Australia has a long history in distance education and is a world leader in online learning. Any number of Australian sites would be worthy Spotlight Sites. This month's site, LearnScope Virtual Learning Community (VLC), offers a flavor of the range and depth of e-learning and e-community "down under."
Designed as part of the Australian Flexible Learning Framework, LearnScope VLC is an online community for vocational, education, and training (VET) practitioners. It promotes the development of skills and capabilities in the application of new technologies for teaching and learning. More than just a resource site, LearnScope VLC encourages the active participation of members through the sharing of resources, discussion, and ideas.
Navigating the site can be a bit tricky for the uninitiated, though the site map provides a quick navigation aid for the lost. The site is divided into four major sectionsthe Community Hub, GO Learn, LearnScope Projects, and the Resource Centre. When you access the site you are taken directly to the Community Hub, which contains the latest dynamic content and activity from throughout the site; the specialized sections may be accessed via the menu near the top of every page.
The Community Hub is an active and busy section. In the large center column are posted new articles and recent updates from ongoing discussions. Such discussions may focus around a particular guest column (or "Expert Spruik"), or they may address a topic drawn from the site's community discussion area. LearnScope VLC members are encouraged to contribute articles for publication, so there is a wide variety of material available at any given time. Expert Spruik guests, who are chosen for their appeal to the online learning community, generate frequent comments.
In July, for example, the guest expert was Maish Nichani from eLearningPost. Following an opening statement describing the history and function of his daily e-mail newsletter, Maish led LearnScope VLC members on a wide-ranging discussion of the role of weblogs (or blogs) in education, learning objects, and the future of online e-learning. Because of the interplay (expert guests typically post daily for a two-week period) members were able to learn much more from Nichani than they would from an article or published interview.
The GO Learn section is intended to provide learning resources and e-learning opportunities for members. The center column summarizes the latest learning resources, online events, and articles from that section. In small text a menu at the upper left of the page provides easy access to featured games, articles, online events, and other learning aids. Of extra interest in this section is the Road Test page, where members are encouraged to try different instructional technologies and share their experiences, and the Online Courses page, where members can examine courses that use a variety of approaches and tools in their instructional design.
The hundreds of work-based learning projects sponsored by LearnScope around Australia are featured in the LearnScope Projects section of the site. As with previous pages, the most recent articles are listed in the center column while an index of project categories (including designations by state and by project type) is available in small text at the upper left. A typical Show and Tell project report featured in this section is the Compiled Learning Experience Model (CLEM), introduced with a clear one-page description and a link.
Finally, the site as a whole is supported with the comprehensive Resource Centre. Learnscope VLC members and staff routinely list items of interest or importance to teachers in the Australian VET sector; about 150 items are listed here, varying from a report on educational radio in India to an item on distance education learner assessment.
LearnScope VLC provides the features we have come to expect from a learning community. There is an individual user login (free, and necessary if you want to post comments in the discussion areas or publish material to the site), a search function, and an e-mail newsletter. The site also supports a text-based help desk and a list of frequently asked questions. But there are more personal touches as well: the online poll, daily newsbytes, the virtual postcards sent by Flexible Learning Leaders (another professional development project within the Australian Flexible Learning Network), and the quote of the day.
There is a lot to LearnScope VLC and this makes navigation a challenge. For example, there are three sets of menus spanning the major pages. This should be cleaned up a bit and consolidated. The section titles aren't as clear as they could be (though once you understand what an Expert Spruik is, everything else appears simple). Though a laudable effort has been made to integrate discussion, learning and resources, the links aren't always where you would expect them and things don't always mesh tightly.
Commenting on the discussion board, in particular, is a challenge. The menu system in the discussion area is murky at best; for example, if you want to reply to a post you have to find the very small purple arrow tucked into the message header (it doesn't appear unless you are logged in) instead of a more prominent link near the bottom of the page as you would expect. The "Add Comment" link that (sometimes) shows up in the "Accessories" panel to the right doesn't work unless you are reading an article, not a discussion, and then if you add a comment it does not show up on the discussion board, but instead shows up at the bottom of the article.
That said, as LearnScope VLC continues to improve the site's usability (there have already been several improvements), navigation issues should not deter you from touring this site. Indeed, the unexpected turns sometimes produce the most interesting material. And whatever difficulties are encountered are more than compensated by the enjoyment of traveling through an active, engaged, and knowledgeable e-learning community.
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