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The VLE is Dead debate at ALT-C 2009

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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

The war between awareness and memory

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This, via the estimable George Siemens, begins:

“About a month ago Robert Scoble blogged about abandoning Twitter and Friendfeed. He said that he thought “real-time systems” like these and other micro-blogging tools were hurting long term knowledge. Turns out that he’s mostly worked up about the lack of archiving and quality of search.

On April 19th, 2009 I asked about Mountain Bikes once on Twitter. Hundreds of people answered on both Twitter and FriendFeed. On Twitter? Try to bundle up all the answers and post them here in my comments. You can’t. They are effectively gone forever. All that knowledge is inaccessible. Yes, the FriendFeed thread remains, but it only contains answers that were done on FriendFeed and in that thread. There were others, but those other answers are now gone and can’t be found.

This is not exactly the same idea as the theme in this post, because a lot of what bothers him can be solved technically. But there is evidence that faster, easier, access to current awareness broadens our absorption of the present and thins out our access to the past. Simply put, too much of now means less and less memory.

This was quite dramatically illustrated about a year ago by sociologist of science James Evans, who published a paper in the journal Science entitled “Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship”. Evans analysed citation activity across several large databases of journals (including arts and humanities) through their evolving history, because he wanted to see what would happen with how scientists and scholars responded to the increasing availability of back files going back in time, as journals were retroactively digitised. How would online access influence knowledge discovery and use? One of his hypotheses was that “online provision increases the distinct number of articles cited and decreases the citation concentration for recent articles, but hastens convergence to canonical classics in the more distant past.”

In fact, the opposite effect was observed.

As deeper backfiles became available, more recent articles were referenced; as more articles became available, fewer were cited and citations became more concentrated within fewer articles. These changes likely mean that the shift from browsing in print to searching online facilitates avoidance of older and less relevant literature. Moreover, hyperlinking through an online archive puts experts in touch with consensus about what is the most important prior work—what work is broadly discussed and referenced. … If online researchers can more easily find prevailing opinion, they are more likely to follow it, leading to more citations referencing fewer articles. … By enabling scientists to quickly reach and converge with prevailing opinion, electronic journals hasten scientific consensus. But haste may cost more than the subscription to an online archive: Findings and ideas that do not become consensus quickly will be forgotten quickly.”

Read on.

Written by Mira Vogel

July 30, 2009 at 12:26

Posted in cognition