Analysing virtual learning environments

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POSTED: February 14, 2007

There is no clear standard for judging what constitutes a virtual learning environment. The term has been used to brand everything from a set of collaborative desktop tools to a fully immersive virtual world. Perhaps, then, any attempt to determine what a VLE “really is” will be doomed. Perhaps we should choose a different starting point, and concentrate on asking questions that will allow us to decide whether a specific self-described VLE will be suitable for our needs or not.

This will, of course, only work to the extent that we are clear about our own needs.

I suggest that the following eight questions will provide a useful starting point for analysing whatever presents itself to us as a virtual learning environment.

1. What are the pedagogical aims of the VLE?

We need to understand here whether the VLE is intended to

  • encourage learners to explore and receive codified knowledge;
  • facilitate the development of specific competences within the learners;
  • develop the learners’ knowledge of how to acquire knowledge (so that the main focus would be on learning to learn).

It could be argued that the second and third aspects outlined above amount to the same thing. I would suggest, however, that the third aspect is increasingly becoming a distinct area of pedagogy in its own right, as the rate of knowledge production increases and the only certainty is that most of what you know today will be out of date next year.

2. What are the limitations of the VLE?

The definition of a VLE is very wide. Some people (MJ Styles, Effective Learning and the Virtual Learning Environment) explicitly include such software as WebCT as VLEs, while others (Henry Jenkins, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education in the 21st Century) implicitly suggest that these are little more than traditional teaching in a modern clothes.

In evaluating a VLE it is important to determine ist possible uses. Unless one clearly understands its design limitations then there is a danger of misusing it (by over-inflating expectations) or misjudging it (by accusing it of failing to perform tasks it was never intended to perform).

3. Does the VLE allow for different kinds of learning experiences?

Different VLEs may have weaknesses in different areas. It is therefore necessary to ask how a specific VLE will allow for different learning experiences. Reimann and Rothmeier suggest (in Didaktische Innovation durch Blended Learning) that learning necessarily occurs in three overlapping forms. First students learn from information. Secondly they learn from the kind of feedback generated through interaction with peers. Thirdly they learn through collaborating and absorbing different, but equall valid, perspectives.

This implies that a successful VLE must facilitate at least these three kinds of experiences. It must allow for students to amass information. It must allow for open discussion, as well as guided tutorials. It must provide a setting for collaborative projects and tasks.

4. Does the VLE allow for different learning styles?

Marc Prensky has written at length about twitch culture, and the diverging aspirations and learning styles of digital natives and digital immigrants. In this he is far from alone. Chris Dede (Planning for neomillenial learning styles) has also argued that the networked society is causing fundamental changes in the approaches of students to learning, and to being taught. Evidence of this is also available at

There is a suggestion here that the currently defined learning styles may not be more than provisional, and that genuinely new learning styles are emerging from the new practices of consoles gaming, online role-playing and always-on multi-tasking.

A VLE must be analysed in terms of its ability to cope with, absorb, and grow with new learning styles. This ability ma be seen by examining the role of the “teacher” within the VLE.

5. Does the VLE require teachers, coaches, guides, or scouts?

The use of VLEs in the context of emerging learning styles requires a careful examination of the kind of teaching (as opposed to learning) that the VLE facilitates. Does it require teachers? If so, how does their course preparation differ from the preparation they would do for traditional classroom teaching?

John Tashner, at Applachian State University (name of paper to follow) has spent five years teaching courses within ActiveWorlds, and he has argued persuasively that there is no place for a teacher within that, if it is used as a VLE. Instead, he prepares courses in the form of exploratory games and exercises to be carried out individually or in teams. In his terms he “preloads” the VLE with learning materials and a “learning narrative”. While the course is taking place his role is as a scout – exploring the world and checking for design problems that are revealed through student frustration or puzzlement, and as a guide who appears as a kind of super-user.

In this kind of practice the role of the “teacher” is more like that of Don Juan in the Carlos Castaneda books, than that of a traditional pedagogue.

6. How large is the pedagogical distance in the VLE?

One of the most interesting arguments about distance learning that I have read has been proposed by Otto Peters (Learning and Teaching in Distance Education). He suggests that the usual measurement of distance is both wrong and misleading. He argues that it makes little difference if the student is in Helsinki and the teacher is in Rotterdam. Rather what matters is what he terms the “pedagogical distance”, which he characterises according to the intensity of the (real or potential) interaction between the teacher and student. In his terms, a large lecture hall at a university, where a lecturer stands up and addresses 100 students, and then takes a few brief questions before striding out, is an example of distance learning even though everyone involved is in the same building at the same time. On the other hand a lengthy one-to-one tutorial by telephone is an example of “neighbourly learning”.

From this perspective it is important to look at the size of the pedagogical distance opened up by the VLE. Does the teacher appear nearer or more remote as a result of immersion in the VLE?

7. How immersive is the VLE?

Broadly speaking there are two kinds of VLEs. The first kind attempts to be transparent, and to act as an invisible interface between the student and learning. WebCT, study.log, and other similar tools are of this kind. The second kind provides an immersive world which, far from being invisible, is itself a part of the learning experience. Second Life, Active Worlds, World of Warcraft and other MUVEs provide this kind of VLE.

I am not certain that it is possible to say that one approach is correct and the other is wrong. However I do think that each approach offers different opportunities and has different limitations. It is therefore important to look at how immersive a VLE is, and what part the process of immersion plays in the game of studying.

8. Is the VLE open, available and portable?

Many VLEs are hidden behind firewalls, or inside college intranets. It is clear though that increasing amounts of students (digital natives and others) are keen to take control of their patterns of learning, and to fit these patterns into the overall ebb and flow of their weekly lives. It is also clear that genuinely collaborative work demands such an approach. We should therefore look at the openness and availability of a VLE, since this is likely to have an increasing importance in determining its popularity with students and its ability to adapt to changing learning patterns.