This thesis reflects on ten years of research and development on innovative, pedagogy-driven virtual learning environments in the Centre for Educational Technology, Tallinn University. Early experiments with online learning environments started in Tallinn Pedagogical University already in 1997, by 1999 there were more than 10 courses running in WebCT environment, including two courses designed and taught by me. WebCT was originally born in the computer science department of the University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada), but in 2000 it was acquired by an US company that changed radically the licensing scheme and pricing. This change, combined with increasing dissatisfaction among TPU staff with the poor usability and pedagogi cal rigidity of WebCT forced us to seek for alternatives. After short experimentation with open-source platforms BSCW and LearnLoop, a small research group in the Centre for Educational Technology decided to build a new online learning environment called IVA. From the very beginning of IVA development, our main goal was to implement research- based design following the ‘pedagogy first’ principle. This thesis provides the summary of our theoretical and design approaches, along with results of empirical validation of our claims about the impact of pedagogy-driven design of virtual learning environments on actual teaching and learning practices of users. The thesis summarizes also the results of the two following dialectic iterations in our design- based research: exploring the pedagogical potential of social media tools and proposing a new pedagogy-driven approach to designing next-generation virtual learning environments: digital learning ecosystems.
The core part of this thesis consists of six research papers that have been published along the process of designing and large-scale implementation of an innovative virtual learning environment IVA and its next-generation follow-up, Dippler. Prior to introducing these research papers, the underlying theoretical framework is explained in the first chapter of this thesis. After laying out a coherent system of concepts related with Computer-Assisted Learning and Virtual Learning Environments, I analyse the relation of pedagogy and VLE design. This is followed by a critical analysis of previous attempts of providing pedagogy-driven approaches to designing and developing online learning environments. Further, I narrow down my focus on the concept of affordances. The first chapter ends with a discussion on potential units of analysis that would allo w to measure and compare the impact of pedagogy-driven design on the teaching and learning processes. The second chapter presents the research problem and research questions, while the third chapter elaborates on the research methods and design applied in the context of this inquiry. The fourth chapter provides the findings from six included research papers in an integrated manner, along with synthesis. The thesis ends with conclusion, summary of findings and directions for the future research on pedagogy-driven design of Virtual Learning Environments.