What do students want from a virtual learning environment?

I used to have a fancy bank account. All bells and whistles. I paid the equivalent of four pints a month (everyone has their own measure of the value of money) and for that I got loads of free stuff. Well sort of free. As free as four pints of lager. The list of extras was impressive – travel insurance, concierge service, etc. And for the two years I had the account (many pints worth) I used the sum total of none of these benefits. But I could. If I wanted to. I also have a big gas barbecue which I rarely use (blame the English summer weather) but would not want to be without. And yes I do need that bold red lipstick in my make up bag – despite never, ever wearing it. Its a comfort thing. I like the idea of these things, the security of them being available. I don’t have to actually use them to appreciate their importance.

The resources we have on our virtual learning environment (VLE) are fantastic – really, really useful. The students love the idea of them. When we ask if they like the fact that they can access recorded lectures there is a resoundingly positive answer. When we tell them there are short bitesize tutorials on key topics which they find difficult their eyes light up. But when we analyse usage statistics the results don’t always tell the same story. So is it that students want the security of these additional resources without actually ever using them? Would they miss them if they weren’t there? Or is it that we aren’t giving them the right resources?

The resources we provide cut across a whole range of activities and points in the students journey – from pre course information, through content delivery in various forms, tricky topics tutorials, testing and exam guidance. I am convinced that these resources are the ones which will best assist in guiding students through their studies and achieve exam success. So content is probably not the problem.

It seems a large part of it is that the VLE provides one huge virtual comfort blanket which wraps up the students in its snugly warmth (much needed as the weather is really turning). They do dip in and out when they need to but the majority of study is still done in the classroom and with a nice big heavy textbook. I am attempting to move towards paperless teaching by storing notes and materials on my tablet and taking this into class rather than my big heavy files and books. But it is a wrench to not have a proper book made from proper paper which I can scribble all over and stick post-it notes on every other page when I’m prepping my classes. I imagine many students feel the same.

I teach adults – the youngest students in my classes are 18 and that is quite rare. (I often get quite upset that I have a tattoo older than these students…). But the average age of my students is late 20s. I don’t think we are yet teaching classes full of Gen Y and so although students are quite interested in the option of learning online it is not what they are used to. They see the VLE as support to the main study manuals rather than a replacement. We are likely to see significant changes in the coming years as we welcome more and more students into our classrooms who have always used digital resources as the main focus in their learning. Maybe then there will be more reliance on the VLE.

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