It’s 2004 and the big cheese of Ed Tech is finally here – the VLE (or if you’re American – pants, I mean, LMS). Like many practitioners in ed tech, I have an ambiguous relationship with VLEs. They are a bit like the boring, faithful hound when a new puppy arrives. Everyone is excited by the new thing, and the old dog is in the corner with its flatulence wondering why no-one is making a fuss.
The VLE provided an enterprise solution for elearning for providers. It stands as the central elearning technology, despite frequent proclamations of its demise. Prior to the VLE, elearning provision was realised through a variety of tools, for instance a bulletin board for communications, a content management system and home created web pages. The quality of these solutions was variable, often relying on the enthusiasm of one particular devotee. The combination of tools would also vary across any one university, with the Medical School adopting a different set of tools to engineering, which varied again from Humanities, and so on. As elearning became more central to the provision, both for blended learning and fully online, this variety and reliability became more of an issue. The VLE offered a neat collection of the most popular tools, any one of which might not be as good as the best of breed specific tool, but good enough (the good enough wins out being a recurring theme in ed tech). It allowed for a single, enterprise solution with associated training, technical support and helpdesk to be implemented. The advantage of this was that elearning could be progressed more quickly across an entire institution. However, over time this has come to seem something of a Faustian pact, with institutions finding themselves locked into contracts with vendors, and famously providers such as Blackboard attempting to file restrictive patents. More problematically, the VLE has come to be the only route to delivering elearning in many institutions, with a consequent loss of expertise and innovation.
In 2004 I became the OU’s first (and some might say, worst) VLE Director. We had precisely the issue of diverse provision, with an in-house system for course content, the FirstClass conference system and a variety of other tools. Advocates of these will insist they are better than any VLE, but after a review, we opted for the Moodle platform. This permitted enough customisation while providing an agreed infrastructure. The OU has been a great contributor to the Moodle community, and the adoption of a VLE really accelerated our uptake of elearning (I don’t want to hark on about this, but we were a digital university long ago, if people cared to look). But, like many universities, the effort in developing, maintaining, training on the VLE is a large drain on resources, which is often related to the associated structures and admin around it. It’s an unsexy role often, making sure stuff works for thousands of students, and it doesn’t get the credit it deserves in ed tech circles. But there is a balance to be struck between allowing freedom, innovation and experimentation and the core functions. It may be a question of time – education moves slowly, and now that we are at a level of stability with the VLE, more experimentation can happen around the fringes. It’s not trendy, but we should give the VLE respect, and a little love.