Anyone looking to run an online programme of any kind will need to develop a platform through which to deliver it. This is known as a Virtual Learning Environment, or VLE. A VLE is a piece of a web space, usually a password-protected intranet, where the course or programme of study can be accessed by students and staff by logging in.

At its most basic, a VLE could be a private website with login details, which provides access to a collection of resources (for example, reading material, audio lectures, YouTube videos, assignment details) required for that particular course.

More advanced VLEs will have different areas sectioned off, perhaps for different courses, it will likely include a forum so that members of the learning community can interact, and will also draw on a wider array of resources and media.

Cutting edge VLEs will also include various other tools, for example interactive calendars, people maps, an interface for the electronic submission (and possibly marking) of assignments, instant chat facilities, ticketing systems for IT and educational fixes, apps relevant to the programme of study, heavier usage of video, possibly video conferencing tools, and so on. Advanced VLEs can be huge. At KEDS we currently run three degree programmes (with a fourth being added soon) and various short courses running into many hundreds (if not thousands) of webpages, together with various apps, media files and documents.

Given how a VLE is key aspect of online learning, choosing a course interface is crucial. Essentially, course developers have two options. First, to use, adapt and populate an "off-the-shelf" VLE package. These include open source VLEs such as Moodle, eFront, ATutor and OLAT, as well as commercial packages (Blackboard being one of the best known). The second alternative is to develop a bespoke VLE using alternative software.

So which is best? It really comes down to the individual course provider's needs, the extent to which teaching staff are technologically drivene and competent, and costs. Some commercial off-the-shelf packages can be expensive to run. They can also be rather overwhelming for the uninitiated, with various configuration options and features that some institutions or tutors may not require. On the plus side, choosing such a VLE platform does provide a full working model from the outset, allowing a provider to get on with the task of adapting and populating the site with their course materials and resources. These purpose-designed VLEs are known as learning management systems (LMS).

On the other hand, a bespoke VLE offers the opportunity of creating an interface that is tailored to a provider’s needs and audience. Thus, in our case we designed a VLE by adapting a content management system (CMS) so at the end of the process we had our own LMS. A key advantage is to add functionality as needed, installing apps and plugins as solutions for the issues we wanted to solve. Thus, in such cases the whole process develops organically and becomes highly tailored to the provider's needs.

At KEDS we use Joomla, an open source CMS with hundreds upon hundreds of plugins that bring all manner of functionality to our eCampus. It also means we only add what we need, and tailor everything to our requirements, rather than having to fiddle with and try to adapt features we don’t need.

There is one other point to consider when making a decision on a VLE, and that is whether a course will be delivered synchronously or asynchronously. The former follows a set pattern and calendar, where students all begin at the same time, have deadlines which are the same for everyone, so that everyone works to a traditional school year and schedule. Typically, institutions running traditional taught courses tend to see their online version of a programme as an extension of the taught version, merely delivered through a different platform, and thus all students (taught and online) follow the same structure, calendar and schedule.

Asynchronous delivery does not usually follow such schedules, the emphasis instead being upon flexibility and a student working at their own pace. This system also allows students to enroll and commence studies any time of the year. There are advantages and disadvantages to both synchronous and asynchronous delivery, though personally I favour an asynchronous model for various reasons, not least that it provides the student with the most flexibility. But that is for a different time and another post.

Nonetheless, whichever model chosen can have a bearing on the VLE route to take. My experience is that existing VLE packages tend to offer tools and features that revolve around synchronous delivery, while a bespoke VLE can be tailored more efficiently and relevantly for asynchronous delivery. Again, more on this in a future post.

It should be noted that deciding on and installing a VLE is just a small part of the process of setting up an online delivery system. It is, in effect the key tool or platform a course provider uses to deliver their programme(s) of study. Yet course content itself, as well as the thorny issue of how one converts traditionally taught materials into an online version, represent the bulk of the work involved in setting up an online course.