DCU gets closer to virtual classroom

25 Feb 2004

Although the teaching revolution the internet was supposed to bring about has still to happen, there are clear indications that third-level colleges are integrating technology more closely into the teaching process than ever before.

The majority of Irish third-level institutions have now either already installed an internet-based learning system, commonly known as a virtual learning environment (VLE), or are looking to do so.

One of the first universities to deploy such a system was Dublin City University (DCU). Its first attempt, introduced in 1999, was based on the popular proprietary platform, ‘TopClass’ from Web CT. This gave students their own portal pages, providing them with personalised information such as lecture and exam timetables, course outlines and other relevant information.

Last week, the university unveiled the successor to TopClass, this time based on an open source e-learning platform called Moodle. DCU says the new package provides a flexible approach to learning that allows teaching to continue beyond the confines of the classroom. Using the system, students can receive lecture notes, submit their assignments and have them marked, take part in class discussions and access a whole range of other learning services – all online.

DCU sees the system as particularly useful to mature students, those with a disability and distance learning students who are considering going on to third level.

According to Morag Munro, learning technology project officer at DCU, the university has had a small scale deployment of Moodle up and running since November last year. So far, around 100 modules covering a wide range of disciplines have gone online. A much larger scale deployment – which will bring the technology to all appropriate courses – is planned to take place within the next year, opening the system up to the majority of DCU’s 10,000 student population.

As Moodle is open source, the university has free rein to modify and tailor it to its own needs. “We wanted something that met our strategic vision, that gives us more freedom and flexibility,” Munro explains. “We can customise it and develop our own areas of functionality and then feed them back into the product so that it’s available to other universities in the future.”

Munro also says DCU is evaluating several new feature sets that could be added to the system over the coming months. While the current system is suitable for continuous assessment coursework and mock exams, it is not seen as being secure enough for formal exams. This was one area being explored, she says. However, she saw innovations such as the live video streaming of lectures as further away. “I don’t see happening tomorrow because not all students have broadband.”

A complicating factor, she notes, was that some of the applications envisaged required a “cultural shift” on the part of lecturers that would raise the issue of work practices and role definition.

Launching the new system at DCU’s E-media Day last week Professor Maria Slowey, the newly appointed vice-president for Learning Innovation, said: “It is important for universities to respond to the changing profile of its students. The dynamics of a class can now go beyond the four walls of the classroom. By using this new open VLE, DCU is endorsing a more flexible approach to learning which will be of benefit not just to the academic staff but to all its students, whether mature, distance learners or traditional students. The number of mature students applying to third-level education is increasing and it is important that universities respond to their needs.”

The system is not intended to replace traditional face-to-face teaching methods but to complement them, Munro adds. “It facilitates different types of learning. Face-to-face lectures don’t work for some students. Ten years ago students were all on campus. Nowadays a lot have part-time or even full-time jobs and aren’t around as much. The new system is about giving them people the flexibility to fit in with their own personal situation.”

She points out that e-learning was something that all third-level institutions e-learning were having to consider. “Whether you agree with e-learning or not it’s here. And you have to go with it. Students nowadays expect everything to be on the web.”

By Brian Skelly

Pictured is 4th year computer applications student Carma O’Connor Dunne using the Moodle system