Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Catching up with OCTEL Week 5 - A new role for VLEs?

More than just a filing cabinet?
        I’ve been away for a little while, but had a little unfinished business from Week 5. I wanted  to contribute to the general discussion in Activity 5.2 with some thoughts about VLEs, in particular:
       - What are the wider implications of enforced platforms and technologies for Higher Education? 

VLEs. Or LMSs. Or MLEs. Or MLSs. Or whatever you want to call them (does it matter?)
We know that VLEs have aroused strong feelings since they became the standard online learning platform in most universities - see, for example: The VLE is dead at ALT-C 2009.  Despite the frequent criticisms levelled at them, it would be hard to find a UK HEI that doesn’t have some kind of VLE such as Moodle, Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Sakai etc., and for all the talk of PLEs (Personal Learning Environments), until there is a coherent alternative, it seems that they are here to stay, at least in the near future. But that’s OK! In my view, VLEs are not, in themselves, a bad thing, but they are often not used very effectively. Perhaps all we need to do is re-evaluate the role they play in teaching and learning within Higher Education?

A frequent complaint about VLEs is that they are used solely as content dumps – the tutor / lecturer simply dumps a load of PDFs, Powerpoints, maybe a course handbook, into the relevant area of the VLE and that’s it, job done, there’s your e-learning right there.  Yet Blackboard and Moodle both have a host of other features designed to encourage interaction, dialogue, peer feedback, reflection, group work and other activities and processes which could be said to belong to social constructivist pedagogical approaches. Used well, these can really enhance the learning process and engage learners. The trouble is, they rarely seem to be used well. There are many reasons for this – staff don’t see the need for it, don’t have time, training isn't provided across the board, staff may be on temporary contracts and so on. But what if we were to rethink the role of the VLE, both for the educator and the student?

Here’s how I think VLEs could be used:

For 1st year students the VLE would provide a safe online space to interact with their lecturers and other students. It would serve as a type of sandbox in which they could develop new skills – e.g. their reflective writing skills through writing a blog, commenting on other students’ work, creating and uploading a presentation, image or video to a group space for example. The VLE could fulfil a similar function for less experienced staff, allowing them to develop their own digital literacies, alongside their students. The advantages of the VLE over external tools at this stage would be:

·        A private space to develop digital skills related to a student's subject
·        Capacity for tutors to monitor and where appropriate grade student interactions online and provide prompt feedback
·        Making more use of communication tools within the VLE and expanding its use beyond content repository
·        Reducing the risks associated with online interactions for less experienced staff and students (e.g. data protection, copyright, confidentiality and so on)

As students progress through their learning journey, into their second and final year or on to postgraduate study, the aim should be to ‘wean’ them off the VLE and help them to develop their own personal learning environments and networks. Digitally literate staff should be able to help students build an online profile and identity, develop their ability to critically evaluate and also produce content for the web  and thereby bring them away from the sheltered environment of the VLE into the ‘real’ world. This is where they might, for example, build an e-portfolio (not in the VLE) which they would still be able to access after leaving the university, perhaps begin writing a blog on WordPress or Blogger or starting using Twitter and so on. The point is, the further they go in their university career, the more they should be encouraged to move away from the safe world of the VLE towards creating their own PLE.  Of course, the VLE would still have a role, for sharing files, grading functions for contributory assessments, integration of Turnitin, announcements and so on, but many of the more communicative and social functions of a Personal Learning Environment and the opportunities for networking with wider communities of practice around the world could gradually be built up using external tools and thus preparing the students better for life after graduation.

Equally, the more staff are able to develop and demonstrate their own digital literacies, the greater role they might have in developing other staff and students digital literacies outside the 'walled garden' which is the university VLE. – staff who are less digitally literate could be encouraged and supported to develop their skills within the VLE. (some might say that if you can actually use Blackboard effectively, the rest should be easy…. – especially the Text Editor in SP8…)  By developing their ability to use various tools inside the VLE (e.g. blogs, discussion boards, multimedia etc) they may be able to enhance their skills and begin to experiment with creating their own Personal Learning Environments and networks and therefore be in a position to model these skills and help their students to develop them.

For me, this type of digital literacy development is crucial for both staff and students, but we can’t just expect it to happen of its own accord – it takes time and commitment, and since we have these expensive environments available to us, why not try to use them productively to provide a protective 'nursery' or sandbox for our staff and students while at the same time acknowledging that they are suitable for some purposes and not for others and that, as a Higher Education establishment, we have a duty to prepare students for life after university and that some of the skills and literacies they need are not catered for within a university VLE? In other words, it doesn't have to be one or the other (VLE or PLE), but can be both, only perhaps we need to think about how we use the VLE a bit more......

* I probably haven't explained this very well, and am probably being idealistic but hey-ho, that's what it's all about, right?


  1. Absolutely agree with you, Jim - and you have put it really well. I think that your model is one that we should embrace.

    The other thing that we could do is change the granularity of the VLE. Instead of (typically digitally really uncomfortable) staff being exhorted to create individually and in isolation within their own modules; Teams could come together to build a collaborative, shared cohort space. The space can have a subject identity - with readings, online peer support, announcements/postings suitable for a whole year group - all reinforcing that shared ID. This could enable a sense of belonging and shared identity between staff and students and reinforce the synoptic nature of the modules and the collaborative and constructivist nature of knowledge-construction

  2. Agree about the granularity - trouble is, what I've often found is that despite all our talk about collaboration, social learning, groupwork etc., some staff often have real problems working in groups and sharing! Obviously the reasons for this are complex, and I guess part of our role should be to try to encourage more effective collaboration among staff...