Virtual learning environment

Virtual learning environment

Defined largely by usage, the term virtual learning environment (VLE) has most, if not all, of the following salient properties:

  • It is Web-based
  • It uses Web 2.0 tools for rich 2-way interaction
  • It includes a content management system
  • It models real-world education by integrating a set of equivalent virtual concepts for tests, homework, classes, classrooms, etc., and perhaps even museums and other external academic resources

Virtual learning environments are frequently utilized in distance learning, but they may be used equally well when integrated with a physical learning environment.[1]



A student will normally work over the Internet and a VLE provides a collection of tools such as those for assessment (particularly of types that can be marked automatically, such as multiple choice), communication, uploading of content, return of students' work, peer assessment, administration of student groups, collecting and organizing student grades, questionnaires, tracking tools, etc. New features in these systems include wikis, blogs, RSS and 3D virtual learning spaces. VLEs are often used in schools and other educational establishments in order to make the learning experience more interactive.

While originally created for distance education, VLEs are now most often used to supplement traditional face to face classroom activities, commonly known as Blended Learning. These systems usually run on servers, to serve the course to students Multimedia and/or web pages.

In some programs, such as Elluminate, a virtual learning environment can be similar to a face-to-face classroom environment in that it allows direct communication with the teacher. Students can use emoticons to “raise their hand,” show that they are confused, show that they understand what the teacher is saying, and even give applause for something that the teacher says. Students are also able to talk to the teacher when called on. In many of these virtual learning environments the students are able to write on the “virtual classroom chalkboard.” This allows them to show their work for the rest of the class to see. Students can also be split up into groups in order to work with each other and discuss topics that the teacher introduces. Many virtual learning environments give teachers the ability to share multimedia files such as video and audio files as well as the ability to transfer important documents (Word, PDF,…etc.) directly to students.

In 'Virtually There', a book and DVD pack given out freely to schools by the Yorkshire and Humber Grid for Learning Foundation (YHGfL), Professor Stephen Heppell writes in the foreword:

"Learning is breaking out of the narrow boxes that it was trapped in during the 20th century; teachers' professionalism, reflection and ingenuity are leading learning to places that genuinely excite this new generation of connected young school students — and their teachers too. VLEs are helping to make sure that their learning is not confined to a particular building, or restricted to any single location or moment."[2]

Similar terms

A VLE is a computer program that facilitates computerized learning or e-learning. Such e-learning systems are sometimes also called Learning Management System (LMS), Content Management System (CMS), Learning Content Management System (LCMS), Managed Learning Environment (MLE), Learning Support System (LSS), Online Learning Centre (OLC), OpenCourseWare (OCW), or Learning Platform (LP); it is education via computer-mediated communication (CMC) or Online Education.

A more correct term may be a virtual environment for learning, rather than virtual learning environment. This removes any ambiguities and identifies that it is the environment which is virtual and not the learning. The term virtual may also contribute to confusion, suggesting that the learning is not real or authentic.

In the United States, CMS and LMS are the more common terms, however LMS is more frequently associated with software for managing corporate training programs rather than courses in traditional education institutions.

In the United Kingdom and many European countries, the terms VLE and MLE are favored; however, it is important to realize that these are two very different things. A VLE can be considered a subsystem of an MLE, whereas MLE refers to the wider infrastructure of information systems in an organization that support and enable electronic learning on a wider scale. In fact a rather pedantic reading of the term MLE could be extended to encompass the physical environment in which learning takes place (i.e. a school). Also the use of VLE avoids confusion with the use of LMS to mean "Library Management System" (which is more commonly referred to as Integrated Library System, or ILS, in the United States).

Becta, in the UK, have coined the term learning platform to cover both MLE and VLE as used in the schools sector. 'The term learning platform describes a broad range of ICT systems used to deliver and support learning. Through a learning platform, hardware, software and supporting services are brought together to enable more effective ways of working within and outside the classroom. At the heart of any learning platform is the concept of a personalized online learning space for the pupil. This space should offer teachers and pupils access to stored work, e-learning resources, communication and collaboration with peers, and the facility to track progress.'[3]


A VLE should make it possible for a course designer to present to students, through a single, consistent, and intuitive interface, all the components required for a course of education or training. Although logically it is not a requirement, in practice VLEs always make extensive use of computers and the Internet. A VLE should implement all the following elements:

  • The syllabus for the course
  • Administrative information including the location of sessions, details of pre-requisites and co-requisites, credit information, and how to get help
  • A notice board for up-to-date course information
  • Student registration and tracking facilities, if necessary with payment options
  • Basic teaching materials. These may be the complete content of the course, if the VLE is being used in a distance learning context, or copies of visual aids used in lectures or other classes where it is being used to support a campus-based course.
  • Additional resources, including reading materials, and links to outside resources in libraries and on the Internet.
  • Self-assessment quizzes which can be scored automatically
  • Formal assessment procedures
  • Electronic communication support including e-mail, threaded discussions and a chat room, with or without a moderator
  • Differential access rights for instructors and students
  • Production of documentation and statistics on the course in the format required for institutional administration and quality control
  • All these facilities should be capable of being hyperlinked together
  • Easy authoring tools for creating the necessary documents including the insertion of hyperlinks - though it is acceptable (arguably, preferable) for the VLE to be designed allowing standard word processors or other office software to be used for authoring.

In addition, the VLE should be capable of supporting numerous courses, so that students and instructors in a given institution (and, indeed, across institutions) experience a consistent interface when moving from one course to another.


Open University Support System

Universities and other institutions of higher and further education are increasingly turning to VLEs in order to:

  • Economize on the time of teaching staff, especially when they are also involved in research and administration. The extent of the economy over traditional "talk-and-chalk" teaching is not yet clear, but for instructors without web development expertise, using a VLE absorbs less time and produces a more professional result.
  • Provide a service for students who increasingly look to the internet as the natural medium for finding information and resources.
  • Ensure that quality control requirements are met by providing a standard vehicle for collecting the required information
  • Facilitate the integration of distance and campus-based learning or of learning on different campuses.

For example, accredited institutions such as Chapman College University, Touro University, and Adams State College offer online, on-demand teacher training courses for educators to earn graduate credit and/or masters degrees.[4] In the UK schools are being encouraged to make use of learning platforms. The DCSF in the UK government has published an eStrategy[5] outlining priorities that include every learner in schools having access to an online learning space and e-portfolio.[6]

Virtual learning environments also have become popular among younger students. Pennsylvania has a number of cyber charter schools available to offer students a choice in their education. The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School is the largest one in Pennsylvania with an enrollment of 10,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade.[7]. PA Cyber students can create a schedule of virtual (synchronous) and self paced (asynchronous) courses.[8]

VLEs (also known as Virtual Learning Environments) continue to climb in the K-12 community. The advantage of this educational tool raises its popularity daily because of the following:

  • Accessibility- If taking an Asynchronous curriculum, student has the availability to access the course after office hours. For Synchronous & Asynchronous instruction, the student has the flexibility of being in the safety of their own home.
  • Interactivity- There is much evidence to show that students benefit from actively engaging with their course[9]. More specifically, the advantages relate to feedback, practice and customization.
  • Communication-This element is must be increased in a VLE. It helps the student to feel part of a learning community. Tools used are bulletin boards, being able to “play-back” a session, chatting, email, and instruction & announcements are current due to the live instructor.[10]

Transferring course content

Most VLEs support Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) as a standard way to upload, launch and track courses. There are no commonly used standards that define how the learner's performance within a course should be transferred from one VLE to another.

Some institutions have attempted to combat this problem by agreeing to share content through open standards, such as those defined by the IMS Global Consortium. Local bodies such as in the schools sector in the UK the DCSF via Becta have additionall defined a learning platform "conformance framework" to encourage interoperability.[11]

Virtual Learning Environments are not limited only to students and learners in graduate level studies. There are many virtual learning environments being created at all times, especially due to the increased popularity of online public education for students in grades k-12. One example of a virtual learning environment for some of the youngest learners is coined with the name: Little Lincoln. "Little Lincoln is an interactive and engaging standards-based curriculum that combines rich multimedia with comprehensive offline activities. Little Lincoln is currently offered for Early Kindergarten, Kindergarten, First Grade, and Second Grade students. Little Lincoln Third Grade will be available for the 2011-2012 academic year."[12] This online learning environment allows for the students to utilize innovative technology while progressing through standards based curriculum. It is just one of many virtual learning environments available at this time.

The growth of online learning environments continues to grow as students in PA continue to choose charter schools. There appear to be a variety of reasons as to why students are choosing cyber school over traditional brick and mortar schools. The reasons vary from peer pressure to the need for flexibility to health issues.

Assessing Virtual Learning Environments

In 2005, Scott Walker and Barry Fraser developed a method of assessment for assessing the psychosocial impact of virtual learning environment. In order to constructed and develop the virtual learning environment as a viable means of education, educators must have a tool to use when researching the effectiveness of the virtual learning. This assessment tool, known as the Distance Education Learning Environment Survey (DELES) is accessible to students anywhere.[13] The survey covers the following criteria:

  1. Instructor Support
  2. Student Interaction and Collaboration
  3. Personal Relevance
  4. Authentic Learning
  5. Active Learning
  6. Student Autonomy

The research of Harnish and Reeves focuses on the overall system of the virtual learning environment.[14] This systematic research is based on the following criteria:

  1. Training
  2. Implementation
  3. System Usage
  4. Communication
  5. Support

Systems available

For those wishing to deliver elearning there are many free open source and proprietary VLEs available for use. On-demand elearning services are also a popular choice because they can be deployed in minutes and do not require instructors and institutions to run their own servers.

Many VLEs are placed on a web server. In a typical VLE there are one or more programs or languages that provides the user (Teacher-Student) interface, and which interacts with a database. For example, a VLE might use PHP as its web language/program, with MySQL as a database.

VLEs are increasingly found in new niches. These include new emerging technologies, as well as specialized markets. A VLE can be deployed on a USB drive as a child, which synchronizes from time to time with its web-based parent. VLEs can be used for training or in something as specialized as to meet ISO 9000 certification requirements.

Virtual world learning environments

Emerging technologies include Sloodle, a merge of Second Life and Moodle, which integrates virtual worlds and course management.[15] This early development approach hints at new options for enabling learning in a social, immersive, and interactive way. Another 3D virtual learning environment called Edusim brings a lessons driven 3D virtual environment to the classroom interactive whiteboard surface allowing the direct manipulation of 3D virtual objects.[citation needed] Umgumbo is an immersive 3D VLE set in a Newtonian simulation of the solar system. Still in development, Umgumbo will allow collaborative and interactive learning within personalized 3D spaces, including educational gaming, and is delivered from a single external website.

Brain Based Learning and its application for the Virtual Learning Environment

Brain based learning or brain-compatible learning theory focuses on concepts that create an optimal learning environment to maximize attainment and retention of information. Successful application is dependent upon everyone involved in the learning process - online course developers, educators and student to understand the structure of the brain and focus on student learner's needs and styles to create brain based learning environments, materials and instruction in a fun, meaningful, personally enriching way.[16] Brain based learning is much better than traditional lecture techniques. However the teacher must be aware of how to implement the techniques into the online learning environment. “Designers of educational tools must be artistic in their creation of brain-friendly environments. Instructors need to realize that the best way to learn is not through lecture, but by participation in realistic environments that let learners try new things safely”.[17][18]

Proper Ways of Using Brain Based Learning in the Virtual Classroom

Brain based learning is a topic that is challenging teachers, administrators, and neuroscientists to see what is best for students. By providing specific feedback, stimulating environments, and real life examples to students they will be more engaged and active in the classroom. A major proponent of virtual schools is that they provide students with an environment that is effective to them. Funderstanding states, “Because every brain is different, educators should allow learners to customize their own environments” (Funderstanding, 1998 - 2008).[19] By allowing the students and parents to choose the environment that is best for them. In addition, Crain states, “Children who developed a firm sense of trust in their caretakers can afford to leave them and independently explore the environment” (Crain, 1992). In the future, students will feel more comfortable to eventually leave their normal setting. Some students may be too nervous and anxious in a regular classroom so they are not learning.

The virtual classrooms also provide more technology features than a traditional school setting. Nellie states, “Technology can cater to these neuroscience brain-based findings in the computer lab as well as for online learning courses. Various Microsoft tools such as PowerPoint presentations, Excel, Word processor and other software with multimedia functions can be used by the teacher and students instead of using conventional outdated class tools” (Nellie Deutsch, 2003). One specific example that can used is a PowerPoint presentation for class. Creating an “About Me” lesson allows the students to express themselves through PowerPoint. By doing this the students were able to learn how to use PowerPoint to expand their learning.

Virtual Experiences in all Environments through Virtual Field Trips and Special Programs

Pearson states “In today's cyberage, the Internet can extend the educational value of field trips to levels previously unimaginable. Virtual field trips—field trips taken online—can take a student to locations too far away to travel to or too expensive to visit. Virtual field trips can take a student back in time, into outer space, or into the microscopic world.”[20]

Virtual learning is no longer just for students enrolled in online courses. Students who attend traditional “brick & mortar” schools also have the opportunity to learn virtually. Today traditional students utilize a number of Web 2.0 tools including Virtual Field Trips. Virtual Field Trips (VFT’s) offer a Virtual Learning experience for all teaching environments. This is an ideal tool for online teachers and traditional teachers who are facing district budget cuts that simply do not allow for field trips. VTF’s allow students to participate in a stimulating environment that applies the classroom learning to real-life experiences. VTF’s allow teachers to break the restraints of the classroom walls and provide a stimulating environment to enhance learning that otherwise may not be achieved.

Special programs can and often do enhance virtual learning environments. While learning virtually, there is still something that needs to be said for hands-on learning. These programs are as unique almost as customizable as the school itself. Designed to foster interconnectivity among students and families while providing opportunities not traditionally found in public schools, special programs can challenge, entertain, and educate while fulfilling mandatory educational requirements. These programs include: High School Clubs, Family Link (a parent and student group that organizes events such as bowling nights, hayrides, mom's day out, movies, picnics, and coffee house nights just to name a few), PA Cyber ++ (for Art & Music outreach in the community), the GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) Program, the STARR (Student Tasks of Academic Rigor and Responsibility) Program, Title I Coaching (a federally funded skills-based re-teaching) Program, and the Student Assistance Program (SAP). For more information on these programs in a specific cyber charter school, log onto PA Cyber's[21]

The Student Assistance Program (SAP) is a program that collaborates with PA Department of Education, PA Department of Public Welfare, and the PA Department of Health to identifying and removing the social barriers of learning for students and their families. The primary goal is to resource and help the student overcome these barriers in order that they may achieve, remain in school, and advance. SAP consists of a specially trained team that identifies these barriers and makes the appropriate recommendations and resources available to the student and their family. The SAP program not only works with school based resources but community resources as well.[22]

List of some virtual learning environments

Learning management systems

Course management systems

Free software and open source Course Management Systems

Virtual learning environment

  • Alphastudy - Learning and knowledge portals
  • Moodle - An open source (free) modular php virtual learning software
  • Blackboard - A family of virtual learning software
  • Democrasoft - Collaborize Classroom - A free online learning platform for teachers and students
  • CyberExtension - Virtual Managed Learning Environment
  • Desire2Learn - A suite of learning software
  • Elluminate Live - An interactive classroom environment
  • FirstClass - Messaging and communications solution
  • Heritage Key – Virtual historical environments, such as Tutankhamun’s tomb.
  • Instructure - A full-featured, open-source learning platform
  • itslearning - Norwegian Learning Environment, delivered as Software as a Service (SaaS), market leader in Norway, Sweden and UK.
  • Mingoville - Introduction to the English language. Age 8 to 12 (Virtual World and Language games)
  • RCampus A Learning and ePortfolio Management System with both personal and institutional access
  • Saba Centra - Part of a Human Capital Development System with Social Learning and Realtime Collaboration capabilities
  • SpicyNodes - Create and share radial maps (related to concept maps and mind maps)
  • WebCT - (Now a part of Blackboard) Software applications designed to enhance teaching and learning
  • WebTrain - Virtual live classes, enrollment, attendance, attention monitoring.
  • School VLE - Managed Virtual Learning Environment for Primary Schools

Other descriptions

See also


  1. ^ Dillenbourg, Pierre. "Virtual learning environments". EUN Conference 2000: Learning in the new millennium: Building new education strategies for schools. 
  2. ^ Virtually There, Yorkshire and Humber Grid for Learning Foundation, UK.
  3. ^ DCSF Making IT Personal leaflet, March 2006
  4. ^
  5. ^ eStrategy, DCSF, UK government.
  6. ^ e-portfolio, DCSF, UK government.
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Becta, UK.
  12. ^
  13. ^ Fraser, B. & Walker, S. (2005). "Development and validation of an instrument for assessing distance education learning environments in higher education: The Distance Education Learning Environments Survey (DELES)". Learning Environment Research. 8 (3)
  14. ^ Harnish, D., & Reeves, P. (2000). "Issues in the evaluation of large-scale two-way interactive distance learning systems". International Journal of Educational Telecommunications, 6 (3), 267-281.
  15. ^ Livingstone, D.; Kemp, J.. "Integrating Web-Based and 3D Learning Environments: Second Life Meets Moodle". UPGRADE (European Journal for the Informatics Professional) 9 (3): 8–14. 
  16. ^ Lucas, R. W. (2004). The creative training idea book: Inspired tips and techniques for engaging and effective learning. New York: AMACOM
  17. ^ [
  18. ^ "Brain-Based Learning: Possible Implications for Online Instruction", Stephanie A. Clemons, International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, Volume 2, No. 9 (September 2009), ISSN 1550-6908
  19. ^ "Brain-based Learning", Funderstanding, accessed 16 September 2011
  20. ^ "Why Use Virtual Field Trips?", Dr. Scott Mandel, Pearson Education, Prentice Hall eTeach
  21. ^
  22. ^

Further reading

  • Morgan, G. (2003). Faculty Use of Course Management Systems. 2, Retrieved November 27, 2005, from
  • Paulsen, M. F. 2003. Online Education and Learning Management Systems - Global Elearning in a Scandinavian Perspective. Oslo: NKI Forlaget.
  • Popat, K, MacLean, H, Heppell, S. (2007). Virtually There : Learning Platforms - YHGfL/Cleveratom ISBN 987-0-9556006-0-9
  • Weller, M. (2007). Virtual Learning Environments: Using, choosing and developing your VLE - London. Routledge.

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