The Association for Learning Technology’s annual conference currently underway in Manchester included a well-hyped session called “The VLE is Dead”. The debate included a number of well-rehearsed viewpoints on both sides of the divide between those who would like to do away with institutional learning systems and those who see them as essential (if perhaps a necessary evil). They’re essentially the same points I’ve been thrashing out with Tony Hirst, Martin Weller and others over the past few years.
Steve Wheeler kicked off by suggesting that the term VLE is wrong for a start, that we are talking about content management systems and that they don’t promote learning. Sure, the name is not perfect, but it does describe a particular toolset, designed with learners in mind. VLEs do offer the ability to schedule a range of learning activities and make tools available rather than just manage content.
I have always felt that learning systems are basically “learning neutral” and are at the mercy of the learning content and activities which are made available through them. If Steve sees no valuable learning taking place in VLEs then is that due to the lack of imagination of the teachers using the systems he knows? There are innumerable examples of imaginative, engaging and effective learning experiences taking place in schools and colleges via VLEs (as argued by James Clay later) – and many well-documented examples in higher education.
Steve claims that VLEs promote homogenised content and that this one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for students. Perhaps his institution has the budget to create individualised content for each student depending on their preferences and learning styles. Mine doesn’t. Or maybe all his students are happy to pull together their own list of appropriate learning resources and activities from around the Internet and to form their own groups to study together jointly. Most of those in my institution would not be and they relish the carefully crafted learning content and activities provided for them, which they can supplement with further individual research as required.
For Steve, VLEs prevent students from discussing with others outside the University. There are undoubtedly scenarios where valuable learning could take place by connecting with individuals with shared learning interests via the Internet from around the World. What normally brings students together though is the common purpose of studying a syllabus and taking the same assessments at the same time. It is certainly irritating to be constrained by the licensing policies of commercial VLEs, where you cannot easily integrate groups of non-registered students into discussions however open source solutions have no such restrictions.
Graham Attwell is anti-VLE because he is anti-formal education and he launched his usual attacks on the mass education system, based on a standardised curriculum. If you come from this standpoint then a VLE does indeed replicate many of the undesirable, closed aspects of the formal education system, locking out those who have not registered on courses and funnelling predetermined content into them. A “personal learning environment” comprised of multiple pieces of freely available social software neatly fits the anarchic educational world view, but in my view we will need VLEs for as long as we have formal education with groups of (increasingly fee-paying) students, facilitated by individual tutors, studying a common curriculum for specified periods incorporating rigorous formal assessment processes.
James Clay took a pragmatic approach, despite being billed as the VLE man. No-one thinks that VLEs are perfect but when used appropriately they can provide a framework and guidance to the student and help staff who lack confidence with multiple social networking sites. Nick Sharratt argued that the VLE is not yet complete but that it is necessary and it is our responsibility to demand enhancements so it does meet our needs. He suggested that users expect reliability, predictability and consistency across courses. Well, we’ve had “the VLE is more reliable/unreliable than free social software tools” debate many times so perhaps it’s pointless to revisit it but I just have to point out that I’m finding the current performance of Facebook is making the system unusable and we would rightly be slated if the VLE was as slow to use….
From the recording, I recognised the dulcet Liverpudlian tones of Chris Jones in the audience. He argued that the VLE sits in an institutional framework and is not just about learning. VLEs are indeed very much about the administrative aspects of formal learning and that’s why they’re not going to go away. Nick asked how you can use a social network for learning without knowing who your fellow students are, for example. Whether VLEs are any good at facilitating effective learning as well depends on the imagination and skills of those creating the content hosted by them and the activities facilitated by them. Meanwhile, denial-of-service attacks permitting, social networking sites and free learning content go from strength to strength for those with the time and inclination to engage with them.