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Title: Virtual Learning Environments
Author(s): Martin Weller
Date of Publication: 2007 Publisher: Routledge
Pages:xii+ 176 ISBN: 978 0 415 41431 9
Price: Format:Paperback
Target Readership Educator







Content: 1 – What we talk about when we talk about e-learning; 2 - VLEs, democrats and revolutionaries; 3 - Using common VLE tools; 4 - Beyond the VLE; 5 - Choosing a VLE; 6 - MLEs and metaphors; 7 - Standards and specifications; 8 - Learning design; 9 - The open source option; 10 - Personalisation and VLEs; 11 - Affordances and patterns; 12 - Case studies; 13 - Technology succession; 14 VLE 2.0.

Review: The spread of the internet has affected all areas of learning. This website is an obvious example but the demands made on educators in the face of the new technologies and their applications are such that there is need for some guidance. Since such guidance is essential if we are to be effective it follows that such a text can be of value to ecological and environmental educators. In fact since so much ecological material is available online texts like this should be seen as essential rather than adjunct books.

The basic premise of the text is that virtual learning environments (VLEs) are a key part of modern university work (and by extension, preparation in senior schools) and that all academics need to know how they work and how they can enhance the learning experience. This is far more than a nice website - it is a fundamental re-design of how we interact with students, colleagues and the knowledge systems we use currently. It's also worth saying at this stage that there's very little that can be done through technology that can't be achieved through standard human interaction but the difference is in the quality of delivery and ease of operation. To some extent, this line is the subject of the opening chapter which seeks to draw the reader into the terminology and concepts of VLEs (including a bewildering array of terms). Chapter two moves on to see VLEs as part of the same innovation curve that other products follow. It argues as well for some carefully thought out plans before rather than after rolling out a VLE to ensure it survives. Chapter three gets down to planning by showing some of the (generic) tools that can be used to create a VLE and the range of stakeholders this will involve. It also discusses the ways in which pedagogy is affected by choice of VLE. Chapter four takes the VLE into the outside world where it meets the social networking and communications technologies that our students take for granted but which many educators are less sanguine about using. It's clear that we must embrace or at least acknowledge the wealth of communication modes there are and that they already influence our students. What's important now is that some decision is made. Chapter five helps in this respect by outlining some of the factors that need to be taken into account and the people whose needs should be considered. VLEs are not islands but are connected to other institutional systems. Chapter six describes some of these and argues for the VLE to be put in proper context. This means that a decision must be made and that ad-hocracy does not produce a robust system! Chapter 7 delves into the murkier world of standards and specifications and gets the reader to consider some of the parameters they want their system to work within. So far, discussion has focussed on the program but of course this is just a vehicle for learning. Bearing this in mind, chapter 8 looks at the ways in which a learning strategy can be made that ensures outcomes are met. Again, there's a level of planning here and this is something that must be understood - successful learning needs a plan and computer-based learning probably needs two! Chapter 9 looks at a range of "open source" products. These are products which are built by communities rather than companies. The slogan "free as in free speech, not free as in free beer" is appropriate because although "free" to obtain there is an expectation to put something back into the system if possible. Certainly this reviewers VLE of choice, Moodle, is given a brief but reasonable assessment and the mention of a very active community forum is a key idea. Next we move on to personalisation - the idea that more advanced users (i.e. the university students for whom this text is aimed) can create their own types of content and interaction. Chapter 11 goes into some technical material which seeks to theorise the use of the VLE in terms of the types of pedagogical interaction it supports. The value of this is that it expects the user to pay more attention to precisely what is happening and what outcomes might arise from this. The final three chapters look at some examples (the UK's Open University being the first - fitting for an institution where alternative modes of learning have been seen since its inception); some future developments and the ways in which VLEs may be headed.

This is an excellent introduction to a very complex subject. It's extremely well written giving the beginner something to work with while allowing the more experienced user to benefit from the brief but information-packed chapters. All key areas are covered and whilst this book won't set up your hardware it will allow you to make better educational choices in the new technological environments. Overall this is an excellent overview of the topic and one which should be standard reading in all education courses. One of the definite must-buys of the year!





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