A familiarity with the main features and tools of virtual learning environments will help you as an online instructor to craft courses that are effective and engaging for your students.
An Overview of the VLE
The Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is an online course management system and serves as a useful framework for online learning activities. At the same time, it facilitates class administration and assessment. However, as with any tool, the greater your familiarity with its capabilities, the more you and your students will get out of it. With this in mind, we will take a look at each of the main features and tools of virtual learning environments so that you can decide which ones to integrate into your course.
As the layout of a VLE and the specific commands and procedures will differ depending on whether you are using Blackboard, Moodle, or another system, this article is presented as an overview of standard or frequently found features. Once you have chosen or been assigned a particular VLE, it is worthwhile to work through its own manual or instructional content to familiarize yourself with how to access and set up the features and tools that are useful to you.
Class Administration Tools
As an online instructor, the ability to manage class enrollments and keep track of student progress may be one of the most appealing aspects of the VLE. If you are acting as the VLE administrator in addition to your teaching role, you will have super-user powers. What this means is that you can make decisions as to who can access your course VLE (and you can also revoke these permissions). You also can assign roles to your students and any additional teachers in your group, allowing certain activities (such as being able to start a new discussion) and limiting others (such as deleting posts).
You also have the ability to assign course members to smaller groups, either for the duration of the course or for shorter intervals. This can be useful if you have a large number of students or if you have learning activities that benefit from group work.
If you have concerns about student participation or have had no communication from a particular student, the VLE can provide you with reports that will tell you who has been logging in and how much time a participant spent on activities.
Creating Structured Lessons
As the administrator and course leader, another of the main features and tools of virtual learning environments that you control is the ability to create and present instructional material via the VLE.
The advantage of using a virtual learning environment for this is that you can create structured lesson plans that make use of hyperlinked material and can integrate these with quizzes, glossaries, assignments, and discussions, all within a single online space. The digital environment also makes it possible for you to combine textual content with multimedia resources, creating a rich learning experience for your students.
You also have the ability to restrict access to lessons prepared in advance so that your students can focus on current topics without being distracted by future lessons.
Using the Calendar to Stay on Schedule
The VLE is clearly useful for directing student attention to relevant material at the appropriate time. Another great tool for managing learning in the online environment is the calendar. This gives both instructor(s) and students an at-a-glance guide to course activities and deadlines. Dates can be hyperlinked to pages or activities within your VLE or even to external pages.
Don't overlook the importance of this tool. Although it may sound simple, in a VLE with a lot of content, it is valuable for your learners to have a central point where they can check what's happening when. Often they will have the ability to also add in their own events to a personalized calendar. As an online student, I found I relied on the course calendar in planning my time, particularly when studying more than one online course at a time.
On the next page, we will look at more main features and tools of virtual learning environments including the interactional and assessment tools of the VLE such as the discussion forum and quizzes.
When it comes to assessing online students, the main features and tools of virtual learning environments give you a range of options to simplify testing and scoring their progress. You can choose from a variety of quizzes or use the VLE to manage uploaded assignments. The VLE also gives you choices for communicating with your class and for getting them interacting with one another to enhance their learning experience.
Getting Everyone Involved with the Discussion Forum
If you have used any of the main features and tools of virtual learning environments, this almost certainly included a discussion forum. In many courses, this is where most of the action takes place. The discussion forum has the most potential to create a sense of a real classroom as opposed to various individuals engaged in solitary reading and assessment. When used effectively, it can also promote collaborative learning. Off-topic asynchronous discussion threads or activities can also be a useful way for students to get to know one another, reducing the sense of isolation than can arise in online learning.
The VLE allows you to create threaded discussions to which your group may contribute their own posts. You also have the option of permitting students to start their own discussions and of creating private discussion threads for specific groups engaged in smaller groupwork. The versatility of the VLE means that you can control who can read, who can post, and who can moderate discussions by being able to edit and remove posts. You may also wish to lock older discussions so that they are read-only in order to keep the class on track.
Communication Tools to Stay in Touch
Interaction is generally a key part of an online course. There are times when the asynchronous format and often also the public nature of the discussion forum can present problems. Email remains valuable for more private communication. If getting hold and keeping track of the various email addresses of your class is a problem, the VLE presents a simple option. You can use the messaging facility within the VLE. This can be used to send a message to one or to multiple members of the group but won't be seen by anyone else.
For times when immediate communication is useful, either for working through a problem in a small group, helping a worried student, or for social purposes, the chat feature allows synchronous communication. You can schedule chats with instructor input at appropriate times in the course or can leave it as an option for students to use as and when they need to.
Student Assessment with the VLE
You can use your VLE to manage all kinds of assessment. This includes setting up quizzes, from a simple self-check test that can be taken multiple times to a formally-assessed quiz which may be timed and can be taken only once by each student. Quizzes offer plenty of versatility with the potential to offer everything from multiple choice and true-false style questions to entering free text. Where the quiz questions have set answers the VLE also does the scoring for you, reducing your own workload.
For essay-based assignments or assessment using other formats, the VLE will normally offer an assignment dropbox or file upload facility which can optionally be made available within a certain time frame. Although these will require a human to grade, you can also use this feature to deliver the score or grade to each student plus any feedback.
The VLE will further act as a grade management system where you can access reports for the group or by individual student to monitor assessed progress.
Although the VLE has been subject to criticism, there can be situations where containing your lessons and students in one central area is an efficient way to structure your course. On the other hand, the main features and tools of virtual learning environments can still be used by instructors who want to break down those walls, as components of blended learning environments that integrate aspects of traditional online learning with social media, web-based learning materials, purpose-built instructional applications, and Web 2.0 tools.
Choosing the right tools for distance learning is a key factor in the success of an online course. Knowing what the main features and tools of virtual learning environments are and how to use them gives you the option to combine them in the way that best suits the learning experience you aim to offer your students.
Cole, J. and Foster, H. (2008). Using Moodle, Second Edition. O'Reilly.
Southworth, H., Cakici, K., Vovides, Y., Zvacek, S. (2006). Blackboard for Dummies. Wiley Publishing, Inc.