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Research, Reflections and Innovations in Integrating ICT in Education

Pedagogical management in a virtual learning environment in higher


education teaching formation
M. L. Coelho*, M. J. B. Pinto, Z. Medeiros
UFMG – Pro-reitoria de Graduação, Av. Antônio Carlos, 6627, Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, 31270-901, Brazil.

This paper presents an analysis of the use of a virtual learning environment in higher education teaching formation
and aims at contributing to a collaborative learning through the setting of innovative practices and the full use of
the web as a supporting tool for distance education and for presential courses. The study took place at the Federal
University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) in the context of a program for restructuring and expanding federal
universities in Brazil – REUNI†. In this paper, we present some theoretical background for this work, a summary
of an experiment and the analysis of the results found, so that new and innovative practices involving information
and communication technologies can be established.

Keywords: Teaching Fomation; Higher Education; Pedagogic Management; eLearning Environment.

1. Theoretical aspects supporting pedagogical management in virtual learning


environments
Planning and sistematizing educational practices entails the organization of environments in which the learning
process takes place. In a historical approach, we can perceive that learning environments have gone through
significant changes over time and that this process has intensified with the advancement of communication and
information technologies.
Currently, the internet enables teachers and students to be together in the same environment, even in different
times and places. This is possible through the communication in pairs, from one to many and from many to one,
therefore leading to a diversity of interactions. These are called virtual learning environments (VLE), which
have been bringing innovations to formal and informal, distant and presential, initial and continuing education.
This has pointed to the establishment of an interconnected learning community.
It is in this context that we propose to reflect upon the inherent aspects of pedagogical management in these
environments. Under this perspective, we turn to some theoretical references which allowed us to explain an
approach to the relationship between educational technology, pedagogical practices in distance education and
the management of this process, aiming at developing innovative teaching practices.
In this sense, [1] affirms that ‘the acquisition and use of new technologies do not guarantee pedagogical
innovations, since the mere implementation of better resources does not mean better learning. Different
information and communication technologies become educational ones when they are used as a pedagogical
mediation. Therefore, innovation is a consequence of the form of using such new technologies, because as a
means of formation, they allow the subject to be able to relate and contextualize experiences and discourses so
as to develop significant learning processes’ (p. 44).
Such considerations enable us to understand that the constitution of technologies as educational is only
possible if the intentions of the subjects involved can be articulated with the available tools and teaching
practices. This work therefore refers to the pedagogical management of the learning environment, which is
crucial for a contextualized and inclusive learning space.
To illustrate such, one can refer to a traditional educational model, either presential or at distance. This
framework involves only the mere forwarding of information, the passive attitude of the student, memorizing
and quantitative learning of a previously chosen topic. The learning environment is predetermined by external
agents and reaches the involved people through a process lacking in flexibility. Then, modern technological
resources are not sufficient even in such framework, since the concept of education still remains attached to
dated teaching models and the management of the pedagogical environment is external to the subjects.
Considering such analyses, we can consider that the expansion of the distance education field in our society
and the possibility of constructing virtual learning environments allow us to reflect with greater depth upon
issues related to educational technologies. They also pose challenges and bring possibilities of creating
innovative learning practices. It is worth noting that Distance Education (DE) can be understood as a process

*
Corresponding author: Maria de Lourdes Coelho; e-mail: mlcoelho@dcc.ufmg.br; Phone: +55 31 34095852

The Program of Support for the Restructuring and Expansion of Federal Universities – REUNI – launched by the Brazilian federal
government in 2007 aims at significantly increasing the number of vacancies for undergraduate students in the federal system of higher
education. All federal universities in the country have adhered to the program.

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which implies participation and interactive communication. Thus, those who technically propose it should favor
dialogue and discussions, as well as the access to the object of learning [2].
In the current context, DE is characterized more by the flexibility involved in the educational proposals than by
the territorial separation between the subjects partaking in the process. This happens if one considers the
possibilities of overcoming barriers in time and space through new technologies, through virtual meetings and
through the interaction and communication between teachers and students. Thus, despite its current concept, DE
cannot be defined on the grounds of distance, therefore not being faithful to its own name. We do believe that
issues such as physical and temporal distance can be dealt with through interactive educational materials, which
enable the broadening of the dialogue between those involved in the process, in an attempt of reducing
pedagogical distance.
The contextualized use of technologies allows us to broaden the concept of class, of space and of time,
therefore setting new links between being together physically and virtually. With the intensification of new
information and communication technologies by schools and society in general, the distinction between forms of
presential and distance education will be gradually less pertinent. [3] indicates that a good educational process in
DE is the one which alternates between presential and distance activities. Like this one, there are many
indicators that one form complements the other, and together they consolidate the concept of education as a
means of collectively constructing knowledge through various forms, such as through virtual learning
environments
[1] reminds us that ‘every educational act presupposes a communicative one’ (p.45). Thus, the virtual
learning environments are similar to the communicative processes that take place in social networks, and these
are only possible if centered on the subject. The sophisticated tools (commonly found in softwares designed for
teaching and learning environments) by themselves do not guarantee interaction. The solidification of
collaborative networks of learning demands a new attitude by the subjects regarding availability of interacting
and sharing experiences, quests and uncertainties. For the referred author, the learning subject goes through
changes with the use of new technologies, and these are modified by the form we use them.
Therefore, the difference present in DE (with the introduction of new information and communication
technologies) is the recognition of its potentiality of didactically and pedagogically mediating the teacher-
student-knowledge relationship. According to [4], ‘cyberspace is a field in constant change, conflict and
regulation. Its use as a springboard for learning lies on the will of the teachers and of those responsible for
keeping track of such innovations’ (p. 21). We share the author’s idea that nobody has direct access to
knowledge. In this way, we emphasize the role of the teacher as being irreplaceable in the formation process.
Nevertheless, the knowledge of cognitive technologies and other resources for a good choice of teaching
strategies is likewise indispensable.
According to [5], DE through the internet is favored by the creation of motivating, collaborative and
interactive environments. However, their mere creation and the offer of tools such as e-mails, chat rooms,
forums and discussion lists do not mean that participants of the group will interact and share experiences. The
quality of the work developed depends on the project designed by the team, the methodology used, feedback,
constant evaluations and pedagogical direction in the technology-aided courses.
The presence of the teacher entails his/her constant actions for the understanding of the students’ ideas and
the elaboration of a well-qualified feedback, which are both necessary for the construction of knowledge of both
teacher and students. For the authors, the ‘being-virtually-together not only deals with issues of time and space
in the formation of teachers, but it also creates fundamental features which are difficult of being set in presential
courses’ (p. 27).
From this perspective, when we analyze a learning environment, we can observe that the quality of
educational experiences developed in this space fundamentally depend on a careful pedagogical management
capable of articulating and materializing the various dimensions involved in the educational process.
Nevertheless, we could perceive with the experience in many distance courses that the role of the teacher can
be divided up in many: there is a continuum, which ranges from the expert (who creates the course and its
pedagogical purpose), goes through the author (who prepares the pedagogical materials), the instructional
designer (who organizes such materials in the virtual environment) and finally reaches the mentor, who keeps
track of the student’s progress throughout the teaching and learning process.
Each DE professional normally assume one or more roles, ranging from the conception of the course until the
upkeep of the students’ progress. When there is a division of work between different professionals in a
multidisciplinary team, there can be gains (possibilities of different insights and distribution of work among
professionals) on the one hand, but it may also disqualify and have a detrimental effect on the teaching
purposes.
In [6], the work demanded from a distance course mentor in four Brazilian federal universities seem to be
undervalued. The poor pay (around U$ 250 and U$ 350 a month) as a scholarship, the lack of any employment
attachments, the many operational activities and the demand of only an undergraduate degree indicate the poor
qualification of such professional.

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Also related to the teaching function is the pedagogical management of the course, which aims at organizing
the stages, the system of learning support, assessment, the mentor’s upkeep of work and effective
communication between participants [7].
In such context, we can conclude that the pedagogical management in a learning environment has an interface
with other systems which constitute the management of a course. It is through this type of work that the teacher
exerts autonomy and creativity, therefore meeting the needs of the subjects involved in the educational process
and the expectations of the course creators.
When we reflect upon such inherent aspects of learning environments and their pedagogical management and
relate them with our experience in a higher education teaching course, we aim at guiding ourselves by the
following questions: how can we manage a virtual learning environment which can devise a significant
educational process? Which are the possibilities enabled by the teaching practice?
Considering such issues, we present the following account of a practice and some resulting points of a
pedagogical management experience in a learning environment.

2. Practical aspects of pedagogical management in a learning environment

2.1 Contextualizing the higher education teaching formation course


REUNI has quantitative goals (such as increasing the access of students) as well as qualitative academic
concerns, which resulted in some new guidelines, such as curricular flexibility and the forming and support of
teachers with pedagogical practices and technologies as learning aids. The program still entails an articulation
between undergraduate and graduate courses and, among other aspects, the granting of scholarships for higher
education junior teachers who have recently been awarded an MA or PHD degree.
In this context, there was the need to offer courses which could promote the formation of new teachers and
the upkeep of their work. This involved the use of multimedia resources both for presential and distance
courses, which means that new reflections upon their functions in the learning and teaching process should be
made. Considering such principles and aiming at developing a reflexive pedagogical practice for a proficuous
university expansion, we have offered a course for higher education teaching formation for a pilot group,
consisted of 23 graduate students of the School of Engineering at UFMG during the second semester of 2008.
The course, which was semi-presential, had monthly presential meetings and a list of activities carried out
remotely, and was supported by a virtual learning environment organized by Moodle‡ platform.

2.2 The management and pedagogical organization of a virtual learning environment


Our team has taken the challenge to manage and organize a virtual learning environment capable of devising a
significant educational process. Facing such challenge, we proposed to collectively plan, organize and execute
the course and were responsible for conceiving and operating the curriculum and pedagogical practices
developed in the virtual and physical environment.
For the execution of the activities carried out remotely, we have chosen the Moodle platform. This choice
was mainly due to its availability at UFMG’s virtual portal, which facilitated the upkeep and functioning of the
course, as well as the access of its participants (all students of the university).
The course was organized in thematic modules which addressed the following topics: the higher education
teacher and his/her formation, concepts of teaching and learning, assessment, methodology, technologies and
didactic resources. We consider that two of these topics are studied transversally throughout the course: the
teaching in higher education and technology in education.
Considering such elements and the target public of the course, our intention was to manage the virtual
learning environment and to ensure that the student would easily adapt and be educated by a contextualized and
significant pedagogical mediation. In this sense, during the organization of the environment, we aimed at
offering the subjects an effective insertion and virtual interaction so that the learning process could be
significant. We have opened interactive spaces through news and operational forums, as well as through
tutorials with instructions for profile change.
The use of blogs and pedagogical forums was intense. Still, we have used wikis and posted activities. We also
attempted to offer tools for storing bibliographical references, in which students could access the mainly
suggested reading materials, as well as complementary ones.


“Moodle is a free and open source software for the construction of web pages and development of courses over the internet. It is an
ongoing project drawn to give support to a constructionist teaching approach” (Information available at
http://docs.moodle.org/pt/Sobre_o_Moodle, accessed on 12/02/2009).

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Facing such layout of information, we needed to work for a continuing pedagogical management which could
involve the staying and constant participation of the subjects. In this sense, we aimed at potentializing and
dynamizing the possibilities offered by the learning tools.
The virtual environment was gradually fed with orientations, activities, texts and videos related to each
thematic module, as well as digital photographs of the presential meetings. As we worked this way, we aimed at
making the subjects appreciate the proposed objectives in relation to the knowledge to be gained and to the
countless forms of systematizing and showing their learning process in that environment. We would offer
guidance and continuous support for the overcoming of difficulties in the learning process.
For each thematic module, we provided operational instructions (such as the procedures for profile alteration
and the construction of a wiki) and pedagogical orientations (such as the construction of a memory and the
planning of courses and classes). To enhance the inclusion of the students, we have opened spaces of
communication through a news, operational and pedagogical forum.
We have chosen to work predominantly with interactive activities, which could allow individual and
collective constructions and foster the swapping of knowledge in various areas. Thus, the use of pedagogical
forums, blogs and wikis was intense. We have attempted to resignify and overcome the operational limits of the
tools offered in the platform. As an example, we have worked on the construction of a memory (an individual
activity) in which each course taker would sketch their educational background by using a blog on Moodle. This
record was module-oriented and enabled a continuous reflection of each subject over his/her teaching
profession.
All activities were developed in the virtual environment and were constantly supervised by mentors, who
would post messages in the forums or would send individual messages. This would happen regularly whenever
we felt the need of a greater participation or the virtual presence of a participant. Besides the attentive and
careful look of the teaching team, each participant was invited to supervise a classmate and be supervised by
another, therefore creating a ‘mutual support circle’. In this way, each one would have a reader of their posted
activities in the blog and would in turn read and give some feedback to another student. They would also
comment on the deadlines of the activities in case their classmates did not meet them. We thus attempted to
create effective conditions to the constitution of a collaborative learning network.
The management of such environment was carefully planned by the team throughout the course. The
monitoring and assessment of the results together with the subjects involved created a continuous collaborative
environment, which would allow our actions to be redirected and improved.
We also emphasize the peculiar organization of the team so as to support the rest with collective measures
concerning planning, communication and assessment based on an attitude of permanent reflection.

3. Final remarks
In this paper, we have accounted for the experience of managing a virtual learning environment in a higher
education teaching formation course, in which we were able to implement significant educational practices,
therefore allowing us to perceive it as being innovative.
Such considerations are based on the results reached with the subjects in the virtual learning environment, for
which were offered theoretical and methodological support and stimulated them to develop practical and
reflexive activities about the approached domains, either individually or collectively.
Throughout the course, we counted with the continuous adherence and approval of the course takers, which
was evident given the high access and participation rates in the virtual environment, as well as the execution of
the task by almost every member of the group. The high rate of messages posted in the forums, the texts in the
blogs, the feedback given over e-mails among the course takers and among teachers and course takers and,
mainly, the constant dialogue and interaction in such texts and messages are some of the indicators of the
fruitfulness of the pedagogical mediation in such environment.
Given the remarks shown above, we emphasize some aspects which characterize innovative practices and
favor such collaborative process in the virtual learning environment.
-As we developed a pedagogical management together with the team of mentors in a cohesive and
integrated form (without rigid divisions of roles or the mere forwarding of operational information), we
agree with [6] in his assertion that such professionals cannot be underqualified for DE.
-To guarantee a qualified formation, we understand that besides an environment with well organized
information, it also necessary that suitable interactive tools are chosen so that a good educational
background can be given [2], since we perceive knowledge as being constructed through interactions
with others, and such interaction has to be multiple and mutual. That is, it has to assume various forms
and should not be unilateral.

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-As the interactive activities were predominant in our methodology (blogs, forums and wikis), we have
effectively explored technology as a mediation tool capable of promoting change in the subjects, who
in turn could also change it, as in [1].
-As we supervised students (individually and collectively) and as we encouraged them to supervise
classmates, we attempted to establish a partnership, a feeling of belonging and of perceiving the
presence of others, even at a distance [3, 5].
-The individual construction of a memory and the reading of comments made by classmates and mentors
sought to favor reflection upon pedagogical practices in the light of the theories studied in the course.
The aim was to contextualize [3] and allow that the subjects could become protagonists in this process
[5] and therefore constitute a collaborative learning network.
-Finally, the semi-presential format (i.e the consistent articulation of distance activities) made the course
become distinguished (being flexible through DE and real/virtual presence). This has suited the human
necessity of perceiving one another’s presence [3], thus overcoming conceptual barriers between
presential and distance teaching.
We understand that all activities pertained to the teaching function are relevant to the teacher-student
relationship. In such a way, when we deal with pedagogical management, we can conclude that it is in this
environment of teaching that effective possibilities can be created so as to establish significant learning
environments, either virtually or not.
It is worth drawing the attention to the fact that pedagogical dimensions are related to the whole educational
process, to the contexts in which they are inserted and to the shared educational intentionalities.

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