This week we were contacted by a University conducting research into the use of VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments). I explained that we might not be a great subject for the research project as we DON’T REALLY THINK VLEs ARE AN EDUCATOR’S IDEA. Apparently, however, this was why we had been chosen for the project. We are, it seems, the misfits.
So what exactly is the state of the debate on VLEs? If you have a little while take a look at the video below for some interesting views from this year’s ALT-C conference in Manchester. Niall Sclater, Director of Learning Innovation at the Open University claims that the VLE is far from dead. He says that he has ‘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 there is] no valuable learning taking place in VLEs then is that due to the lack of imagination of the teachers using [them]?’ However, I think that the architecture/design of many VLEs is such that ‘learning neutral’ is probably the best they could hope to be described as: ‘learning uninspired’ might be more appropriate. In fact, Steve Wheeler suggests that many commercial VLEs that only allow entry to registered users actively prevent students from connecting with other learners from outside their own institution.
James Clay counters, quite correctly probably, that VLEs at least are more reliable and faster than some public providers of Web2.0 connectivity such as Twitter and Facebook, however, whether speedy uninspired content is better than occasionally off-line globally based personal learning networks is questionable.
Isn’t the real issue here mirroring the debate that has surrounded the nature of personalised learning? A couple of posts ago I reported on the work that we have done here with Esme Capp in developing a negotiated curriculum with the children, harnessing their passions and interests and making ourselves do the hard work in ensuring that the learning outcomes meet those interests. In the current debate over VLEs a similar situation that gave rise to the call for a personalised rather than centralised curriculum seems to have arisen for learning environments. Surely it is the case that the technology should be centred on the learner and not the institution, on the provision of a personalised learning environment and not a generic one?
However, as they note at Bath Spa University, the very nature of learning itself has yet to meet its moral obligations:
- “How many of you have a VLE?” (all hands go up)
- “How many of you go to your VLE when you want to learn something?” (one hand goes up)
- “How many of you go to Google when you want to learn something?” (all hands go up)
Amusingly the next speaker replaces question 2 with;
- “How many of you go to a lecture when you want to learn something?” (one hand goes up)
In any case, I am not convinced that our unrest with pedagogy in general is any reason to extend a failing model in to a virtual world. As Sarah Bartlett suggests ‘The VLE homogenises content, and yet the student body is understood to be increasingly diverse… the large-scale discussion facilities are poor, and block interaction beyond the institution.’
Is the VLE dead? Probably not in many instituitions, but intellectually, I suspect it has been dead in the water for some time.