A virtual way to hone real skills

Colleges and businesses are making use of virtual learning environments to complement hands-on training, says Kris Collins.

As the internet becomes increasingly accessible, more people are turning to various online services to make their lives easier.

This includes online learning, which offers one of the biggest opportunities to change and advance the way in which information is shared and how people are educated, with virtual learning environments (VLE) fast being recognised as the way forward within the education sector.

The commercial sector also realises the added value and flexibility online support can give to customers. Most business websites now offer a help section, email support or helpline contact number, but some are adapting the same software already being used by academics to offer online training and support for customers.

Virtual learning environments

A VLE is a software system that supports teaching and learning in an educational setting over the internet, providing a collection of tools such as those for assessment and communication. VLEs also enable the uploading of content, return of students' work, peer assessment, administration of student groups, collecting and organising student grades, questionnaires and tracking tools.

Moodle is a free and open-source e-learning software platform used by colleges and businesses. Its open-source licence and modular design means that people can develop additional functionality to suit their specific teaching and learning requirements. It can be downloaded to any computer and scaled for use as a single-teacher site up to use by a university with 200,000 students.

VLEs in education

Since January, the Institute of Groundmanship (IoG) has been running an online version of the National Certificate in sports and amenity turf maintenance to support the college-based certificate launched in 2006.

The nationally recognised qualification, developed by the IoG, National Proficiency Tests Council (NPTC) and City & Guilds, fits in with the suite of National Certificates offered to the land-based sector. Unlike colleges that start their courses each September, the institute, through its Moodle VLE, offers the 40-week course on a roll-on roll-off basis. IoG head of professional services Ian Lacey says the system provides more flexibility and students can apply and enter the course every 11 weeks - at the start of new modules - providing four access points throughout the year.

Each unit has a stand-alone study course, which can be accessed by anyone at home with internet facilities. This means that students can study for the award in their own time or during times set aside by their employer that are convenient for everyone. Because many grounds staff live and work well away from any land-based college, the opportunity for home study can be inviting.

Most of the learning is done online - either in the home or workplace. When running at full capacity, the institute has 10 online tutors (all IoG instructors or consultants) to support the course, although fewer are needed at current intake levels. Tutors are online at certain times of the day or week and the IoG Moodle site has chatroom facilities to link tutor and student. There is also the option to talk on the phone, which is built into the cost of the course.

Lacey says up to 75 per cent of assessments are carried out through Moodle with the other 25 per cent undertaken as practical assessments at regional centres of excellence. "All the centres have the resources we need - they are picked for their suitability and we have been specific about the requirements they have to live up to. It means students only have to travel to college five times a year, rather than once a week.

"The development of our VLE has been about flexibility for students and employers alike. Work rotas can be developed to incorporate set study times for specific members of staff to reduce the impact on schedules and work load," he explains.

"Considering it's a new course, I think the first year has gone very well - I thought we might get five to 10 students during the first year so it's great to see that we have almost 30 on board.

Head groundsman John Dodwell of Caterham School, Surrey, has one member of staff on the way to completing the course and another soon to come on board. Toby Sims will complete the course by April. Dodwell says the course's VLE has brought better accessibility and flexibility to studying, while also proving economical.

Dodwell says: "From an employer's point of view it's more cost-effective as the employee stays on site. The downside is that it's very easy for the employee to end up doing all their course work in their own time on what is effectively a work-based course. Overall, if the employee isn't abused, time wise it's a very flexible system - we have plenty of computers here at the school so the plan is that our staff can utilise these when matches are being played and there is less work to do.

"Toby is half way into the course and has been working with me for four years since he decided university wasn't the route for him. He's actually an ex-pupil of the school. He's had the time to see that this is the career route for him. Toby has a good understanding of chemistry and I can see that within 10 years he will be a consultant on the chemical and fungicide side of the sector. But he realises he needs to learn the trade first. He's thoroughly enjoying it and is doing well with it too."

The course receives no funding and so Lacey says the institute has to operate full-cost recovery to meet running costs. He adds: "The cost can be prohibitive - £1,500 for non-members - but when you consider the investment we have made into the virtual learning side of things, the resources we have pulled together, the fact that we need examiners on-site for assessments, that students save on travel costs, we think it balances out fairly well.

"Colleges can offer it cheaper at the moment, of course, but we are looking to secure future funding through Train to Gain to alleviate costs."

VLEs in business

Glasshouse environmental-control systems provider Priva operates a training facility at its headquarters in De Lier, Holland. The company can provide training courses for up to 20 people as well as offering bespoke courses for customers at their own sites.

While attendance is strong and site visits popular, Priva UK managing director Chris Addis says the company's online training provision offers a solution to the expense and time limitations associated with its other services.

"Our online training facilities are for more immediate problem-solving situations where, for example, a new member of staff has been brought in but has no experience with a Priva system and needs some training quickly without the expense of travelling to Holland or arranging a site visit."

The same tutors at the training centre are made available online through a high-speed broadband connection. The trainer connects with the Priva computer in the UK, the trainee grants them access and they are then in full audio and visual contact. The trainer can take control of the on-site system and the trainee can follow the tutor while he explains what he is doing.

"It's as if the trainer is sitting next to them," says Addis. "For situations when there isn't time to arrange a meeting or where travel time is a problem they can contact the training department to arrange a mutually convenient time. The trainer can then talk the trainee through a particular problem in real time, on their own PC, highlighting what needs to be done and why."

Looking ahead

Hadlow College in Kent is seeking to develop its online offering to its students with the development of iGrow, which upon completion will be a one-stop portal to the college's online resources for students. Services will include webmail, OPAC library catalogues and access to the college's Moodle VLE.

Hadlow marketing manager Neil Lakeland says the college is far removed from the scenario of students not having to attend college-based sessions as the subjects the college covers will always have elements that need supervision and hands-on training: "We're aiming to provide maximum flexibility and access to resources and the things they need while in college so they won't be limited to just 'on-campus access' such as the OPAC, and articles and papers accessed via the internet," he explains.

"We recognise that e-learning and e-resources are the way forward for education. In business terms, it's all about creating experiences while adding value and flexibility for our students - if students are 'off-campus' for any reason and realise they need to read an article or pick up an urgent email they can do that without having to wait.

"We're currently looking to address security issues before we launch - for a secure webmail service we need to be sure the system is robust. We're hoping it will go live in the first quarter of 2009," Lakeland adds.

With the first online IoG students expected to complete the Level 2-equivalent course by the end of October, the institute is set to launch a Level 3 option in November with the National Certificate in sports and amenity turf management as requested by the NPTC. Lacey says: "The advanced level is now on the credit framework and will be coming online with us from late November. We already have five people signed up."

Level 3 will take an in-depth look at the management side of things, delving into more detail on the science of turf maintenance, sustainability, environmental issues and the planning, organising and control side for sports turf management.

"The hope is that many of our Level 2 students will move straight on to Level 3 after their final assessment at the end of October. Some of our Level 2 students will be doing their final assessment this month - if they achieve the results, hopefully they will move straight into Level 3," he says.

"We're trying to produce a base view of education and training, and trying to put a simple career structure together for the industry. Some employers I have spoken to find it hard to identify exactly the skills and knowledge that they require their staff to have as there is so much out there and the information can be confusing. The National Certificate framework sets out a progressive route for students that includes all the skills they need to get on in the industry."

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