Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Managed Learning?

Nicole Harris on current developments towards Managed Learning Environments in the ANGEL project.

The terms MLE (Managed Learning Environment) and VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) are frequently found in use within UK HE institutions at present. They are applied, along with a range of alternative terms, to products that provide teaching and learning tools within an online environment. These products range from commercial offerings from companies such as Blackboard [1] and WebCT [2], project developments such as COSE [3] and CoMentor [4], and institutional portal developments that allow users easy access to all required services such as the Edinburgh Student Portal (ESP) [5]. The focus of UK HE is evidently on these technologies.

A survey by UCISA found that 81% of interviewed institutions are making use of what UCISA term VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) [6]. ANGEL (Authenticated Networked Guided Environment for Learning) is one of many projects developing enhancements for VLEs, looking specifically looking at integrating library resources and online learning environments. In this respect, the ANGEL project is looking at providing MLE functions for use with VLEs.

Managed or Virtual?

Due to the sheer amount of products and terminology in use, attempts have been made to clearly define terms applied to these technologies. JISC and BECTa provide one of the most widely accepted definitions of Managed Learning Environments, describing them as:

"software applications that support on-line learning. They offer a virtual environment that supports all the educational activity that is normally associated with the learning experience. In this respect, MLEs will offer functions to support pedagogy, the management of learning materials, student administration and a communications environment. MLEs have the potential to unify, monitor and coordinate all activity within colleges, and critically . . . to link activity between institutions." [7]

A VLE is generally perceived to be a software package that directly supports on-line learning. In this respect the VLE is part of the MLE system. The projects participating in the current JISC MLE programme agree that it is not possible to buy an MLE product off the shelf at the moment, although many projects are examining ways in which MLE functions can be joined-up to the VLE [8]. This includes connecting Student Record Systems, Library Management Systems, learning resources, quality processes and off-line learning. In the JISC description of an MLE, the term management is applied specifically to activity, which describes the day to day running of institutions. The concept of management within learning environments, however, can be broken into more specific areas.

Managing Learning Environments

Management needs for learning environments remain constant, whether that environment is virtual or traditional. These needs can be broadly categorised into the following areas:

Within an educational institution, the responsibility for management of content is traditionally perceived as the library role. This analogy has not been adopted directly into VLEs. Institutions adopting VLEs are suddenly faced with dilemma of managing material that has previously been controlled only by the individual lecturer or by departments. The simple process of collecting a set of reading lists, or lecture notes can cause problems due to differing attitudes towards data storage and quality assurance. The sheer effort involved in managing this content has meant that integration of the more open sources controlled by the library has been ignored or put-aside.

Managed or guided learning is more elegantly expressed as mediated learning by Laurillard, who describes the process as knowing something about student learning, and what makes it possible, rather than simply attempting to 'impart knowledge' [9]. Within UK HEI, most individual lecturers have their own concepts of how mediated learning should be achieved, and wish to apply these concepts within the VLEs purchased by their institution. It is, however, impossible for VLEs to be pedagogically neutral. Every decision concerning presentation, navigation and design that is imposed by the VLE will impact on mediated learning. The idea of controlled pedagogy was embraced by the COSE VLE with the development of a constructivist VLE that forced staff attention towards mediated learning [12].

The wealth of activities that surround learning experiences and learning materials is familiar to any educational institution. Such tasks as user administration, timetabling, scheduling services, and user authentication are just a few of the obstacles that are faced by institutions and will impact on use of the VLE. Many institutions need to look beyond the abilities of the VLE in order to manage these tasks.

The key factor in all of these management activities is the need for a change in practice in order to achieve implementation. VLEs, by their very nature, bring about a fourth management issue:

Issues of change management have been investigated on many levels, by institutions, independent companies, and projects. The eLib projects constantly highlighted the problems involved in implementing new ideas, reporting that 'attitudes and behaviours among professional librarians, academics and students continue in many instances to be a barrier to the effective embedding of eLib products and services' [10]. More recently, the INSPIRAL bibliography [11] demonstrates the continuing concerns over barriers to institutional change. The ongoing examination of these issues and the importance placed on the problems by project reports makes one issue very clear: nobody has found a simple solution to tackling change management within UK HEIs. The research carried out by the ANGEL project provides a recent insight into the problems faced by institutions introducing VLEs and struggling with change management in this specific context.

The ANGEL Approach

The ANGEL project carried out extensive research for the Initial Formative Evaluation stage of the project. As well as informing the project, this process also allowed the project team to gain a valuable insight into use of VLEs in a wider context. The project interviewed staff from a wide variety of departments, job roles and backgrounds at four HEIs within the UK. Interviewees had a very clear picture of the experience they wished to achieve with a VLE, and this is expressed in figure one.


Figure One: VLE experience as seen by ANGEL interviewees.

This design centres around the learning event in the middle of the diagram. This event could take a variety of formats, ranging from online tasks to traditional lectures. The pre-event and post event activities on either side of the event contribute to form the learning experience. The entire learning experience is further supported by the pre-experience events such as content gathering and training. This allows the student to confidently enter the pre-event section where they can register for courses, immediately download timetables and receive pre-event information such as location details and reading materials. After the event, the student returns to the VLE to examine tailored resources and begin assessment procedures. The post experience tasks include log analysis and evaluation, while the student continues to the next learning experience.

Despite recognition that this process is possible within many existing commercial VLEs, all interviewees expressed concern and doubt over the ability to achieve this. Many problems were raised at the interviews, very few of which related to poor software. These problems can be expressed as lack of ability, lack of understanding and lack of trust.

Learning to teach using a VLE can be a steep learning curve for instructors who are not conversant with the style of technology. Gaining the ability to utilise VLEs effectively requires extensive training programmes and continual support, the cost and logistic of which are often ignored in implementation plans. Furthermore, detailed training is required to allow students to learn effectively using VLEs, which can cause problems in many institutions where Information Skills are still struggling to find a permanent place on the curriculum. This need is slowly being addressed, as evidenced by the sudden surge in advertisements for VLE / MLE Support Officer posts.

A lack of understanding of institutional goalposts can act as a obstacle to the implementation of VLEs. Many members of staff do not clearly understand what is expected of them, what the institution hopes to achieve with the VLE, or why additional quality assurance practices are being brought to bear on their work. This situation is aggravated by a lack of clear strategic planning at the point of purchase. The UCISA study shows that 5% of institutions quote 'Keeping up with the Jones' as a reason for implementing a VLE [13].

Finally, lack of trust in these systems effects the experience of many members of staff. On a personal level, staff are concerned about IPR and the levels of access that both internal and external people will have to their work. Additional, staff are unwilling to use online environments for assessment purposes. The ANGEL interviews clearly demonstrated that many interviewees believed that IT made it easier for students to cheat at a variety of levels.

A broader overview of the problems identified by interviewees within the ANGEL user needs analysis can be found in the final reports from workpackage two of the project [14].

On completion of the User Needs Analysis, the job of the ANGEL team was to find a specific role for ANGEL within this context. There were clearly many areas where technical developments and research evidence could help improve the utilisation of VLEs and inform the HE community. Equally, there were many problematic areas where ANGEL would not be able to offer solutions. In order to find a place for ANGEL, the team turned to management solutions.

The ANGEL service will be a set of functions that work behind the scenes, allowing end-users to continue using familiar interfaces (VLEs, institutional portals etc.) without having to be aware of the ANGEL. The middleware that will form the ANGEL service will deal with authentication and authorisation, resource discovery management and service maintenance. The ANGEL team is creating three managers to deal with these functions.

The Resource Manager (RM) will deal with issues surrounding content used in VLEs by controlling appropriate metadata for the content. This will allow institutions to delivery 'appropriate copy' material to the end-user. Institutions will be able to control this process, allowing access to electronic versions of texts to one group of users while guiding other groups of users to paper copies in the library if required.

The User Manager (UM) will either control or access information about the end-user. This function will work with the RM in order to manage authentication and authorisation. Through a combination of detailed knowledge about content, and detailed knowledge concerning access rights, the UM will allow for single sign-on, negotiating repeated password challenges behind the scenes. ANGEL is looking specifically at two existing models for authentication and authorisation solutions: the American Shibboleth programme [15] and the European PAPI design [16].

The Scheduled Services Manager (SSM) will be responsible for automating certain functions and tasks in order to facilitate the operation of the ANGEL service with VLEs. These services include maintenance of referenced URLs, which will allow instructors to confidently make use of deep-links to resources. The SSM will also allow for collection checking for both staff and students, and allow users to run searches across a multitude of services at specified times. Awareness alerting will be an important feature of the SSM, including both current awareness alerts and license expiry warning.


In the creation of the three ANGEL managers, the team hopes to address some of the issues that currently effect the smooth implementation of VLEs and other such software. The team has chosen to focus on the management of content and the management of activities by automating tasks and working behind front-end services to provide a seamless system for both instructors and students. The research carried out by the ANGEL team will also serve to highlight the continuing problems faced by institutions who wish to introduce new working practices. By looking at ways to tackle issues of interoperability, standarisation, and maintenance the ANGEL service addresses many of the problems raised within our formative evaluation. ANGEL does not directly address issues of learning management or change management, but the team hopes that the tasks performed by the ANGEL service will make the management of these areas an easier task, even though it does not offer direct solutions to these inherent problems.


1. The Blackboard web site is at: http://www.blackboard.com/.
2. The WebCT web site is at: http://www.webct.com/.
3. The COSE project is at: http://www.staffs.ac.uk/COSE/.
4. The CoMentor project is at: http://comentor.hud.ac.uk/.
5. The Edinburgh Student Portal is at: http://www.registry.ed.ac.uk/ESP/.
6. The UCISA Survey is at: http://www.ucisa.ac.uk/SG/events-papers/mle-vle/jenkins.ppt.
7. The JISC definition is at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/pub00/c07_00.html.
8. Information about the MLE programme can be found at: http://www.jisc.ac.uk/mle/.
9. Laurillard, Diana. Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology. London: Routledge, 1993. 14.
10. eLib papers cab be found at: http://www.ukoln.ac.uk/services/elib/papers/.
11. The INSPIRAL bibliography is at: http://inspiral.cdlr.strath.ac.uk/resources/bibliography.html.
12. Stiles, M.J. Effective Learning and the Virtual Learning Environment is at: http://www.staffs.ac.uk/COSE/cose10/posnan.html
13. The UCISA Survey is at: http://www.ucisa.ac.uk/SG/events-papers/mle-vle/jenkins.ppt.
14. The final report for workpackage two of the ANGEL project can be found at: http://www.angel.ac.uk/documents/documents.html.
15. Information concerning Shibboleth developments can be found at: http://middleware.internet2.edu/shibboleth.
16. The PAPI design can be found at: http://www.rediris.es/app/papi/doc/TERENA-2001/.

Author Details


Nicole Harris
Researcher - ANGEL project
South Bank University

Tel: +44 (0)20 7815 7838
Fax: +44 (0)20 7815 7050

Email: harrisnv@sbu.ac.uk
Web site: www.angel.ac.uk