The VLE is Undead!

Last Wednesday, on December 16th, I attended an afternoon event at the University of Wolverhampton on ‘The VLE is Undead’.  This was a replay/development of a session first aired at the ALT-C conference in September 2009, entitled ‘The VLE is Dead’.  The event took the form of a debate, with James Clay and Nick Sharratt arguing for the continuing usefulness of VLEs, and Steve Wheeler and Graham Attwell suggesting that they are outmoded.  It was a ‘buzzy’ event, with advance interest generated by a “quick and dirty” social networking site: VLEUNDEAD and ‘live tweets’ being posted up via the data projector screen in the room where we were meeting as the event happened.   Most of the attendees were learning technologists within HE or FE; I was one of the few academics.  But I am genuinely interested in the future of such online learning spaces, seeing as I’ve invested quite a lot of my own time in making VLE platforms work within English Studies.  There’s a Cloudworks webpage on the ALT-C version of this event if you are interested.

There was discussion of the proprietorial ‘walled garden’ nature of VLES, commercial vs. open source vs. in-house VLEs, the perceived clunkiness of VLEs compared to Web 2.0 social software such as Facebook, the future of education and technology, the ever-increasing diversity of learning and learners into the 21st century, and much more.  One attendee made the very valid point that it is not so much that VLEs are outmoded as that many lecturers have never used them to their full potential, and dismiss them based on that lack of effective usage.  Personally I think that once you as a tutor see your own students/class using a VLE effectively — and obviously doing some rich learning using it — your views change.  As I say on the ‘About Ms E-Mentor’ page of this blog, my own classes that use online discussion activities would be lesser things without the online component, and that all happens within a VLE.

Maybe it is the case that a majority of academics won’t wish to do the necessary learning to manoeuvre round their institutions’ VLE, and that online pedagogic innovation will always be led by the few.  What I have found effective from my own experience is going into other departments as a subject specialist  and demoing effective use of VLEs. There’s still a great deal of interest in this from my colleagues across the UK in English Studies, many of whom still don’t really know how to make VLEs effective in their own teaching.  The VLE is a space, like a classroom is a space.  It’s what you do in it that matters and that makes learning happen.

So for me the VLE is very much not dead, or even undead.  I am sure VLE technologies and platforms will continue to develop — and so they should — but I’m very far from convinced that anything like learning is going on in the overwhelming majority of Facebook posts.  As the name suggests, it’s a ‘social networking site’ and not a learning space.  My students’ discussion forum posts on the online activities I’ve been describing in this blog are very clearly about learning, and I still very much think there is a place for an enclosed online space connected to any given course, which is what VLEs offer.

Victorian Christmas: Merry Christmas one and all!

My Victorian Vision class have just finished undertaking their final online session of the term and course.  Our final class was on Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862) in particular, and Sensation Fiction in general.  But the final online session of the term exploits the Victorians’ innovations in relation to the season of Christmas.

Ill London News Cover

Illustrated London News cover, December 1845.

 Once again the class enter the Forum ‘in character’ as they did in ‘The Dickens Debate’ (see The Dickens Debate post on November 23rd)…but this time they can be any character from any work, or author of any work we have studied.  This means we’ve had Robert Audley, George Talboys, older and younger Cathys from Wuthering Heights, Esther, John Thornton, Margaret Thornton, Eulalie from Webster’s ‘A Castaway’ and the Lady of Shalott, amongst others, all telling each other what they are getting up to over Christmas.  To help them do this the class are given links to websites detailing Victorian traditions and customs (such as the first Christmas cards, and decorating Christmas trees).

Once again this exercise works on good character understanding and role play skills.  Wit, imagination and flair are positively encouraged, and some posts have been full of humour.  I also say that students may enter the forum in the guise of an author whom we have studied.  Usually no one much takes notice of this but this year we’ve had Dickens, Lizzie Siddall, Emily Bronte…AND William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti posting entirely in poetry!  ‘Being’ an author is more difficult to pull off than being a character I think, as to be convincing there obviously needs to be some knowledge of the author’s life in play, but it’s all part of the general unpredictability of any given cohort in a discussion forum.  It’s always the case that with each new year a different cohort comes up with something new in my online activities that no previous class has ever quite done.

And so The Victorian Vision Online comes to an end for 2009.  I’ll be marking what they’ve posted in due course, but time for some turkey and plum pudding first!

Final Class of the term…

…and slouching slowly towards Christmas.  Actually I’ve had a really enjoyable term and although I don’t really feel I can stop yet (MA essay to write, book to edit…) there’s always both relief and a slight sadness when a course ends.  Today a couple of Erasmus students from Germany called by my office to say goodbye as they return home soon.  They’ve been a richly valuable addition to my Women’s Writing course.  And tonight was the final teaching session on The Victorian Vision, and hence the very final final class for one of the students who finishes her degree mid-year.  She said before everyone else came in that she felt “quite emotional” and said at the end that she had very much enjoyed my classes.  I’m looking forward to reading her dissertation on late Victorian poet Amy Levy in the new year.

There’s been a reasonably strong sense of community in my Victorian Vision class.  This is partly because it is Year 3 and friendships are well formed but  I hope the Victorian Vision Online has added to this.  This cohort has undoubtedly been the best ever in terms of their use of the general forum space that they named The What the Dickens?!  There have been regular postings on this throughout the past twelve weeks on everything from Jim Carrey’s new A Christmas Carol movie to geeky (but no doubt very trendy) online cartoons about the Victorians, to lots of links to dreadful/fantastic (delete as appropriate) Victorian kitsch.  I’m pleased it’s developed a life of its own.

We’ve also had a caption competition.  Here’s the image to which the students are invited to add a caption:

Caption competitionThe class were given a week to come up with captions and there were 14 entries.  Previously I’ve chosen the winner, but I realise that they should be the ones to make the vote, so this year I used The What the Dickens?! to distribute all the captions once they were in and they voted by emailing me their choice.  The winner and runner up were both actually by the same person, so an outright winner there:

“Ever the stoic Victorian gentleman, Roger refuses to acknowledge that his feet are on fire”.

“The Suffragist letter-bomb campaign gets off to a bad start when Maud realises she’s forgotten the gunpowder”.

Third place would go to:  She: “Father!  The publisher — they’ve accepted my novel Wuthering Heights!  But I’m so terribly worried they’ll find out I’m a woman.  What should I do?”  He: “Oh, I think it’ll be fine … There’s no way a woman could produce work of such quality!”

Great stuff!

Fallen Women

It’s Saturday — not a day I’m usually leaping out of my bed to my computer — but today I was up relatively early putting the finishing touches to my powerpoint for Monday’s final session on my Year 2 undergraduate course Women’s Writing.  We finish up with a brief discussion of  some of the issues related to Third Wave Feminism and I’ve been dipping into Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration, eds. Gillis, Howie and Mumford (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007; 2nd ed.).  This is an excellent collection of essays, all of which have extensive bibliographies to other key recent texts on the ‘third wave’.  I’ve also delved into Suzanne Ferriss and Mallory Young’s collection on Chick Lit (Routledge, 2006).  Having developed an interest in adaptation — primarily because I’m interested in the adaptations of Sarah Waters’ trilogy of neo-Victorian novels – the Austenmania of the 1990s onwards is a kind of side angle of this for me.  I have a sense that I am going to be teaching Austen alongside her late twentieth century transformations in the future.

But back to The Victorian Vision … and this week’s session was on the ubiquitous figure of the fallen woman.

VVO Session F Screenshot

For those of you who haven’t seen the Victorian Vision Online here’s a current screenshot from this week.  If you compare this with the screenshot inserted in my very first post on this blog, back in late September, you’ll see that the ‘Menu’ on the left has grown as a folder has been added each time a VVO session takes place.  The folders contain all the necessary instructions for that week’s session, and a link to the discussion forum itself.  It should be just possible to make out that the Session F folder is open, showing the guidelines and the link to the ‘Fallen Women’s Penitentiary’ where the students post their responses to the week’s activity.

Every year I find more Victorian images of fallen women.  I show a number in class, and in particular we do an exercise in reading Victorian narrative paintings via Augustus Egg’s Past and Present trilogy (1858). I have added three images — a study for Found by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1858), Ford Madox Brown’s Take Your Son, Sir! (1857), and George Watts’ Found Drowned (1867) — to my ‘homepage’ of our Victorians space on the VLE.  I add different images each week in tandem with the week’s theme or topic.   This keeps the homepage ‘fresh’ and dynamic as the term goes on.

The main texts the class consider are Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Jenny’ and Augusta Webster’s ‘A Castaway’ which work fabulously alongside each other.  We start the discussion of each in the classroom, reading the openings of both together so the context of each of these monologues is established, but then much more detailed discussion is taken online.  Thus far, after two days, those who have posted have plenty to say.

On being a student…again

In addition to my academic job at Wolverhampton I have also ‘gone back to big school’ myself this term as I’ve started a part-time MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Manchester Metropolitan University.  There are numerous reasons why I’ve started it:  I’ve known about the course for some years, and the calibre of poets who contribute to it (Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage, Michael Symmons Roberts, Jean Sprackland) speaks for itself; I have found previously that the structure of attending a course is productive for me in terms of my own poetry writing; I grew up on the south Manchester/Cheshire borders, so there is a conscious revisiting of my home city and my connections with the wider area; and — not least — I was quite ill last academic year and was off work for an extended period.  What that gave me was some time to step back from my job and to consider whether there was a way of my doing this course that I had been circling around for some time. So when I returned to work in April of this year I negotiated a temporary cut in my contract and was fortunate enough to get a place on the course.

There is also an Online version of the Creative Writing MA programme at Manchester Met, but — perhaps ironically — I knew I didn’t want to follow the MA that way.  I wanted to be there in the classroom with my fellow students.  I am, however, hoping to ‘gatecrash’ the online poetry group at some point this year and will no doubt post on this blog about that experience.

So I trundle up to Manchester once a week for 24 hours and enjoy the extraordinary student drag that is the ‘universities’ part of Oxford Road.  It’s a very buzzy, very ‘street’ kind of area and I like the energy of it.  Thus far the course has been a crash course for me in modernist and twentieth century poetry and poetics — we read two poets a week.  As someone who focussed on the Victorians for my original postgraduate studies I seem to have managed to bypass modernism pretty much entirely in terms of my studies so far, so I’m learning a lot, and also getting a good sense of how twentieth century poetry has developed.

The downside is that I have to write an essay.  Over Christmas.  I want to do this like a hole in the head.  I always knew that the more obviously academic side of the assessment was going to be  a challenge in the sense that it’s the ‘developing my writing’ aspect of the course that has ultimately led me to choose to do it.  I know, of course, that reading and writing are intimately related, and as yet I don’t really know how the reading I’ve been doing this term will rub off on my own writing in the long term (although we’ve been pastiching the poets we read each week, which I’ve really enjoyed).  But assessment is assessment, and I’ve got an essay to write.  And — worse — we have to come up with our own title.  Too much choice!  Oh the tyranny of  infinite possibilities!  I woke up in the middle of the night the other day thinking “Is there a genuine way I can link Thomas Hardy and Adrienne Rich — or am I pushing that too far?”  My sympathy with my own students — who probably have several essays to write over the Christmas vacation — is going up by the hour…