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.

4 thoughts on “The VLE is Undead!

  1. I’m a teacher of academic writing faced with the option of using our university’s Moodle platform exclusively, which would le me organize the assignments, quizzes and feedback in one place, and offering the students something more attractive like networked blogs or a closed Ning platform, or Edublogs. It’s two weeks before the beginning of class and I’m still undecided. I find the VLE environment quite off-putting, unaesthetic, the feel is wrong. I’ve used it for distance courses, but for an in-class writing course with a focus on peer assessment, it’s like going out for a picknick and taking a trailer home with you.

    • Just wondering what you would use instead? As my blog makes clear from its first posts back in October 2009, I’m using online activities which are effectively responded to in a VLE discussion forum/board in addition to face-to-face teaching. We ‘bounce’ into the online space to follow up face-to-face classes.

  2. There seems to be resistance to students when institutions try to ‘invade’ non-VLE spaces, such as Second Life, Facebook or Twitter, and I can’t say I blame them: there’s an element of ‘trendy vicar’ about them, and they’re always late to the party. That said, my colleagues with Facebook receive an awful lot of work-related communication from students, inbetween all sorts of other inappropriate material.

    The key to a successful VLE, as you’ve demonstrated, is justifying its existence by making it substantive, rather than a cheap way to replace other learning environments.

  3. Pingback: The VLE is Undead! – Ms E-Mentor | OnLearn

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