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.