At ICel 2008 Sue Greener of the Brighton Business School, University of Brighton (UK), presented her research titled Plasticity: The Online Learning Environment’s Potential to Support Varied Learning Styles and Approaches. She used the word plasticity to describe the fluid nature of virtual learning environments (VLEs) that seem to, according to her qualitative study, be able to accommodate most student and teacher learning and teaching styles.
Background to the study:
- Students make strategic choices about how they use online learning materials and VLEs. Brighton University uses Blackboard and ELGG.
- Teachers’ use of VLEs likely to reflect their pedagogic beliefs
- VLE needs to accommodate these two sets of variations
- Will the variations find a fit? Can the VLE cope?
Each student is different – variations include:
- Personality differences
- Different learning style preferences (active, theoretical, practical, etc.)
- Multiple intelligences
- Learning motivations
- Self-efficacy (meaning: we decide whether we can learn something. “Do I believe I’m able to deliver a conference paper?” “I don’t like reading on the screen.”)
- Readiness for learning
Each teacher is different – variations include:
- Prior experience of learning and teaching
- Relationship with institution — this affects how teachers relate to students and teaching approach
The above teacher factors results in a pre-disposition towards a change in teaching strategy:
- Is he or she willing to make the move from traditional approaches to a VLE?
- What about the teachers’ own self-efficacy beliefs about technology?
- Constraints of VLE itself
These issues all affect whether or not teachers will put materials online, embrace the new technology, strategy, etc.
In Sue’s study she explored teacher “readiness” for online learning. She spoke to HE teachers enthusiastic about online blended learning. Results:
- Student learning styles could be accommodated by VLE and had little effect on success with students experience of VLE
- VLE can support multiple styles and strategies
More important is students’ decision to embrace new systems or not. Enthusiastic teachers have a significant influence here. Good online teachers are willing to experiment. Helping students to be comfortable with the ICT system, with searching, reading online, communication and collaborating is crucial.
Conclusion: online learning environments mostly mould to learners’ and teachers’ styles. So, it’s not about the technology, it’s about people.
I asked Sue whether this means that we should focus on champions to spread the word and create momentum? She said that this hasn’t worked at Brighton University. Yes, it works for a small self-selecting group of people who “get it”, but it alienates the bigger group.
The new strategy that they are taking — and they don’t yet know if it works or not — is to seriously consider the large group of teachers who are not digitally literate and comfortable with VLEs, and to take a “customer” view of them. What is their teaching problem or challenge? Understand that and then suggest how VLEs/tech can support them to overcome that challenge. If they see that, then it begins to open a door to the much bigger possibilities that full use of VLEs offer. In other words, show them how the technology can make their lives easier. If it can, you’ll have a good “in.” If it can’t, then they probably don’t need it.