Solving the virtual learning environment headache

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Jisc worked with The Northern School of Art to redesign their virtual learning environment so that it makes life easier for students and staff. Since then, log-ins are up by nearly two thirds.

More visually appealing. Cleaner. Well-structured and ordered.

Creative Commons attribution information
Michael Egan, learning technologist, The Northern School of Art
©Jisc and Matt Lincoln

That’s how learning technologist Michael Egan describes The Northern School of Art’s new virtual learning environment (VLE). He said:

“Since the redesign, it looks far better and is much more engaging for our students.”

A VLE is a web-based platform to support student’s study. It includes remote access to everything from course content to tutor chat facilities and can be challenging to integrate and maintain.

We worked with Michael’s Middlesbrough and Hartlepool-based further and higher education organisation to give our perspective on the approach they were taking to redesign their VLE. One of the aims was to create a VLE that represented their visual identity. Michael said:

“It was dated and needed to better reflect our personality and get more students to engage with it.

“I wanted it to be more of a twenty first century platform which actually encouraged education.”

As a result of the changes that have been made to the VLE, user engagement has increased by 65.5%. There were 50,645 logins to the learning platform in September 2018, compared with 33,184 in September 2017. This has helped the VLE to be more integrated into school life, offering benefits for students and tutors

Figuring out what students and staff needed

Why hadn’t students and staff been using the VLE as much before this?

Accessibility was a big problem. The VLE wasn’t mobile responsive which meant text was too small when students accessed content on their phones.

“It was also really hard to navigate, so I didn’t use it very much,”

says Simon1, a textiles and surface design student.

The poor navigation meant staff didn’t know about all the different ways they could use the platform to make their life easier. Most lecturers, like Tony Shaw, programme leader for production design, used it only as a storage device.

“I’d share module guides or PowerPoint lecture slides with students,”

he says.

Michael asked us to work with him to figure out what needed to change to make the VLE more integrated into school life. He said:

“I thought it would be best to bring Jisc onboard to provide additional insight and get a second opinion.”

So, in November 2017, two of our consultants went to the school for the day. Working with Michael, they met students and staff, including library personnel and vice-principals, to gather their feedback on the VLE. The consultants came up with recommendations about how the platform could change, based on the school’s needs and our experience. This gave Michael an external perspective.

“Jisc’s recommendations backed up what I was thinking. They helped me to get buy-in from staff as Jisc are very much respected in the education sector.”

Promoting lifelong learning

Michael implemented changes to the VLE in summer 2018, ready for the new academic year. Our support allowed him to justify the changes he wanted to make. These put usability, engagement and accessibility at the fore. More students are accessing the platform on their mobile now, which is helpful as there was a limited number of desktop computers at the school.

Students have been delighted with the changes. Simon said:

“They have made the system easier to navigate overall. Information is easier to find. The notification banner also helps to update you about what is happening on campus.”

A popular feature for students has been the ability to upload documents to OneDrive. It means they can submit work for assessment without coming on to campus. Simon says that being able to access files from the VLE means you’re never stuck if you forget a USB device. You always have everything you need to work off campus. This promotes accessible education and lifelong learning.

“It gives a lot of flexibility to mature students who need to work part-time and/or raise children,”

says Angela, who studies creative film and moving image.

“It’s a benefit to be able to hand in work from your desk at home if you can’t get in to school and to access information in real-time without any delay to your workflow.”

“An academic comfort blanket”

The upload feature also makes life easier for staff, cutting down on tedious administration – and giving them more time to teach.

Michael said:

“On the old VLE, it used to take a few minutes to upload just one document. Now it will take about 10 seconds.”

Overall, Michael says staff welcomed changes to the VLE, even though usage varies across different departments and subject areas. He put together a launch video to explain why the changes were needed, as discussed with our consultants. This, as well as training sessions, got staff on board.

“I did lots of face-to-face training sessions, as well as virtual ones, to walk staff through the changes,”

says Michael.

Now, the VLE is a teaching and learning space, rather than document repository. Michael says it’s closer to what actually happens in the classroom and lecture hall. This is because more lecturers are integrating it into their teaching. Tony, for example, has experimented with digital submissions, sending feedback to students by email.

“I use the VLE far more efficiently now,”

says Tony.

“As it’s easier to use, other staff too are more inclined to change and update content. Even those who aren’t as confident with technology are more receptive to it. It’s like an academic comfort blanket knowing the VLE is there supporting what we do.”

Another pair of eyes

Listening to student and staff feedback has been key to the success of the project. Next, the organisation plans to monitor what students are getting out of the VLE content. Michael thinks a VLE is essential for tertiary education and says getting a third-party point of view can support you to create one that suits staff and student needs.

“Regardless of how experienced you are, it helps to have another pair of eyes. Even if it just confirms what you’re already thinking,”

says Michael.

“Jisc worked with us to create a platform that serves and enhances the student experience.”

How can we support you?

To discuss how our consultancy can benefit your organisation, please contact your account manager.


  • 1 Student names have been changed.

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