Learning can happen anywhere and anytime. One of the important aspects of the ‘technology revolution’ was the use of the virtual, online environment to support and enhance learning. These virtual learning environments changed the static webpage to an interactive and engaging learning hub where learners can join and participate within. But have the virtual learning environments had their day and should we bury them in order to move onto other learning platforms? Well that is what this week’s waffle is all about.
One of the last activities I did before I left primary school was to attend training and start to set up the school’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). This was an authority wide promotion, and the software was provided (at cost) for the school. The concept was to progress from the static websites that schools had and engaged with, to a more interactive learning space on the web. Although I never actually saw this project to its conclusion, I see many great examples of thriving VLE from primary schools on my twitter feed demonstrating that these ‘spaces’ are still being developed and used. Last week was #digifest2015 in Birmingham and I spent some of my time following the hashtags and listening in, and sometimes contributing, to the discussions. One question which appeared on Twitter, originally posted by @AlexSpiers was asking if the VLE was dead. Many responses were tweeted but it made me consider what the actual definition and role of Moodle (the VLE used within our institution) was and whether or not it had had its day and was indeed slipping further ‘underground’
According to an online search, the definition of a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is “..a system for delivering learning materials to students via the web. These systems include assessment, student tracking, collaboration and communication tools.” @PhilVincent complimented this definition by referring to it as “.. a monolithic, one-stop, jack of all trades entity…”. Both support the idea that these spaces are places where learning, collaboration and communication occur, as well as a place for assessment and tracking – one area where learners can go which allows them to engage with learning or which actively signposts them to other areas on the web. But are these used effectively to support learning or are they mainly used as a repository for presentations?
Effective Use? – It is important to consider what the purpose of the VLE actual is for academics, the institution and the learners themselves. I have engaged with VLEs both as a learner and as a tutor and have been interested in the variety of approaches that have been used to support teaching and learning. I often find myself or hearing others using the phrase – “its on Moodle” referring the learners to the VLE as a one stop place for resources and, in some cases, answers to questions. In this sense, the VLE is being promoted as a repository of information, very much like a cloud based server, where presentations and documents can be located. Although this would be considered one of its uses, it does not link to the collaboration aspect of a possible virtual space. Would using the VLE to ‘store’ documents be considered as effective use? Coupled with this is the learner’s expectations of what to find there. Consistency is important here – one VLE platform is being used throughout the institution and so there should be consistent approaches to its use. This should be down to how files are stored as well as the overall structure of the module pages. If a learner needs to find something, then it is important that it is in the same place within all pages. This ease of use would certainly promote the experience within the VLE. From this it would appear that VLE are essentially a storage space – but is there other things that they can do effectively?
Assessment – VLEs are a safe and secure place for assignments to be submitted, downloaded from, and the final marked assignments and feedback uploaded to. They do these jobs effectively and efficiently, as well as being able to store, deliver and collate quizzes which can be used to informally assess learning. The recent addition of Open Badges to our system, even allows for emerging technologies such as gamification to be implemented through the system. Although this is an aspect that the VLE does really well, I often consider that it might actually be hindering some aspects of the VLE for learners. Discussion forums (something which I am currently completing research on) are available within the VLE. Forums are designed to promote discussion and communication between the learners. I know I am guilty of using these to upload images and documents from SOL tasks as a place to share content (still being used to store information), but can these forums be used effectively as areas for developing discussion? When this has been attempted in the past, comments can be few and far between – unless made compulsory by including it within a SOL task. The idea that the VLE is ‘owned’ and ‘monitored’ by the tutors could mean that learners might feel that they are still being assessed and/or judged within the VLE confines. Learners often take these discussion, especially when asking questions about assignments, to Facebook groups where they feel more comfortable to ask questions of their peers or by emailing tutors directly. The effectiveness of the VLE within the assessment procedure could therefore, having a detrimental impact on some aspects of the learning part of the area.
Community – This connection to assessment and the institution I think also has an impact on the actual community of the VLE. When engaging with ‘non educational’ discussion forums mainly relating to online games and interests, there appears to be thriving communities which interact with each other on a range of topics and levels. These sites have built up a community of practice which people join and either listen in to, ask questions of or even participate. When looking at the VLE within the institution, there appears to be a lack of community. Some might consider that this is not required within these virtual spaces, but if we want collaboration and communication to be part of the space, then the sense of community has to be paramount. This would allow learners to feel secure and supported – which links to the previous section on assessment – which leads to participation without the feeling of being judged. Moodle is essentially owned and run by the university – but should areas of this be moderated and influenced by the learners themselves? The actual construction of the VLE does, however, hinder the development of a community. Areas are compartmentalised into subject specific modules with additional areas provided for whole programmes, pre-programmes and even post-programmes. If discussions did happen, then these would be within modules and would probably exclude cross module content. This might be related to the way our faculty or institution creates their modules, but if we want more of a community feel within the VLE then this is definitely something which would need to be considered. Teaching groups have developed their own sense of community online by creating and developing their own Facebook groups – although these do not reflect the whole community, they do appear, to be more effective than the VLE attempt.
It might be that the VLE is not dead but just having an identify crisis. Perhaps, when they were created they exhibited visions of grandeur which they can not or should not try to aspire to. Should they be a one stop shop for all the activities which support and engage learners? Or should they cascade the different aspects of the learning to individual platforms which are experts in their own areas. In this case, maybe the VLE will revert to a welcome/spawn area which deals with assessment and files but then signposts the learners to other areas – almost like a virtual world of Minecraft or SecondLife. I would not say that the VLE is dead – more confused. I think it needs to be almost redefined and accept its role, whatever this might be, and then start to develop further in order to firmly establish itself back in supporting teaching and learning.
If I was creative I would have created a cartoon image of the other learning/community platforms standing over VLE lying in a grave. Sadly I am not creative but I would I would like to hear any comments or views you have on this waffle. You can add them in the comments below or send them to me via Twitter(@iwilsonysj), Facebook, Google+ or email.
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