UniServe Science News Volume 16 July 2000

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A Virtual Learning Environment for first year biology students

Mary Peat and Sue Franklin, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Sydney

Whilst teaching budgets are falling and student numbers are rising those of us responsible for the provision of appropriate quality learning experiences for large numbers of students have been looking at alternative strategies to fulfil the expectations of both the students and the administration. In First Year Biology we have been working on the development of a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) which offers both access to various learning materials and communication with other students and staff. In an attempt to offer them a greater flexibility in the learning environment our Virtual Resources Room (VRR) originally launched in 1997 (WebByte No 1) has been remodelled and enlarged to offer the students more materials and functionality, with a new focus on individual units of study. The rationale for changing the VRR was based both on student interviews, group discussions and a perception that the VRR had become overcrowded and had outlived its usefulness. In particular we needed to consider the various requirements of our large heterogeneous group with varying incoming academic backgrounds and interests. It was perceived that we needed to offer students specific information about each unit of study to give a better sense of continuity and direction but without losing the functionality of the original VRR. The design of the VLE uses a building metaphor, the building representing the School of Biological Sciences. Students enter the building and take the lift to any of three levels, representing the three years of undergraduate study (this section is currently under development). Our first year students proceed to the Level 1 Lobby and are presented with access to general materials and help functions. Within the lobby there is a notice board with the names and email addresses of staff, a coffee table with general information, and access to CyberAdmin and CyberTech, for answers to general questions of an administrative or technical nature. From the lobby the building metaphor is continued, enabling students to enter various rooms, each room representing either a unit of study in first year biology, the Resource Centre or other areas within the University, such as the University Library (Fisher Library catalogues). In this way the students are directed to focus their attention on the materials, communication functions, and discussion forums that are necessary for the specific unit of study without being presented with all the materials available in the Resource Centre. There are doors out to lecture theatres (lecture notes) and a seminar room (web-based discussions). On the wall a notice board provides the current notices. CyberTutor appears here and is available to discuss biological content, with CyberAdmin and CyberTech also available for consultations. Learning materials are available from computers (tutorials, revision modules, remedial materials and self-assessment modules) and there is a desk at which students can access tests (answers to weekly self-test questions from the laboratory notes) and examinations (a mid course practice examination and sample examination questions).

In summary, we have created a more usable resource for our students and with the flexibility for expansion in the future. Levels 2 and 3 have yet to be developed along with the entry into the building, with links to the rest of the University including specific links to all of the student services, the Union, and health services. When complete we will suggest a way in which the Faculty of Science could develop a teaching site for all its undergraduate units of study, using the biology development as the model.

The Virtual Learning Environment web site can be visited at http://fybio.bio.usyd.edu.au/vle/L1/.

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UniServe Science News Volume 16 July 2000

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