It is three years ago this month that I had a relatively simple idea – why not prepare our incoming first-year students to use one of our most important university tools, the virtual learning environment (VLE)? Over the months leading up to the start of the academic year, in conjunction with our university IT department, I set up a dummy module containing PowerPoint slides, PDFs, quizzes, pod-casts chat-rooms etc. None of it was really relevant to the subject the students would be studying but I wanted them to get a feel for moving around the VLE, to understand what type of information could be made available in different formats, and the documents contained explanations of how to download, use, store, etc.
About a month before they were due to arrive at the university I sent out login details to half of the students enrolled on my course – they were to be my experimental group with the other half as my control group. (I’m going to be completely honest here, I fortuitously screwed up my sampling due to misreading the numbers enrolled and sent out login details to two-thirds of the cohort. Half of this two-thirds did not log on to the training site, which provided me with three groups for analysis – control, experimental trained and experimental untrained – through pure luck I ended up with almost equal numbers in each group and they each proved of interest in the analyses). Once they had arrived at the university we gained their consent to look at their VLE usage and examined it at points in their first academic year.
I’m not going to bore you with the details, if you want to read more you can access a free summary here in a 2011 SRHE conference paper. The short story is that the training appeared to be a success, with those who had engaged in the training showing a significantly higher level of VLE usage, a marginal level of higher grades and, although a little anecdotal due to the small numbers, a lower level of withdrawal from study. There are now plans to hopefully roll this prior training out across the university in the coming academic year.
This little piece of research, done off my own back at the time (no-one would fund me for it so lots of begging for IT help and putting in extra hours on top of exam boards etc., was the order of the day) showed me so much:
First of all, some things work and some don’t – I had managed to talk some of our students into acting as mentors in the chat-rooms of the training package. They introduced themselves and offered to discuss what it was like to be a student on the course, good places to go socially etc. And… nothing. Not one incoming student engaged with the tutors or the students. Why would they? They have Facebook et al., for that sort of socialising and the formality of the training environment may not have been the right place for it. However, when it came to downloads, different document types, moving around the site, etc., those that used it did use it extensively.
Second, it did have an impact upon use, and I think that is so important in the first year – even in those first few weeks and months at university. I remember vaguely from my own student days that we had some form of training; someone came in and spoke to us for an afternoon in our induction week about resources but, to be honest, I wasn’t taking much notice – I’d been bombarded with information all week and there were friends to make and beers to drink.
Third, just because you make something available it doesn’t mean that people will use it. When that happens what do you do? How many back-up plans do you have? At what point do you say ‘I’ve given you the information, it is up to you to use it’? (Admittedly, this one is a bit of a philosophical question and I’m not sure I’ve got the answer to it yet).
So now we reach the culmination of the project – the cohort that were examined in the initial study are approaching graduation and I wanted to see how they have used the VLE over the time they have been with us – but also more than that. This time, with a bit of data behind me I received funding from the Higher Education Academy to explore their use of the VLE… and their non-use. Through questionnaires, interviews and an exploration of the data we want to find out how they use the VLE, what barriers exist which discourage VLE use, and generally everything we can about how we can improve student use, staff use, and find ways to make sure that VLE use improves learning (I’m not going to give everything away here, partly because all of the data isn’t in and partly because it will have to wait until the paper comes out in August).
The reason for writing this is partly because of what I wrote about MOOCs yesterday – because the future of education is not the physical university versus the virtual MOOC, it is the integration of modern technology with traditional teaching; the physical one-on-one with the virtual back-up of VLE resources. However, this integration needs work – a university VLE isn’t just a dumping ground for staff to leave information for students to wade through, it needs to be a carefully designed part of what we do, as meticulously set up as the lectures that we give. And for that to happen, we need the input of students to help us understand the best way to design the VLEs.