, we were able to utilise the power of the VLE to share the wider picture of what the courses cover. This transparency had the potential to enable learners to see precisely what is expected of them during the course and empower them by giving them on line, any-time, any-place access to the course specification, assignments and tracking sheets. It also created some shift in the responsibility for learning and teaching towards both staff and students.
The college VLE is now widely accepted and accessed by a significant number of learners and staff both inside the college and from home. I was shocked but pleasantly surprised the first time a learner submitted an assignment for a topic I had not yet covered. However, on reflection I realised that the learner had taken significant steps towards becoming an independent learner, and by accessing the learning resources, was ready to successfully complete the assignment. The tracking features of the VLE mean we can easily see when learners are accessing the materials; this also gives feedback about what resources are not being actively accessed and allows us to review their content and presentation.
The benefits of using the VLE
I have discovered many benefits of using the VLE, some of which I have specific evidence for and some, which I have to admit, are a little subjective. The major gain in my view is the transformation in attitude and the manner in which the students accept greater responsibility for their own learning. This student involvement becomes a massive course management resource for the teacher as well as presenting an opportunity to explore and adopt a wider range of learning and teaching strategies.
Another key advantage of a VLE is the simplicity with which materials can be prepared, uploaded and presented to the learners and the way it is structured so that learners only see their own course and relevant supportive resources and materials. This fits flawlessly with my perspective of keeping things as simple as possible. Current learners live in an electronic world where books are no longer the first or main source of reference but the linking of the resources of the Web, e-books, and the VLE ensures that learners have a broad range of supportive materials at their fingertips.
A VLE can play an important role where there is a commitment to raise quality and share good practice. The quality of the Built Environment resources has been significantly improved as a result of using the VLE. I have just completed the Standards Unit Subject Learning Coach programme and this has complemented the VLE development work by providing my colleagues and myself opportunities to explore alternative learning and teaching strategies. It has also helped us to reflect on achieving higher quality aims within resource materials. This may be something as simple as a splash of colour or the use of graphics (see Figure 5).
We took the decision that all resources have to be internally verified before they can be uploaded to the VLE. This had the advantage that the VLE became the vehicle for our internal verification audit trail. Students also become part of the quality assurance programme. Once they begin to feel confident about tracking their progress they start to give important feedback about performance criteria met and that yet to be achieved. This is extremely beneficial where the performance criteria mapping in assessments is complex. As a course tutor I was reassured when during a tutorial the students pointed out that the assignments, as written, did not cover all the pass criteria. This may have been due to a number of reasons, but the main point is that it demonstrated how the teacher / learner relationship was developing and how mutual trust, honesty and openness was being nurtured.
Instead of supporting the myth that e-learning is a threat to the teacher’s role, my experience is that it provides a platform to promote independent learning within a group situation. It becomes an enabler for more effective learning and teaching by freeing the teacher from the role of disseminator of information by presenting opportunities for directed group or individual support. By sharing the onus and responsibility for learning with the student, I am continuously encouraged. As I sit writing this article I can see that students are logged on to the VLE: no surprises there, other than it’s the middle of Saturday afternoon. I have observed that students access the VLE at all times – day and night, including during the summer break and even email me to see if there is any work that they can be getting on with.
Retention and Achievement
Since the introduction of the VLE we have kept students on track that we may have previously lost (see Table 1). This is in part due to the continuous accessibly of the learning materials and the opportunity for the learners to develop at their own pace. I often observe students revisiting learning materials to see if they can improve their performance. Through the VLE participants activity log I can see that students often access assignments and resources for various reasons, often to reaffirm their understanding but, sometimes simply because they may have missed a lesson or printed it out and then mislaid it. Interestingly, I have hardly used the photocopier lately; perhaps we are finally moving towards a paperless office!
Growth of e-learning
Following the experiences and successes gained through the pilot programme with the First and National Diploma, all full and part-time courses within the Built Environment are now accessible through the VLE. Other areas of the Construction CoVE such as Plumbing and Electrical have adopted e-learning and perhaps one of the main accomplishments is that the Key Skills for the whole area is on the VLE. I have been delighted with the response from my colleagues within the Construction CoVE at Barking College and tutors in Built Environment, Plumbing, Electrical and Key Skills have embraced the e learning capabilities of the VLE for their learners. When I embarked upon the quest to influence learning and teaching through e-learning I could not have envisaged the impact I would have and the way it would be perceived or the inspiration and stimulation that the VLE would have. I feel that the most important issue facing me now is driving this to the next phase, again, starting from within my own organisation.
Finally, a word from my colleague(s):
“Since our investment in ICT, computing and software, we have seen an amazing change round in our students. We’re developing very independent learners from a very early age, when they come to us at sixteen. They can track their work at home. They can see what assignments they have to do and we can even communicate with them at home. The results have been very encouraging this year. All our courses are above the national benchmark for achievement and retention. It’s all very well having the equipment but what you do need is the will of the teaching staff to engage and manage the learning process.”
and our students:
“Using the VLE is very helpful because we can access it from home so basically we can download some of the coursework that we need and we can check how far we are in the course.”
“Each unit has got its own specification, so in case you need help and there’s no teacher, you can just look at the specification for each question and you can work out what to do.”
“I think the VLE has helped the students to achieve the course objectives and the goals which have been set up to develop their knowledge and understanding about the course”
Lecturer in Built Environment, Construction CoVE
BECTA (2006) ICT Test Bed project - Project overview [Online]. Available from www.becta.org.uk/corporate/display.cfm?section=15&id=3086 [Accessed 04/03/06]
Edexcel (2006) BTEC First Diploma in Construction [Online]. Available from www.edexcel.org.uk/quals/first/construction/dip/5041/ [Accessed 04/03/06]