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.
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.