Virtual Learning Environments, Blended Learning and Teacher Intervention

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  • 8/11/2019 Virtual Learning Environments, Blended Learning and Teacher Intervention


    Virtual Learning Environments, Blended Learning and Teacher


    Nathalie Ticheler (Dr)

    University of Westminster

    Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities Evening Language Programme

    309 Regent Street LONDON W1B 2HW (UK)


    Departmental webpage:


    AbstractThis paper presents the findings of a study at a new university in the UK, in a

    context of precariousness of languages and expansion of Technology-Enhanced

    Learning. Conducted from a phenomenological perspective and in association

    with socio-constructivist principles, the study investigates students experience of

    the Blackboard VLE on a blended learning module. A mixed-method approach

    was adopted based on 96 questionnaires and 6 interviews, leading to an

    interpretive analysis of data. Findings indicate that, although participants may be

    considered as digitally literate, their response shows difficulties in the

    transferability of skills to formal learning contexts. Therefore, lecturers need to

    guide students in a structured manner in order to maximise their engagement withthe VLE.

    Keywords: Blackboard, Blended Learning, Pedagogy, Scaffolding

    1 Introductory remarks1.1Context of the research

    This study was conducted in a context of precariousness of languages in the United

    Kingdom and promotion of technology-enhanced learning at national level.The targeted institution, a new university in the United Kingdom, aims to promote the

    quality of the students experience, their use of technologies and a greater access toresources, (Targeted institution 2010a, 2010b, 2010c, March 2011). The targeted

    department offers accredited modules in various languages to students of all faculties, aswell as members of the public. All the modules last twelve weeks, include three hours oflectures per week and the use of Blackboard. Data for this study was obtained from

    students of elementary French. All participants had at least one semesters experience inusing Blackboard for French at the time of the data collection. Materials are organised in

    folders such as what we do in class, to do after class etc . Communication tools areexploited with various degrees of intensity by lecturers. All groups are taught inclassrooms with multimedia facilities. Blackboard is operated by lecturers only duringlessons but students are normally taken to the self-access centre for web-based activitiesearly in the semester.

  • 8/11/2019 Virtual Learning Environments, Blended Learning and Teacher Intervention


    1.2 Rationale for the study

    The National Student Survey for 2013 indicates that, at national level, 84% ofparticipants are satisfied with the learning resources presented to them. Students at thetargeted institution fill in a standard university end-of-module questionnaire, which only

    includes a couple of questions on Blackboard. Over 88 % of beginners and 71% of post-beginners of French responded positively to Blackboard and considered it useful.

    There is an identified need for a greater knowledge of the students experience ofBlackboard linked to a valuable opportunity for reflective practice (Ellis 2012:26)

    2 Key concepts2.1 Blended learningSeveral authors (Littlejohn & Pegler 2007; Mason & Rennie 2006; Motteram & Sharma

    2009) give their definition of blended learning. Littlejohn & Peglers (2007:1) report thatblended learning involves a range of combinations of resources and activities, taking intoaccount socio-constructivist principles, which I feel currently occupy an importantposition in the educational discourse. Mason & Rennie (2006:12) provide us with their

    own definition of blended learning, giving examples of possible combinations:The original and still most common meaning refers to the combination of online andface to face teaching. However, other combinations of technologies, locations orpedagogical approaches are increasingly being identified as examples of blendedlearning.

    Blended learning is more and more frequently associated with e-learning. Garrison &Vaughan (2008) stress the interest of blended learning from a transformational

    perspective, highlighting the need to create more engaging experiences for students.

    Garrison (2011:78) goes on to say that blended learning is about actively involving allparticipants in the educational enterprise. It means moving away from using scarce face-to-face time for information transmission, recognising the importance of the integrationof face-to-face and e-learning activities (2011:75).

    In addition to the definitions of blended learning (Mason & Rennie 2006; Littlejohn &Pegler 2007; Motteram & Sharma 2009), issues of interest concern connections between

    blended learning and socio-constructivist principles (Littlejohn & Pegler 2007), the valueof student engagement (Garrison & Vaughan 2008) and the necessity to reviewpedagogical practices (Garrison 2011).

    2.2 Normalisation of technologies and digital literacies in formal learning contexts

    Within the education context, Gillespie (2012:131) considers a triangle between students,lecturers and institutions, seeking to discover what the past can teach us about howstudents, teachers and institutions react to change both technical and pedagogical [] andwhat key principles apply in the adoption of new strategies of teaching and learning.Although, unlike Hampel & Stickler (2005), Sharpe & Beetham (2010) and Salmon(2002&2011), Gillespie has not actually drawn a representation of his model, I find hisvision of a triangle between lecturers, students and institutions a very interesting concept.Gillespies triangle, which he discussed at the EUROCALL conference (2012), includesan angle which I consider as essential to a successful learning: the lecturer, who transmitsnot only subject knowledge, but also gives guidance on how to learn, together with ahuman element both in and out of the classroom. Omitting the lecturer would produce a

  • 8/11/2019 Virtual Learning Environments, Blended Learning and Teacher Intervention


    straight line (institution-students) which unfortunately can potentially take the form of avertical line with a top-down approach.Ellis & Goodyear explain that students habits have changed but also warn that there islittle evidence to suggest that students understand, or are demanding access to, some of

    the more varied and powerful ways of learning that IT can open up (2010: 40).Warschauer & Matuchniak (2010:179) confirm that there is broad consensus among

    educators, communication scholars, sociologists and economists that the developmentand diffusion of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) are having aprofound effect on modern life.With an ever-increasing normalisation (Bax 2003, 2006a, 2006b; Chambers & Bax 2006),various researchers stress the significance of changes in habits and expectations among

    students (Littlejohn & Pegler 2007:2).Bax (2011:5), as well as several other authors, refers to Vygotsky and the socialdimension of learning (Lamy & Hampel 2007, Woollard 2011, Herrington et al 2010,Harasim 2012, Laurillard 2012 and Coleman et al 2012). Pachler & Daly (2011) alsorecognise that technologies are increasingly normalised in our daily lives and in Higher

    Education and that, therefore, we need to engage with these changes in order to meetstudents needs and expectations.

    Tammelin et al agree that students from the net generation do not necessarily possessthe required e-learning skills in a context of shifting paradigms from a teacher to alearner-centred approach. They believe that e-learners need guidance in making themaware of what skills they need and how their roles as e-learners may differ from theirtraditional classroom roles (2008:77).Walker et al (2010:213), in agreement with Ellis

    & Goodyear (2010) and Tammelin et al (2008) express concerns regarding learners ability to transfer e-learning skills to formal learning situations.Key points of this section are related to the transformational nature of technologies (Bax2003, 2006a, 2006b; Chambers & Bax 2006; Littlejohn & Pegler 2007; Warschauer &Matuchniak 2010; Pachler & Daly 2011). The notion of transferability of digital skills toformal learning situations is also of interest to this research (Haythornwhite 2007;Tammelin et al 2008; Ellis & Goodyear 2010; Walker et al 2010).

    2.3 Socio-constructivism, scaffolding and teacher intervention

    Various researchers mention the necessity to change our learning and teachingenvironments (Jung & Latchem 2011) and to innovate in a context of ever-increasingnormalisation of technologies, with a view to provide engaging learning experiences(Garrison & Vaughan 2008). Conole & Alevizou (2010) report on the changing oflearning and teaching, as well as strategies to promote the use of technology. The social

    dimension of learning seems to be prominent in the current educational discourse. Mason& Rennie (2006:31) explain that we need a structure to learn, that new knowledge isbased on previous knowledge, and comment that learning is a social activity: ourlearning is intimately associated with our connection with other human beings, ourteacher, our peers, our family, as well as casual acquaintances.

    Williams & Burden express views similar to those of Mason & Rennie and show theimportance of the context or environment where the learning experience takes place,

    indicating that they have identified 4 key sets of factors which influence the learningprocess-teachers, learners, tasks and contexts. (1997:43)

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    Harasim (2012:67) explains Vygotskys concept of ZDP (Zone of ProximalDevelopment), declaring that learning takes place when learners solve problems beyondtheir actual developmental level but within their level of potential development- underadult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.

    Apart from Harasim (2012), several other authors have adopted Vygotskian perspectivesand referred to the social dimension of learning (Herrington et al, 2010; Bax, 2011;

    Woollard, 2011; Laurillard, 2012 and Coleman et al, 2012).Harasim (2012:72), as part of her explanation of Vygotskys Zone of ProximalDevelopment, defines the notion of scaffolding as follows:Scaffolding refers to specialised teaching strategies or tools designed to support learningwhen students are first introduced to a new subject. Scaffolding gives students a context,

    motivation and foundation from which to understand the new informationColeman et al(2012:164) stress the importance of the learning environment, taking into accountprinciples of scaffolding:The learning environment provides the starting point for the language learner to makechoices; engage with materials, tutors, and fellow learners; and create a learning event.

    Scaffolding, a term based on further developments of Vygotskian thoughts, can beprovided by various means; through the teacher, through the structure of the materials,

    and through support from peers.Mason & Rennie (2006) believe in the need for scaffolding in order to support studentsadaptation to web-based learning, and gave examples such as training courses andinductions to allow students to familiarise themselves with the e-learning environmentsand approaches. The social dimension of learning, the necessity for student support and

    the notion of scaffolding are recommended by Salmon (2002 & 2011).Laurillards conversational framework constitutes another essential framework ofreference, especially about the interaction between learners and teachers, a process whichgoes back and forth between learners and teachers, and is guided by teachers as it is theteacher who takes responsibility for eliciting from the student a new way ofexperiencing a concept, which is constituted in the person-world relationship. (Laurillard2002:77)

    3 MethodologyThis study presents itself as a piece of applied research, which focuses on the notion ofstudents experience of Blackboard. It relates to the notion of informed and reflectivepractice and may help to improve the e-learning provision presented to students and tocontribute to the staff development programme at the targeted institution.It concentrates on students perspectives and their accounts of their experiences regardingWeblearn in connection with the self-study element of their French module.The data collection tools include student questionnaires with a combination of closed andopen questions, completed by 96 students as well as 6 follow-up interviews withvolunteers. More information is available on my microsite (

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    4 Snapshot of the studyOver 75% of students describe Blackboard as easy to use, convenient and useful,especially if they have used it before in other subjects. Nearly 70% are satisfied with thelayout and nearly 80% of participants are satisfied with the contents. Differences instudents satisfaction are visible when the data is considered in connection with thevarious tutors. Satisfaction with the provision for homework, which includes writtentasks, varied greatly according to the tutor. Only a third of students report they followtutors guidance on study skills and how to use Blabkboard. There appears to be a greaterspread of practices such as note-taking when data is considered in connection with tutors.Nearly 90% of participants report a high level of confidence in their use of Blackboardand here again differences emerge in relation to the various teaching groups. However,

    interview data as well as their response to open questions indicate that they welcome thetutors guidance.

    5 Recommendations and conclusion

    Although students are generally considered as digitally literate, they may not

    always easily transfer their digital competence to formal learning contexts. This

    may apply even more in a context where the subject, and the module contents and

    approach, are new or fairly new to them.

    Indeed, they reveal a lack of awareness of the potential uses of Blackboard,

    especially its communication tools while web-based communication tools appear

    as increasingly popular. Participants to the study welcome the integration of

    lectures and self-study and are keen to be guided by lecturers. Some of them

    mention alternative learning preferences, such as the use of printed materials, andthe desire to keep the use of tools such as blogs to their own private life. These

    findings correspond indeed to previous research which shows that digital literacy

    does not necessarily transfer easily to formal learning contents. They also suggest

    there is a need to assess carefully students level of digital literacy in formal

    learning contexts, as well as their general and language learning skills, as the

    transferability of skills cannot be assumed. This should be done not only at the

    start of the module but a...


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