Monday, November 7, 2011

The nature of a real VLE.

Whilst there were very early attempts at distance learning (see the Wikipedia article on the history of virtual learning) the idea of a virtual learning environment is still quite new and ideas on the way it should work are still evolving. There will soon be a need to have real virtual learning happening so that people can work and study simultaneously.

The virtual learning environments (VLEs) with which I have worked are not VLEs. They are excellent filing systems which make coursework and materials available. However, they are just an Internet based document repository. They do not provide the other activities that can be found in a classroom. There are qualities that the current VLEs need before they become adults, qualities that ensure that those who come to work there get the service that the name implies.

Learning styles : A VLE should allow a user to adapt the environment to suit their preferred learning style. Rather than present materials in one format on a pre-set screen, why not let the user choose whether they work best with video, sound or printed materials? Why not let the user select the background colours and font size for text? This would allow those who are dyslexic or have sight problems to feel more comfortable.

Completing work in the same place as the materials : Why would students want to move from environment to environment to complete coursework? If the area for completing work is in the same environment as the materials then the propensity to complete should be higher. A VLE should also allow work to be marked and reviewed. If the student pass achieved then the VLE should record that and add it to the student portfolio.

An open student environment : Everyone should have access to all areas of learning. The VLEs with which I have worked only allow students to see the materials for the subjects they are being taught. However, I would rather my students looked up materials on ancient Greek architecture than watch videos on YouTube (... and, yes, I do monitor their use). Restricting the availability of materials does not focus minds, in fact, it may well turn them off if there is a learning styles clash. My materials work for me, but student will have their own preferred style and so they should be able to search for that subject matter by other authors (lateral freedom). It also seems rather patronising that we restrict the level at which our students work. Why should a student be banned from taking an interest in a subject at a higher level than their current qualification (vertical freedom)?

An open educator environment : There is an implicit assumption in education that only those paid to educate are capable of producing materials. Surely, anyone who feels that they have something to offer should be allowed to contribute. The market (anyone who consumes knowledge) should be allowed to decide which atoms are most helpful. Atoms could be rated and commented upon to rank themselves within topics, so the cream would start to rise.

A feeling of community : Part of the fun of education is the social experience. Interaction, even if it is purely social, encourages thought and the examination of the views of others. A VLE should allow its market to communicate (messaging), it should encourage debate (discussion threads) and it should allow as much international participation as possible (Google Translate?). A student whose family needs to work or is dysfunctional will look for a surrogate. We label them as feral and tell them they are bad for seeking the support of others in a similar situation. Wouldn't it be nice if the VLE could provide an alternative social structure 24/7?

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