Friday, 23 February 2007

Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs)

We mention Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) in the following locations at the ICT4LT site:
  • Module 1.4: Introduction to CALL (Section 7: Distance learning)
  • Module 1.5: Introduction to the Internet (Section 8: Distance learning and the Web: VLEs, MLEs etc)
  • Module 2.3: Exploiting WWW resources online and offline (Section 3.1: Web-based CALL)
There are also several relevant entries in the ICT4LT Glossary. Start with VLE:
http://www.ict4lt.org/en/en_glossary.htm

Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) were hailed as the greatest thing since sliced bread when they first appeared, but now they appear to be falling out of favour with many educational institutions - for various reasons: costs, lack of flexibility and problems handling audio and video.

Personally, I don't like VLEs. So far they appear to have resulted mainly in the development of rather boring materials and masses of multiple-choice exercises. I miss the interaction, the humour and the unpredictability of pre-Web, pre-VLE software, e.g. simulations such as A la rencontre de Philippe:
http://web.mit.edu/fll/www/projects/Philippe.html
We mention other simulations in Module 2.2, Introduction to multimedia CALL, at the ICT4LT site.
You can achieve much more with a tailor-made website, which is less expensive than most people imagine, but unfortunately the "one size fits all" mentality pervades among educational administrators, which is what attracts them to VLEs. And, of course, there are many things which (so far) can only be done efficiently and effectively offline, i.e. via a local server, CD-ROM or DVD, e.g. listen / record / playback (virtual language lab) activities.

Moodle, however, is one VLE that is finding favour with the language teaching community, especially in Japan. EUROCALL conferences have attracted Moodle presenters, and there was a Moodle workshop at a recent EUROCALL conference. The main pluspoint of Moodle is that it is open source and can be downloaded free of charge:
http://moodle.org/
The Moodle for Language Teaching forum is a useful source of information about Moodle:
http://moodle.org/course/view.php?id=31

At last year's EUROCALL conference in Granada (which I unfortunately couldn't attend due to illness) one of the keynote speakers, Diana Laurillard, mentioned a VLE called LAMs. There's a link to a streamed video of Diana Laurillard's keynote via the EUROCALL 2006 blog:
http://eurocall2006blog.blogspot.com/

Reactions?

8 comments:

Eric Baber said...

>Personally, I don't like VLEs. So far they appear to have resulted mainly in the development of rather boring materials and masses of multiple-choice exercises.

But surely that's not the fault of VLEs per se? I agree that what has happened is that VLEs have made it easier for a wider range of people to create online content, and that without guidance or training they may be likely to lean towards producing reading materials and MCQs. However, I don't think that the answer to this is to scrap VLEs, but to give them training and support. All VLEs I'm aware of allow for online discussions; training in the use of these would, in my opinion, be much more sensible than denying the majority of users access to such teaching technology in the first place.

While it might be preferable for everyone to have the skills to put together their own bespoke website that's just not realistic; VLEs are therefore in my opinion useful tools.

Graham Davies said...

You're quite right, Eric, one cannot blame the technology. As I always say, proper training in the use of technology is paramount - v. the demise of the language lab, which was largely due to the lack of proper training.

I wouldn't wish to scrap VLEs, but I would like to make them more user-friendly and, above all, ensure that administrators don't perceive them as the panacea (which is what appears to be happening right now in the local education authority area where I live).

Have I been fair in what I say about VLEs in the ICT4LT modules? Is there a good example of a VLE with high-quality content that I could refer to?

I have heard that the Open University is to replace its Lyceum conferencing system with Moodle - but, of course, one has to bear in mind that the OU delivers blended learning courses rather than courses relying entirely or mainly on a VLE.

Eric Baber said...

>I wouldn't wish to scrap VLEs, but I would like to make them more user-friendly

According to which user(s)? That's the problem I guess - making a VLE that suits all users. That's not going to happen, just like it's impossible to build one car that suits everyone's needs.

>I have heard that the Open University is to replace its Lyceum conferencing system with Moodle

They're in the process of moving over from FirstClass to Moodle already, yes (at the moment they're using both in a hybrid sort of way). Lyceum meanwhile is being phased out and replace with Flashmeeting.

> - but, of course, one has to bear in mind that the OU delivers blended learning courses rather than courses relying entirely or mainly on a VLE.

It depends on the course. There are a number of courses which are distance-only, and it seems to me (though I have no data) that the relative number of distance-only courses offered by the OU vs. blended ones is increasing.

Eric

Graham Davies said...

Eric wrote:
>There are a number of courses which are distance-only, and it seems to me (though I have no data) that the relative number of distance-only courses offered by the OU vs. blended ones is increasing.<

Interesting. I wonder, however, if 100% distance learning will work for foreign languages. My wife did an OU degree in the 1970s-1980s – mainly history and philosophy – all pre-Web, pre-VCR and getting up at unearthly hours to watch TV broadcasts. As a young mum, she particularly enjoyed getting out once a month for tutorials at the local technical college. There were stimulating discussions with her OU tutor and peers, followed by a couple of drinks in the local pub. And, of course, the one-week summer school was the highlight of the year.

I wrote the following in an article on the Web:

"Undoubtedly, there will be an expansion of online learning, but it is more likely to supplement conventional modes of learning rather than replace them. Language learners in particular cannot acquire certain skills, for example conversational skills, without face-to-face contact with an experienced teacher, but software tools such as Skype, Wimba and Gong now facilitate synchronous and asynchronous oral communication and are already being used in distance-learning CALL environments.

Many universities, however, may be focusing on the wrong target group. The typical university student aged around 18-25 is the least likely person who would want to spend their time studying for a degree sitting in front of a computer screen. Such a student is more likely to want to get away from home and enjoy university life in all its aspects:

"But do we really want to deliver whole courses via the Web? Do we really want to deprive young people of the valuable experience of leaving home, studying and socialising with their peers, joining societies, going to clubs and parties, travelling, and falling in love? Do we really want to breed a generation of screen-gazing zombies?" (Davies 2002)

The spectacular crash of the UK e-University (UKeU) in 2004, which was set up at great expense and launched in 2000, is a clear indication that the target groups of online courses still need to be identified. The thousands of students who were expected to sign up for UKeU courses simply did not materialise. More market research on the demand for online courses clearly needs to be done, and the vast amounts of expenditure on the technological infrastructure of such courses need to be reduced.

Established distance-teaching universities have tended to focus on older people (aged 30-plus) returning to education and lacking the time to spend studying in the traditional way. Perhaps this is the group that online courses need to focus on too. "Silver surfers" (aged 60-plus, like myself) are another possible target group."

Source:
http://www.camsoftpartners.co.uk/docs/UCALL_Keynote.htm

Graham Davies said...

A school in the UK is considering adopting Moodle as its VLE. They wish to know if Moodle can call up or link in with the following programs, which are normally installed on a hard disk server and accessible throughout the school:

Fun with Texts, a popular text-reconstruction authoring package:
http://www.camsoftpartners.co.uk/fwt.htm
GapKit, a popular gap-filling authoring package
http://www.camsoftpartners.co.uk/gapkit.htm

Full working demos of the above programs can be downloaded from the above Web pages.

Another authoring package that is often used in UK schools is TaskMagic, produced by mdlsoft. Can this be called up by Moodle – or any other VLE?
http://www.mdlsoft.co.uk

Hundreds of schools in the UK use the above packages and they already have huge banks of materials that they have authored. Hence they don’t want to have to do the job all over again if they decide to adopt a VLE.

Advice please!

Anonymous said...

Graham,

Just a followup on the reference to LAMS - you can find more general information on LAMS at http://www.lamsfoundation.org/

Most people describe LAMS as a Learning Design system rather than a VLE, as its focus is just on sequences of learning activities (often collaborative) - it doesn't do more general VLE functions like course home page, email, announcements, gradebook, etc. Another dimension of LAMS which is different is that sequences are shareable (you can find a repository of over 100 at http://www.lamscommunity.org/ ).

LAMS can be integrated with VLEs to add the extra functionality of sequences - for details of LAMS integrations with Moodle, Sakai, Blackboard, WebCT and .LRN, see
http://www.lamsfoundation.org/integration/

There has been some work with LAMS for language teaching - a colleague for mine from Macquarie University (Helen Muir) has been using it for Japanese teaching. For some discussion of this and other examples of LAMS use, see this paper:
http://www.aces.mq.edu.au/downloads/
icti/Engaging_with_E-Learning_(LAMS).pdf

I looked at the MIT example you mentioned, and while you could try to simulate this in LAMS, the main strength of LAMS is where groups of learners work together, rather than a single learner clicking through pages on their own - so I'd recommend LAMS most for language teaching contexts where student collaborative tasks as central.

Finally - the new version of LAMS (V2) has come out recently with many additional features that would assist language teaching. Demonstration accounts are available at
http://demo.lamscommunity.org/

NB: LAMS is freely available as open source software (GPL).

Hope this helps!

James Dalziel
james@melcoe.mq.edu.au

Graham Davies said...

Thanks, James - useful information!

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