Perhaps the most fundamental difference between the educational models of the UK’s Open University and the one in the Netherlands is that OUNL students can start and complete their courses at any time and are not in a defined cohort of students. This makes most VLEs unsuitable as their architecture tends to be organised around discreet groups of students doing a course for a defined period, supported by a teacher.
VLEs are increasingly capable also of supporting the concept of sub-courses (eg a small grouping for a tutor group) and meta-courses which learners can be enrolled on in addition to their individual courses. This becomes particularly necessary for our students who may wish to enrol in one or more subject areas such as Earth Sciences or Psychology. They may have finished one course and not be ready to start the next one but still wish to be part of a subject community, retain contact with other students and continue to have access to domain content. But these groupings are very much under the control of the institution, which may not always be able to put students together in the best way or allocate them the appropriate tools.
Now this is where things start getting really interesting, dare I say revolutionary? At the OU we’re working on a fundamental change to the architecture of Moodle from the students’ (and tutors’) point of view, allowing them to set up their own forums, wikis, blogs and other tools, and to invite others to join them in ad-hoc groupings. This provides an answer to the views of people like Tore Hoel, who argues that VLEs are systems of institutional control. VLEs are about to become much more flexible, appealing and useful systems for students.
One of the interesting things about the OU Facebook app – http://blogs.open.ac.uk/Maths/ajh59/010855.html – is that it does allow a coming together of students around a course code at any time using the Study Buddy finder service (which also matches on interests, I think…)