Virtual Learning Environments

What is a virtual learning environment?

A virtual learning environment, or VLE, is a set of digital tools or applications that allow a teacher to deliver an online course. Online learning has become more popular as teaching and learning have moved into the digital space. A virtual learning environment is essential to facilitate learning online. The virtual learning environment consists of a standard set of resource types to structure and manage an online course. These resources can be course content such as text, images and videos, assessment components to deliver quizzes, longer-form assessment, a forum or discussion space to allow for peer-to-peer learning, and collaboration tools to allow for group work. Not all of these resources are in every course – the teacher can decide to activate specific resources as needed, based on course content, the audience and their teaching approach. Administration tools, available only to the course creator, include options to structure the course content and data tracking of students, such as engagement with the assessment’s scope and results. Virtual learning environments can be used in schools, colleges or universities and for workplace training.

Elements of a virtual learning environment
Elements of a virtual learning environment

Purpose of a virtual learning environment

The primary purpose of a virtual learning environment is to deliver online learning to students successfully. However, if we look at the purpose of the virtual learning environment from the teachers’ point of view, we can identify some key elements. These include:

  • a tool to structure educational content in a logical flow
  • the ability to add several different media types to one course
  • support for setting up assessment components
  • tools for managing student access and communication
  • data tracking and analysis on student performance and engagement

What is the difference between a learning management system or a virtual learning environment?

A good question indeed. Most people may be familiar with learning management systems (or LMS) as these have been around for many years. Popular learning management systems include the open-source Moodle and Blackboard. These both have virtual learning environments as part of their offerings. Are you confused yet? The main difference between learning management systems and virtual learning environments is that the learning management system has many administrative features to record student data and progress across a course or courses. However, the primary function of a virtual learning environment is to deliver course content and facilitate student interaction with the teacher.

Is virtual learning good or bad?

The short answer is neither. Some people tend to vilify technology in education, but technology fulfils specific education needs based on certain circumstances.

Benefits of virtual learning

Advantages and benefits of online learning

The main advantage of virtual learning is that it removes the need for the teacher and student to be in the same room simultaneously for learning to take place. This means students in another city, country or time-zone can all participate in the same online course. Other benefits include:

  • self-paced learning – students can choose when to engage with the course content, for how long and on their own devices. This means that students with other commitments, such as family or work, can still study.
  • cost-saving – in most cases, virtual learning courses will be substantially more affordable than face to face classes. In some cases, these courses are free. However, with the move to online learning by prestigious academic institutions, this could change.
  • availability – students can access courses that might not be available in their town or city. This can include cutting-edge technology such as data science or artificial intelligence
  • data-based learning – all interactions online can be tracked. In a virtual learning environment, student participant and results from the assessment can be recorded and presented back to the student or teacher for analysis and improvement recommendations. In more advanced setups, this learning analytics can be automated to produce an adaptive learning pathway
  • collaborative and peer to peer learning – most of us use some form of social media. Online interactions such as these can be tailored in a virtual learning environment to work collaboratively on a learning project or to review and assess each other’s work.

What are the disadvantages of digital learning?

There are, however, some limitations to a virtual learning environment. While communication between teacher and student and student and student can be encouraged in a virtual learning environment, some students miss the interpersonal communication of face to face learning. This lack could also limit the potential for informal learning in discussion groups such as a brainstorming session. Other limitations resolve around the type of course content delivered. For example, a practical course on hairdressing or motor vehicle maintenance might benefit from contact classes. That said, advances in virtual reality and simulations may assist with teaching these subjects digitally.

Disadvantages of virtual learning

What is a VLE in education?

Virtual learning environments can be used in various educational settings, such as schools, colleges, or corporate workplaces. In most cases, these online courses are not used to replace classrooms or traditional teaching but rather enhance them. This approach is called blended learning.

Virtual learning in schools

Although some virtual schools are popping up, most schools still use an approach that prioritises face to face teaching with virtual learning environments used to deliver learning in times when contact sessions are not permitted (e.g. during the recent Covid-19 pandemic), as additional work for either remedial or advanced students, or to enhance the teaching of specific topics that could benefit from digital or video content. Most virtual learning takes place in the home, allowing parents to participate in their child’s education. The use of virtual learning environments has an added benefit in schools as they allow students to become familiar with technology tools. This familiarity is called digital literacy, and it is an essential 21st-century skill.

Virtual learning at college or university

Most colleges or universities offer some form of blended or online learning. Primarily this was for short courses, such as business schools providing executive education, but most undergraduate course now have some form of digital learning. Some universities now offer online-only degrees.
At this level, students are encouraged to complete independent reading or research. The ability to link resources from a web-page allows teachers to set up curated reading lists to guide students in this work. Study or tutoring groups are also an effective use of digital technology to encourage students to engage deeply on a subject and formulate their own opinions. These can be presented back to the teacher or class through online feedback sessions.

Virtual learning for corporate training and development

Businesses were early adopters of virtual learning environments as they solve several issues unique to their training needs. Regularly, corporates need to train their staff. This could be on policy or legal requirements or a new product or internal processes. Two main hindrances to face to face training include the fact that some businesses have offices around the country or different countries. Getting staff together at one training facility is an expensive endeavour. The second issue is that time away from the office or their responsibilities could affect the business’s running. It is a much better proposition to deliver online learning through a virtual learning environment that allows staff to complete their training from their desks. An added benefit is that the virtual learning environment can track which staff members have completed their training and their scores. This track record is useful for compliance purposes.

Continuing professional development

Some professionals, such as teachers and financial advisors, must complete continuing professional development (CPD). This information could be on new requirements of the curriculum or changes to the law. Delivering CPD through a webinar or virtual learning environment provides access to a more significant number of participants. Professionals don’t have to take the time and effort to travel to a venue, which is often difficult when you have a demanding career. Online classes or presentations can be recorded for reference at a later point, practical when dealing with complex topics.

How do you create a successful online learning environment?

As you may have picked up from this article, the technology used to create a virtual learning environment is not as important as the course planning and pedagogy behind it. First, decide on the key features of your course. These could include:

  • collaborative learning
  • video lesson
  • assessment for learning
  • gamification
  • discussion and feedback
  • individual learning paths

Once you have decided on the approach you want to take, you can then match these features to the technology required. For example, a discussion section would need software to manage a forum, while if you decide on video lessons, you then need to find a platform capable of hosting the video files.

Successful virtual learning

Tips and strategies for setting up a digital learning environment

As a teacher or course facilitator, there are a few things you need to put in place to ensure a successful virtual learning environment for your students. The most important of these are:

  • communicate clearly with your students through email, video chat, and instant messaging as appropriate
  • set clear goals and expectations for your course. What is the time commitment? What work will students need to submit, what level of participation is required?
  • prepare well. Have all your notes available in the correct format, and uploaded to the right platform, have any assessment or activities ready for when you need them.
  • provide opportunities for collaboration and interaction. The key to a virtual learning environment is to keep your students engaged.
  • provide help pages and support where needed. A virtual learning environment could be new to some students who might struggle with technology. Try to make this as easy as possible.
  • develop a community. The gold standard of any online course is to make your students feel like they are part of a community. If you can do this, they will be excited to join your virtual learning environment and participate in your set activities.

Online Technology Stack for virtual learning

The technology needed to set up and run a virtual learning environment depends on your online course requirements. In some cases, you may require all these components, while in others, only a handful. The core components include:

  • a content management system to format and publish your course content. This content can consist of text, images and video
  • a messaging service to send messages from the teacher to the students
  • a discussion forum to allow for group discussions
  • video conferencing for a live class or lecture
  • share documents for collaborative writing or editing
  • an assessment engine to prepare quizzes and other activities
  • a tool for tracking and analysing student data

Build your own

Using several freely available tools, you can put together the technology required to set up and run a virtual learning environment. For example, Zoom is an excellent video conferencing tool. Google Docs allows for collaborative writing. Messages can be sent via a WhatsApp or Telegram group. There are many online presentation tools that you can use to publish your content. This ad hoc set up of a virtual learning environment works well in a blended scenario when you have some contact sessions to choose technology that your students are familiar with. However, there are some ready-made virtual learning environment platforms that you can customise for your needs. The benefit to these platforms is mainly around the built-in assessment engines and student data tracking.

An out-of-the-box solution

  • Google Classroom brings together many of the tools is the Google Suite. It is free to use and very straightforward, particularly for anyone familiar with Gmail and Google Drive. It allows teachers to create virtual classrooms where they can share content and message their students.
  • Moodle is an open-source learning platform, which means you can download the code and install it on your server. Some companies will host your Moodle website for you. Moodle is a mature learning management system with millions of users. All the tools you need to set up your virtual learning environment come as standard, but some developers sell custom plugins and themes.
  • Blackboard is a commercial virtual learning environment and learning management system. It is very similar to Moodle in features it offers, but the plus side to using Blackboard for many schools and institutions is the professional support. This means that schools don’t need to employ a dedicated educational technology person if they don’t have the skills available.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my overview of virtual learning environments. Leave a comment below if you would like more information on any points covered.

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