Towards an Effective and Ethical Virtual Learning Environment

John T Burns


Videoconferencing is not a new technology, but due to the cost of the technology, it has until fairly recently been used mainly by large organisations who could afford it. In recent years however falling costs have created an opportunity for many more oganisations to consider how they might be able to benefit from the purchase and use of videoconference systems. One area where videoconferencing is promoted as offering significant potential and benefits is in the education and training sectors. Within the field of Higher Education in the UK, institutions are being charged with the responsibility to widen access to further and higher education. This presents institutions with a number of important challenges. One particular challenge is that of meeting the educational and training needs of an increasing and much more diverse student population, whilst ensuring that the provision, integrity and quality of the educational experience is not diminished. They are having to do this against a background of fewer resources, scarce expertise and severe budgetary constraints. Videoconferencing would appear to be one way of providing the opportunity to meet many of these challenges as it offers the potential, for example, to reach a wider audience, make use of scarce expertise, reduce time spent on travel and accommodation and enhance communication channels between remote groups of learners and their tutors.

It was against this background that senior management at De Montfort University decided to invest in videoconferencing systems at several of the University sites.

As a large distributed University videoconferencing has been used since 1994 to support the management and delivery of a number of undergraduate and postgraduate courses to students in the UK and oversees.

The Learning in Virtual Environment (LIVE) research group which is established at the University has undertaken a number of research projects, including surveys of staff and student attitudes regarding the use of videoconferencing. These projects have attempted to identify and establish the key factors and issues, which are fundamental to the successful and effective integration of videoconferencing in teaching and learning.

The results of our studies have identified a number of important issues, including ethical issues which need to be considered if this technology is to become widely used for educational purposes.

This paper will provide an overview of our research to date and provide details of our research findings. It will state some of the more important critical success factors, which have been identified. The results of our work has also led us to the view that there are a number of ethical issues and questions regarding the adoption of this technology for use in virtual learning environments which need to be addressed. It is the groups contention that these issues are not generally recognised and that the questions are not being asked. The paper will identify these issues and raise a number of pertinent questions regarding how a virtual learning environment can be implemented both effectively and ethically. The group considers that there is a need for a framework to be created which will enable these issues to be addressed and for further work to be undertaken to enable an appropriate framework to be established.