As Technology Enhanced Learning continues to develop, it is clear that some form of digital learning environment will remain core to institutional practices. (Jisc 2018)
There are many examples of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) being used simply as repositories of content across HE institutions. Despite attempts to move away from this, the reality is that many lecturers/teachers & institutions see their VLE as a place to put their presentations and other material. VLE as a term has itself become a hindrance, used for a selection of well-known off the shelf products (Moodle, Canvas, Blackboard etc.) without fully amplifying the true pedagogic benefits that a virtual learning environment offers.
As VLEs become strongly embedded into institutional systems and administrative processes, they are becoming increasingly difficult to move away from. However, I propose moving away from the construct of a traditional VLE and propose using the term Hybrid Learning Environment (HLE) which breaks down the barriers between classroom-based practice & flipped activities, encouraging (even requiring) more progressive pedagogic approaches to teaching practice and curriculum design. As Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) continues to develop, we must be more willing to evolve institutional strategy and approaches to harness the opportunities afforded and drive the behavioural shifts we need to see in staff. Blended learning is a common term used to explain the approach to education providing a combination of face-to-face learning and digital activities and content that facilitate anytime/anyplace learning, but I believe this doesn’t represent the current possibilities accurately enough.
A VLE has become ubiquitous in higher education institutions without really having a meaningful impact on the development of pedagogy and teaching and learning practices. I am proposing an alternative viewpoint and a shift towards more future facing technologies that replace the stale and cumbersome (my opinion) VLE platforms. Currently Microsoft Teams is being used in a number of institutions to improve collaboration between staff, but the potential as a HLE is huge. There are institutions willing to step away from the traditions and default position on VLEs, with a new university UA92 and Hugh Baird College taking an alternative direction. Both will be using Microsoft Teams and the O365 suite instead of formal VLEs. This offers teachers the opportunity the move away from the traditional classroom-based practice and online learning (flipped learning). The divide between the two can be withdrawn and the learning environment is no longer distinguishable by locality, as opportunities are omnipresent.
Microsoft Teams offers a far more synchronous approach to teaching and learning that a traditional VLE doesn’t cater for easily. The opportunity to have face to face delivery merge with distance learning in the same space can be facilitated with ease. What you have is a space where you cannot only present information to students in the typical PowerPoint presentation/lecture approach, but engage them in the content with annotations and other forms of multimodal interaction, assessment and feedback opportunities with Class OneNote as the backbone. Instead of having documents that are static on a VLE they become live documents that encourage collaboration, dialogue and increase learning, feedback and assessment opportunities.
The opportunity to have sessions delivered face to face, whilst being streamed live (with captions) allows participation in a multitude of ways. The chat feature can be used to create a log of dialogue between staff & students, as well and students & students. The ease at which external integrations can be embedded into the session, such as polling, video, social media and, through the website tab, pretty much anything required, allows greater flexibility and innovation in the approaches taken.
Using Teams and Class OneNote in unison really can create an inclusive, structured and engaging hybrid learning environment where active participation is not only encouraged but required. Thoughtful consideration at the curriculum design phase could transform stagnant courses, where there are limited active learning opportunities, allowing students to be co-creators in their learning.
As Teams and OneNote continue to develop, I can only see the HLE really taking hold in many institutions where educators and students experience the benefits of the enhanced teaching, learning, assessment and feedback opportunities.