The Virtual Integrated Teaching and Learning Environment (VITLE): A Cyberspace Innovation

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The Virtual Integrated Teaching and Learning Environment (VITLE): A Cyberspace Innovation

Teaching Strategies and Pedagogical Trends
The Virtual Integrated Teaching and Learning Environment (VITLE)
ePBL Breakthroughs: Concluding Thoughts

Alex C. W. Fung
Jenilyn Ledesma
Pasi Silander


The rapid diffusion and pervasive presence of the new information and communication technology (ICT) in our daily lives has raised interest worldwide in their potential role in education. Several studies have looked into the impact of ICT on educational processes (Becker, 1994; Mioduser & Nachmias, 2002), and they have found that the incorporation of ICT into education has affected teaching and learning at various levels. New configurations of learning space and time have been created, innovative teaching methods have been devised, technology-based autonomous and active learning processes have been adopted, teachers’ traditional roles have been expanded to include personal and group tutoring functions, and new ICT-based curricular solutions have been generated. ICT has brought about a shift in the teacher’s role, from being an instructor to acting as a guide assisting students in finding their own learning method and evaluating their own learning processes and outcomes. Students of the future are expected to switch from being passive learners to becoming more self-responsible active learners collaborating with their peers.

Educational technology is a field riding on the waves of rapid change. All of the theories, ideas, practices, and tools developed by educational technologists are, at their core, intended to improve the way people teach and learn. However, large-scale instructional changes, such as moving to a web-supported curriculum, can represent significant milestones in the life of any institution and often require considerable investment of time, money, and other resources for full implementation. In fact, many innovations in e-learning are seldom successfully implemented, and many of them are quickly discontinued and forgotten.

In the last decade, the introduction of electronic delivery of education through the World Wide Web attracted the attention of educators from around the world. These days it is quite common to find tertiary-level courses delivered over the Web (Quintana, 1996; Pospisil & Willcoxson, 1998), although the degree of “online” delivery differs from course to course, ranging from placing part of the course material on the Web to full online delivery where students need not physically attend classes at all (Finder & Raleigh, 1998).

At the early stage of immersion in a web-based learning environment, the main problems faced by students are related to access, connection, Internet familiarity, and the lack of independent learning skills. While students gain the advantage of flexibility in time, place, and learning pace with web-based learning, they would feel isolated, lack motivation, or find support and feedback missing, which consequently lead to their quitting the course (Quintana, 1996). It is also noted that “students are still working to come to grips with a new and difficult way of learning,” and more incentive, more time, more structure, and more guidance are needed (Hedberg et al., 1998).

The Web is often perceived as an e-learning channel for overcoming problems confronted by many higher education institutions, such as large class size (Freeman, 1997), dispersed student populations (Dede, 1995), and reduced human and financial resources (Slay, 1997). Such a simplistic view of the role of knowledge dissemination through the Web is rather shallow. In many ways, the Internet has already changed the way teachers teach and the way students learn (Harasim et al., 1995). However, the extent to which ICT implementation in education has affected the structure and functioning of schools, the pedagogy in use, the content being taught, and the learning achievements of students has been a matter of controversy for many years (Cuban, 1986; Schank & Yona, 1991).

To draw out the real potential and capacity of e-learning, educators will need to experiment with different means and ways, and test out different models and frameworks, of integrating the technology into the learning process. Toward this end, “edu-technological” innovations would be pedagogical practices that pursue possibly one or more of the following goals:

  • To promote active and independent learning processes in which students take responsibility for their own learning
  • To provide students with information-handling competencies and skills
  • To encourage collaborative and problem-based learning
  • To provide individualized instruction
  • To address inequity
  • To decompose traditional configurations in learning space and time
  • To “break down” classroom walls
  • To improve social cohesiveness and understanding among students through group interaction

This chapter examines the potential integration of e-learning in a virtual classroom environment with problem-based learning (PBL), and compares real-time interaction in cyberspace with traditional classroom teaching. The role of a virtual integrated teaching and learning environment VITLE in supporting e-learning, its functions and features, and the opportunities it offers to teaching and learning are discussed. The VITLE platform opens up new opportunities for teachers to present instructional content and share quality cooperative learning events with students throughout the world regardless of time, place, or circumstances. There is virtually no barrier to students who wish to study, in terms of when, where, and how they want to do it, alone or in groups. Private VITLE rooms can be made available easily to e-learning or problem-solving groups to communicate in real time using videoconferencing over the Internet and supported by multimedia technologies. VITLE is definitely a departure from the standard, classroom-based approach to learning and teaching. Owning private virtual rooms may soon become commonplace. E-coaching and PBL will likely be integrated in cyberspace with the fast-developing technologies.

Teaching Strategies and Pedagogical Trends


In the world of today, while e-banking, e-trading, e-commerce, and other e-activities are taking place incessantly all around us, it may not be obvious to many people that we are living in an era of digital revolution. The world of education, similarly, has moved into a time when e-learning is beginning to challenge the traditional education system. However, e-learning is still just a concept in the broad sense not yet well-defined. The following list of concepts, recorded verbatim during an international group discussion at the IFIP Working Group Conference 2002, reflected the scenario to some extent (Fung & Ledesma, 2003b):

“e” means electronic media to help enhance student education. It also means computer-mediated (based) learning, and can be both off campus (remote) as well as on campus (present). It’s also about time and space.

e-learning is a technologically-driven education. It means computer-assisted learning, with additional support from teachers, guides and utilizing learning objects.

From education to e-learning, the learning activities and roles change. In this digital era, there are new database technologies, new structures, new delivery modes, new system concepts. Even the roles of teachers and students change. Teachers don’t just teach; they coach, instruct and advise. Students don’t just listen; they learn how to learn and how to be creative and proactive.

Several changes to the education system are seen as necessary in order to support e-learning. There is a need for system standardization to ensure inter- and intra-institution comparability. Educational institutions should take advantage of e-learning by making digitized materials or online activities accessible on the Internet as learning objects for learners. Universities, schools, and other educational institutions can become places for e-learning delivery, communication, and interaction. There should be ongoing dynamic evaluation of students’ learning through feedback. The use of freeware in system design should be encouraged to ensure equity, so that all students can access information anywhere anytime. Cultural and mindset changes are also needed, as well as the reorganization of technology use for better delivery of learning. Teachers’ roles should be more versatile and inventive, and educational institutions should take on a role of maintaining and developing a culture of learning and innovation while at the same time contributing to the development of professional skills and competencies. Different sets of skills, dispositions, and competencies are necessary to help students respond to new information, new ideas, and new challenges.

Problem-based Learning

PBL emphasizes an individualized active learning process in a varied and complex learning environment and requires students to work on real-life problems or case scenarios in teams. Students learn to develop basic competencies for lifelong learning. Traditional knowledge— “know-what”—is no longer sufficient in the dynamic working situations of today. Knowledge has to be enhanced with “know-how” and “know-why” (Duffy & Orrill, 2004). A good way of doing this is by providing authentic, realistic learning situations. In fact, studies (e.g., Jonassen, 1997) have shown that problems presented in authentic situations lead to better understanding and transfer. This strategy is closely connected with concepts such as learning by experience, active learning, and constructivist learning (Simons et al., 2000).

PBL is an active-learning and learner-centered approach where unstructured problems are used as the starting point and anchor for the inquiry and learning process. PBL is not just about problem-solving processes; it is a pedagogical method based on constructivism in which realistic problems are used in conjunction with a learning environment incorporating information mining, inquiry, self-directed learning, dialogue, and collaborative problem solving. In recent years, PBL has gained new momentum as a result of several developments, including a growing demand for bridging the gap between theory and practice; increasing information accessibility and overload; growing multidisciplinarity of problems; an educational emphasis on real-world competencies; improved understanding of learning, psychology, and pedagogy; and advances in e-learning.

Working and learning in teams is also a PBL emphasis. Students have to learn to distribute tasks among themselves and to take responsibility, not only for personal success but also for the success of the whole team. Verbalization supports the learning process, with students learning from each other. The ideas behind team learning are closely related to the concepts of cooperative and collaborative learning and of situated learning (McLellan, 1995). The interaction of learners in a community of practice, with shared norms, values, and attitudes, is central to this concept. This is also closely connected to the social development theory of Vygotsky (1978).

Problem-based Learning as a Facilitator of Students’ Conceptual Change

In PBL, learning is seen as a problem-solving activity that is directed by a set of problems (Albanese & Mitchell, 1993). Problem solving is perceived as learning mediated by knowledge-building activities whose goal is to facilitate students’ conceptual change (Thagard, 1992) and to enrich knowledge representation. In order to initiate the learning process in students’ minds, triggers for problem setting and scaffolds are needed from teachers or tutors (Wood et al., 1976; Bruner, 1985).

However, the resources and means for conducting PBL in the traditional classroom are usually limited. A traditional classroom setting is not the most productive learning environment for PBL, as the integration of an authentic learning environment with tutoring and multiple information sources is needed. In PBL, problems of interest to the learners (or from real-life situations outside school) are regarded as crucial. The authenticity of the problems will help increase learners’ interest and their desire to find the answers. The search for answers directs the students’ knowledge building and information processing. The need for authenticity requires a learning environment (i.e., a workplace with authentic tasks, methods, tools, and information sources) that is related to the learning assignments and to the whole learning activity. Furthermore, the construction of new knowledge which is meaningful to a learner also occupies a central position in the PBL process. Although knowledge building does not equate learning, it, along with the formulation of new knowledge, can be conceived as a metaphor for learning (Bereiter, 2002). The best learning is likely to take place in a context based on collaborative knowledge building and shared expertise. The externalization of one’s own thoughts, as well as feedback from peers, also plays a significant role in modern PBL.

In PBL, learners are seen as active processors of knowledge and the main actors in the learning process. Teachers, on the other hand, are considered as facilitators of the learning process as well as experts on the substance of the courses. The aim of information processing and problem solving (in a learning process) is to create conceptual change, that is, genuine qualitative change in students’ knowledge structures. Merely adding new information to existing knowledge is not sufficient from the point of view of deep learning. A conceptual change is often a prerequisite for the capability to apply a learned “matter” in a different situation and in practice (i.e., transfer). Such a change involves a transformation in the hierarchical construction of knowledge, with the emergence of a new classification of concepts formed by the fusion and/or rejection of older ones. Conceptual change is indeed essential in applying acquired knowledge and skills to situations of use, and in using knowledge as a basis for problem solving.

The central task of a teacher or tutor in PBL is to help learners learn and foster their learning process, and the key to promoting learning is to change their thinking and problem-solving processes. Making the thinking process explicit by, for example, writing or describing it in other ways makes it easier to understand the thinking process and to promote learning. Students not only acquire the skills for interaction and collaboration, they also acquire the tools for shared cognition needed to carry out successful PBL.

Problem-based Learning with ICT

The use of ICT is becoming ubiquitous in PBL, and what is needed is an effective organization of its use to integrate it in authentic situations. The current desktop technology provides a powerful tool for supporting situated learning (van Weert, 2002a, b). Since ICT deals with functions such as communication (finding and interacting with resources, organizations, and people), organization (organizing and synchronizing tasks, organizing calendars, and managing resources), and knowledge management (creating, organizing, storing, and sharing knowledge), it can be used at the university, at home, or in any other location with access, including through mobile devices, by individuals or groups, anywhere, anytime, to meet their needs.

Table 3.1 compares traditional classroom teaching, traditional distance learning, and e-learning in web-based open learning environments. A virtual learning environment (VLE) can, in addition to enabling learning without the constraints of location and time, facilitate students’ individual learning processes using meaningful pedagogical models which are difficult or sometimes even impossible to apply in traditional classroom teaching. Ideally, it should provide the opportunity for developing teaching and learning activities that profoundly support real understanding and conceptual change. Most web-based learning environments already include asynchronous tools for externalization of a student’s own thinking and problem-solving processes together with the creation of conceptual artifacts. Students may use text, diagrams, and visualizations (like concept maps) to organize their thoughts as well as to share and understand other students’ learning processes. By doing so, they develop the metacognitive skills needed in reasoning and problem solving. The root of these skills can be seen in sociocultural processes (see Vygotsky, 1978), and these skills are subsequently transmitted to other students via social interaction (Bråten, 1991).

Basically, a VLE consists of the virtual place (the space), the tools, and the learning community. It also includes “organic” actions and the purpose for which it is deployed. In an open learning environment (OLE), teachers and learners create the content and maintain the learning process together. In a sense, an OLE is “open” for pedagogy and content; for example, learners can produce their own content, like

Table 3.1 Comparison between traditional classroom teaching, traditional distance learning, and e-learning in web-based open learning environments.
Classroom teachingDistance learningE-learning
Enables only few pedagogical models to be implementedEnables only few pedagogical models to be implementedA variety of contemporary pedagogical models used
Lack of genuine dialogue (or just superficial questions)Lack of genuine dialogue (or just superficial questions)Authentic dialogue possible
Students' own information processing not a focusFocus on students' own information processingFocus on students' own and collaborative information processing
Creating new conceptual artifacts not a focusSeldom emphasizes students' own conceptual artifactsBased on students' own conceptual artifacts
Socially shared cognition or collaborative knowledge building does not existSocially shared cognition or collaborative knowledge building does not exist Based on socially shared cognition and collaborative knowledge building
Collective learning process does not allow individualization Enables individualization to some extent Enables individualization as well as collaborative process to a great extent
No tools for reflection and for creating common meaningsNo tools for reflection and for creating common meaningsTools available for reflection and for creating common meanings
Regurgitation or repetition of knowledgeRegurgitation or repetition of knowledgeCreation of new knowledge and meaningful information

exercises and articles (Lifländer, 1997). VLEs also enable learners to build knowledge collaboratively through dialogue, making comments, and discussion. This kind of shared knowledge is established through the interactive processes of structuring knowledge and problem solving, and it is not dependent on time or space. Even learners separated by long distances can form a virtual learning community. VLEs are not limited to the ICT installed within a classroom or laboratory only. They can be extended openly into society and across different disciplines. Another obvious advantage of using VLEs in PBL is the documentation of the knowledge-building process.

However, there are limitations in employing the traditional web-based learning environment for collaboration and knowledge building. As such VLEs only allow textual communication and interaction, such as chat or forums, they do not foster different learning styles nor support interaction between learners in the best possible way. The new generation of VLEs is capable of synchronous video and audio transmission, enabling natural communication and dialogue in real time for a learning community. The use of audio and video features has definitely extended the possibilities that VLEs can offer for building socially shared cognition in PBL situations. To gain such benefits, though, educators have to promote and stimulate learning using means that differ from what they usually employ in traditional classroom teaching. Support for students’ learning processes should be provided by structuring the interaction in the learning process with well-designed learning tasks.

The Virtual Integrated Teaching and Learning Environment (VITLE)

VITLE is a web-based platform that supports e-learning in virtual classrooms in the real-time mode. It is different from asynchronous course management systems or web sites that provide materials for browsing or downloading by students for self-study. The tools provided for teaching and learning in a VITLE classroom include multimedia live video, audio, and text-based messaging. In a sense, in VITLE, teachers and students meet face to face in a classroom in cyberspace in real time. All teaching and learning interactions are synchronously webcast to all participants in this VLE. With just a web camera (webcam) connected to a computer that has access to the Internet, a teacher can enter his or her dedicated password-protected VITLE room on the Web to immediately begin teaching. No downloads or installations are needed, making it easy to use for nontechnical teachers.

In other words, VITLE provides an interactive classroom for teachers and students to meet in cyberspace. Each party needs only a multimedia personal computer (with an optional webcam) and access to the Internet, and hundreds of students can enter (i.e., log in) to the room together with the teacher at the same time. Inside a VITLE classroom, students learn in real time with the teacher explaining over a webcam and using slides (with or without a transparency overlay), an electronic whiteboard, and a Q&A (questions and answers) tool similar to the ICQ chat program. Students equipped with a webcam can also present themselves, when chosen by the teacher, in the virtual classroom. A teaching assistant or invited guest speaker can join in to team-teach when given access by the teacher. A VITLE classroom is shown in Figure 3.1.

Using a mouse, the teacher can activate the teaching tools by clicking the icons on the control panel. This VLE is designed to model the traditional classroom setting so as to help teachers adapt to e-teaching readily. The intuitive interface inside the VITLE classroom provides a window for a live video stream showing the teacher and has an area for the slide presentation of learning material or for use as an interactive whiteboard. Students and teachers can also interact in real time through instant messaging, in parallel with the video and audio webcasting. The integrated web-based multimedia teaching and learning features in VITLE are very much different from those of traditional videoconferencing, which requires rather expensive hardware and point-to-point dedicated connections. The VITLE features are listed in the Appendix of this chapter. For more information about VITLE, please refer to the studies by Fung (2003 and 2004).

VITLE Case Example

In 2003, in order to contain the spread of the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic, the Hong Kong government suspended all kindergarten, primary and secondary school, and university classes on 29 March. To help students continue learning during this period, the “Classes Suspended but Learning Continues” initiative was launched on a VITLE platform, which was provided free to schools. With VITLE, teaching and learning could continue, albeit in virtual classrooms in cyberspace. The ASP platform ( was completed within 48 hours, with the hardware, software licenses, and bandwidth sponsored by business corporations. The initiative was officially launched on 1 April.

Two different types of virtual classes were provided free of charge: the HKBU VITLE class for the general public and private classes registered by individual schools for their own students. The public classes offered a variety of topics, including preventive measures against SARS, the Iraq-U.S. war, Chinese culture, motivation and creativity, novel writing, putonghua (Mandarin language), and painting and computer skills. During the class suspension period in April, the number of participants registered with HKBU VITLE surged to 10,000 within a few weeks upon its commencement. The number of individual schools registered to operate VITLE classrooms themselves also increased from 3 at the beginning to 75 by the end of April. VITLE also became one of the important channels for schools to communicate with their students during the SARS outbreak.

Never before had technology been deployed to so swiftly create a complex multimedia communication solution at such an unprecedented scale to support an online community that had direct and immediate public benefits. The initiative demonstrated the strengths of VITLE including the following:

  • It enabled the Hong Kong educational community to respond quickly to class suspension during the SARS outbreak.
  • It enabled large-scale implementation within just two days.
  • It provided a varied online learning environment and virtual classroom to minimize interruption to learning.
  • It was easily scalable to meet the demand of the growing number of schools, students, and concurrent users.
  • It could be set up and administered by nontechnical teachers and used by students without difficulty.

What was new was not the technology but the way it was used in education in such an atypical situation to such a scale. Schools also learned to tap the potential of virtual classrooms when normal classes subsequently resumed. Indeed, the VITLE platform is an impressive example of a sophisticated multimedia communication solution for e-learning in virtual classrooms. It can be envisaged that the technology will be extended to broader applications for meetings of various kinds in cyberspace. In the not-too-distant future, owning a private virtual room may become as common as having an email account. This case study is an illustration of such a breakthrough.

Teaching and learning in a virtual classroom is very different from that in the traditional classroom. Although the teacher appears in real time via the webcam and can deliver a lesson using slide presentations and an e-whiteboard to students who are present virtually, it is not possible to see the reactions of the entire group at the same time. While VITLE allows the teacher to pick individual students one at a time to appear on screen (if the student’s computer has a webcam), or attend to students’ questions in sequence, it is difficult to grasp the immediate learning effect. The use of the technology can never replace entirely the need for, or the benefits of, physical interaction. VITLE should serve as an alternative mode to complement and/or supplement the traditional mode, when meeting in person is prohibited because of circumstances or costs.

ePBL Breakthroughs: Concluding Thoughts

A shift is taking place in education from the traditional teacher-centered instruction to student-centered learning. The present trend is to structure activities using real-life problems or case scenarios and integrating ICT. The PBL approach requires changes in the teaching and learning processes, the roles of students and teachers, and the institutional infrastructure. The emphasis is now on the development of competencies, rather than the acquisition of factual knowledge. Increasing importance is attached to developing the ability to master knowledge in a practical context and to translate that knowledge into a specific context using an individualized active learning process in a varied and complex learning environment.

Learning should prepare individuals to function in complex environments. In these complex environments, they will be confronted with problems of multidisciplinary nature, a diversity of new problems, and the need for interdisciplinary collaboration. The new emphasis on competence is more on the ability to handle diverse roles, tasks, and problems (Westera et al., 2000).

Educational innovations have led to changes in the teaching and learning processes and the technical infrastructure. These changes range from simple to complex depending on the scale of the innovation. Large-scale implementation of new innovations necessitates changes in processes, roles, and infrastructure. These changes are often more profound than at first perceived.

The design of VITLE is based on shared responsibilities. As this is a new learning environment, all parties (teacher, teaching assistant, student) need to develop competence and expertise, both their own and those of their peers, in using it (Hazemans & Ritzen, 2002). The technology opens up new opportunities for students to engage in learning irrespective of when, where, and how they want to do it. It has the potential to enhance the teaching and learning experience through the use of virtual classrooms. It is also a solution that can ensure learning is not jeopardized by any unforeseen crisis.

It is envisaged that VITLE will provide a learning opportunity for everyone. At the school level, it allows students needing remedial help to keep in touch with their teachers. Class discussions will become more productive as students can work collaboratively. Collaborative learning or problem solving is facilitated, as peer groups can meet in private VITLE rooms before or after attending lessons. Furthermore, students can interact with peers from different parts of the globe. VITLE is also useful for project-based learning, which is definitely a departure from the traditional classroom-based approach to teaching. At the tertiary level, VITLE can be deployed for regular face-to-face sessions as well as for distance learning. It allows teachers to supervise their students and enables students on placement either locally or overseas to meet with their mentors. At the administrative level, VITLE allows live broadcasts of workshops and seminars, thus a larger audience can be reached. It can also be employed in student admission, and even in interviews of candidates for faculty positions. At the global level, the vision for VITLE is to build a cybertown, with e-teachers presenting instructional content and sharing quality individualized learning events with students throughout the world regardless of time, place, or circumstances, thereby breaking down virtually any barriers for anyone who wishes to engage in lifelong learning.


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Features of VITLE
VITLE offers the following features for teachers and students to communicate and interact in a private room in cyberspace, and for students to collaborate and learn with peers in real time, without time and space constraints.

  • Synchronous video and audio communication
    VITLE can handle hundreds of participants logging on to the room at the same time. A teacher and a teaching assistant (or team teacher) can communicate with all participants easily with their webcam and microphone headset. They can also invite a student equipped with a webcam and microphone headset to appear on screen.
  • PowerPoint slide presentation
    Teachers can make use of PowerPoint slides to teach. PowerPoint files uploaded to VITLE will be automatically converted to the FLASH format for webcasting. PowerPoint slides can be selected for presentation with just a click of the mouse.
  • Whiteboard
    The whiteboard can be used for typing text as well as for hand drawing and writing. It can also serve as a transparency overlay used with PowerPoint slides.
  • Q&A / instant messaging tool
    Students can communicate with the teacher using the Q & A messaging tool. The teacher can answer questions one at a time or provide a hyperlink to the answers.
  • Classroom management
    To facilitate management of the class, teachers can divide their students into groups. They can send email to individual groups or to the whole class and check the access log of the students. They can also temporarily dismiss a student or participant with just a click of the mouse and re-admit the person at a later stage if needed.

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The Virtual Integrated Teaching and Learning Environment (VITLE): A Cyberspace Innovation

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