VLE – the discussion continues #VLE

The Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is a system/tool that sparks a fair bit of controversy when you mention it in any education setting. Whether you like it or not, use it or not, you will no doubt be involved in one, to some degree.

Last month I posted the poll to this blog about what name or label you have for your ‘student-centred’ learning environment (I know, that in itself is ripe for a huge discussion about whether a VLE or CMS could validly be called ‘student centred’ or even a ‘learning environment’):

Update, March 2012 – due to performance issues with the blog and the hosting company I use I have had to delete the poll plugin to reduce the load on the server. Apologies for this.

I am not surprised with the results as the VLE is deemed the most popular one I observe in discussions. Whether it is the right classification for the tool is also up for discussion but the results show the term VLE as the one we use.

However, Steve Wheeler got me thinking (again!) when he tweeted during last months eAssessment Scotland Conference:

Now, while Steve is somewhat known for sparking ‘heated’ discussion he has a point here, even if it’s one we don’t want to like it. I have constant battles when I see PDF and PowerPoint files being uploaded to the VLE, with no explanation on what they are or how/why the students should use them, and to then see them called ‘eLearning’. Arghh! That is barely even eDelivery and certainly not eLearning. In this day and age there is no reason why we can’t develop decent learning packages for the students, or arrange for appropriate explanation of what they are expected to do with the materials we provide for them … right?

However, from Steve’s post above I then saw the following tweet from Matt Northam, a colleague at Bournemouth University:

Indeed, why do students not interact wit us or each other in the Institutional VLE? I’ve searched around on this topic and haven’t really found any definitive research or evidence that I’m happy with. I retweeted Matt’s post and received some welcome replies, which I’m sure Matt is also appreciative of too. The following are a selection of the replies, so I apologise if your’s is not included and commented on – you might have something similar to another reply?

  • Tim Dalton: “Feeling that the VLE is part of the assessment process so I filter what I write there?”

Indeed I have heard similar feelings from students at BU, but if introduced and explained properly then any form of required interaction (group based, personal, journal, informal/formal, etc) should negate these feelings? The VLE is not, to my knowledge, intended or even used to replicate or replace existing communication channels, but rather to enhance a particular section or activity. For me what you post to the Institutional VLE is always considered confidential.

  • Ben Bull: “Because your VLE isn’t as good and isn’t as socially relevant to them?”

Certainly the VLE is not as ‘socially’ relevant to the, but it’s not supposed to be, is it? As far as the statement that it isn’t “as good” really depends again on how you use it, and which one you have. I would say that from my experience most VLE systems are not developing as fast as the world of social media/networks.

  • Jon Scott: “VLEs outdated. Need to improve + integrate with workable pedagogy which encourages online communication and collab.”  and “hard to achieve- need to show a requirement for it. how do you demo requirement without a system to try pedagogy on?” (2 tweets)

Jon echo’s my sentiment from Ben’s tweet, VLE systems are slowly catching up to online behaviour in social networks, but unless they make radical changes they will always be playing catch-up. More importantly is that there needs to be a reason to have the VLE, and any changes within it, that must be relevant to the pedagogic need for the technology, and how we use it.

  • Doug Belshaw: “Discussions on SoMe instead of VLE because of ownership of space? Identity?”

I’ve blogged about this before too, but the ‘safety’ of activity within the Institutional VLE is something we can and should advocate. When we or the students take the work/assignment/conversation/etc out of this environment we lose control, they lose security, and we and them are open to external influences and activity/exposure that, for me, we ought to prevent. While I’m sure someone will argue that we should not have control over the conversation, I am merely stating here that we should be ‘controlling’ the technical infrastructure to provide a safe online environment for course-based student activity.

  • Natalie Lafferty: “Usability, interaction design, ownership maybe why students prefer talking about course stuff on FB rather than VLE”

Interesting point here: while I talk about (our) ‘ownership’ of the Institution system the idea that the students want their own ownership of the system they use is not one I had thought of until now. However, their data, details, communication, etc, in external systems are at the mercy of those T&Cs .. and we all know how unreliable and changeable Facebook has been in the past about that. The question of ‘ownership’ is one we ought to take seriously.

  • Sue Beckingham: “SoMe v VLE – interface more intuitive & visually pleasing + can easy communicate with chosen connections.”

If we can get the issues surrounding data security sorted then a ‘system’ or set of tools that utilises the best of both worlds could be on the cards, yes?

  • Shirley Pickford: “A student said its because the VLE doesn’t look/feel like FB/twitter/etc. Design tweaks coming up when I have time.”

I’d like to know more about this as the question for me here is whether it is purely the design of the two systems or do they mean the practical aspects of the way the two different systems work? I can see potential in this approach, certainly in finding out whether the students actually understand what each system can offer.

  • David Walker: “Perhaps because fear of being monitored? Or less fear of being shown up among immediate friends (Fb) rather than whole class?”

I’m not sure how other people use their VLE but for ‘my’ online students the conversation is about being monitored so we can gauge their progress and direct them to additional resources in case they start to lag behind, or even worse, get the wrong idea? Key here is that the conversation we expect/hope/plan for IS centred around their study, so this is obviously aimed at them using the VLE.

Is this question about the use of the VLE more about the basic fundamentals of each system rather than their merits? If we had a VLE that mimicked the buttons and function of the social network tool would the  students be more inclined to use it, or will they still use the external system because of the issue or ownership or the link to assessment?

This tweet from Carl Morris simply says “Ownership, familiarity and habit?. it simply covers the main topics. Is it more about familiarity and habit or is it about how WE introduce the VLE to them, explain what it is we will do and actually do it, as well as explain what we expect from them?

I saw a report recently (unfortunately I can’t find the  link now!) that highlighted what the students liked and disliked about their VLE. The aspects the students were positive about were orientated towards what the VLE did and how it did it, but the negativity surrounding the VLE was centred around how it was used. Therefore we are the problem, not the VLE?

This says a lot. Is the question about the success or failure of the VLE actually our fault, even though we pin it on the system or the students for not using it properly?

I don’t see the VLE as a place for conversation, I see it as somewhere the students ‘should’ be interacting with for the purpose of their studies. Yes, use Facebook and other websites to chat about housing, drinking, sport, etc but for your course studies they will benefit from using the VLE as we, the educators and facilitators, are present and able to join in when they ask us. If the students take everything outside of the space we provide then we can’t be expected to join them, or even know where they are. Can they?

I think this whole exercise has produced more questions for me than provided possible answers. What do you think? Do you have any research to add here that will help us all form a better understanding of what/where/how we need to develop our use and uses of the VLE? Please leave your comments below.

Image from CoolJinny
  • This is an excellent summary of where the VLE is at present. The ownership issue is one of reasons I believe that students avoid using the VLE much and maybe it applies to staff as well. Next week I’m launching a Google Docs based VLE to see if the ability to customise Chrome and add in apps will make students (and Staff?) feel it’s part of their world rather than forced upon them.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for your comment. I’d certainly be interested in how/what you’re doing if you want to share your experiences at any time?

      All the best, David

  • If the VLE is an extension of the Institution from which the student/teacher hopes to escape he/she will spend the minimum of  time there. 

    Virtual learning is often what it is. This is not a nature reserve to protect species threatened with extinction…or is it? Are the animals content?Are we to act as springboards for learning in real life or as nannies controlling adult creches to protect them/us from the wild world web?

    • Anonymous

      Hi Simon. This is what started my thought and post … is the term VLE correct? I would say that even though most of us use the term ‘VLE’ it would be safe to say that very little ‘learning’ goes on there, even as a result of the materials the student finds there.

      I think we have an obligation to provide a safe online ‘environment’ for the students to explore their University experiences, whether that is subject/discipline based or not. If the student chooses to go elsewhere for this experience then so be it, but is it because we have failed them in the system/tool(s) we have implemented for them, or is it how we are trying to use the tools (remembering that technology must not drive pedagogy).

      All the best, David

      • Hi David thanks for the reply. My feeling is that the safety comes from offering responsible, reliable accompaniment into the wild rather than an unnaturally safe technological reserve. This is not to say that the institution does not have a role to provide comfortable lodges for relaxation, study and refreshment and vehichles for driving the learners out into the bush.
        As far as the techology driving pedagogy question, I agree up to a point but I am also convinced that the technology changes the relationships we have with the world and therefore our pedagogy. 

        For me the key to learning is the personal relationships that an individual has with an other(often interfaced by technology  books, forums,conferences etc) 

        How do we enhance personal human relationships by using technology? Is the question I ask myself.

  • Anonymous

    Interesting post David. I think it helps to think about a student experience today and how it was pre-VLE. 
    1. Pre-VLE students were offered f2f learning activities such as lectures, tutorials, labs, etc., set directed readings and other study activities, required to perform assessment activities, supplied with resources such as book lists and offprints, controlled access to library resources.
    2. All of these happen now with more or less involvement of a VLE.  A VLE can be a great way for students to locate what they need for a module – a digital library means that lots of people can read the same journal article at the same time.  There is the possibility to post interactive activities, and , as you identify, to track student progress and possibly intervene.

    For me both 1 and 2 are useful but rather provider-centric views that tend to assume that learning is something that happens mainly under the gaze of the teacher. So the talking, reading, thinking, doing that students choose to do away from our gaze may be much more important and only available to teachers second hand through the artifacts in 1,2.  How can we support learners to become effective at learning with us and away from us?

    I am not saying that what the teacher does isn’t important – I think it is. It’s the illusion of transparency that technology can encourage that worries me. The technological development of VLEs such as Blackboard is shameful – innovation by acquisition into a poorly integrated system is not acceptable for products that consume so much of our budgets.  No individual user would pay for such a product from their own hard-earned cash.

    P.S. I think the whole VLE is dead thing is sterile – it doesn’t encourage us to question the right things.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Francis. If all we want is to provide the students with a resource-centred approach then we wouldn’t (I presume) spend the huge bucks on the systems we do but rather offer a simplified document storage system.

      The blog post and the quality of replies coming in here are raising so many more questions about the VLE and alternative systems, not least with me about just exactly do the students want or need … ? Has anyone asked them (and taken the time to explain the question) and considered the reply in relation to the choices made on systems integrated into the Institution?

      All the best, David

  • John Kleeman


    Good post and interesting questions. I wonder if part of the answer is Search – if material in the VLE is not easily searchable, is that why it dies? Search (mostly Google) is a key reason the web is successful.

    SharePoint (especially SharePoint 2010) has very strong search, it’s perhaps the strongest search system outside Google if you deploy the FAST search add-on, but still pretty reasonable out of the box. Could this be another reason to consider SharePoint to base a VLE on? Interviewed Ray Fleming of Microsoft (published yesterday at http://blog.sharepointlearn.com/2011/09/08/sharepoint-best-bred-for-education/) and he suggested that building your VLE on top of SharePoint makes it much stronger for long term document management?

    I know it’s not what everyone’s doing, but might it be the future or part of it?

    John Kleeman

    • Anonymous

      Hi John. Thanks for the comment. Search is indeed becoming more important, and even Blackboard v9 has a search facility that can search the whole system. However this still relies heavily on the facilitators uploading the information and marking how and why it should be used – a series of upload files is nothing without a structure to pin them together and show/explain their relationship.

      As you say, we are looking at long term “document management” system, which is pretty much all some people use their VLE for. I hope we can evolve learning materials beyond this approach and encourage meaningful dialogue, in or out of the VLE, based on the contents of those materials.

      All the best, David.

  • @kirstyes on Twitter


    This is really interesting. I actually took part of my unit to Facebook last year. I find I prefer interacting on there to the VLE though I still use the VLE also.
    Using Facebook does come with challenges, for example I don’t friend current students and I need to work on setting some boundaries (for myself as much as anyone else) about response times etc.
    I think I’ve always been a bit of an eclectic sort and use the system that I think will work best for the task at hand rather than expecting something to do everything I want it to.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Kirsty. I have heard of this approach and, if it works, I like the idea. Of course this won’t work for all topics or for all of us but it is as much about finding our own ‘learning style’ as it is finding the style that the students can relate to.

      You might find this blog post by Stephen Heppell interesting: “Using Facebook in the Classroom” – http://www.heppell.net/facebook_in_school/ In it he, and his daughter Juliette, outlines some basic do/don’t approaches we should take to maintain professionalism and a detached-yet-approachable distance between us and the students (whatever their age).

      All the best, David

      • Kirstyes

        Hi David

        I actually work at BU too in HSC and plan to discuss professional use of social media with the students during Freshers.

        • Anonymous

          HI Kirsty. Let me know if you’d like to meet up and chat through what (and how) you’re doing? I’d be happy to share/pool knowledge, and we’re always being told that cross-School collaboration is being encouraged … ?


        • @kirstyes

          Hi David

          Happy to meet up at some point.
          E-mail me at work and we’ll sort out a time.
          (Kirsty Stanley)

        • Anonymous

          Thanks Kirsty, will do :-)

          All the best, David

  • Thanks for an interesting post David. It certainly made me think too about why my students are much happier to use Facebook rather than our LMS forums.  I hadn’t thought of it before but I wonder if you didn’t inadvertently put your finger on it when you wrote :
    “I don’t see the VLE as a place for conversation, I see it as somewhere the students ‘should’ be interacting with for the purpose of their studies.”I started to write a full comment here but somehow it turned in to a post of its own on a  blog I am keeping as part of Pedagogy First – Certificate in Online Teaching course – I hope you are able to find the time to have a read http://wp.me/p1Myp5-V

    • Anonymous

      Hi Clare. We must also remember that not everyone is willing to engage online. Not everyone has a Facebook account and I know a number of people who are actively against FB for one of many reasons (the main one being security or data and/or personal details) – therefore they will not engage in the arena the students have selected! At least the Institutional VLE is a secure and ‘safe’ environment for their personal details.

      All the best, David

  • Rose Heaney

    I agree David there are more questions than answers – this debate will run and run. In terms of the communication aspects, my experience is that students will use whatever works in a particular context and if the VLE is where it’s happening they will use it. However if there is a choice of say FaceBook or VLE, then the former will usually win. At my institution we have a lot of mature students who are less SoMe oriented than school leavers and if they do use SoMe tend to keep it separate from academic life. On a distance learning programme in herbal medicine, mainly comprised of older learners, the Blackboard discussion fora positively buzz with informal and formal interactions. Hard to believe I know. Something else we have been experimenting with this year is Yammer to provide a private Twitter-like experience for pre-reg students on a podiatry programme. It will be interesting to see where these students take their conversations once VLE access is granted. 

    • Anonymous

      Hi Rose, and thanks for the comment. I have also found the more mature/older student more willing to engage within the VLE than outside it. I have spoken to one or two of these students who have also said that they work harder to keep their personal / academic / professionals lives separate online than most of their peers. Maybe this is because they have grown up (like me) with the dangers drummed in to us from the press of the mishaps that could happen to you with a wrong email sent or wrong phrase used in print. The younger students are definitely less wary of the repercussion of their activity, as I found out in my presentation last year to 1st year students:

      “Reflection on a presentation: Social Media and Social Network” – http://www.dontwasteyourtime.co.uk/blogging/reflection-on-a-presentation-social-media-and-social-network/

      I don’t believe is it anything to do with ‘digital native vs digital immigrant’ , or ‘digital resident vs digital visitor’ either. I am thinking it is more likely to be (if anything) ‘digital willing vs digital reluctant’. How does that sound (and it has nothing to do with age or background)?

      All the best, David

  • I wonder if “trust” is a key aspect of the questions around the ownership and control in the VLE. Is part of the concern around safety a fear that students put too much trust in external services in order to get the kind of control the VLE doesn’t provide? And are we assuming that students already do trust the safety of the VLE when perhaps, rightly or wrongly, they don’t? If so, perhaps this needs to form part of the dialogue.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Simon.

      Trust is indeed an important element that we ought to consider.

      Whether we explain the VLE, why we use it, how we use, and why/how we expect the students to use it is something we ought to consider, but if the student has a trust issue towards the ‘establishment’ then it will always be an uphill struggle?

      All the best, David

      • I’m not necessarily thinking of students with a trust issue. I suspect that, generally, there is already a predisposition to trust the institution. But that may not be enough, and if we are asking them to let the institution take control of aspects of their online engagement, perhaps it needs to explicit why this is a good idea. We also need to be explicit in our commitment to them, including ownership, future access, and exporting content. That’s perhaps best discussed as part of a wider conversation about choosing and using appropriate tools for different tasks, with an acceptance that the VLE will only sometimes be the most suitable.

        There is also, related, the issue of how much trust we put in students. To minimise risk, have we locked down the VLE too far?

  • I continue to ponder the issues raised by this post (thanks again David!) and today came across this interesting observation http://andrewdouch.wordpress.com/2011/08/23/myclassfacebookgroup/ . I was particularly interested that the poster mentioned the difference between, his creating a forum and inviting the students in, as opposed to the students creating a group and inviting him in….I think this also suggests that informal conversations work better in either student or neutral places rather than institutional ones.   
    Simon Wood left me an excellent thought on my blog that ” Maybe the VLE is not just the classroom, it’s the classroom-during-a-lecture. ” which I think is also pertinent to this discussion.  Do we consider forums to be part of classrooms, or are they the equivalent of (sometimes serendipitous) conversations outside that space?  Our individual answer to that question may help to determine where we believe the conversation can best take place.

    One last thought which has been nagging me and which I can’t seem to resolve.  We talk about creating ‘safe’ spaces for students to discuss but I can’t help wondering if they are ‘safe’ for us as much as the students?

    • Anonymous

      Hi Clare.

      Thanks for the link to Andrew Douchy’s blog, very interesting.

      All the best, David

  • @sspog

    This has stirred lot of thought I’ll try and keep it to one!

    Ownership safety control….. 

    For me this is less of an issue. On my current course People Centred Computing I have purposefully taken students to a community driven site that enables them to share their work. There are a few reasons for this. The User Experience for all is excellent, energy is spent being creative, reflecting on the work and not wrangling poorly fitting technology. This may be a reflection of no large scale corporate vendor lock in. A lot of poorly fitting tech  survives because it’s thrust upon its users not chosen on it’s merits.

    There is a wide community of learners from around the world at all levels showing off there work, commenting and inspiring each other. The web has the power to take your students out with the confinements of the campus, take a pride in what they produce and get a wider perspective.

    There are of course risks associated: the site could go down, work could be lost and a whole host of other things to do with the openness. My philosophy is this goes with the territory, we have an opportunity to educate our students about digital literacy the risks and rewards of engaging in the web. I think this is a tremendous opportunity.