The advent of new educational technologies have brought about a pedagogical shift in higher education. Today’s technologies have opened new opportunities and frontiers in higher education for countless number of people who otherwise would have no access to education.
The convergence of information technologies present educators with resources that have the potential to reach countless number of students. And this convergence calls for a redefinition of traditional educational paradigms.
Over the past few years, virtual learning environments (VLE) have emerged as a supplement to the traditional educational system.
These involve a set of teaching and learning tools designed to enhance a student’s learning experience by including computers and the Internet in the learning process.
The principal components of a VLE package include electronic communication (using e-mail, internet relay chat, threaded discussions, etc.), online support, and links to web resources.
Gleen Russell classifies educational VLE into three broad categories-independent, collaborate, and broadcast. Independent is mostly asynchronous.
Under this model, students access course materials at their own leisure and convenience without any formal schedule.
Collaboration involves the use of synchronous, real time technologies, such s video conferencing and live chats.
Software tools such as Microsoft NetMeeting, CuSeeMe, and QuickTime have been used to facilitate the connection. The third model, broadcast, makes it possible for students to access or broadcast lectures on the internet.
The delivery platform within VLE is driven by information technology.
This may range from the use of audio, video, multimedia CD-ROM (Compact Disk Read Only Memory), to developing websites for courses and placing them on the Internet, with links to databases and related sites on the Internet or a course Intranet.
Given the substantial investment in educational technology, one can say with a fair degree of certainty that virtual learning environments will dominate the traditional classroom, as we know it. Currently, several institutions of higher learning have placed their entire courseware on the Internet.
The transition from the traditional classroom to a mix mode to a complete online programme is on-going. It is now possible to get a degree without ever having to leave the comfort of one’s own home.
For example, Jones International University, the first accredited cyber university has all its programmes online. Also, the University of Phoenix in Arizona, USA, and most of the mega universities (e.g., The Open University of Spain, The Open University in the United Kingdom, The Korea National Open University, The Open University of Thailand, and The Indira Gandhi National Open University) have placed most of their programmes online.
A number of open universities have established Student Support and Learning Centres (SSLC) where students could meet for face-to-face interaction, group tutorials, laboratory work or field trips.
This approach to teaching meets the constraints of non-traditional students (such as workers, those undertaking national assignments such as serving in the military, etc.) as this method is not space- or time-dependent.
Virtual learning environments offer several advantages over exiting traditional ways of learning. First, VLE allow for virtual access to the best faculty, research and laboratories in the world. Second, it allows for better student achievement and the introduction of better pedagogical techniques.
Third, it facilitates the creation of virtual institutions and linkages where resources could be shared by people and organization in physically unconnected places. Fourth, it encourages the spirit of entrepreneurship and competitiveness.
The educational shift means a new way of thinking for faculty and administrators. As Clark notes, the shift in the educational paradigm means that administrators and faculty have to be trained in the art and science of finding external resources to support their work.
This will mean that a more diversified funding base will have to be secured. Also, faculty have to develop and initiate entrepreneurial activities.
With the emergence of internet2 and new social media tools, new trends and models in VLE continue to emerge. One trend is the collaboration between academia and industry in establishing online programmes.
Industry typically provide the technological infrastructure and the management of electronic delivery of classes. Giant IT companies such as Cisco, Sun Microsystems, and Oracle have all collaborated with academia in setting up virtual campuses.
A host of other firms, including Blackboard (developer of a virtual learning environment software designed to assist educators to manage online courses); For example, Campus Pipeline provides a centralized web access to online educational information; Also, Enlighten Professional is an educational tool for creating online presentations by bringing together and synchronising video, text, slides, and animations.
The use of proprietary learning management systems such as Blackboard, WebCT, Lotus LearningSpace, and
open source LMS such as Moodle fall under the rubric of VLE.
Others have created portals for consolidating course information from several institutions.
Good examples are Coursera, Udacity, Harvardx, MITx, Princton, Hungry Minds, and lot more.
There is the need for educational leaders and administrators in higher education to be aware and enlightened about new trends in VLE since such trends will have an impact on faculty recruitment and in the overall administration of higher education.
Dr. Osei K. Darkwa