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Technical Infrastructure

Guiding questions:

  1. What are the technical requirements for a successful integration of VPs in the curriculum?
  2. What are the benefits of connecting VPs with other e-learning tools?
  3. How to make the technical costs of VPs manageable?

VPs require a technical infrastructure to function. Most of the currently available VPs are accessed using a standard web browser. This does not require much configuration by the learner. However, it is crucial that the VP server is available at all times [Huwendiek 2013]. This means there should be a technical maintenance team employed with a quick response in case problems occur and a help desk for questions. Unfortunately, services like that require substantial and stable funding [Berman 2011, Huwendiek 2008, Radon 2011].

It has been observed that learners tend to complete their VP assignments shortly before the deadlines [Hege 2007]. For instance, Hirumi et al reported 70% of students worked on VPs in the last two days before the task was due [Hirumi 2016]. This uneven distribution of workload may influence the performance of the IT system or even lead to system failure. There are two potential solutions to this problem. One is to divide VP tasks in smaller assignments which are space activated [Hege 2016]. The second is to provide a technical infrastructure that, instead of using one central server, is distributed on several smaller computers forming a cloud of smaller servers that could be turned on or off depending on the number of students . Such solutions are able to endure even very high loads as in MOOC courses [Kononowicz 2015].

    Another technical aspect expected by students is the usability of the VPs. The navigation should be intuitive and the graphical layout should help to focus on the tasks in the VP assignment [Boeker 2006]. Issues with user-friendliness can be avoided to a certain degree by constantly paying attention to the stakeholder perspective. This can be achieved by frequent needs assessments, following usability guidelines [Kononowicz 2017] and principles of multimedia learning [Mayer 2010], involving students and teachers in frequent user experience testing [Nunnally 2016] and providing technical help and instructions to students while learning [Nagji 2020]. 

VPs should not be isolated from other e-learning tools the students use. For instance, it is possible to use one central login/password to access VPs and the learning management system (e.g. Moodle). Next, links to VPs could be part of the learning units in regular courses taught at the university. Furthermore, It is possible to make automatic transfers of scores collected by students in assignments between systems. Another option is that certificates from completed VPs could be stored in e-Portfolio systems. To achieve software integration, there are technical specifications (like Shibboleth, LTI, xAPI) [Kononowicz 2017] implemented by VP system developers and communities (like MedBiquitous) that work to establish or extend data exchange standards in medical education. 

Finally, to make the VPs affordable and in the long term sustainable, it is recommended to share costs by joining consortia of several institutions with one technical infrastructure [Berman 2011]. This decreases the costs substantially. Several national and international projects demonstrated that it is possible – like the CLIPP project [Berman 2009], or MEFANET [Majernik 2016].

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