Jonathan Powles, Vice-Principal and PVC Learning, Teaching and Students, University of the West of Scotland
Where does learning happen?
Learning happens inside your head – it’s a transformation of you as a person; your skills, understanding, knowledge and attitudes. There’s no requirement for this to occur in a certain place, time or setting.
The digital revolution has brought that into clear relief. Whereas before the internet era, most people would have answered that learning happens “in a classroom”, it’s clear that over the past two decades learning increasingly happens within the boundaries of the “Learning Management System” (LMS), now increasingly known as the “Virtual Learning Environment” (VLE) to recognise that it is far more than a piece of software and much more a virtual campus: a multivalent yet imaginary space for learning to occur.
This shift has been radically accelerated by the pandemic. Over the past eighteen months, universities have been forced on the fly to completely reshape their delivery of learning and teaching. We have had to take stock and reassess the fundamental assumptions about how students learn, and how universities should teach. And the VLE has been the site where that reassessment has been taking place; the LMS has been a virtual laboratory where we have all been learning by trial and error
There are undoubtedly huge positives to on-campus, face-to-face learning. For certain areas of study, like dentistry or music, “hands-on” learning is essential. Learning together harnesses the personal and developmental benefits which have driven the university ideal for centuries – exposure to diverse and challenging ideas, cultures, values and people; learning how to understand each other and work together.
“The pandemic forced us to make significant changes – quickly. But as we now see the light at the end of the tunnel, we must recognise that the traditional use of the LMS as a content repository is well past its use-by date”
However, we are beginning to understand how to forge and preserve this human connection online, and leverage the wider societal and educational benefits this can bring.On of the things we have all learned the hard way this past eighteen months is that a VLE stocked full of content is a very poor substitute for interactive learning. The best online experiences have been when the VLE or LMS has come to resemble a buzzing classroom, full of real-time people, ideas, and interaction.
Contrary to current narratives playing out in the media, a technology-enabled learning experience promotes high-quality learning. Studies have shown that hybrid learning results in better, deeper understanding than sitting passively in a lecture theatre. Virtual learning platforms encourage active learning, utilising innovative techniques drawn from social media, AI and virtual reality to engage with students in direct and personalised ways. Academics can use big data and analytics to see where individual students require tailored support.
Many universities teachers have responded by radically repurposing traditional VLE design and forcing traditional LMS platforms like Moodle to behave like social learning environments. At UWS we have gone further, and taken the decision to phase out Moodle and introduce the next generation of VLE, in our case Aula. Aula places interaction, not content, at the heart of the learning experience and forces designs that encourage active learning rather than the passive transmission of content. As a result, our students are both learning more deeply, and more collaboratively.
Used well, giving primacy to the virtual rather than physical learning environment first has the ability to widen access to higher education in a way we’ve never seen before.
Perhaps you’re a parent with caring responsibilities, in a rural town. Maybe you have a nine-to-five job, with bills to pay. You can now study when and where you like. The most active time of day in UWS’s virtual learning environment is 9.20pm - after the housework is done and the kids are in bed.
Technology-enabled learning is also an important tool in the broader social justice agenda. By specifically designing online learning that is inclusive and participatory, we level the playing field, creating safe spaces for learners of all backgrounds and cultures, ages and circumstances.
"The pandemic forced us to make significant changes – quickly. But as we now see the light at the end of the tunnel, we must recognise that the traditional use of the LMS as a content repository is well past its use-by date"
I’ve been inspired by the speed at which academics and students have adapted to online learning. The pandemic forced us to make significant changes – quickly. But as we now see the light at the end of the tunnel, we must recognise that the traditional use of the LMS as a content repository is well past its use-by date. Our VLEs must be energetic, interactive, inclusive and social spaces, like our physical campuses once were and will be again.
Jonathan Daitch, Associate Provost for Online Education, Western University of Health Sciences and Jonathan Labovitz, DPM, FACFAS, CHCQM, Associate Dean, Clinical Education and Graduate Placement Professor, College of Podiatric Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences