(but we’ll probably take five years to realise it). Scott Leslie has coined the term Loosely coupled teaching, for the assembly of a number of different, third party apps to do your teaching with. This differs from a PLE in that it is still the educator who provides the tools, they just bypass the institutional systems. Scott’s post set me thinking and I had something of an epiphany (okay, I know I’m slow) – whereas I have been using the odd application you could completely set up your course outside of the institution.
What might you want to use? For my course I could use the following:
- For content and discussion – wetpaint or wikispaces, upload the content, each page has its own forum, and students get to control the content. Or I could create a blog wherein each post is an activity, this has the advantage that students can subscribe. I’d probably go the wiki route though.
- Dialogue – I’d probably encourage everyone to sign up for Twitter or Jaiku, to create a low-level, non-intrusive dialogue between students. We might also need some ongoing discussion board.
- Virtual meetings – I’d use Flashmeeting and schedule regular sessions.
- News and updates – I’d use a blog and get students to subscribe.
- Quiz/informal assessment tools – there are a bunch of these around e.g. Blogquiz where you can embed them in your own page. There’s a lot of commercial stuff too, so I think there is room for better free services in this area.
Apart from that I would use any tool as and when you needed it. The wikispace would be the hub, and hopefully you could hang these apps off it easily enough. An alternative would be a Netvibes/Pageflakes space.
Firstly, what are the issues in doing it this way:
- Authentication – this is quite a big one. Students are authenticated via the University database and this feeds through to the VLE and related systems. Single sign on is obviously a big plus here. For small courses you could manually enrol your students on your wiki (if you didn’t want it to be open to all), but for some of our courses we have 1000+ students, so that isn’t scaleable. Having said that, this is not a problem that is insurmountable. Authentication isn’t really my subject area, but with openid, Shibboleth etc people are moving in this direction. What I want is to be able to apply the OU authentication to any site I want, so if I create a wiki I simply tell the OU authentication system to include that url. Maybe it can do this already? The issue of roles is more complicated, but again if we start on this now, it’s not impossible to crack.
- Convenience – there is a degree of convenience for both academic and student in having all the tools packaged in the VLE. However, I think there is also an increasing frustration at being limited to these tools, and also an increased ability to cope with a range of tools.
- Support – if you have one centralised system then you can offer centralised support also. If every academic is using a different collection this becomes more difficult. However, these tools are all pretty easy to use, and one could easily have a collection of supported ones.
- Reliability – if we house the VLE then we can guarantee the server times and service level agreement. If it is housed on an external system you have no control if it goes down. This is true and something that keeps IT people awake at night, but this surrendering control is going to be one of those things we just have to get used to as we use more third party apps simply because they’re better.
- Monitoring – one of the tools that a VLE offers is the ability to monitor a student or cohort’s progress. These can be useful tools in identifying problems and offering support. While a loosely coupled system wouldn’t offer this at the individual level, there are an increasing number of sophisticated analytical tools available (as Tony Hirst repeatedly tries to get me to realise) which will provide much of this information.
That might seem like a big enough list to make you stick with your VLE, but wait, here come the benefits:
- Better quality tools – because offering each of these loosely coupled elements is what each company does, it is in their interest to make them really good. This means they stay up to date, have better features, and look better than most things produced in higher education.
- Modern look and feel – related to the above, these tools often look better, and also their use makes a course feel more modern to a user who is raised on these tools compared with the rather sterile, dull systems they encounter in higher ed.
- Appropriate tools – because they are loosely coupled the educator can choose whatever ones they want, rather than being restricted to the limited set in the VLE. This is one of the biggest draws I feel – as an academic if I want a particular tool I don’t have to put a request in to IT and wait a year to get a reduced quality version, I just go ahead and use it.
- Cost – using a bunch of free tools has got to be cheaper hasn’t it?
- Avoids software sedimentation – when you have institutional systems they tend to embody institutional practice which becomes increasingly difficult to break. Having loosely coupled system makes this easier, and also encourages people to think in different ways.
- Disintermediation happens – this isn’t really a benefit, just an observation. If a services can be disintermediated then it will be. In this case the central VLE system is disintermediated as academics use a variety of freely available tools.
On balance then, I think this shift to loosely coupled, freely available third party systems will happen. It won’t happen overnight, and it will follow a succession model, but I would place money on this being the direction things take. Thank goodness I haven’t just published a book on VLEs eh? Doh!