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.