Use of VLEs with Digital Media
This advice document gives you an overview of the things to consider when using digital media in your Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).
The use of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) is growing in every institution year upon year. Partly fuelling this growth is the ability to use enriching digital media such as images, moving images and audio to support teaching and learning.
What is a Virtual learning environment?
A virtual learning environment is an online set of tools and spaces that are managed by the institution for use in supporting teaching and learning. It is password protected and has a number of privilege settings. Typically learners are enrolled on a course(s) that are managed by the subject teaching/support staff. The course is available online and available 24/7 365 days a year with the exception of a short period for nightly backups or upgrades.
Not surprisingly for learners, but for most staff, is that the learners will use the VLE over the full 24hr period and not the 9am - to 6pm of most teaching staff.
A VLE can be used for distance learning courses where all teaching, support and learning takes place within the VLE and also for traditionally taught courses where the VLE is used to further support the learners. This latter usage is called a blended approach.
Typical tools of a VLE include:
- Communication tools (Discussion boards, wikis, blogs, chat)
- Assessment tools (quizzes, electronic submission
- Storage of documents including digital media
- Administration (enrolment, tracking, grades)
Some teaching is now taking place using similar tools to a VLE but outside of the VLE. This approach uses third party tools such as Google Documents and what are often termed web 2.0 tools.
Examples of a VLE
Moodle is a free open-source VLE. It has been designed to help educators create effective online learning communities. Moodle enables a forum for discussion, learning and integration for both inside and outside of the classroom.
Blackboard is a widely used VLE that has many features other VLE's share. It has a number of versions available and many third party plugins that can be used to increase its functionality.
WebCT was designed to provide teaching and learning experiences online by using the Internet as a platform. As a proprietary software tool, it is considered reliable and easy to use and has many features that will appeal to students and lecturers alike. WebCT was recently acquired by Blackboard and at some point will likely merge into a later version of Blackboard.
Copyright Issues - There is a Need to Consider These First!
Copyright is an intellectual property right and arises automatically whenever a work is created. It gives the owner of the copyright the right to exploit their work or control its use.
If using other people's digital media it is important to be aware of copyright issues and respect the creator's rights. This is because once a work is in a digital form it is very easy to manipulate or pass on. Therefore when you intend for a third-party work to be made available online or published through a VLE, you will probably need to clear copyright.
Here are a few pointers to consider when selecting other people's digital media work for use in a VLE:
- Copyright is something to take seriously but it need not be an obstacle
- When finding images, moving images and audio online you will need permission to reproduce them in your materials and you should always carefully read the terms and conditions
- If you make your own works, you or most probably your employer will own the copyright
- Some FE and HE institutions may be able to use a CLA (Copyright Licensing Agency) scanning license to produce images.
- Asking permission seems like a chore but it may bring unexpected rewards such as a higher quality version to support teaching and learning, particular for moving image material.
If you have been granted permission to use an image it is advisable to put clear copyright information next to the image. It is also important that you keep a copy of the permission given and this could be stored as a document within the VLE course where the image is being used. For video/audio you may have to insert a copyright notice in the metadata and as a written/verbal notice that plays with the file. This is typically used at the start of the file.
Further info on copyright is available in our advice document Roles and Responsibilities of Images for Teaching and Research or use the search facility at the top of this page.
Do we need to prepare resources before they are included?
By considering your learning outcomes, you can identify which digital media will be suitable in any given situation and then design the material to consider the best pedagogical approach.
Assuming that you have taken, created or obtained digital materials to use in your VLE it will almost certainly need some preparation before being used in the VLE. For still images it is likely to be resizing or cropping to fit comfortably within a typical screen resolution of 1024x768 pixels. When you factor in the browser chrome (menus etc) it leaves you with a MAX size of image under 720 pixels in width. Tip: you can always have a small image linking to a larger one if you need to retain detail.
Depending on which VLE you are using you may have tools for simplifying the uploading and presenting of moving images and audio. Check with your e-Learning/VLE support team. Typically a VLE will support any file type to upload but only support a limited number of playback formats. The Adobe Flash format is widely supported by VLEs and learners browsers for viewing but does require encoding into this format. Other common formats are Mpeg-1 and windows media format.
How does the VLE store its content?
VLEs store content in various areas, normally the same area in which it is to be viewed, or in a folder called "resources". Some VLEs also have additional storage locations (e.g. Content collection in Blackboard) to support more advanced sharing options such as using a resource in multiple locations at once and also sharing outside the VLE .
The fairly recent adoption of large quantities of digital media for online consumption for use in a VLE, caused by the affordability of capturing equipment and demand, has led to the need for supporting storage of large file sizes and an increase in numbers. However, VLEs typically have a MAX file limit of around 25-50MB per file which is only enough for around 30mins of audio and a few minutes of compressed video.
There is no set method for dealing with this problem: some may find they have much higher limits; others may use third party solutions; others may accept the existing limitations and use compression software to reduce the materials file-size.
One potential solution is to use media servers which only store moving image and audio resources. This is usually only cost effective with support across the institution.
Beware of treating the VLE as a repository
It is very common to use the VLE purely as a repository or extended storage space, even though they weren't designed primarily for this purpose. Many facilitators of VLEs are disappointed that its users do not engage with many tools of the VLE. Simply putting content in the VLE is a very limited use of the VLE and in response users will often respond in kind and only use that facility.
Although it is helpful to provide material for learners, it is even better to take full advantage of this medium format and it's tools and to consider what can be done to further enrich the learning experience. For example using video case studies of visiting experts with future students as learning activities can then be discussed either in the VLE or face to face. This type of consideration will add value to your existing content and delivery.
Organising your resources
At the early stages of using digital media is it very easy and tempting to simply put your digital media anywhere and everywhere. You need to consider carefully where you will store your content, especially digital media which is anticipated to be reused widely. At the very least have one folder called resources at the top level of your course which is used for all your content. This can be further improved by having sub-folders for the different modules and media types.
This is quite easy to manage and setup but is often overlooked until the content has grown out of control. Changes made later on can cause broken links to content; by doing it from the start you will reduce maintenance time and effort further down the line.
Considering that many courses are recycled or archived at the end of the year (this is a feature that most Blackboard versions has enabled) it is crucial that you carefully consider where your digital media is stored as not everything is archived/recycled. To prevent a tragic and avoidable loss of data check with your VLE support team. It is not uncommon for this process to be overlooked and all digital media lost.
This leads us to the importance of having a similarly structured backup of your digital media: ensuring it is stored on a regularly backed up network drive, (preferably a shared department drive in case you are unavailable and others need access).
The VLE is an extension to your oral and written content, which allows learners to engage with exciting and interactive material. VLEs also allow new opportunities to innovate in your subject, ultimately improving the learner experience. However it is important to plan in advance, starting small then expanding areas of usefulness for digital media supported by the VLE. Consider where and how digital media will be used and do not forget to archive and carefully label all material.
Your local e-learning support team will be able to give further advice and support in the areas covered above. If you would like any advice specifically about using digital media resources within VLEs then don't forget to contact us using our free helpdesk service.
Image credit marsha Brockman