New Perspectives for Learning - Briefing Paper 34

Virtual Learning Environments for Higher Education

Context of the Research

As Europe moves towards a knowledge-based economy and society, social and technological changes are requiring new ways to access knowledge. New information and technology systems are resulting in new ways for flexible education and training.

"Virtual campuses" are emerging. "Virtual learning environments" are being created by organising the learning environment in new ways, based on different technological configurations for learning and communicating between peers and teachers.

However, Europe is in danger of falling behind other economies, especially USA and Japan, as changing demographics, technological developments, and globalisation require individual adaptation and the renewal of educational systems and learning at the workplace. Therefore, universities and other higher education providers need to be more responsive to market forces and provide more flexible approaches to the education and training marketplace. 

Technical innovation in education in the form of “virtual learning environments” is one possible solution, which could encourage greater access to cross-cultural education and promote European citizenship. This project established a thematic network to evaluate educational and training innovations in the current implementation of virtual learning environments.

Key Conclusions

The project reached the following conclusions: -

1.   Virtual learning environments are fundamentally similar to learning environments which can be defined as: -

“A place or community arranged specifically for learning purposes and mediated by the intensive use of ICT, and one that is based on ideas of the structure of knowledge and learning, and the practical arrangements necessary for learning connected with time, place and repetitive rituals which together provide the social organisation for learning and teaching.”

2.   The main components of learning environments that enable learning to take place are: -

a)   Pedagogical functions - learning activities and materials, tutoring, teaching situations and evaluation.

b)   Appropriate Information and Commutation Technologies - suited to a pedagogical model.

c)   Social organisation of education - time, place and community.

3.   Virtual learning environments tend to be introduced parallel to other forms of study, but this raises concern about their sustainability.

4.    Market pressures are more evident than political pressure when implementing virtual learning environments in institutions.

5.   Virtual learning environments tend to be initiated by enthusiastic staff.

6.   Yet financial priorities, perceptions of the university’s role and arrangements for learning and assessment inhibit institutions from totally embracing virtual learning environments.

7.   Virtual learning environments make access to more students and client populations possible although some tutors found it hard to monitor learner’s satisfaction.

8.    However, virtual learning environments could improve the current quality/variety of teaching/learning and reduce the administrative burden on teachers.

9.   Virtual learning environments are also considered to be new sources of income or reduce current costs for institutions.

10. Some academics consider virtual learning environments as a way of enhancing their reputation and career potential.

11. Regulations for validating virtual learning environments based learning will be required to guarantee the quality of service delivered.

12. Barriers to the implementation of virtual learning environments include faculty members’ resistance to change; funding; lack of adequate facilities and no priority over other users.

13. Europe’s telecommunications infrastructure is improving along with the available bandwidth and with the availability of low cost powerful computers and software suites virtual learning environments are technologically and economically accessible.

Key Recommendations

Recommendations include adopting the following approaches to implementing virtual learning environments: -

Policy recommendations at institutional level: -

1.   The initiation of virtual learning environments requires a process of the development, circulation and discussion of an initial Green Paper, which is then revised for implementation.

2.    Factors to be considered when planning virtual learning environments include information selection and design, communication, organisational management, technological realisation, and didactics.

3.   The three key factors underlying any virtual learning environment implementation policies include infrastructure, training and development and organisational culture.

4.    However, the implementation of virtual learning environments will not succeed without an equal integrated and coordinated investment in all three of these elements.

5.   The change to be brought about by virtual learning environment implementation requires an “organisational development” approach in which resource management, professional development and objective sharing are the key components.

6.    Professional development programs and overt institutional support structures must be developed to elevate the status of “research in teaching” and therefore facilitate the diffusion of virtual learning environments innovations.

7.    In order to adopt virtual learning environments, institutions can use a number of events and communication systems to consult any of the following stakeholders - professional bodies; staff/student associations; government funding bodies; any bodies associated with the administration of the state or the region that might have an interest in the development of the university and national government and EU policy relating to learning.

Teaching/Learning policy recommendations

The following recommendations require both the teacher and the learner to be set in their academic, social and cultural contexts.

8.   Teachers need special training for online-education. Teaching in virtual learning environments needs competence in technological (so-called hard skills) and organisational aspects as well as new skills in applying relevant didactical methods, moderating/facilitating, etc. (so-called soft skills).

9.    Support is needed for the development of “innovation units”, (consisting of technical groups, academic departments and teams of teachers) to work towards changing teaching practice.

10. The potential of technological tools must be balanced with an institution’s pedagogical model.

11. Learning resources and materials must be specifically designed for virtual learning environments.

12. The division of labour for tutors, lecturers and other staff involved in learning campus operations needs to recognise the difference in virtual learning environments workloads.

Cross-cultural policy recommendations

The following recommendations are designed to protect cultural minorities and those who prefer to learn through their mother tongue.

13. The use of virtual learning environments needs to be promoted through collaboration at European level and vice versa.  

14. The linguistic and/or cultural diversity of EU member states must be considered in the organisation of European education and training programmes in each country and on a trans-European basis.

15. International virtual learning environment activities demonstrate legal and economic problems, and highlight the differences in the learning patrimonies of the audiences. Financial considerations also need to be addressed.

Further Information

Full title of project - “Implementation of Virtual Environments in Training and Education” completed in 2000.

Full report, Abstract, Summary, Partner details 

Contact Person

Dr. M. Barajas Frutos 
Universitat de Barcelona
Departament de DidÓctica i Organitzaciˇ Educativa- Facultat de Pedagogia
Passeig Vall Hebrˇn, 171
Barcelona
08035
Spain

Tel: +34 93 4037223
Fax. 34 93 4035014
Email:
mbarajas@ub.edu

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Last updated 28 June 2007