An eLearning environment is any sort of environment that supports teaching and/or learning with Computer-mediated communication. It can be an interactive DVD incorporating multimedia material, a simple educational website authored in HTML or a simple authoring tool like eXe which contain notes, images, videos and interactive learning activities. It can also be a learning management system like MOODLE which contains a number of courses within its boundaries. Another definition of eLearning environments adopted by Daniel Schneider is one that supports learning activities. Furthermore it inherits general features like social spaces, social presence, awareness tools etc. and that can and should be exploited by pedagogic strategies and according instructional design models. Such environments are also called virtual learning environments (VLEs).
Weller (2006) Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) may not be the most innovative educational technology to be found in use today, but they are one of the most pervasive, with 86% of respondents from United Kingdom Higher Education (HE) institutions reporting the presence of a VLE in their institution (2003).
There are a number of charges often levelled at the more popular VLEs, and particularly commercial ones, which can be summarized as:
• They are content focused;
• They have no strong pedagogy;
• They are based around a teacher-classroom model;
• They combine a number of average tools, but not the best ones;
• They do not feature a particular tool;
• They operate on a lowest common denominator approach;
• They do not meet the needs of different subject areas;
• It is difficult to exchange content between them, despite claims to interoperability
VLEs can be classified in the following categories:
Virtual learning environments existed even before the proliferation of the world-wide web. As mentioned earlier, e-learning can take different forms. It can be observed that from electronic devices like the television to the use of CD/DVDs and later on interactive DVDs, virtual learning environments very well existed before the information superhighway became a reality for the common man. This approach of having stand-alone learning environments is also referred to in literature as ‘classic e-learning’. In this mode, the learner only interacts with the content through the computer or other IT-enabled device but cannot communicate with peers, community and the tutors.
Networked Learning Environments
A Networked Learning Environment in the Internet age applies new technology to a very old concept— that learning is much more than classes and grades. It is about the learning that takes place in a vibrant community of people and resources. The Internet has removed the limits of time and proximity that once restricted this community. In a true Networked Learning Environment, any student, instructor or researcher can access any learning resource at anytime from anyplace.
Networked learning environments should therefore be student-centred and promote active student learning through flexible pedagogies. Students will have access to communication and collaboration tools as well as operating in terms of learning communities and communities of practices. A networked learning environment can also be seen as an integrated learning environment where all the tools, users and instruments are found under one ‘roof’. This is commonly known as an integrated learning environment which we will look at in the coming section. A true Networked Learning Environment has five key characteristics that separate it from the course-based world of traditional e-Learning:
- Ubiquitous access to learning resources (people and content)
- A common user experience that seamlessly integrates different learning applications
- Assessment and tracking across the learning career
- A customisable, role-enhanced environment that supports student-centred learning and instructor optimised administration
- Access and participation in highly active sharing networks
Integrated Virtual learning Environments'
An integrated virtual learning environment will basically contain elements from both the stand-alone learning environments and the networked learning environments. With one simple login, the learner can access the different tools and facilities under one cyberspace. An example of an integrated virtual learning environment is MOODLE which is an open-source e-learning platform. MOODLE contains mostly all the pedagogical and technological tools required to promote classical and contemporary online teaching and learning. While authors such as Martin Weller and Schneider have stressed on the limitations of virtual learning environments, it is also believed that the VLEs alone cannot reshape teaching and learning without the inputs of the learning designer. The learning design is at the heart of the educational process rather than the tools and technologies that are incorporated in the environment.
Selection and Evaluation of Virtual Learning Environments
In this section we will look at the techniques and principles used to evaluate and select an appropriate virtual learning environment (or learning management system) for your organisation. It is important to take a well-thought and rational decision when going for such projects as once courses start populating on one LMS and users start getting used to it, it becomes very difficult to step back and change system. The main decision making drivers for such system are:
- Open-source or Proprietary.
- Cost of acquisition and maintenance.
- Ease of use (usability) and usefulness (Does it suit our needs?).
- Technical requirements (infrastructure, bandwidth and resource consumption).
- Hosting options – whether the learning management system is housed within the internal university network or at an outside hosting provider.
- Copyright and other intellectual property issues and licensing.
- Type of technical and development support available (in-house and broader development community).
- Interoperability and interfacing possibilities with other tools and systems.
Of course this is a non-exhaustive list and depending on institutional needs, financial means and other constraints some factors may be more important than others.
 Networked Learning Environments - http://library.blackboard.com/docs/as/bb_whitepaper_nle.pdf