"The VLE is dead"
Here at Teesside we have had a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) since 2001, using Blackboard (the term VLE is generally used now to refer to software designed to bring everything together, as opposed to the combination of web page content and/or separate discussion boards that may have been used by some computer/internet-savvy staff before VLE softwares arrived as mainstream). For the most part, people here and most places can hardly now imagine life without the VLE, however irritating its idiosyncrasies. It’s what we call mission critical.
Blackboard is the market leader in commercial VLE softwares. It’s not a cheap option when you look at its licence fee. And yes, despite the ‘features as designed’, Bb doesn’t have many hidden costs. It’s managed technically by the server team in ICT Systems and takes them a small amount of direct maintenance time on a few occasions each year. Other institutions take a different approach; they use software which is ‘free’ – what’s called Open Source. This doesn’t cost in terms of licence fee, but does require the more active presence of technical staff to maintain the system and programmers to develop the site. This might give you a more flexible system in the long run if you have the right expertise, but means keeping on top of the development in a way not so necessary with a commercial software, so with this and salaries for additional programmers/developers, ‘free’ software doesn’t always work out that much cheaper!
Many of the VLE systems have been around since Web 2.0 tools were gleams in eyes. That they pre-date the read-write webhas led to much of their usage being ‘document dumping’ and we are just as guilty of that as the next institution here at Teesside. But with free social software readily available in so many feature-rich and colourful variations that staff, groups and individual students can use them as building blocks to a patchwork of tools apparently more flexible than the VLE. This prompts many discussions around the topic ‘The VLE is dead’. Sometimes this is genuinely recognised as the VLE of any flavour – commercial, home-grown or open source. Sometimes it is simply a stab at commercial VLEs.
Is the VLE dead? Terminally ill? Paralysed down one side? Are we spending more time condemning it than giving it a healthcheck? I’m reminded of Gilly Salmon’s solution to the ‘problem’ of discussion board ‘lurkers’ and whether one should worry about them: rename them to ‘browsers’ and forget about it as an issue. Whether a VLE is alive or dead really depends on what you’re expecting it to do, and what you’re doing with it. A VLE is only a software framework, if it’s dead then that must partly be our fault for starving it. What you do with it is key. Yes, an out of the box VLE might not have some of the inbuilt functionality of the newer social networking tools, but that doesn’t mean we make anywhere near enough of the tools that they do have either.
My biggest problem with moving away from our commercial, institutional VLE is that truthfully, I don’t think we have anything to replace it with. Not Sharepoint, not Moodle. Our VLE is substantially tied in to our enterprise systems, automatically feeding twice-daily updated information from Student Records for 25000 students and 3000+ live modules. All modules have a minimum threshold quality standard to adhere to, and use a range of the available toolset appropriate to the individual modules, advised on learning and teaching by elearning support and co-ordinators. The system is mission critical. The system, rather than the software. But after ten years in VLEs, I’d still use the same software.
Yes, I much admire Mike Wesch’s creative cohorts, but partly they work because he brings them together, sets up the feeds, aggregates and moderates them. Yes, none of these are so difficult to do, but 80% of staff couldn’t or wouldn’t do it themselves (let alone ask 25000 students to create their own accounts and hook themselves up to the right combination of social software stuff). In many ways I think we’re exactly back where we were before VLEs came in, just with different tools. Some people, with some desire and some skill can happily produce and post materials and opportunities for engagement for their students that are cutting-ish edge of the technology we have generally available. These people will be disappointed by the generalisation of the VLE which provides jack-of-all-trades access to the other 80% of staff and perhaps 80% of the functionality. One would hope that the 80% didn’t use the VLE as a document dump but often the students actually value that the repository of resources is there for them (back in my day, our ‘document dump’ was a loooong bibliography…)
The University still needs to be have a method of delivering institutionally authorised materials to students in a guaranteed manner (just like we send them emails to their university email accounts not their hotmail (this week we’re probably glad we didn’t go with gmail for university mail!) accounts). Does this make a VLE a VLE? I used to try and encourage staff in training on the Virtual Learning Environment to use it to create a Valuable Learning Experience. But what’s in a name? It’s only in the UK that we call VLEs VLEs. In the US they’re Learning Management Systems (LMSs). Elsewhere, Course Management Systems (CMSs). An LMS is possibly better than a VLE; the idea of virtual/online/real is a hazy one these days. But are they ‘learning management systems’? They can be, used properly, fully, because evaluation data from students quite often agrees ‘yes, Bb helps me organise my learning’. Tools like tasks and eportfolios can indeed help students manage their learning (as will all the free social software that open source people like to think can replace VLEs, as Personal Learning Environments, which they can, but that means all students having to create them rather than having them there on their desktop to just use). A CMS is possibly truer to the description with which I began this paragraph, in that it implies a ‘from-institutional’ angle, but then you have the potential for confusion over terminology with courses/programmes/modules, and it could be seen as moving away from learning by taking ‘learning’ out of the title. So should we recourse to Managed Learning Environment (MLE), which back in 2001 was going to replace the term VLE when VLEs added enterprise integrations, but never really seemed to take off too widely?
Whilst we may wish for students to develop independent and autonomous learning skills, our experience of PDP and portfolios suggests that widespread adoption and best use of a PLE is not something we’d see much of. Even if we encouraged this, and remind ourselves that knowledge is constructed, we’d probably still need to provide institutional resources for some while to come, so we’d still need to run some sort of VLE (although then you could perhaps argue that you would only need a document dump, like Sharepoint, and I’d probably argue against that too, unless you had a virtual learning environment to go with it…) Or an LMS. Or a CMS. Or an MLE. Or whatever we called it. Actually, I’m not really bothered what we call it, going with Gilly, just call it something and stop spending time worrying about it. Not least because then we’d be left with the time free to get on with supporting learning, ensuring a valuable learning experience and be open to the possibilities as to what we develop as our virtual learning environment…
All of which, in the old adage a picture being worth a thousand words, is pretty much summed up by @vaughny’s pic :