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Return to SENDA? Implementing accessibility for disabled students in virtual learning environments in UK further and higher education

5. E-learning in UK further and higher education

5.1 The e-learning revolution

The phenomenal rise of e-learning in the last ten years has taken place against a complex backdrop of cultural and social change, advances in technology and shifts in educational theory and practice.

5.1a. Social and political changes

Further and higher education institutions in the UK are facing a number of pressures. There is pressure to widen access to post-16 education – as encapsulated for example in the Kennedy and Dearing reports (see 4.3a). The Fryer Report (1997) introduced the concept of a ‘universal learning culture’, and the 1998 green paper The Learning Age set out the government’s determination to ensure Britain’s place in the 21st century ‘knowledge based economy’ by encouraging ‘lifelong learning’ and lifting barriers to learning (DFEE 1998).

A corollary of this drive towards inclusivity in education is that learning is expected to be more ‘flexible’, in order to address the needs of a more diverse student population. The current Department for Education and Skills white paper on higher education, for example, enjoins HEIs to provide ‘more flexibility in courses, to meet the needs of a more diverse student body and improve support for those doing part-time degrees’ (DfES 2003a).

Education, along with all public services in the UK, also faces calls for greater accountability. Bodies such as the Adult Learning Inspectorate (FE) and the Quality Assurance Agency (HE) oversee standards and assessments, and incorporate both inclusive learning and teaching strategies, and effective use of information and learning technologies (ILT), within their remit (see 4.3b)

There is also increased competitiveness in education, both within the UK and internationally, especially with the potential for ‘global e-universities’. Part of the UK’s response to this challenge has been the creation of the UKeU, a virtual university aiming ‘to deliver the best of UK university education online across the world’ in partnership with 13 UK HEIs (UKeU 2003).

All these changes and challenges are set against a background of ‘funding stretch’ (Hanson 2003) throughout all sectors of education, with a decline in funds per student of 40% between 1967 and 1997 (Dearing 1997) and continuing decline since (Pring 2001).

5.1b. Technological advances

The early-mid 1990s saw an explosion in the development of ICTs for a number of reasons:

  • increased digitisation across all media; photography, film, television and audio, as well as text, all began to move from analogue to digital
  • growth and penetration of increasingly powerful, and increasingly cheap, personal computers
  • development of user-friendly interfaces
  • the development of networking hardware and software
  • the development of web technologies
  • growth in bandwidth and improving compression technologies
  • diffusion of computing technologies across both commercial and public sectors.

In 1998, the Higginson Report investigated the potential of these new technologies for learning. The report stressed the importance of these new information and learning technologies (ILTs) in further education, and in particular the need to:

  • raise staff awareness of the possibilities presented by modern learning technologies’, and
  • enhance the technical capabilities of staff in the use of these technologies, focusing on the teaching and management of learning competencies whereby electronic material can be fully integrated within student learning programmes’.
    (FEFC 1998)

5.1c. Pedagogical shifts

At the same time educational theory has also been changing. Broadly, theories of learning have shifted from ‘behaviourist’ towards ‘social constructivist’ models. A behaviourist model sees learning as something that is ‘acquired’ through a series of linear steps leading to a predefined goal, with periodic questions that test progress, and periodic reinforcement of learned behaviour (CMAL 2003).

In social constructivist models, learning is contextual, affected by the social environment. It in turn affects all aspects of a learner’s cognitive, emotional, social and cultural development. Learning is not linear, and it is not confined to changes in observable behaviour, as with the behaviourist model. Learners make choices about their learning within robust but flexible structures provided by the teacher (CMAL 2003).

The implications for pedagogy of the adoption of constructivist theories are the encouragement of student responsibility and initiative, the shared development of learning strategies, the creation of authentic learning contexts and authentic assignments, and the encouragement of co-operative support, between learners and between learners and teachers (Grabinger and Dunlap 1995).

In the UK, Laurillard’s ‘conversational model’ began to outline how constructivist theories of learning might be applied to higher education through the use of communication technologies, with the emphasis on individual interactions between learner and teacher (Laurillard 1993). Then, along with the rise of networking technologies such as the internet and worldwide web, came an increasing emphasis on the shared social context of learning. Mayes summarises these changes thus:

First, there has been a shift from a representational view of learning, in which an acquisition metaphor guided design, to a constructivist view, in which learning is primarily developed through activity. A second shift has been away from a focus on the individual, towards a new emphasis on social contexts for learning. (Mayes 2001, p.17)

5.1d. E-learning to the rescue

E-learning, it is argued, is a way to address all the social and pedagogical opportunities and challenges outlined above, because it can use the new information technologies to:

  • provide flexibility of time and place of delivery
  • enable institutions to cope with increased student numbers
  • reduce administrative burden
  • allow the sharing and re-use of resources
  • enable collaborative working
  • foster student-centred learning.
    (Milligan 1998)

As a result, e-learning has many supporters, both within academia: ‘We are convinced that such technology, when combined with effective pedagogy and reflective teaching, will transform higher education’ (Garrison and Anderson 2003, p.xiii). And within government: ‘[E-learning] is important because it can contribute to all the government's objectives for education - to raising standards, improving quality, removing barriers to learning, and, ultimately, ensuring that every learner achieves their full potential’ (DfES 2003c).

5.2 The advance of the VLEs

Virtual learning environments are only one form of e-learning technology, but they have quickly come to dominate the academic e-learning market. As outlined in section 3.2 above, virtual learning environments are a single software product combining:

  • communication tools (e-mail, bulletin board, chat room)
  • collaboration tools (online forums, file-sharing, diaries)
  • content creation tools
  • assessment tools and activity tracking tools
  • integration with institutional management information systems
  • controlled access to curriculum resources.

Most of the leading products incorporate similar functionality and tools.

5.2a. Market share and levels of use

According to the most recent sector-wide research (JISC/UCISA 2003), there are approximately 500 VLEs in use in UK further and higher education. The leading commercial products are Blackboard (33%) and WebCT (20%), both products originating from the United States. The leading UK product is Granada Learnwise (18%), followed by bespoke in–house solutions (14%) and TekniCAL Virtual Campus (10%). This study produced broadly similar market shares (see section 7.1).

While VLEs are becoming increasingly similar in what they offer, the use of VLEs varies between institutions and between faculties and between courses. Cook (1999) shows the possible levels of sophistication of use of a VLE, starting with the simple and moving through to the complex:


  • convenient distribution channel for course materials
  • gateway to additional online materials
  • means of communication between students, teachers, and external ‘speakers’
  • a platform for computer-assisted learning resources
  • student self-assessment and online examinations
  • a platform for collaborative student projects
  • delivery of complete online courses with fully integrated activities – for example a distance learning course


5.2b. Perceived benefits

The advance of VLEs has been based on a number of perceived benefits to teaching and learning, summarised in Table 3.

Table 3. Potential benefits of virtual learning environments (based on O'Leary 2002, BECTa 2003b, Traxler 2003a)

Potential benefits of VLEs - students

Potential benefits of VLEs - teachers/institutions

flexibility - anytime, anywhere access

flexible online creation and delivery of materials

gains in ICT, writing skills, and presentation skills

anytime anywhere support for student-teacher communication

development of strategic learning styles for students through collaborative working

new communication dimension - e-mail, chat, bulletin board - in addition to lecture theatre/lab

improved motivation and engagement for students

variety of ICT tools in one consistent interface

widened access to learning materials for diverse learners

sharing and re-use of resources

potential for self-testing

reduction in administration through integrated management information systems


new testing and assessment methods


enhanced consistency and uniformity of teaching across departments

The LEAP (learning environments and pedagogy) project at the Learning and Teaching Support Network (LTSN) presents a number of case studies showing specifically pedagogical advantages of virtual learning environments, including:

  • new modes of student-staff interaction
  • improved student communication skills
  • improved student engagement
  • improved peer support
  • deeper levels of student discussion.
    (LTSN 2003)

But e-learning generally, and VLEs in particular, face a number of serious challenges in living up to their potential, as discussed in the next section.


All pages and content copyright © Sara Dunn 2003, unless otherwise stated.