Much of the criticism levelled at virtual learning environments / learning management systems relates to the control of the environment by the institution rather than the learner. The individual student has minimal ability to upload their own content or to set up collaborative tools unless this has been pre-ordained by the institution. The argument goes that students (and teachers) prefer free Web 2.0 systems because they can do what they like with them; VLEs are just administrative systems for making content available to designated groups of students.
VLEs have traditionally been based around the course/module as the unit of organisation. Any other form of structure such as a superstructure (eg a degree which combines a number of modules) or a substructure (eg a tutorial group) can be difficult to set up. At the Open University we have now produced a module for Moodle called Shared Activities which allows a student or any other user of the system to set up their own forums, shared blogs or wikis and invite any other VLE user to join them. Other tools could easily be added to the list in the future.
I cannot stress enough how fundamentally this changes the underlying assumptions of what a VLE is. The institution still sets up course web pages, uploads content, specifies learning activities and assessments and provides formal tutor groups with the right students (and tutor) having access to them.
But now individual students can also form their own study groups or use the system for social networking purposes with others in ways that they decide. There is no need to get permission or involve an administrator in setting up a blog, wiki or forum – just a requirement to click a box saying you agree with the terms and conditions and will be responsible for moderating the forum etc.
It has taken more than a year since this system was built to get it released at the University. There have been concerns about the loss of control by the institution, and also procedural, legal and support issues. However finally the reservations have been overcome and the system is available to all students and staff on the VLE. One reason to offer the system to staff as well is so that they can set up their own shared activities with other staff and become familiar with how the VLE works, thus potentially gaining ideas for how these tools could be used for teaching purposes.
If you’re staff or a student on the VLE at the Open University you should now be able to set up a shared activity. Please note that currently no user support is offered.
If you run Moodle elsewhere you can download the Shared Activity Module for Moodle.
Associate Lecturers at the Open University can use these tools but if they want to do so for teaching purposes there is a separate procedure to follow.