Quality And Profits: Virtual Learning Environment and Real Student Engagement

“Students At the Heart of Higher Education”

At the time of writing, the Higher Education system in the UK is at the cusp of a revolutionary change. The change, brought about by a mixture of financial necessity and ideological persuasion of the government in power, is designed to ensure ‘substantially more money will flow via students and less via HEFCE’ (Willetts, 2011). The Ministers claim that this will ‘reduce central political control, put more power in the hands of consumers and promote innovative delivery methods’ (Willetts, 2011). This market-based and consumption-driven system has been presented with the claim that this will put ‘students at the heart of Higher Education’.

Whether or not the new system will create a better Higher Education system is still being debated. However, highlighting students as the primary beneficiary of the Higher Education system, rather than the communities or the nation, imply a shift of emphasis and has called for new discussions and initiatives. With the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) embarking on the development of a new UK Code of Practice on Student Engagement, due to be published in June 2012, and Higher Education Academy (HEA) presenting a conference track on “Changing and developing practice in student engagement” in HEA Annual Conference 2011, enhancing student engagement is firmly on the agenda of Higher Education leaders in the UK. It is also suggested that the role of students may undergo a subtle shift as the funding regime changes, and they may essentially become ‘co-developers’ and ‘co-creators’ of their educational experience and become very much ‘engaged’ in their programme of studies (Beaumont Kerridge, 2010, cited in Eade, 2011).

However, as Lewis (2011) indicates, “there is not a shared understanding of what this term means”. Trowler and Trowler (2010) also highlight the absence of a clear definition of “student engagement” and the lack of evidence that the activities under the umbrella do actually contribute to “real enagement”. Krause (2005) suggests that engagement has become a catch-all term in Higher Education covering a compendium of behaviour characterizing students, who are said to be more involved with their university community than their less engaged peers. A recent research commissioned by the HEA surveys various aspects of student engagement across different Business Schools in the UK (Eade, 2011) and comes up with a list of areas or initiatives undertaken to improve engagement:
·      Innovation in terms of delivery, in particular teaching learning and assessment
·      Changes made to the curriculum to encourage “engagement”
·      Student retention and transition – particularly the first year
·      Reflective Practice
·      Student Representation
·      Student Support Systems
·      Extra-curricular activities
·      Student involvement in the development of curriculum
·      Student surveys

In recent times, many institutions worldwide has introduced Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) in supporting learning for their campus-based students. While different institutions use and implement VLEs differently, enhanced student engagement feature as an important objective, apart from dissemination of information and sharing of learning content, of the VLE. However, while there has been considerable research in the area of student engagement as well as various aspects of Online Learning, exploration of VLE’s impact on student engagement remains limited (Coates, 2005). This paper attempts to survey the literature in the area and discover some of the issues involved.

Defining Engagement

Students’ time on task and their willingness to participate in activities is suggested as the definition of engagement (Stovall, 2003). However, definitions such as this perhaps needed further clarification plodded by the practicalities of the University life (as encapsulated memorably by Clark Kerr’s definition of three priorities – ‘sex for students, parking for faculty and athletics for the alumni’). Krause and Coates (2008) defines engagement as the ‘quality of effort students themselves devote to educationally purposeful activities that contribute directly to desired outcomes’. Chen et al (2008) views engagement as ‘the degree to which learners are engaged with their educational activities and that engagement is positively linked to a host of desired outcomes, including high grades, student satisfaction and perseverance.

Beer (2010) cites Hamish Coates’ following definition as the ‘aggregation of the literature’: “Engagement is seen to comprise active and collaborative learning, participation in challenging academic activities, formative communication with academic staff, involvement in enriching educational experiences, and feeling legitimated and supported by the university learning communities”. (Coates, 2007)

Beer (2010) also cites the Seven Principles Framework by Chickering and Gamson (1987), which was used to design aspects of the Australasian Survey of Student Engagement in 2009. This seven principles framework of good practice in undergraduate education represents a philosophy of student engagement (Puzziferr-Schnitzer, 2005) and Beer (2010) presents an alignment of the two definitions as represented in the following table:

Elements of Coates’ (2007) definition of engagement
Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education
 Active and collaborative learning
2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students; 3. Uses active learning techniques
Formative communication with academic staff
1. Encourages contacts between students and faculty
Involvement in enriching educational experiences
5. Emphasizing time on task; 6. Communicates high expectations
Feeling legitimated and supported by university learning communities
1. Encourages contact between students and faculty; 2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students;

4. Gives prompt feedback.
(Reproduced from Beer, 2010)

Environment and Engagement

Environments of teaching and learning are expected to play a significant role in creating engagement, as they may facilitate learning activities, or at the other end of the scale, may potentially distract efforts. Dunn and Dunn (1979, cited in Fulton, 1988) states:

“Based on observations, interviews and experimental studies conducted since 1967, it has become apparent that regardless of their age, ability, socio-economic status, or achievement level, individuals respond uniquely to their immediate environment.”

It is indeed meant to be a two way relationship, as Fitt(1974) suggests based on her qualitative studies: “Any spatial transaction between an individual and his environment depends on two variables: The individual’s idiosyncratic use of space and the environment’s structuring.”

Various aspects of physical learning environments, including seating arrangements (Becker et al, 1973; Koneya 1976), effects of windows (Karmel, 1965) and outdoor settings (Mandel et al, 1980), were well researched. It was generally agreed that in a setting not in alignment with the learning, like a noisy space for music classes, a significant part of students’ and tutors’ efforts may be devoted to neutralizing the distractions, and as a consequence, may proportionately reduce their ability to engage in tasks towards the desired outcomes. However, it is also noted, as Becker et al(1973) observed in their study on classroom seating arrangements, “that simply altering the physical structure, without an accompanying change in the social structure, will not produce real change”.

At this point, it is important to note that the ‘Environment’ may mean more than just the physical setting of the classroom. As Hiemstra(1991a) puts it : “A learning environment is all of the physical surroundings, psychological or emotional conditions, and social or cultural influences affecting the growth and development of an adult engaged in an educational enterprise”. Tagiuri(1968) has presented a taxonomy of environmental climate components, composed of ecology (building on classroom characteristics), milieu (individual’s characteristics), social system (interpersonal or group-patterned relationships) and culture (beliefs, values and expectations). (Cited in Hiemstra, 1991a)

To understand how environments may affect student engagement, one may adopt what David(1979) suggested as the functional approach, in which physical features and social and curricular concerns are to interact. At this point, one also needs to accept Sommer’s observations that an ‘ideal study environment’ is an illusion and “no single study situation can satisfy the needs of extroverts and introverts, lone and group studiers.. What is needed is a variety of study situations that can appeal to the students with particular interests” (Sommer, 1970).

Following this approach, Weinstein(1981) called for ‘environmental competence’ in teachers and instructional designers, an awareness of the physical environment and its impact, and an ability to change the environment to suit the educational purposes. (Cited in Fulton, 1988). Hiemstra(1991b) made some early suggestions towards how educators can commit to a new practice for developing learner participation and engagement, including giving control to the learners about how and where they learn, incorporating Microcomputer technology, ongoing ‘audit’ of the environment, collaborative approach towards the learners, and being proactive and making personal commitment to bring in change when needed.

Engagement and Virtual Learning Environment (VLE)

Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), a term somewhat interchangeably with Learning Management System (LMS), is defined by Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC 2000) as a software system ‘in which learners and tutors participate in “on-line” interactions of various kinds, including on-line learning”. More broadly, an LMS is defined by Whatis.com as ‘A software application or Web-based technology used to plan, implement and assess a specific learning process. Typically, a learning management system provides an instructor with a way to create and deliver content, monitor student participation, and assess student performance. A learning management system may also provide students with the ability to use interactive features such as threaded discussions, video conferencing and discussion forums’. (Weller, 2007)

While the two terms, VLE and LMS, are coined to mean similar things and used interchangeably, the term VLE connotes a certain intent to see the software as an ‘environment’, presumably an alternative to the ‘physical’ one (hence, ‘virtual’). This denotes a quantum leap from Hiemstra’s (1991b) intention to enrich the learning environment with careful integration of microcomputer technology, which is all but natural given the prevalence of computer applications in many other fields. However, at the same time, it is possible to see VLEs as the realization of many of the suggestions made by Hiemstra and his colleagues: It distributes the learning environment over space and time (Cross, 2009), allowing the learners greater flexibility in terms of when and where to learn. However, given their broad capability and impact on students’ learning experiences (not to mention prevalence of Virtual Universities powered by VLEs), it is only logical to treat these software programmes as a self-contained environment, rather than a tool to be integrated into some broader framework.

Coates (2005) assesses the VLE to have the capability to meet his requirements of student engagement, as:

“LMSs have the capacity to influence how students engage with their study and to change collaboration, communication and access to learning materials. LMSs enrich student learning by offering access to a greater range of interactive resources, making course contents more cognitively accessible, providing automated and adaptive forms of assessment, and developing a student’s technology literacy. Asynchronous online tools allow students to interact with learning materials, their peers and the entire university in ways not bound by time or place”.

In a follow-up article to Chickering and Gamson’s work on good practices in undergraduate education, Chickering and Ehrmann (1996) argued that new communication and information technology by itself would not lead to educational achievement. Instead, Ehrmann (2004) suggested that technology should be used by educators as a catalyst to create student success. In a sense, this is reminiscent of Weinstein’s call for ‘environmental competence’, made in a different era for a different kind of environment.

The utility of information technology usage in enhancing student engagement has been researched extensively. Chen et al (2010) cites Robinson and Hullinger (2008) who found ‘that asynchronous instructional technology allows learners more time to think critically and reflectively, which in turn stimulates higher order thinking such as analysis, synthesis, judgment and application of knowledge’; Duderstadt et al(2002) stated, “When implemented through active, inquiry based learning pedagogies, online learning can stimulate students to use higher order skills such as problem solving, collaboration and stimulation”. Thurmond and Wambach (2004, cited by Chen et al, 2009) observes that the students taking online courses are expected to work collaboratively, which is an important component of student engagement, and that ‘collaborative components have been integrated into most web-based course designs’. Besides, Pascarella and Terenzini (1991) suggest that a key factor in student engagement is the communication with teachers outside the classroom: Kennedy (2000) claims that this is precisely what the ‘chat’ feature in online technologies, and distribution of student-teacher interaction over time and space may be able to achieve.

Using the VLE to enhance Student Engagement

Coates (2007) suggests four identified styles of student engagement, as either intensive, collaborative, independent or passive. These styles are based on definition of social and academic dimensions of student engagement, namely:

Intense - Above Norm Social Engagement, Above Norm Academic Engagement

Collaborative - Above Norm Social Engagement, Below Norm Academic Engagement

Independent - Below Norm Social Engagement, Above Norm Academic Engagement

Passive - Below Norm Social Engagement, Below Norm Academic Engagement 

Students reporting an intense form of engagement use the campus facilities, social life and online learning facilities, and they do it for both academic and social purposes. The independent style students often use the online engagement to legitimize and contextualize their learning activities, but are unlikely to participate in collaboration or social interactions. These students tend to view themselves as members of a supportive learning community, but are less likely to work collaboratively or participate in extra-curricular activities. The collaborative engagement style indicate that these students use the online platforms and general campus-based activities to connect and collaborate with other students, more with social than the academic purpose in mind. The passive style students, however, are unlikely to use the online or campus facilities altogether.

It is important to remember that this model is based on styles and states of engagement, rather than enduring traits. Coates (2007) also points out that this model is consistent with the model of engagement proposed by Clark and Trow (1966) which characterizes four student subcultures as combinations of two variables : ’the degree to which students are involved with ideas and the extent to which the students identify with their college’.

Coates (2007) suggests that identifying the students in this Engagement style typography may help the institutions to tailor and coordinate their online and campus-based activities. This may help the institution to move beyond the ‘accidental pedagogy’ that Morgan(2003) identified most usage of VLEs with. This may also help the institutions to build ‘broad community support and stimulation’ for individual learners through the VLE. They may also provide ‘opportunities to have extra and richer conversation with staff, participate in a greater range of complimentary activities, and, in particular, to engage in more collaborative activities with their peers’. Interestingly, this study also points out that the students don’t see certain core educational experiences as interchangeable, and therefore the online and general scales show little correlation. This prompts the suggestion that while VLEs may be used to enhance student engagement in the campus, this should not be seen as an alternative to core activities, like tutor support.

Exploring The Issues

However, despite the impressive range of capabilities of a modern VLE, there is no ‘out of the box’ solution and educators must actively engage in designing the environment to achieve the desired outcome. Careful consideration must be given to many different items to ensure the VLE is fit for purpose. Cross (2009) makes this observation about physical learning environments, which may be equally valid for a VLE: “At best, individual teachers are in a position to establish basic requirements, and then tailor the environment precisely to meet the needs to learning and learners. At worst, there is an expectation that all participants should put up with inappropriate facilities and make do with whatever happens to be provided”.

While VLEs offer a range of technical possibilities, for an individual tutor, it is often technologically challenging. Given the economies of scale for purchase and support, as well as problems of data sharing between different software systems, the tutors often have to work within an institutionally mandated VLE rather than being able to create something, which may suit their pedagogic requirements. Vosko (1985), while studying proxemics of seating arrangements and distance zones, were startled by the finding that even when adults saw a need for change in their immediate physical environment, they seldom, if ever, initiated any such change: Both the teachers and the learners perceived the responsibility of the change in the physical environment to be that of the administrators. With the increased level of complexity involved in setting up a VLE, it is often more challenging to persuade the tutors to carry out continuous ‘environment audit’ that Vosko ended up suggesting.

Also, VLEs are also often seen as cost saving mechanisms by institutional decision makers, and most implementation of VLEs are accompanied by reduction of other resource provisions. However, some of these may hinder student engagement: For example, if one is to assume that tutor time can be reduced as the VLE is introduced and some of the teaching can become asynchronous, this will reduce the online interactions (due to time constraints of the tutor).

It is also important to keep in mind that the VLE effectively alters the education process, even when used in a limited context. Salmon (2002) observed that ‘VLEs are NOT neutral. Like any technology they embed underlying values about teaching and learning, promote certain affordances and reduce other choices”. ‘Affordances’ are social capabilities technological qualities enable (Byam, 2010) and was memorably encapsulated in McLuhan’s famous ‘the medium is the message’ coinage. Often, this change in the educational process is not fully appreciated by the tutors and the institutions, and not embedded in pedagogic and other engagement efforts.

Lee (2001) suggested that with the implementation of ‘web-enhanced learning’, four distinct learner types may emerge, each with a different combination of levels of use and academic performance:

Model Students: High usage and performance. Students are in alignment with tutor intentions, and know what’s expected of them: Consequently, they make the best use of the available resources.

Traditionalists: Low usage but high performance. These students stick to face to face interaction and print-based study. They are not significantly disadvantaged by the low use of VLE and object to any linkage between VLE usage and academic performance. This group suffers if the institution moves more towards the distance learning model.

Geeks: High use but low performance. There is mismatch between students’ and tutors’ intents: The students may simply see the VLE as a technology tool or communication platform, and not engage with course content.

The Disengaged: Low use and performance. These students don’t use the VLE and are increasingly disengaged if the tutors use the VLE as a key component in teaching and learning: Consequently, they fail to make the grades.

In a study titled ‘Virtual Learning Environments – help or hindrance for the disengaged students?’, Alice Maltby and Sarah Mackie (Maltby et al, 2009) uses Lee’s framework to study the VLE usage and academic performance of a number of students and conclude that “online behaviour patterns of potentially ‘at risk’ students are formed surprisingly early in their university life”, thereby potentially allowing corrective action to be taken. However, the researchers admit various ethical and privacy issues that VLE tracking may raise, and limitations of the methods for persistent usage and practical implementation.


In summary, while implementation of the VLE opens up a range of technological possibilities to enhance student engagement, it is critical that careful consideration is employed in choosing and implementing these features or possibilities. A successful implementation of VLE should involve a careful planning of institutional priorities, adequate resourcing and appropriate instructional design keeping in mind the features and possibilities. Weller (2007) refers to them as ‘patterns’, following the structural clues that architects tend to leave to indicate the potential and intended usage of space and built environment.  This is indeed appropriate: Just like the built environment, a VLE may not be taken for granted, but should be carefully designed to facilitate real student engagement.


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