Getting to grips with VLEs

     
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Even if you are of the generation that used Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) at school or college, finding yourself on the lecturer’s side of a VLE system can be a shock. VLEs like Canvas, Moodle, and Blackboard can turn into time-consuming sources of frustration, or they can actually fulfil their promise of supporting good module design and delivery.

VLEs for beginners.

A VLE is a Web-based system, usually based on a university’s Intranet but with external links, that allow students to access course content online. VLEs also give lecturers tools for tracking student engagement and class attendance, giving students marks, and extending coursework to include interactive discussions and multimedia content.

Although some distance learning courses are actually taught via VLE, most lecturers use them only as a platform for organising syllabi, assessment information, and lecture notes.

When you first log into a new VLE, it can be intimidating. None of them uses the same interface, so if you used Moodle in your last post but now must try to set up modules on Blackboard, you’re faced with a new environment. The language itself can be confusing: for example, Canvas uses the word ‘Modules’ for elements of a single class, such as weekly sessions or assessments. Start by creating a practice module that no one else can see (in Canvas this is called a ‘Sandbox’; all VLEs have some sort of non-published practice area).

Best uses for beginners.

If you’re new to lecturing entirely or to VLEs specifically, don’t feel like you need to employ every feature on offer. At a minimum, you need to make sure students can easily find the module syllabus, that the module is linked to overall course material, and that you have a folder where you can place any other material that students need to read or view at home.

The easiest way to set up a module is by creating separate folders for each week or session. As you write lesson plans, these folders can then be filled with handouts, PowerPoint slides, bibliographies, film clips, and other material.

If students will submit work online, check whether this needs to be integrated with Turnitin or other university systems for checking plagiarism. The advantage of a VLE is that submissions are secure and time-stamped.

Where to find training and help.

If you’re struggling, your first port of call should be an experienced colleague in your department. While the university IT department has the expertise, they don’t know your course or your students.

There is also a great deal of online information available. Check the company that has created your VLE for formal manuals. You may find that your own IT department or that of another university has assembled tips, tricks and FAQs in a format that is easier to access. In some cases, formal training is available.

Advanced possibilities.

Once you’ve gotten to grips with the basics, set aside some time to look into how a VLE can be used to enhance classroom teaching. For example, if your students work on PCs or always have access to mobile phones, some VLEs can be used to set daily quizzes, create opinion polls that can be used as the basis for classroom or online discussion, and get students talking in workgroups and forums.

VLEs can also help with providing support to students who need lecture notes in advance or materials in an alternative format due to disability, and they can be used to send reminders to students about upcoming deadlines or events.

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