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