The VLE isn’t the problem, the sediment is

The Automobile Industry - 1923
(big metaphor for changing institutional systems)

At the ALT C conference I went to a few sessions where VLE discussion came up, most notably Lawrie Phipps and Donna Lanclos’s session “Are learning technologies fit for purpose?“. They asked us to reflect on the main question in groups and nearly all of the discussions came back to complaints about the VLE. Lawrie picked on me to give the first response and I mentioned that the problem was not so much the technology but the “institutional sediment” that builds up around it.

This came back to me in later discussions about whether WordPress would provide a better VLE. I think that actually the differences between technology are quite small. Moodle for example is often described as a constructivist VLE, but I find very little in it that differentiates it from other VLEs. Canvas also has its fans. I’m not being as glib as to say “they’re all the same”, but I think we often over-emphasise the potential of a particular technology to make a change. This isn’t my main point, but before I get on to that, I feel that the social and cultural perception of a technology is as important to how it is implemented as the actual functionality. Put simply, Blackboard is corporate so doesn’t get much love but it does the job, like Windows, say. Moodle is open source, community base so gets solid tech love. WordPress is cool, so is seen as innovative. And so on. There is probably an alternative universe where every university has made WordPress their enterprise system and all the cool kids are clamouring to be allowed to use Blackboard.

Which does get me onto my main point (finally!), about that sediment. Brian Lamb and Jim Groom wrote about their issues with the VLE and while I agree largely with them, I think their focus is too technology oriented. The problem lies in how institutions adopt technology. We spend lots of money on technology, and employing people who become experts in using that technology. But even that is not the real problem, what happens is we develop administrative structures and processes which are couched in terms of the specific technology. We have roadmaps, guidelines, training programmes, reporting structures which all help to embed the chosen tool. This creates a sort of tool focused solutionism – if an academic wants to achieve something in their course, and they ask their IT, or educational support team for help, the answer will be couched in terms of “what is the Blackboard (or tool of your choice) way of implementing this?” Or, worse, “that isn’t in our Moodle roadplan”.

I’m not sure what the solution to this is, it tends to be how large institutions need to operate. But there are ways to combat it I think, for instance frame the processes in terms of the generic function, not the specific technology – what do we want our VLE to do? How do we make effective use of asynchronous communication to enhance student interaction? Can we design the use of tools in course to improve retention? And also think beyond the existing technology, have an ongoing experimentation programme. Most of all, be aware of every institutional action that adds to the sediment, and be conscious that the greater that sediment build up, the more difficult it is wriggle free.


  • johnbaglow

    Don’t you think that any teaching resource has the potential to be used effectively or ineffectively? In my (very small scale) teacher training, I bang on endlessly about the need to decide on your learning objectives and only then do you look at the technology to see if it might help get your learners to the desired objectives. Death by ppt is not the fault of ppt, it arises from ineffective use of the resource. A VLE is just a collection of different resources; if having them all lumped together helps your students reach the learning objectives, that’s fine. If using the discussion forum in Bb enhances the amount of student interaction, that is very desirable. But maybe the same can be achieved with Facebook.
    Do the advantages of using a VLE which bundles a number of technologies in one place outweigh the pros of casting the net wider and using a motley collection of different resources and technologies. Some of my students would find the latter intimidating, I think.
    (this is my first ever comment on an Ed Techie piece; they are always interesting and even sensible and never dogmatic. I work in FE so whenever I don’t understand what you say, I assume it is HE-Speak!

    • admin

      Hi John and congrats on your first edtechie comment ๐Ÿ™‚ I hope it’s the first of many. I agree about the advantages of a VLE and I wasn’t really trying to say one was better than another. I have a lot of time for VLEs, I just don’t think we should try and squeeze every solution into that shaped hole.

  • leohavemann

    Thanks for writing something in response to that session at the conference Martin. While that discussion raged I couldn’t help feeling a bit annoyed about the hate being directed at the poor old VLE. Obviously for many learning technologists the VLE is hardly the most interesting technology – because we’ve been working with one or another and/or another of them for years, we know what you can theoretically do with them, and are disappointed in the actual use they are often put to. But if we got rid of it we would have to get another one. And the new one would be, as you point out, substantially similar. What I am not sure about it whether I really agree with your comment that the problem is that “we develop administrative structures and processes which are couched in terms of the specific technology”. It seems to me that if you work out what you are trying to do, and how to achieve that in the context of the specific technology that you are going to be using, you might actually come up with quite a good process?

    • admin

      Hi Leo, yes I see what you mean. My issue is that it becomes part of the mindset and “doing it the Blackboard way” (or whatever) becomes the only way, because everything is couched in these terms.

  • Katy Appleton (@KatyAppletonUEA)

    If you ask your IT team, the answer is necessarily going to be couched in a technological how-to. But I agree that it would be nice to have more workshops, idea-forming and practice-sharing for academics to help each other with the questions of what we want VLEs to achieve, and what activities might help in our specific discipline.

    • admin

      Hi Katy, yes that’s true – it depends on who runs your VLE or where the ed tech element resides. Often it is in the IT department, so that’s where you end up making the queries.

  • Nomad War Machine

    Hi Martin

    Lovely to meet you at ALT-C ๐Ÿ™‚

    I totally agree about switching the emphasis to the required function, rather than the specific technology. In my Learning Tech Unit we frequently get requests for a specific bit of technology, such as a Moodle plugin. Our response is to ask people what they are trying to do so that we can advise how best to achieve that. But, of course, sometimes folk are just asking because they want all of the shiny stuff

    • admin

      Hi Sarah, great to meet you too. That sounds like a good approach. Thing is, I know I’m guilty of jumping to the tech bit too, but it’s particularly limiting when the whole institution does it.

  • sheilmcn

    Nice post Martin – and more considered than my (infamous) rant at the session. I still think we should take the technology word out of the question and just focus on what is we want to do.

    • admin

      We can’t all be hardcore Sheila. I think you need tech in there somewhere because sometimes I don’t know I want to do something until I see a technology and then see the possibilities (how many of us thought we needed Twitter?). But it’s problematic I think when the institution couches everything in terms of the one technology as it creates a mindset around this.

  • Malcolm

    Very true. It is all too easy to get product-specific references baked into policies and procedures. I think the way forward must be to ban product names from our strategic planning, encouraging the focus to shift back to what we want our students and staff to be doing, rather than what with. A lot easier said than done though!

    • admin

      Hi Malcolm, banning product names, I like it! Although we’d all start using code soon enough “in the thing that sounds like noodle” ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Lawrie

    Martin – thanks for coming, picked on is a strong word. Although I may have been channelling my colonial colleague ๐Ÿ˜‰

    The post really captures a lot of what we were trying to capture.

    D’arcy Norman gave a great quote a while a go.

    “Any eLearning tool, no matter how openly designed, will eventually become indistinguishable from a Learning Management System once a threshold of supported use-cases has been reached.

    They start out small and open. Then, as more people adopt them and the tool is extended to meet the additional requirements of the growing community of users, eventually things like access management and digital rights start getting integrated. Boil the frog. Boom. LMS.” (https://darcynorman.net/2013/02/15/normans-law-of-elearning-tool-convergence/)

    • admin

      Ha, maybe not picked on then Lawrie – “volunteered”. That’s a great quote from D’Arcy, thanks. I had similar thoughts about MOOCs – once they get required to do all the heavy lifting of universal education, they’d suffer from many of the same problems people saw them as alleviating.

  • Gideon Williams

    Great post and super reactions from a number of different areas. Hard not to disagree with your points although the institution approach does have its advantages in term of ‘leverage’ and driving change (albeit at a marginally quicker pace than without). In my experience (as a secondary school teacher), simply having someone at a leadership level promote and share and use digital tools makes all the difference!

    John Barlow’s point about placing the objectives first is an important one if greater impact and engagement with technology amongst staff is to occur. It also enables those leading elearning developments to create a more differentiated model based on the skills and capacities of staff. The starting point of “What would you like to achieve in your lesson…” is a much used question I have asked when talking with colleagues. This then allows me to talk about some of the features of the VLE/MLE and sow some seeds.

    The challenge, as John hints at, is that it is not the use of technology per se that is poor but issues of pedagogy. Getting teachers to identify those and make improvements is much tougher.

    Having worked with a VLE for many years it has become an institutional tool and that is not a bad thing. A reduction in filing cabinets, removal of inefficient paper based systems, a sharing of resources, online access outside of school hours, greater collaboration, more transparency, integrated systems etc. It has then enabled our teaching staff to develop and focus on other more personalised tools for students to demonstrate their learning eg Madaram Web2, apps etc. For most staff, all they need to know is how those tools link to the VLE and how they can be marked :o)

    One point I don’t think anyone has yet mentioned is the need to involve your audience in changes and work with / listen to them when planning your strategies. Involving students and taking account of their views and ideas has been very important in our journey and also hugely refreshing!

    • admin

      Hi Gideon, thanks for the comment. I agree about the benefit of an institutional approach (I was VLE director at the OU for a while). It gets everyone to a good standard quite quickly. The problem I think is that is when the sediment sets in, and we don’t progress much from there. I agree about your benefits for the VLE, I’m not anti the VLE, I just think we begin to limit ourselves as thinking of every solution in terms of it. You are right about involving students, it’s not something we do often enough

  • Will

    In my opinion you’ve identified the right issue (accretion) but for me the causes are not simply ones around techies and anthropomorphising their blue choice but also of the move over the past few years for universities to run as businesses where they fallow ‘maturity’ in their procedures and project management. This emphasis on stability and robustness has adversely affected the ability of universities to adapt and evolve. I have spoken to people in the business school about this and it’s a very typical problem in sector and really manifesting itself over the past decade also exacerbated by the global economy.

  • john couperthwaite (@johncoup)

    I am not sure what the solution is either, however I firmly believe we (LT professionals) have a greater responsibility for focusing minds on the purpose of technology, of finding ways to engage support teams more effectively, and of engaging staff and students in the implementation of technologies, and that this will ultimately lead to the development of more purposeful tools.

    I spoke at the conference about the effective implementation of portfolios – never the easiest of tasks. Our view is that the selection of technology should follow from close investigation of the overarching pedagogy, the educational processes involved at course-level (assessment, retention, employability, etc), and consideration of the uses and outputs required by students. Ideally, this will lead to better adoption and sustained use,, with all parties involved in the conversation. At PebblePad, we have created an implementation toolkit to support this process and ensure that our technology is properly embedded into institutions.

    The sediment does exist, but is easily malleable if given the right conditions. Coming away from the conference, my reflection was that, collectively, we still haven’t distilled a clear message for institutions on the effective use of technology. This is perhaps inevitable as it is an ever moving target which forces us to create short term fixes to big institutional problems whilst our thinking, our evidence-base, and our software tools struggle to keep up.

    Perhaps the answer lies in having a more Agile educational development process at the heart of our institutions. This would require key individuals meeting regularly to interrogate problems, review strategic agendas, and evaluate innovations. Ofcourse, most institutions will say that they hold meetings to discuss these things, but I would argue (from many year’s experience at these meetings in HE), that it is seldom Agile, and is bound by strong inertial forces which bind technology into our IT services, staff development programmes, and elearning teams. This would likely scare many individuals who see Agile as causing continuous, disruptive change. My view is that, if managed well, this would improve engagement at all levels, provide technologies which are relevant for staff and students, and remove the accretion of needless activities/policies/personnel/excuses which surround the best intentions at the heart of our institutions.

  • steveparkinson101

    I think there are two separate issues here.

    One being the method by which potential solutions are formulated. The other being the limitations around what solutions can actually be offered .

    I think historically many tech departments across many sectors have been happy to roll out the latest available system features, retrospectively trying to find some use for them. Thankfully we’re moving away from that. Today’s solutions are, hopefully, more likely to be based around elements of design thinking. That’s a good thing in my opinion.

    However, we can’t get away from the reality of the cost of solutions. And it’s not always a financial cost. This may well be seen as ‘sediment’. There are generally far more great ideas than there are technical staff able to develop them. Those responsible for getting these ideas onto roadmaps and backlogs and actually developed (I’m one of them) spend a lot of time having to make our case through governance processes, priority setting meetings and the occasional fist fight. Having one system that can deliver many solutions allows us to be more efficient. I truly wish we could implement many systems, each one perfect for it’s own particular task, and make them all work seamlessly, both for the users and for the support staff. But, as it stands, the ‘tool focused solutionism’ is probably our best bet of delivering the greatest benefit to the greatest number of users.

    We’re really looking to improve processes wherever we can (and remove sediment), but as with anything in this sort of area, it’s not easy.

  • tjhunt

    Great article, but at the end you walk straight into the trap you are trying to warn about. The question is not “what do we want our VLE to do?” The question is

    1) How do I want to teach my students in this class.
    2) Which pars of that should happen on the course web site?

    Then you can start thinking about software tools.

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