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Are VLEs the problem or is it just how we use them?

December 17th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

I was in Wolverhampton yesterday for round 2 of our AltC debate on Virtual Learning Environments (watch the movie here) this time entitled the VLE is Undead . In come ways it is knockabout stuff – Steve Wheeler, James Clay, myself and Nick Sharratt all delivering a ten minute contribution on our different takes on the theme and chaired by the ever ebullient Josie Fraser.

My presentation was basically pushing the idea of Personal Learning Environments as learners spaces as opposed to the institutionally controlled VLE. There were some interesting points that came out of the discussion. John Traxler noted that we were using the theme of educational technology to discuss the future of education. He is right. The debate over PLEs and VLEs cannot be separated from discussing either where we think education is going or from larger ideas of where we want education to go. But it may be that by focusing on education technology, it makes the debate easier to get a grip on. And it may also reflect the growing importance of technology in education.

My argument was predicated on four trends (borrowed from Martin Weller :) ):

  • The growing pressures for personalisation of learning – and the fact that the present standardised education systems and institutions fail to meet the needs of many learners
  • The growing demand for education – both from developing countries who lack sufficient education services (and in many cases even access to basic schooling) and demands for lifelong learning)
  • The growing diversification of contexts and sources of learning – including of course the web and mobile learning but also media organisations and importantly the workplace – with increasing recognition of the importance of lifelong learning
  • The different ways in which people are learning – including through the internet, through personal Learning Networks, through social communities and groups and in communities of practice.

In reality VLEs have failed to prove attractive for learners – they log in when they have to but with little enthusiasm. And, however we define them, Personal Learning Environments are a reality – in the way in which people are using Personal Computers, web based applications and social networks to support their own learning.

I don’t think I won the debate – if such a debate can be ‘won’. Participants in the workshop were concerned about how to manage learners. For institutions this is a legitimate concern but would be better handled by applications for administering and managing from those for learning (indeed this was what the Jisc tried to do with its approach to service Oriented Architectures although this approach appears to have been too complex and hot problems in defining services at a technical level).

There was also concern over assessment – how would this be done without VLEs (on this I think we need especially in the UK to work out what we are trying to achieve through assessment).

The ideas around digital identities and digital literacies seemed to be very new for many of the participants. I think this is a key area which we will have to do more work on in the future.

I raised the question of students not having access to their work after a module or a course had been completed. Some saw the introduction of e-Portfolios as an answer to this although one said it was the students responsibility to make sure they has personal copies of their work. This seems to me to get to the heart of the problem. VLEs are bing used as a space for handing out assignments and for collecting in the results – as a repository. I am not convinced that VLEs are best designed for such a purpose but it once more begs the question. Essentially students are having to design their own environments for learning, whilst using the VLE as a institutional space for managing their work. And institutions are not interested or do not have resources to support students in developing their learning environment.

Interestingly, those most enthusiastic about VLEs seemed to be in institutions using their own in house software or using Moodle and I would guess that reflects the degree of ownership teaching and administrative staff feel over the VLE. It is of little surprise that those least enthusiastic seemed to be using (or being told to use) Blackboard or WebCT.

Overall, I guess, the main feeling was that VLEs were not succeeding because they were being misused or badly used. And that neatly brings us back in a full circle to the discussions about the future of education and to the purpose of educational technology. But I am concerned that the debate, such as it is, is being framed within institutional concerns. Little attention is being paid to the potential for informal and work based learning and that for me is where the true potential of technology for learning lies.

8 Responses to “Are VLEs the problem or is it just how we use them?”

  1. I enjoyed your summary and viewpoints Graham. I’ve been vacillating on the utility of VLEs for the past year now. I’ve grown tired of creating content that gets locked up in the VLE and becomes difficult to share with others outside of the institution. Like you pointed out, when a course is complete and gets archived, all of that work created by the learner is typically no longer accessible. To me the VLE vs PLN argument is similar to the argument over who owns the portfolio. Does the portfolio belong to the user so he/she can take it with her upon leaving the institution, or does it belong to the institution (I say the former)?

    It will be interesting to see what happens with Moodle 2, which sounds like it may address some of the issues associated with traditional VLE (I’m not holding my breath here, however). And finally, I agree with you on the promise and potential of informal learning and technology. But my question is this…is it possible for institutions of formal learning to ever value the kind of informal learning that goes on in online and local/community based networks? How can these institutions accept and incorporate informal learning in a way that isn’t cannibalizing to its model?

  2. Graham, one other thought here. I’m not sure that VLEs will be able to keep up with the many openly available social tools that can be used for building online learning environments. Great example here of high school students in the USA talking about a project where they used facebook fan pages to take on the role of a figure from US History: http://isenet.ning.com/video/using-facebook-to-teach-1?xg_source=activity

    Could this be done in Moodle or Blackboard?? I guess so, but I don’t think it would achieve the same results.

  3. Ray Tolley says:

    Graham, I enjoyed the clarity of your presentation. Perhaps I might have suggested a different title, “VLEs? Not dead, yet.” As I suggested, the ‘failure’ of VLEs has been in bad implementation, where technician-designers have not discussed with ALL stakeholders what they really wanted from a VLE and, conversely, stakeholders have not been properly educated as to the full potential of a good VLE and therefore did not know what to ask for. Perhaps, because I have a smattering of technical experience and acting as a lead educator, I have been able to reject the responses of technicians who say, ‘Can’t be done!’

    However, other unsubstantiated arguments were put about at the conference that VLEs were not Web2.0 compatible and therefore students would look elsewhere for their collaboration – NOT so! There is plenty of evidence on the ‘net of good VLE practice where studnets are provided with collaborative tools and access to external repositories. Where teachers and lecturers have adjusted their teaching & learning strategies to benefit from Web2.0.

    Not only are there tens of thousands of VLEs enabling good practice, instant assessment feedback etc, but there are scores of open universities around the world delivering exceptional virtual learning to millions of students. Are all of these wrong?

    One thing I vigourously maintain is “The joy of e-Learning” as expressed by Eva de Lera, see: http://maximise-ict.co.uk/The_Joy_of_e-learning-Report.pdf
    This was brought home to me, yet again, in ‘Engaging our youngest minds’ see: http://efoliointheuk.blogspot.com/2009/12/passion-and-learning.html
    Although Angela Maiers is refering to young learners I am convinced that the same passion as you, Graham, display and communicate, is essential to all levels of learning. Perhaps the fault is not therefore in the VLE but in us as educators?

  4. Paul H says:

    I’ve always thought that the VLE model was fundamentally flawed in the school sector.

    As a concept that sprang out of the ‘adult distance learning (Open University)’ model it clearly works for self-motivated individuals who want to engage, and are doing it because they want to.

    I’m afraid you just can’t force this model onto children/students in school. Some (a tiny minority) with those same self-motivated qualities mentioned above will use them, but the overwhelming majority won’t.

    It’s much easier to use Google (where the information is always up-to-date) and they don’t need to remember a password.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by James Clay and Graham Attwell, stuart. stuart said: RT: @GrahamAttwell New blog post – VLEs dead? Or just smelling like it? http://is.gd/5ryQU #vleundead […]

  2. […] education system.” Some of these issues were raised by Graham Attwell in his post about virtual learning environments and in this post about digital […]

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