VLEs: Are they dead or not?

In our first week of our Trends in E-Learning module, we’ve been looking at the VLE is dead debate. The seed for discussion was Martin Weller’s blog post (now over two years old) which makes the valid point that there are several independent third party (free) applications out there that address most if not all of the needs a VLE does, and do it a lot better because each individual application is that company’s core business.

I’ve been thinking about my own relationship with VLEs as a practising lecturer, and a student, and as someone who has, if I may say, above average capability in PC and web literacy than your typical academic (as well as boosting my own ego, this is important as I’ll mention later). We’ve had a useful discussion over the week (in our closed VLE discussion board) which has given me the opportunity to hone my thoughts.

Fota House Garden, Cork (M Seery)

It is dead.

I like Martin Weller. He writes with a sense of pragmatism and Feet On The Ground and seems to be both someone who thinks a lot about these things and teaches himself, which gives him an edge over a lot of commentators in my book. The VLE was born from a need to create an online workspace for students, to make files available and to communicate with students effectively (Phillips, Cormier and Styles 2008). In reality, it is in the main two things in my experience: a content repository for lecture notes and supplemental notes and a way of administrating a course through the mail/announcement/discussion board communication tools to students registered on the module. Whether its use as a content repository is a good thing is for another debate, but if this is the main use, why do we need one at all? Lecturers could provide a webpage with links to their presentations. This, coupled with having the email address of all the students means that these two uses are obsolete.

VLEs are closed, walled gardens, with the lecturer as gatekeeper to the information within. What’s in the VLE is therefore considered important, because the lecturer puts it there. There are two points to tease out here. The first is that if the lecturer defines the information the students should know, there is pressure on him (I’m male) to keep that content up there and up to date, making sure a range of issues are covered. He spends a lot of time working through the content of the web picking out information from trusted sites, academic papers and interesting presentations as well as links to core texts and placing it online in a nicely arranged manner so students can come into the garden and pick whatever roses of information they want. But when the student wants to learn some information for themselves, they do not have any experience in sourcing information, checking validity, because sourcing information to them has meant logging in and accessing the file the lecturer sourced. Secondly, it is a moot point whether students access much or any of this information at all, unless it is intrinsically related to assessment. If they need it at a future stage, post-module, they can’t get it because they are no longer allowed into that garden. This has been my own experience as a student in modules I have completed in the past.

The alternative therefore is that information can be placed on a website or referral area to all the resources a module needs. Slides could be posted on slideshare, wiki discussions and class activities on pbworks, screencasts on Screenr.com or using the free monthly allowance of screencast.com, or of course YouTube, podcasts on iTunes, pictures on flickr, discussions on an open discussion forum, assessment on… well that needs fine tuning but Google will come up with something soon I’m sure. Or the whole shebang could be placed on Google sites, Facebook or some of the other giants that are getting a taste of this market. What’s the difference between this and a VLE in the traditional sense? Well in this case, neither access nor content is restricted. This area becomes more of a first referral site – a place to start looking – scaffolding learner’s embrace of the information source that is the internet through the language of tags, ratings and credibility. No need for expensive customary VLEs. An additional advantage for the lecturer is that they don’t have to struggle with the terrible interface of VLEs, instead using the simplicity and beauty of something like WordPress, the mass appeal of Youtube and the versatility of compiling interesting information on Delicious.

It isn’t dead.

But wait! I like James Clay too. Full of useful tips and advice and an Eagerness To Share good practice, he has been the one I have followed that makes most sense about what a VLE actually is, and how it can be used. His podcast #40 is really excellent and I recommend anyone interested in a short synopsis of what they can do with VLEs listen to the second half of it, where he outlines a five stage plan for using a VLE. The message coming out of this is that let’s not get too hung up on what a VLE is, but more what can we do with it. His five stages range from uploading content, resources and assignments, interactivity with feedback, discussion and sharing of thoughts to running a module online.

One of the comments to Martin Weller’s post, above, makes the point argued by Grainne Conole that the VLE walled garden provides for a “trusted brand”. In addition, while I might personally be comfortable of using an array of sites and tools, I know a lot of my colleagues wouldn’t, and it would be difficult at an institutional level to provide any support for the variety of tools and sites each lecturer may individually choose. It might also be difficult for students to know what bit of information is where. The two great practical advantages of the institutional VLE are that the students are added by the institution registration procedure, and the gradebook feature allows for students privacy with respect to individual grades to be protected. To go it alone, this would involve a lot of work on behalf of the individual lecturers at what would be a very busy time of the year. While usage at the moment is probably underwhelming, through progressive staff training and development, staff could be introduced to the “stages” of using a VLE, so that over time the true potential could be realised.

Is it dead or not?

What do we want to use a VLE for? In the end, it is to help students learn. So I suppose it doesn’t really matter what we use as long as we are aiming towards that goal. I don’t like the walled garden nature of a VLE. Practically and psychologically, it reinforces an objectivist approach in assuming the lecturer has all the knowledge and students will absorb it all from the VLE. But I do like the structure a VLE can provide, and as a student I like this too – knowing I can go to a particular place to find resources on a topic. The ID and gradebook features are also beneficial.

When I was a student, I worked as a gardener in a beautiful 19th century garden. The main section was the Radial Garden, a walled, with very formal layout of beds and highly manicured lawns. As you walked through this section, you passed through a gate into a less formal, although still structured section and then through a third set of gates, passing through the wall into the Pleasure Grounds, which was a beautiful informal grounds with specimen trees that seemed to go on for ever. The difference between the Radial Garden and the Pleasure Grounds was stark, with the middle section acting as a transition. Both extremes were equally beautiful, equally of interest to gardeners. Perhaps this is a method of introducing material to learners online. Provide them with the structure and formality of a formal VLE setting, but as the module progresses, let the students go and explore. Let them outside and report back what they find useful, Build in this knowledge into the course structure, incorporating their thoughts and your feedback, so that content knowledge is developed in a shared way. It sounds Utopian, but I think there is something there for consideration.


Lawrie Phipps, Dave Cormier, and Mark Stiles (2008) Reflecting on the virtual learning systems – extinction or evolution?, Educational Developments, 9.2.

11 thoughts on “VLEs: Are they dead or not?

  1. Perhaps what is dead is the naive view that some had that a VLE was a panacea, a tool so amazing it didn’t require an intelligent approach to it’s use?

    Have students ever only learned from hand-outs? Have they ever only learned from attending lecturers? Haven’t (good) students always drawn on a wide range of sources inspired and guided by the structure provided in lectures/handouts/ etc? Why would anyone have ever expected that to change with the advent of VLEs?

  2. Hi Nick,
    Thanks for the comment. Yes, I agree with you on that. What I’m trying to tease out for myself though is whether we need a formal institutional VLE or whether it can be a more informal aggregation of various Web 2.0 tools. I’m particularly thinking about the closed nature of VLEs, and my dilemma is that while they provide some structure, they mimic the traditional classroom in saying “this is what you need to know”.

    I know students do look elsewhere for information too, outside of the content that I *give* them, but I am wondering whether this information searching and retrieval could be incorporated into a more open-structured space, so that students’ information and digital literacy skills could develop beyond Google and Wikipedia. In this way, to address your second point, the VLE or whatever space we choose would change how students gain information sources, but in a positive way, by helping them to find out how to retrieve it.

    You’ve probably seen it but this point and others have been made (a lot more eloquently!) by Martin Weller: (http://nogoodreason.typepad.co.uk/no_good_reason/2009/09/using-learning-environments-as-a-metaphor-for-educational-change.html)

    Thanks again,

  3. Digital literacy is an important skill to guide students towards, but it’s not everything. It can be fostered alongside other learning but it shouldn’t dictate the whole teaching method. So the question is, do VLEs provide useful tools/environment for learning the actual subjects? Even with their limitations/constraints the structure they provide etc means they do – where as relying on ad hoc 3rd party tools adds many barriers to learning. Eg having to create accounts on services to access content, learning the foibles of each different system (rather than just one for the VLE), following the weakly associated structure of information etc.

    Sure, VLEs can be walled gardens (they don’t have to be), sure they can be misused as just a dumping ground for content (by poor educators who don’t think about how best to use the tools; which wouldn’t change without a VLE either), but you don’t have to be developing learning skills in every single subject taught as long as it’s taught somewhere and the rest of the subjects should be able to just use the convinience and utility of a VLE and trust that students will still apply the learning skills they have to look beyond anyhow.

    Just to examine the walled garden point further – VLEs tens to operate that way but they don’t have to. There are examples of open models. This is not intrinsic to VLEs and could equally be the case using 3rd party tools, eg if you made a google doc shared to a closed group rather than the world, and sometimes that can be the right option. A VLE deals with the institutional membership issues to make managing appropriate access trivial where as 3rd party tools are disassociated and therefore such issues become non-trivial.

    Also, the point is often made that students loose access to resources once they leave if they are locked inside a VLE. Well, if resources in a VLE were made open, that point vanishes – and in addition, if matterials were hosted on 3rd party services, students could also loose access at some point in the future on the whims of the fate of that 3rd party service providor. Now, for big organisations like Google, that’s probably no more of a risk than the institution closing access (changing VLE/going bust etc), but very many 3rd party tools which may be used are no more than small start up companies funded with venture capital and liable to evaporate with no notice – including in the middle of a course, just before exams perhaps.

    Considering the business continuity risks of choosing a 3rd party to host educationally critical parts of a course would be a significant undertaking drawing resources away from actually educating – where as a VLE (while flaky itself) can be relied on to persist and be maintained.

    While the nature of a dead/alive debate presents a black/white choice, it’s clear to me that the answer is a shade of grey with the concept of VLEs providing a vital role as long as it’s used wisely and learning skills/digital litteracy are imparted somewhere along the way too.

  4. Hi Nick,
    Thanks again for the comment. I agree with you on the points about access to third party tools (logins etc) and to a lesser extent the reliance on a third party applications (although in the case of the latter I think the issue would be more about providing institutional support rather than risk of closure, as “closure” of the big companies would usually mean takeover/merger).

    On the walled garden, absolutely, I agree that something like Google Docs could be private (and in some cases would have to be – e.g. in discussing student’s work or something), but I suppose my points are (a) if we can use this why do we need a formal VLE and (b) something like Google Docs can be in control of the student and the lecturer – it isn’t a one-way system. The Myexamopedia site is a nice example of that, which as far as I can tell uses Google Docs to get students to work on documents collaboratively, with lecturer input.

    I suppose where I would not agree with you is the concept that digital literacy (or any generic skill for that matter) is taught in one module. I strongly believe that these skills should be embedded throughout the curriculum, in every module, or otherwise students don’t see the relevance.

    Overall, though, your last paragraph can’t be argued with. It would be foolish to say there will be no online learning environment in the future. I think the question really is where along the spectrum of institutional repository to personal learning environment should/does a VLE fall, and how do lecturers use this space to enhance their teaching. While I am still trying to figure this out for myself, my general opinion is that it is not about supplementing class-work, but more a two-way blend of online and in-class, each reliant on the other. My next task is to work out how to effect this in practice!

    Cheers again,

    PS: You might have seen this really nice paper just out by Grainne Conole, where she discusses the gap between policy and practice:

  5. I’m a post-graduate student with the autor of this blog, and we’ve been perusing this debate for over a week now. I’d like to add to and continue on from some of Michael’s points.

    As mentioned, a closed environment offers a sandbox where participants can play — a safe place to make those baby-steps that, hopefully will lead to engagement in debates and discussions in the open, such as this. (In our own case, I also see our closed forum as playing a role in fortifying the groups identity.) Providing a cossetted environment has, of course, its weakness, but given that the Prensky ideal of Digital Natives, who move at ease in a digital world, is still at least a generation away, the closed discussion part of a VLE has a deeper function than at first appears in that it can serve as a stepping-stone to a broader digital engarement.

    Much of what I have heard and read in this debate seems to revolve around dissatisfaction with either UI or content issues. UI gripes could be resolved by technical and design changes, but the issue of access to content needs to be bracketed. We need to make a distinction between a critique of current VLEs based on their ability and feature set vs the politics of open content. VLEs don’t set policy.

    Micheal pointed to a number of solutions available to educators that serve as alternatives to VLEs. I myself am planning to go down that route for some blended teacher-training courses I’m designing. My biggest worry is leaving users behind by broadening my tool base. My experience of working with mid-twenties + web-users is that many of them have very limited competency online. Luckily my groups will be small and I have allocated course time to deal with this, but with larger groups I can see a real danger of stratified clusters of students forming along the competency continuum to which the educator will be ill-equipped to deal with. This competency gap will also be manifest in educators. Here the VLE holds strong cards, offering a once-stop-shop, which, once understood, suffices.

    Lastly, the title of this debate, ‘Is The VLE Dead?’, has served its purpose as an agent provocateur, and now we would do well do redirect our efforts to solving the problems we have identified. We can begin be changing the question: ‘What would the perfect VLE look like?’

    1. Hi Paul,

      Thanks for the comment. Yes, the safe environment is one to consider – I hadn’t thought that that would be a factor. I know students can be reluctant to post in a VLE discussion board, so it might be an initial step too far to get them to post in the broader web.

      Regarding the title, to be honest it arose out of a slight frustration with the debate itself. I think it’s time to move on and address exactly your question. This seems to be what people like Martin Weller and James Clay are doing – implementing what they believe in practice and seeing how it works. The VLE will never be dead, but the form it will take will be interesting to watch. Your blog post can adopt the more conciliatory question 😉 I look forward to seeing what you come up with in your own experiments with different environments.

      Thanks again for the thoughts,

  6. Cloud based VLE or as I call them CLEs will take over. But first we will see the grey shades as Nick talks about, i.e. what JISC is promoting with their DVLE programme.

    My blog has a poll that show the mood in general, what we dont have are examples of CLE type apps.
    Well I am working on one.

    You mention MyExamopedia – great, I am the person behind it if you and anyone else wanted to use it more than welcome.

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