Virtual Learning Environments: Real or virtual learning?




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Association for Learning Technology



Peer reviewed



Virtual Learning Environments have become ubiquitous in higher education (Eynon 2008; Paulsen 2003). There is genuine debate over the effectiveness of VLEs as teaching and learning tools with some academics believing they offer innovative opportunities to generate debate and interest amongst students (Uskov 2002). Sceptical colleagues argue a VLE is merely an elaborate filing cabinet which both reduces attendance and further engagement whilst having little or no influence on attainment (Davies, Graff 2005; Wells, Lange, Fielder 2008).

The authors are conducting an action research project to establish which of the above views are closest to the truth. The project consists of three stages; firstly, a scoping questionnaire to gain a view of the student experience and to establish whether there is a need for further work. Secondly, an in-depth investigation into the student experience. This will be followed by a similar investigation into the staff usage of a VLE.

The authors have now completed the first and second stages of the work. Initially a small cohort of fifty students was given a scoping questionnaire. The results showed students valued BlackBoard as a useful learning tool: 90% said they accessed it at least three times weekly. 75% confessed that they miss lectures when notes are available on BlackBoard. 30% of the respondents made use of blog, wiki or other interactive tools. 45% used it as an email client to contact their tutor.

The results of the second stage confirm the initial findings that students perceive VLEs as useful. 72% indicated that they missed taught sessions because they could download the notes albeit only 4% of respondents indicated that this was a regular occurrence. 79% of respondents believed that BlackBoard made them more independent learners and better equipped for work.

These results raise more questions than answers. Do students think independent learning means simply downloading a set of notes and memorising them? Is engagement and further study facilitated by using a VLE? Do academics use a VLE correctly to enhance learning or digitally mimic the old analogue processes? The authors are currently working on these issues and will report their findings later.



Virtual Learning Environment


Ivins, J. and Bassford, M. (2009) In Blackey, H. Jefferies, A. Masterman, L. and Whalley, B. (Eds). “In dreams begins responsibility” — choice, evidence and change. The 16th Association for Learning Technology Conference (ALT-C 2009). Held 8–10 September 2009, University of Manchester


Research Institute