Virtual Learning Environment: Issues and Challenges in Higher Education Domain

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In the last decade, Information and Communication Technologies’ (ICT) approach for teaching and learning has gathered increasing interests, both in formal and non-formal higher education system. Some of ICT solutions in different application domains have achieved huge success in their respective area of concern. Academic interests in this collaborative, community driven development has also grown considerably, arising from various backgrounds. New developments in higher education – from virtual universities and e-learning to open education initiatives – speak of the importance of providing open, accessible and superior higher education content for a global community of teachers, scholars and lifelong learners. The power of education should be realized without the constraints of time or geography, to combat economic, social and cultural obstacles. The expectations from ICT to contribute significantly to academic community in terms of growth, employment, competitiveness and quality of education are high. As expectations, grow, so do some risks, such as increasing disparities between regions within and across national boundaries. The term “digital divide” captures this concern. Discourse on digital divide often centers on a restrictive techno-centric agenda of equitable access to ICT infrastructure, leaving out important issue beyond this unexplored. This paper is the outcome of real time implementation of technology led teaching and learning in blended mode.

 

Indian Context

In India, the higher education system is governed mainly by two regulatory bodies viz. UGC (University Grants Commission) for University system and AICTE (All India Council for Technical Education) for higher technical education. It is worth noticing that UGC or state government funds formal higher education under University system; and very few (in terms of percentage) institutions are financially supported by the government in higher technical education, the rest are self sustaining (self financing). Surprisingly, there are no policies or standard procedures available for these institutions to adopt appropriate technology solutions and by and large these institutions fall in the trap of non-uniform, unmanageable, unreliable and expensive short-term solutions.

ICT is increasingly playing an important role in making productive interventions more and more effective and useful. There is a constant search going on for new and innovative technologies and their application in educational interventions to more effectively address issues of access, quality and equity. Technological innovations have preoccupied the mind of industry for its varied and effective application for development in general and education and training in particular. Educational institutes are also grappling with the issue of how exactly to harness and exploit the potentials of innovations in programme development and delivery, and improvements in the organization of education systems which include quality assurance, benchmarking, technological interventions, research and training. While all these developments are taking place, very little exchange of experience has taken place among the developers and users of new innovative technologies in the educational sector.

Rationale

ICT led teaching and learning does not merely provide a different medium for traditional classroom interactions, but creates an environment for students to take part in much richer and effective educational activities. By incorporating a technology enhanced learning activity into the course curriculum, students may be presented with new and greater challenges that extend beyond their traditional, and often passive, learning of theories and content. Perhaps more important, however, is providing students with the opportunity to participate in an authentic exchange releases them from the well-known academic vacuum in which they typically build knowledge and understanding from readings and in-class discussions (Dron et al, 2000). Technology integration has already changed the image of the classroom. These virtual academic networks even stretch across international borders to form cross-cultural learning environments where teachers and students of diverse cultures can learn with and from each other (Sanjeev Singh et al, 2000). With its capability of bringing innovative views to the classroom instantaneously, this model presents students with unique opportunities to develop cultural awareness and build shared knowledge.

In traditional university system, lecture based education plays an important role in providing mentoring and guidance. However, study material may not be enough in the present digital era. Moreover, students need to develop new style of learning to learn more effectively. In case of University of Delhi, where the annual student enrolment is more than 300,000, the only way is that the student must learn to use these new virtual learning environments. With the present experiment, it is hoped that virtual learning environment can become a valuable and effective source of mentoring during the study cycle and beyond.

The Case Study

The present work is aimed at using a pedagogical model of a conventional university, backed up by an open source driven web-based learning environment. The objective of this implementation was to make graduate students aware of the potential and efficiency of ICT based learning. Other key dimensions of the present study are:

•    Ease of use.

•    Reliability and confidence building.

•    Possibility to modify and add variety of learning content  (text, voice, video)

•    Customising the system to cater to accept individual requirements/preferences.

•    Feedback and motivation to study.

Other advantages of the present model are that, regardless of subject area, it introduces new opportunities for collaborative learning, facilitates individualized feedback as well as contact with peers and faculty, promotes reflective and critical thinking due to its asynchronous mode, and permits students to work at a time and pace that is convenient to them. In consideration of these benefits that web mediation can bring to a learning environment, this virtual learning application of the present approach have the potential of being extremely useful and relevant to students’ learning.

Methodology

A prime concern was that students be motivated to use this new learning environment system so that any anxieties or apprehensions about using the technology are overcome by the time the web mediated learning activity begins. This entails building sufficient practice time into the course curriculum. The aim was to set up an environment that functions as a teacher by giving adequate information on the identified courses. Moreover, it should also support the learning process by functioning as a nodal point for a particular learning material. It was also envisioned that learning environment should be integrated with traditional media as well as digital media.

Interestingly all the dimensions defined were achieved through an open source application ‘Moodle’ (Modular Object Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment), which has been the most admired application by the learning communities worldwide. It is quite flexible and by default caters to most of the requirements one can think of in higher education institutions. A prototype web site has been launched on one of the servers of the University of Delhi South Campus (http://vle.south.du.ac.in, 2008). This resource is built by and for students of the Universities of Delhi. Its purpose is to provide a shared resource on the subject of Informatics. A discussion group has also been created and students are strongly encouraged to interact with their peers and comment on the resources. Various learning content and tutorials, open courseware were chosen to cover the course curriculum of the University and uploaded in a classified manner to help students in learning. Online quizzes were also created for self-assessment. The students were asked to share their knowledge and queries using the framework presented.

An online internship programme was also executed using the same framework in the form of a discussion forum. It was pleasant to learn that the existing students were able to set up their own ‘knowledge network’ by involving their alumni. This process of collaborative learning helped students to acquire skills, which are required by the real world and difficult to achieve in the traditional university framework.

This initiative of providing virtual learning environment is in active and heavy use. The platform is robust, reliable and scalable. However, the environment is not considered as complete, since it is evolving. The framework was demonstrated to other faculties by conducting multiple hands on workshops and surprisingly this environment is now being used actively by various other subject teachers.

Results and Discussion: Pragmatic and Technical issues

Introducing VLE to the students was not too difficult, as the students group belongs to the author of this work. The start was slow as students in India are generally trained to follow a direct path to learn specially in higher education domain. The main issue was how to motivate students and engage them in mutually beneficial interaction. The first step was to integrate a simple discussion mechanism and relied on students’ curiosity to kickstart it. The VLE helped in establishing new ways of learning, and integrated learning resources affordably and efficiently to make content delivery more meaningful.

The initial VLE set up to provide a basis for discussion was to make available various activity modules (discussion forum, blogs, MCQ etc.) available as part of moodle’s framework. Moodle seemed the logical choice for easily deployable on existing infrastructure due to its flexible and open architecture.

Overall, the VLE is considered very robust and reliable. The freedom to learn without time and place restrictions is considered as a positive and more productive feature both among students and teachers. The feedback and messaging mechanism of the environment provides opportunity to contact the teacher instantly. The environment helps both students and teachers to better manage the learning progress.

Conclusions

We have achieved a workable model for collaborative learning environment. In this study, it is demonstrated that ICT based learning environment can be more productive and support the learning curves. This new learning environment functions as a teacher who is always available virtually. It integrates all known types of media and provided an effective route for feedback and sharing knowledge. It helped students to orientate as the courses proceed. The present work was carried out with 80 postgraduate students, the results were quite encouraging, the same framework later extended to all interested and teachers were trained to deliver their learning content more effectively.

Results indicate that the new learning environment helps in establishing innovative learning methods, and integrates well with available learning resources to provide seamless access to learning material in one place, which can be easily modified by the course teacher. The new online assessment tools have brought in new positive changes in the learning style of the students as VLE provides a private space to each and every individual learner with the availability on demand. The results are promising, but it is also observed that in person mentoring remains important. The role of a VLE in higher education space is significant as it supports virtually real mentoring that may not always be available in the existing system. It was also observed that VLE could improve learning by involving student in management of the learning process.

As on date more than 700 teachers of different disciplines have been trained and around 2000 students of the university are benefitted by this work. Author is also engaged in developing a strategy to extend it to cater to the needs of 300000 students of this university. In the light of the present applied work, virtual learning environment approach seems a promising framework for setting up effective learning environments in the present era of more demanding learning.

Works Cited

  1. Dron J, Mitchell R, Siviter P and Boyne C , “Website Evaluation System: Collaborative Discovering what makes a website good”. Proceedings of WebNet 2000, October 2000.
  2. Singh Sanjeev and Dron Jon, “Networking: A Study in Cross Cultural Collaboration.” Journal of Association of Learning Technologies, ALT-J, 2000.
  3. Prototype VLE http://vle.south.du.ac.in

Sanjeev Singh is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Informatics & Communication, University of Delhi South Campus.

* Article first published in FORTELL Sep 2010.

In the last decade, Information and Communication Technologies’ (ICT) approach for teaching and learning has gathered increasing interests, both in formal and non-formal higher education system. Some of ICT solutions in different application domains have achieved huge success in their respective area of concern. Academic interests in this collaborative, community driven development has also grown considerably, arising from various backgrounds. New developments in higher education – from virtual universities and e-learning to open education initiatives – speak of the importance of providing open, accessible and superior higher education content for a global community of teachers, scholars and lifelong learners. The power of education should be realized without the constraints of time or geography, to combat economic, social and cultural obstacles. The expectations from ICT to contribute significantly to academic community in terms of growth, employment, competitiveness and quality of education are high. As expectations, grow, so do some risks, such as increasing disparities between regions within and across national boundaries. The term “digital divide” captures this concern. Discourse on digital divide often centers on a restrictive techno-centric agenda of equitable access to ICT infrastructure, leaving out important issue beyond this unexplored. This paper is the outcome of real time implementation of technology led teaching and learning in blended mode.
Indian Context
In India, the higher education system is governed mainly by two regulatory bodies viz. UGC (University Grants Commission) for University system and AICTE (All India Council for Technical Education) for higher technical education. It is worth noticing that UGC or state government funds formal higher education under University system; and very few (in terms of percentage) institutions are financially supported by the government in higher technical education, the rest are self sustaining (self financing). Surprisingly, there are no policies or standard procedures available for these institutions to adopt appropriate technology solutions and by and large these institutions fall in the trap of non-uniform, unmanageable, unreliable and expensive short-term solutions.
ICT is increasingly playing an important role in making productive interventions more and more effective and useful. There is a constant search going on for new and innovative technologies and their application in educational interventions to more effectively address issues of access, quality and equity. Technological innovations have preoccupied the mind of industry for its varied and effective application for development in general and education and training in particular. Educational institutes are also grappling with the issue of how exactly to harness and exploit the potentials of innovations in programme development and delivery, and improvements in the organization of education systems which include quality assurance, benchmarking, technological interventions, research and training. While all these developments are taking place, very little exchange of experience has taken place among the developers and users of new innovative technologies in the educational sector.
Rationale
ICT led teaching and learning does not merely provide a different medium for traditional classroom interactions, but creates an environment for students to take part in much richer and effective educational activities. By incorporating a technology enhanced learning activity into the course curriculum, students may be presented with new and greater challenges that extend beyond their traditional, and often passive, learning of theories and content. Perhaps more important, however, is providing students with the opportunity to participate in an authentic exchange releases them from the well-known academic vacuum in which they typically build knowledge and understanding from readings and in-class discussions (Dron et al, 2000). Technology integration has already changed the image of the classroom. These virtual academic networks even stretch across international borders to form cross-cultural learning environments where teachers and students of diverse cultures can learn with and from each other (Sanjeev Singh et al, 2000). With its capability of bringing innovative views to the classroom instantaneously, this model presents students with unique opportunities to develop cultural awareness and build shared knowledge.
In traditional university system, lecture based education plays an important role in providing mentoring and guidance. However, study material may not be enough in the present digital era. Moreover, students need to develop new style of learning to learn more effectively. In case of University of Delhi, where the annual student enrolment is more than 300,000, the only way is that the student must learn to use these new virtual learning environments. With the present experiment, it is hoped that virtual learning environment can become a valuable and effective source of mentoring during the study cycle and beyond.
The Case Study
The present work is aimed at using a pedagogical model of a conventional university, backed up by an open source driven web-based learning environment. The objective of this implementation was to make graduate students aware of the potential and efficiency of ICT based learning. Other key dimensions of the present study are:
•    Ease of use.
•    Reliability and confidence building.
•    Possibility to modify and add variety of learning content  (text, voice, video)
•    Customising the system to cater to accept individual requirements/preferences.
•    Feedback and motivation to study.
Other advantages of the present model are that, regardless of subject area, it introduces new opportunities for collaborative learning, facilitates individualized feedback as well as contact with peers and faculty, promotes reflective and critical thinking due to its asynchronous mode, and permits students to work at a time and pace that is convenient to them. In consideration of these benefits that web mediation can bring to a learning environment, this virtual learning application of the present approach have the potential of being extremely useful and relevant to students’ learning.
Methodology
A prime concern was that students be motivated to use this new learning environment system so that any anxieties or apprehensions about using the technology are overcome by the time the web mediated learning activity begins. This entails building sufficient practice time into the course curriculum. The aim was to set up an environment that functions as a teacher by giving adequate information on the identified courses. Moreover, it should also support the learning process by functioning as a nodal point for a particular learning material. It was also envisioned that learning environment should be integrated with traditional media as well as digital media.
Interestingly all the dimensions defined were achieved through an open source application ‘Moodle’ (Modular Object Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment), which has been the most admired application by the learning communities worldwide. It is quite flexible and by default caters to most of the requirements one can think of in higher education institutions. A prototype web site has been launched on one of the servers of the University of Delhi South Campus (http://vle.south.du.ac.in, 2008). This resource is built by and for students of the Universities of Delhi. Its purpose is to provide a shared resource on the subject of Informatics. A discussion group has also been created and students are strongly encouraged to interact with their peers and comment on the resources. Various learning content and tutorials, open courseware were chosen to cover the course curriculum of the University and uploaded in a classified manner to help students in learning. Online quizzes were also created for self-assessment. The students were asked to share their knowledge and queries using the framework presented.
An online internship programme was also executed using the same framework in the form of a discussion forum. It was pleasant to learn that the existing students were able to set up their own ‘knowledge network’ by involving their alumni. This process of collaborative learning helped students to acquire skills, which are required by the real world and difficult to achieve in the traditional university framework.  
This initiative of providing virtual learning environment is in active and heavy use. The platform is robust, reliable and scalable. However, the environment is not considered as complete, since it is evolving. The framework was demonstrated to other faculties by conducting multiple hands on workshops and surprisingly this environment is now being used actively by various other subject teachers.
Results and Discussion: Pragmatic and Technical issues
Introducing VLE to the students was not too difficult, as the students group belongs to the author of this work. The start was slow as students in India are generally trained to follow a direct path to learn specially in higher education domain. The main issue was how to motivate students and engage them in mutually beneficial interaction. The first step was to integrate a simple discussion mechanism and relied on students’ curiosity to kickstart it. The VLE helped in establishing new ways of learning, and integrated learning resources affordably and efficiently to make content delivery more meaningful.
The initial VLE set up to provide a basis for discussion was to make available various activity modules (discussion forum, blogs, MCQ etc.) available as part of moodle’s framework. Moodle seemed the logical choice for easily deployable on existing infrastructure due to its flexible and open architecture.
Overall, the VLE is considered very robust and reliable. The freedom to learn without time and place restrictions is considered as a positive and more productive feature both among students and teachers. The feedback and messaging mechanism of the environment provides opportunity to contact the teacher instantly. The environment helps both students and teachers to better manage the learning progress.
Conclusions
We have achieved a workable model for collaborative learning environment. In this study, it is demonstrated that ICT based learning environment can be more productive and support the learning curves. This new learning environment functions as a teacher who is always available virtually. It integrates all known types of media and provided an effective route for feedback and sharing knowledge. It helped students to orientate as the courses proceed. The present work was carried out with 80 postgraduate students, the results were quite encouraging, the same framework later extended to all interested and teachers were trained to deliver their learning content more effectively.
Results indicate that the new learning environment helps in establishing innovative learning methods, and integrates well with available learning resources to provide seamless access to learning material in one place, which can be easily modified by the course teacher. The new online assessment tools have brought in new positive changes in the learning style of the students as VLE provides a private space to each and every individual learner with the availability on demand. The results are promising, but it is also observed that in person mentoring remains important. The role of a VLE in higher education space is significant as it supports virtually real mentoring that may not always be available in the existing system. It was also observed that VLE could improve learning by involving student in management of the learning process.
As on date more than 700 teachers of different disciplines have been trained and around 2000 students of the university are benefitted by this work. Author is also engaged in developing a strategy to extend it to cater to the needs of 300000 students of this university. In the light of the present applied work, virtual learning environment approach seems a promising framework for setting up effective learning environments in the present era of more demanding learning.
Works Cited
1.    Dron J, Mitchell R, Siviter P and Boyne C , “Website Evaluation System: Collaborative Discovering what makes a website good”. Proceedings of WebNet 2000, October 2000.
2.    Singh Sanjeev and Dron Jon, “Networking: A Study in Cross Cultural Collaboration.” Journal of Association of Learning Technologies, ALT-J, 2000.
3.    Prototype VLE http://vle.south.du.ac.in
sanjeev@south.du.ac.in
Sanjeev Singh is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Informatics & Communication, University of Delhi South Campus.

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