Task-based learning environments in a virtual university

Dave Whittingtona and Lorna Campbellb

aDepartment of Computer Science,
University of Strathclyde, Scotland UK, G1 1XH


bCenter for Educational Systems,
University of Strathclyde, Scotland UK, G4 0LN


This paper outlines three task-based learning environments that have been created on the Web to support task-based learning and encourage students to develop and apply their skills and knowledge. These environments are supported by Clyde Virtual University, an initiative sponsored by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council since 1995.

WWW education; Computer-aided learning; Task-based learning; Simulation

1. Introduction

Higher Education in the Learning Society, the recent report of the UK's National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education emphasises the importance of deep learning. It states that teachers "...will need to encourage all students to aspire to a deep understanding and experience of their area of study at whatever level they are studying." The report then outlines how the innovative use of Computers and Information Technology can help students achieve a deep level of understanding through simulation and virtual environments.

In an attempt to facilitate deep learning Clyde Virtual University [Whittington98] has moved on from the "traditional" delivery of online course material [Starr97] to the construction of task-based educational environments designed to take advantage of developing Web techniques.

2. Clyde Virtual University (CVU)

Clyde Virtual University, which has been funded by the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council through its Use of the MANs Initiative, is dedicated to the delivery of Internet-based learning materials to students at institutions in Scotland. Phase I of CVU saw the development of an infrastructure capable of supporting a range of technologies necessary for presenting multimedia learning material via the Internet. Having created a successful online educational environment, CVU phase 2 has moved on to create original course modules developed specifically for the Web. These online modules will initially complement and ultimately replace traditional lecture based courses in Chemistry, Business/Management, Product Design Engineering and Social Work.

Having consulted closely with academic content providers throughout each module's development it became clear that the creation of task-based virtual learning environments was seen to be both the most innovative and useful way forward. At a time when student numbers are increasing and resources and funding diminishing the creation of these virtual environments is seen to offer students the ability to apply their knowledge to scenarios that they may otherwise have been unable to experience.

3. Social Work and the Clydetown Virtual Community

CVU's Social Work project involves the collaboration of departments at all four of the ClydeNET universities. The aim of the project is to deliver Family and Lifespan, a compulsory first year module in the Diploma of Social Work, to all the institutions via the Web. Traditionally the Family and Lifespan module has been taught in two discrete threads; theoretical frameworks and research findings. The online module will closely integrate these threads and will also present the students with an environment where they can test their knowledge by applying it to three case studies. To facilitate this more integrated task based learning, CVU is creating a virtual community and a fully indexed and searchable Social Work encyclopaedia encompassing key concepts, theories and references. An archived mailing list will also allow students to submit queries to tutors and discuss issues with their colleagues.

The virtual community which will form the basis of the online Family and Lifespan module is based on a model previously used at Glasgow University. Clydetown is a typical Scottish city made up of varying social and economic districts. Before undertaking three case studies the students will be introduced to the physical environment of Clydetown through maps, photographic street scenes and a complete set of social, economic and environmental statistics. Each of the characters of the case studies will be introduced though detailed case notes, genograms and photographs. Professional actors have been employed to portray each of the key characters relating their dilemmas via digitised video and audio. These clips will introduce more personal and emotive issues that, while complicating the cases, will hopefully make the students address the ambiguities and inconsistencies which they will encounter in real case work.

In Scotland most Social Work undergraduates and postgraduates are mature students who often have little experience of using computers. By creating the online Family and Lifespan module we hope to be able to encourage students to develop their own IT skills in a stimulating and relevant environment. The module will primarily be used for group work so students will be able to discuss their responses to the case studies with their fellow students and tutors while they access the material online.

4. Product design engineering and Clyde Virtual Design Studio

In contrast to Social Work, Product Design Engineering is a subject which already makes use of a wide range of computer and Web based facilities from CAD software to groupware tools and CAL packages. This emphasis on new technology reflects an industry where large multinational companies, which may have offices, design studios and suppliers all over the world, are at the forefront of the commercial development of computer aided design and the use of networked communications suites.

In collaboration with the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde and Glasgow School of Art, CVU's Product Design Engineering project aims to introduce students to the kind of remote design environment which is already in use in the commercial and industrial sector. In June 1997 a pilot project know as ICON (Institutional Collaboration Over Networks) was hosted by CVU to assess the feasibility of implementing remote and collaborative Internet based design projects for students. A wide range of packages were provided to facilitate this project including: Netscape Communicator, BSCW (an online shared workspace), video conferencing software, shared whiteboards, real-time audio and Java chat, email and a variety of graphics and modelling packages. All the students responded extremely positively to the pilot project despite many initial technical problems.

The project was deemed by all concerned to have been an enormous success and CVU is now developing the concept further with the creation of the Clyde Virtual Design Studio (CVDS). This is a general purpose online design environment which will support a range of collaborative projects both within and across departments. Although Clyde VDS is still in its preliminary stages of development it is already being used by teams of third year students for assessed collaborative design projects.

5. Human resource management and the Virtual HRM Consultancy

Human Resource Management at the University of Strathclyde is a department which presents a variety of its courses to students from other departments. CVU and HRM agreed that an ideal way to introduce these non-management students to the core concepts of human resource management in an interesting and engaging format was to create a virtual HRM consultancy, VHRMCo. The Consultancy will allow students to undertake tasks for a variety of different organisations ranging from small businesses, large manufacturing companies and local authorities. The VHRMCo will advise these companies on four of the core fields of HRM: employee resourcing, employee relations, employee development and general HRM.

In an attempt to create an innovative environment to stimulate the students' interest, CVU has created a three dimensional suite of offices using VRML. Although the integration of VRML with Java has made it possible to create exhilarating interactive worlds, the virtual HRM offices have been kept fairly simple. The aim is to enhance the students learning experience without unnecessarily distracting them from their academic tasks. The students' "virtual placement" at VHRMCo should help them to develop the key HRM skills, such as decision making, advising and researching. The VHRMCo will also act as a flexible educational environment that can be used to encourage different forms of learning from independent study and remote learning to tutorial based group work.

6. Conclusions

CVU's work has revealed a number of important findings.

The team approach — CVU staff have a complimentary set of skills encompassing programming, design and educational technology. To create these virtual environments they have also worked closely with groups of academics from each subject area. It is unlikely these virtual environments would have been so successful without the collaboration of a highly skilled team working with dedicated and enthusiastic academics.

Keep the end user in mind — Delivering complex educational material to students who are barely computer literate can be very difficult. Educational modules must be designed in such a way that they are simple and engaging to use while at the same time delivering their educational content in a clear, concise format. The user interfaces we design are tested with real students as early in the development cycle as possible.

Think about the end user's environment — There's no point delivering Java enhanced Web pages to users with five year old equipment. It is not a good idea to adopt leading edge technology just for the sake of it.

CVU's projects have shown that it is possible to develop learning environments in a wide range of disciplines where staff and students can interact with each other and with various learning resources to help gain a much deeper understanding of their particular subject.


Whittington98 C.D. Whittington and N. Sclater, Building and testing a virtual university, Computers and Education, in press.

Starr97 R.M. Starr, Delivering instruction on the World Wide Web: Overview and basic design principles, Educational Technology, pp. 7–15, May–June 1997.


Higher Education in the Learning Society — http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/ncihe/
Clyde Virtual University (CVU) — http://cvu.strath.ac.uk/
Use of MANs Initiative (UMI) — http://www.use-of-mans.ac.uk/
The ICON Site — http://cvu.strath.ac.uk/lorna/design/index.html