Putting more PLE into the VLE - personalisation features to enhance student flexibility, choice and engagement

Presenters:Richard Mobbs

The rise of the virtual learning environment (VLE) as the central pillar of support for e-learning in most higher education institutions (HEIs) over the past 10 years or more is now well documented and well understood. Yet many more recent developments in technology arise from the wider commercial arena, and require critical evaluation for their relevance and potential in meeting the changing needs of a demanding higher education environment.
It should be noted that VLEs are more often than not designed to meet the needs of the institution, rather than the learner. Most VLEs often become a ‘dumping ground’ for Microsoft PowerPoint slides and/or Word documents often placing the printing and/or photocopying costs on to the student. Many become a convenient way to communicate with the learner, via internal email services or course site announcements. Mostly, however, learners have little or no control over the extent to which the tools of a VLE can be customised.
Rather than epitomising the experience of online learning, most VLE course sites are poorly maintained with little or no e-tutor support. Many also make it too difficult for the learner to capture or download the learning materials for future reference and/or study offline.
Recently, HE policy (in the UK at least) has dictated the need for each undergraduate student to be engaged with Personal Development Planning (PDP). PDP is a structured process to help students to set and manage their own learning goals and to reflect upon their individual learning, performance and achievements. An effective PDP system will support a student in the planning of their personal, educational and career development.
At the same time, there is an increasing policy focus on students’ life ‘beyond the campus’ in terms the portability of their learning for careers, for continuing professional development and for life-long learning. This is coupled with an increasing ‘assertiveness’ on the part of student stakeholders in wanting: (i) to shape their use of available technology to suit their preferred modes and locations of learning; and (ii) to integrate use and experience of technology for social or leisure purposes with that for study and personal development.
The 21st Century student often arrives at an HE institution with a pre-existing Web presence which will typically include an email account and experience of several social networking environments. Many will also own technologies for creating and using digital content and information and will be conversant with, inter alia:

  1. ‘being open’ by presenting themselves via, say, a social space (e.g. Facebook, Second Life) and thus are aware of acting globally and forming self-organising and distributed structures;
  2. working within a peer or friendship group;
  3. sharing digitised information (pictures, videos, sound files) freely among a peer group and wider community; and
  4. various forms of online communication (e.g. email, chat, VOIP).

However, many, if not all, are unskilled and ill-prepared to face the pedagogical rigours of the higher educational system. Many have no idea how they will manage the volume of academic references, many via ejournals, their studies will expose them to. Many will be familiar with tagging of Flickr pictures but will have no experience of the advantages of using social tagging with Web services, such as Del.icio.us, and how such sites can enhance the learning experience.
Although Marc Prensky has identified the large number of HE students who have grown-up “immersed in technology” as “digital natives”, it is recognised that there is a large number of students who are often ‘naïve' about the use of Web 2.0 technologies and, for example, are not always fully aware of the pitfalls of “over exposure” (or at least inappropriate exposure) on social spaces.
The challenge for many HEIs is how best to help ‘develop and direct’ technological support to their students to enhance flexibility, choice and engagement, rather than to ‘dictate’ what technology they should use according the central (or even centralist) policies of institutional provision. In this context, a growing interest in so-called personalisation strategies is evident, with increasing use of the terms personal learning and personalised learning environments (PLEs). A key strategic issue for HEIs is whether and how such trends can be reconciled with the significant investments already made in VLEs, in terms of infrastructural and human capital involved as well as content.
We should also recognises the digital divide that often separates the digital-aware student from their tutors and also the growing requirement that HEIs must address how the behaviour and use of external services by students impacts upon institutional governance policies.
At the University of Leicester (UoL), the development of the VLE as a central resource has been ongoing since 2002, with successive upgrades and enhancements to take advantage of new product offers and to meet new and growing user demands (Mobbs and Dence, 2007). A number of these additions have involved investing in third-party solutions to provide increased options in VLE use and flexibility for teaching and learning, thus benefiting both staff and students alike.
A major challenge is how best to integrate these and other new developments to provide ‘more PLE’ within the context of the main VLE provision. Areas that are currently being addressed at UoL in increasing personalisation opportunities include:

  1. integration with social networks and with mobile technologies;
  2. integration of now widely-used social software applications;
  3. providing wider access for students to a broader range of institutional repositories and resources;
  4. provision of a wider range voice/audio/video facilities; and
  5. providing ex/portability of student-generated material for their continuing use after leaving university; and
  6. access to student records, so that assessment transcripts are available online.

This approach introduces Web 2.0 technologies within the ‘comfort’ of an institutional system where a blogging tool is available for reflection and wiki tools are available for personal or collaborative study.
Within the HE environment, students will have little or no control over the way they are taught which is often via didactic presentations. Students might have some control over the way they learn, within, say, a seminar group, but they have total control over the way in which they study as individuals. Effective studying is enhanced through collaboration and the best way to collaborate is through friendship and social space software, such as Facebook, show us that students need little or no encouragement to socialise and make friends online. The research question is, how much of this technology can we harness for ‘formal’ learning?
We are at the dawn of a new era. The stability and acceptance of Web 2.0 technologies is now such that many commercial companies are switching their IT Services to “cloud” computing which is now available to provide the scalability with dramatic cost savings. Many businesses are switching to Webmail services and (Web) video conference is now mainstream. Where business leads education will follow and we must prepare our students for life in the cloud and advantages such services can offer.
We have to give our HEI students and our staff the confidence to:

  1. Learn to use Web 2.0 technologies for formal studies.
  2. To behaviour safely and securely and identity in the Web 2.0 environment.
  3. Learn to use Web 2.0 for lifelong learning, in particular their PDP development.
  4. Preparing HE students for future employment within an office less/desk less environment.
  5. Tagging of digital content for future reference.
  6. This short paper will report on institutional progress to date and: (a) highlight the changing role of the VLE towards becoming more of a learning portal; and (b) and outline a pathway towards greater PLE provision.

As one e-learning commentator has proclaimed: “The VLE is dead; long live the PLE!”
Prensky M. At 6th October 2008
Mobbs R J and Dence R D (2007) “Large-scale implementation of a VLE: an institutional case study of Blackboard development and evolution”. Short paper presentation at Online Educa, 13th International Conference on Technology Supported Learning and Training, Berlin, 28th to 30th November 2007