Virtual Learning Environments take over

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

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Learning about Covid-19 at schools

How do you teach students about Covid-19 at schools? How do you explain the concept of a pandemic? And how to do you get across guidance around prevention? What does this look like for a six-year-old as opposed to a 16-year-old? These are some of the issues Cambridge University Press grappled with as we developed a series of worksheets to explain the virus and the situation we find ourselves in globally and in South Africa.

Working with Life Orientation specialist and author Edna Rooth, we have published these worksheets for use at home or in the class. The worksheets are a response to Covid-19 and function as a Social and Emotional learning (SEL) curriculum.  We divided the worksheets by the four phases in the curriculum, covering all twelve grades. Each pack has between ten and fifteen worksheets with extensive teaching notes. The worksheets are printable, and we are encouraging users to share them via email or WhatsApp, so they reach the teachers and learners who needed them most. Parents can also use these worksheets with their children. Topics covered include information on pandemics, facts about the Covid-19 virus, prevention, stigma and depression. There are many practical tasks included in the worksheets, such as guidance on how to make a mask.

Sample Worksheets for teaching Covid-19 at schools

They are really brilliant! What great work, and clearly a lot of work. This is the most comprehensive set of materials for schools I have seen – probably the best in the world right now.

Dr James Lees.  Senior Lecturer, HIV & AIDS Programme, University of the Western Cape

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Using the latest research in cognitive science to develop learning materials

My job at Cambridge University Press has me developing textbooks and online courses daily. Most of what we do is curriculum-led, i.e. we develop a new book or course from a curriculum released by a ministry of education. Using the curriculum as the starting point, we plan the modules and topics, selecting the features of the course (e.g. activities, assessment, case studies, etc.) based on what is required by the curriculum. We then decide on additional features based on the traditional approaches to textbook development, i.e. let’s start each chapter with a list of objectives and end with a summary. In online course development, these choices are made based on what is available in the learning management system, e.g. can we efficiently use an interactive multiple-choice component or user forum section. Most of this is standard (and in some cases required) for the project. What happens, though, if we were also to include features that responded to the latest cognitive science research

Luckily this research is available, and some of it fits directly into existing practices around learning material development. The aim with this research is to move new knowledge and skill from your short-term memory to your long-term memory. Here’s a high-level overview of my top four learning strategies and how we can incorporate into learning material development.


So what exactly is interleaving? It’s the simultaneous learning of more than one concept at once. This process could see you alternating between two topics in a learning session or mixing up the content in one block of learning content. The reason this works is that it trains your brain to discriminate between problem types or specimens. That is, instead of rote learning something you rather learn to identify unique characteristics or identifiers of a problem which can then be applied to another type of problem or used to identify a similar situation in a different context.

In a textbook or course, we structure the content in chapters or modules that focus on one topic or skill at a time. One strategy to bring interleaving into textbook development is to add a feature which consists of content from another chapter, either looking forward to content still to cover or looking back at content already learnt. In an online course, we can intersperse regular hyperlinks to other material in a content block. When it comes to assessment, questions can cover both the material in the previous module as well as topics or skills from the rest of the course (see Quizzing below). 

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