Clarity and consistency on the VLE

An important objective for many institutions undertaking a VLE review is to improve consistency of use. Very often the key driver for this is student feedback.

Our research shows that students frequently complain that their lecturers do not use the VLE in a consistent manner and that they would like to see key information presented in the same way for each of their modules.

Many institutions are now applying some form of minimum standards for information about each course or module on the VLE.

Getting the basics right

The types of core information that are commonly included in minimum standards, to ensure they are present and displayed in a consistent manner, include:
  • learning outcomes;
  • reading lists;
  • assignment details;
  • assignment deadlines;
  • marking rubrics;
  • contact details;
  • communication procedures.

Why does it matter?

Don't underestimate the impact that 'hygiene factors', such as the ready and consistent availability of administrative information, can have on the learning experience.

Participants in our research told us what can go wrong if this information isn't clearly and consistently available:

  • students being unable to complete pre-class tasks because they can't find the relevant information;
  • students being unable to access important learning content due to dead links;
  • students being unable to find the learning outcomes for a module;
  • students being unclear how an assignment will be assessed;
  • students being unclear about assessment deadlines.
Top tip

Language matters and many institutions have shied away from an overly directive approach to applying consistent standards.

One institution told us they weren't brave enough to maintain the term 'student minimum entitlement'.

The language used reflects the level at which the initiative is mandated for example, a policy is more likely to be enforced than a checklist. Examples of terms used include:

  • threshold;
  • baseline;
  • minimum;
  • checklist;
  • expected;
  • policy.

University College London recognises the importance of consistent and well considered use of the VLE. The university has over 80 departments and 8,000 courses so ensuring consistency is a major undertaking.

The institution implemented a baseline in 2011 following a consultation exercise and the guidance is reviewed annually.

There are 10 sections in the Baseline:

  1. Structure
  2. Orientation
  3. Communication
  4. Assessment
  5. Resources
  6. Cross-platform compatibility
  7. Accessibility
  8. Legal
  9. Student Active Participation
  10. Quality Assurance

Every taught module should meet the baseline standard and wholly online modules need to meet a standard defined as baseline+ which covers the additional information needs of online learners.

The baseline is intended to have a community of practice feel rather than something that is externally imposed. It is supported by a checklist and templates. Staff can choose from a range of different templates and adapt them to meet their particular needs.

The institution is piloting a baseline check tool that can be used for self-help and monitoring purposes. The central support team uses the baseline as an engagement tool for discussions with academics.

Find out more from the University College London baseline wiki.

Top tips

If you decide to apply VLE standards, you will need to establish how to monitor compliance and what to do if the standards are not met. It is relatively easy to audit the presence or absence of information but less easy to measure how well you are meeting higher-order objectives. Standards can however be a useful engagement tool to start conversations about learning and teaching practice.

Correy Murphy, Blended Learning Co-ordinator at Glasgow School of Art, told us the change to their student facing VLE offered the opportunity to apply good practice they had seen elsewhere. The vast majority of people in the institution found change motivating and two thirds of staff voluntarily attended training over the summer.

They faced some teething issues and there was not a large pre-existing knowledge base in the UK for their VLE. However, they were able to draw on the previous experience of some of their American students to help the institution.

The change was seen as an opportunity to apply baseline standards particularly in relation to administrative details such as:

  • contact details;
  • office hours;
  • policy on email communications;
  • stating learning outcomes.

Glasgow School of Art has many courses that are studio based and a typical approach whereby courses are arranged chronologically so students know what they are doing week by week doesn't really work for them. A new approach to a calendar including all assessments (even where submission and feedback is not taking place through the VLE) has proven very popular with students.

Having applied baseline standards, the institution is now promoting recommended expansions and enhancements to make courses even better.

All elective courses must now manage assessment and feedback online and there is an institutional push for more online assessment and feedback across the board.

Implementing more self and peer assessment will be the next phase of the approach although some individuals and courses are already doing this very well.

Student satisfaction with the VLE had improved by 15% during the early stages of implementation when things were still 'quite chaotic'. Usage statistics from Google analytics show a big increase and the busiest day is more than double what it was previously.