Learning Technology jottings at Goldsmiths

Thoughts and deeds

The VLE is Dead debate at ALT-C 2009

with 14 comments

ALT-C (the Association of Learning Technologists Conference 2009) is ongoing at the moment. They’ve been streaming the invited speakers on the Elluminate video conferencing platform. I’m not there but I just logged onto what I understand was an unofficial stream set up by the presenters independently of the organisers, to look at a debate titled The VLE is Dead.

I really enjoyed watching, listening and reading the asides in the Chat pane (and adding my own 2ps). You have to work hard to follow the speaker and do that, but in fact I (speaking personally and anecdotally) find this quite helpful. Otherwise sometimes I emerge from a micro-daydream having missed a crucial clause of an argument. Passive listening – just hearing, really – is my bete noir. What I do get quite anxious about is not being able to take notes, but to tell the truth, I’m not sure how my notes help me anyway. If it’s a matter of process, maybe the act of participating in a side discussion – on Twitter, say, which in this context is a bit like whispering in a lecture – fulfils the same function as tapping out notes and consequent questions. My track record on revisiting notes tells me that they rapidly become fossils after the event, anyway.

I felt surprisingly dislocated and desolate when the sound feed died. But while it lasted I thought it was a great arrangement – the camera was close to the speakers and at a good angle given the constraints, the pacey and slightly breathless debate format was very engaging, and there was a lot of humour. John and I were laughing out loud – I even clapped at one point, I was so sucked in.

To respond to the bit of the debate I heard (and a Chat participant tells us the whole thing has been recorded and will be made available in due course – update: it is now; scroll down for the vid) the panellists who object to a VLE do so, in my view, on shaky grounds. I don’t subscribe to the argument that VLE is merely an expression of our current era of institutional managerialism and commodification. The first speaker’s analogy between the users of third party social software and Agincourt’s nimble, unencumbered and ultimately triumphant British archers left me wondering who the analogous enemy is, and concluding that it must be not French students but our institutions. Certainly, institutions are deeply frustrating places, if you take the good things about them for granted. But unless we expect academic teachers of the future to be freelance, and academic pursuits to become something very different indeed, then academic institutions are something to defend.

And, given that those of us who are not radical constructivists accept a substantial difference in roles between teachers and learners which mainly resides in experience, insight and expertise (a sort of ignorance-wisdom continuum), if our support for Personal Learning Environments is so unequivocal (which it should be) then shouldn’t we also give some consideration to Personal Teaching Environments? When I think about what they might look like, they begin to take on the form of a VLE.  The ‘Learning’ part of the term ‘Virtual Learning Environment’ was always PR – that’s not news.

Unrelatedly, the alternative to an institutionalised, supported environment is (most readily, anyway) free-at-the-point-of-use, commercially-financed social software. But doesn’t advertising exascerbate climate change? And doesn’t it represent the sort of instrusion of market forces into Higher Education matters which we would like to avoid?

Accountability, data protection, intellectual property, obscene or taboo subject matters – not sure if these were addressed by the contra-VLE speakers.

Lastly, isn’t this debate about the VLE being dead still hung up with the technology rather than the ideas and creations which animate it? There’s a built-in assumption that the VLE is a shackle, linked to another assumption that the VLE is a (conservative) expression of a bad approach. But although VLEs are certainly not pedagogically neutral, nor can they be pinned down and limited to a set of values. They can be subverted, or simply used creatively – that depends on their inhabitants (this much I know from researching designing for learning in VLEs for JISC). So I think a better question to ask is why those islands of vibrant VLE / technology-use which do exist, succeed, and (to avoid bias) also search out precedents for cooption of social software within the VLE, or abandonment of the VLE in favour of freer environments beyond the institution (although you may have to undertake to disguise their identities to get them to speak to you). Is it the case that academic teachers who are not using the VLE today have leap-frogged over it in favour of third party social software – PLEs? I’m kind of thinking that rumours of the VLE’s death should start from these kinds of findings, rather than from an ideological standpoint. One pro-VLE speaker said as much.

Time to stop. I missed a lot of what was said, so I avoided naming any speakers. But these arguments against VLEs aren’t unfamiliar, so it’s probably OK to address them in themselves.

There’s a bunch of links and a vid trailer for the debate on Cloudworks, the Open University’s social environment for discussing ideas.

Update: via James Clay’s blog, here’s the recording of the debate.

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Written by Mira Vogel

September 8, 2009 at 15:04

14 Responses

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  1. I’m a teacher of academic writing faced with the option of using our university’s Moodle platform exclusively, which would le me organize the assignments, quizzes and feedback in one place, and offering the students something more attractive like networked blogs or a closed Ning platform, or Edublogs. It’s two weeks before the beginning of class and I’m still undecided. I find the VLE environment quite off-putting, unaesthetic, the feel is wrong. I’ve used it for distance courses, but for an in-class writing course with a focus on peer assessment, it’s like going out for a picknick and taking a trailer home with you.


    September 8, 2009 at 19:32

  2. Anne, although choice can be quite paralysing I think it’s good you’ve got one. My institution also gives academics a choice. It’s really interesting you raise the matter of aesthetics – I have the impression they play an enormous but understated part in decisions to use or not use the VLE. Addressing this is a matter of consulting with academics and students, and then resourcing any changes to the stylesheet. There’s an enormous amount of leeway in Moodle, for example.

    It’s hard to comment further without knowing what your intended activities are and how they relate to each other. But I suppose I’d make the point that none of the VLE alternatives you’ve mentioned are mutually exclusive to the VLE. It’s possible to link out from the VLE to the others, using the VLE to bring things together, relate them to each other (through the way they are presented – order, grouping etc). Although I get the impression there’d be an extra login, maybe this is a price worth paying.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Mira Vogel

    September 9, 2009 at 10:09

  3. The video recording is now available on my blog.

    We had fun undertaking the debate and glad to hear that the remote audience enjoyed it too.


    James Clay

    September 13, 2009 at 11:46

  4. The deciding factors for mr are pragmatic ones. Would use of 3rd party services require your learners to sign up to other systems to access/interact with the content? If so, then (assuming your in the UK) you need to ensure their data is safe under the data protection act – that the 3rd party won’t move their data outside of the EU, that they will be able to remember those additional usernames/passwords and you can handle the issues arising when they don’t; that the platforms you choose will not ‘own’ the content in their T&C; that the sites are entirely accessible for all (disabilities but also OS/browser etc); etc etc.

    If you think sorting all those headaches out for a slight benefit in aesthetics is worth the effort and legal cost/liabilities then go for it. Otherwise, as I argued in the symposium, stick with the “good enough” tools in the VLE while engaging with whoever you need to to get the tools available improved for you.

    It seems so tempting to use the “free” tools out their, but the systems are not really “free” when you want to use then in an institutional context-and unless you know the legal, technical and operational support issues well and can meaningfully evaluate the total cost of ownership, you’re probably best steering clear. However, tools to create rich content that can be accessible and shared without needing to authenticate that can be linked to from the VLE are much simpler to evaluate and hence use.

    Just my view as an IT manager as opposed to an educator :)

    Nick Sharratt

    September 13, 2009 at 12:51

  5. Thanks James, thanks Nick – it’s always good to hear an IT management perspective – it’s good you were on that panel. It’s also for people like me to raise the pragmatic concerns, and balance them against the educational ones (which are not necessarily the same as the academic ones…)

    Mira Vogel

    September 14, 2009 at 11:09

  6. I have to say I don’t see much “leeway” on Moodle, Mira, based on my experience at Goldsmiths. As both at lecturer and a programme convenor I find building VLEs swallows enormous quantities of my time due to the absence of a desktop platform for constructing course pages. It’s absurd that every minor change or addition requires reloading a page; that alone is enough to put anyone off using it. This is a particular problem given the casualisation of academic labour, which proceeds apace across the disciplines. Temporary staff have little incentive to pour hours and hours of work into a web page which becomes the property of an institution which refuses to employ their creators on a long-term basis, and no portion of which can move with them to the next job because it all exists up in the cloud. Yet more often than not such staff are younger-generation scholars who are more willing than many of their older colleagues to engage with internet-based learning technologies. So the proprietary and tedious nature of VLE platforms like Moodle mitigates precisely against their use by those who would otherwise be innovating such methods.

    The aesthetic question is another problem, and in my opinion not “slight.” My sense is that students as a general demographic are highly visually literate, accustomed as they are to glossy, beautiful, sharp web pages that are pleasing to engage with as well as functional. Moodle has extremely limited aesthetic capabilities and is highly unstable – having used it fairly extensivly since 2006, I can attest that pages cannot be relied upon to appear consistently in the same way on the same machine and in the same browser from day to day. Look at our front-page VLE portal – can anyone who is even vaguely visually literate tell me that byzantine jumble of blue, red and black text, blurry video screenshots and slapdash justification is an inviting doorway into the system? But pouring more work into it wouldn’t bear much fruit, because so little can be controlled by the user.

    I continue to use the VLE nonetheless because of the aforementioned third-party “headaches” – in the end, faffing around with external sites could well cost me as much in time and patience as Moodle itself. So on I plod with my vain attempts to create useful, visually pleasant course pages, fingers constantly crossed that Moodle will not suddenly send them askew and ruin what little progress I’ve made.

    Sorry to rant, but if the VLE is “dead,” it’s because the available platforms are creaky, autocratic, time-consuming systems which seem to assume design incompetence on the part of course tutors, and so reduce us all to a bland visual uniformity.

    Eliza Darling

    October 26, 2009 at 11:55

    • Hi Eliza, thanks for this! I’ll be in touch to find out why things are so slow for you – I hope at least we can sort that side of things out. I can’t comment on your case (cos I haven’t called you about it yet – I’m about to), but in my experience many of the barriers and frustrations with using Moodle are to do with lack of awareness about how to overcome these (e.g. how to avoid uploading again; using Show Only to just display the part the tutor is working on; knowing how to bulk-upload; techniques to avoid bloating the front page; etc). Moodle isn’t great at making certain important things obvious – and because it’s Open Source, it’s down to its community of users to change that, and people in my role to raise awareness with their local community of academic teachers.

      Yes, it’s possible to do a lot of html (web) development on the desktop now and put it on Moodle, and it’s possible to make Moodle look very much your own, with sufficient know-how. However, your point about time consumption stands.

      I agree about the aesthetic, and it is something I’ve been banging on about for a long time. It’s good you feed this back to us – I’ll add it as another instance of dissatisfaction with appearance. I sense some movement on this, and will contact you about becoming involved. However, I would defend the flexibility of appearance (besides the point, but to some extent this is in the hands of the web browser developers). Being able to adapt (i.e. control) the way things appear (text-size, background, fonts) is an important freedom for learners and other web site readers/viewers (although there may be educational reasons to withhold this freedom – I hope to talk with you about this too). The challenge, then, is to balance accessibility, freedom and aesthetics.

      Rant appreciated – speak soon.

      Mira Vogel

      October 26, 2009 at 13:04

  7. Interesting point on aesthetics – I agree they are important, I guess because our VLE is based on sharepoint with a pretty consistent look/feel and fairly ‘clean’ etc too I tend to forget what a jumble Moodle can be. Conversely, I have people at UoP arguing that Sharepoint looks plain and boring compared to say Blackboard – but direct feedback from students I’ve had in programme committees is that they like what we have – which is why I tend to see that the concept of a VLE is not the issue, but the details of the implementation is.

    I also find it interesting that you would worry about creating the aesthetics yourself. I wouldn’t expect that to be done by individuals but by designers and made available for all. So I would expect a good VLE to use CSS and allow the learners and educators to make individual choices as to how the pages are rendered – except where format is important to the content, where the educator should be able to enforce a style – but again created by proffesional designers, which is probably not the educators.

    I did present an idealized view at the Alt-C debate, something to aspire to in a perfect VLE rather than what actually is currently in use in many places. The fact that you’ve engaged with the debate to seek improvements is also something I had really hopped the debate would lead to too :)

    Nick Sharratt

    October 26, 2009 at 21:10

  8. [...] and promise to change the way we see the Web and conduct our business online, VLEs are dead (for some) or rising from the grave (for others), Twitter and Facebook have seen phenomenal growth lately and [...]

  9. [...] from the panelists. I feel that last year’s ALT-C 2009 conference panel session on “The VLE is Dead” was more successful in being both entertaining and allowing the panelists to [...]

  10. Dear Mira, thanks for sharing this.

    One comment:
    >>> And, given that those of us who are not radical constructivists accept a substantial difference in roles between teachers and learners which mainly resides in experience, insight and expertise. <<<
    I do NOT see ANY reason why radical constructivists would deny differences in experience. The opposite is true. You are relying on a (somehow spread) stereotype of (radical) constructivism, probably because "radical" is negatively connotated.

    Please see where required: von Glasersfeld 1996,http://www.buecher.de/shop/english-books/radical-constructivism-a-way-of-knowing-and-learning-ebook/ernest-von-glasersfeld/products_products/detail/prod_id/25781189/)
    I had to look it up, but I think the linked version is a translation of "Radikaler Konstruktivismus" Ideen, Ergebnisse, Probleme. Suhrkamp 1996.

    Karsten Ehms

    June 4, 2011 at 08:32

    • Hi Karsten, thanks for the comment.

      “You are relying on a (somehow spread) stereotype of (radical) constructivism, probably because “radical” is negatively connotated.”

      Radical has long been espoused in my institution’s official promotion – it has in fact become a term the establishment is comfortable with! If it is negatively connotated (confused with fundamentalist, for example) I don’t think it should be.

      It was a difference in teaching and learning role I was trying to make the case for. I can’t quote right now, but I think I am right in saying that it is radical constructivists who most seek to shrink the differentiation.

      We have von Glaserfield in the library – thanks for reminding me to go and read it again.

      Mira Vogel

      June 4, 2011 at 14:02

  11. >> “I think I am right in saying that it is radical constructivists who most seek to shrink the differentiation.”
    Radical constructivists would argue that the very basic processes (physiological, cognitive) that underpin learning and knowing are the same for all human beings. BUT of course there are differences between persons with different experiences since they took different paths in their personal (learning) history. I cannot explain it better in a few sentences. Maybe a comparison helps. “Biologists say that there is minor difference between experts and novices because both (experts and novices) eat and sleep (=basic processes)”.

    Karsten Ehms

    June 19, 2011 at 19:44

  12. [...] Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) and Personal Learning Environments (PLEs). The former have officially been called dead in 2009. While this caused mouring amongst educational insitutions and educators, most learners would [...]

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