Loosely coupled vs integrated again

Continuing our debate around VLEs (which I’m enjoying anyway), Niall Sclater posts that one of the dangers of the small pieces approach is that we have no control over external sites, and he uses (my favourite web 2.0 site) Slideshare being down as an example.

Tony responds rather cheekily (he tags the post ‘baiting’) showing the OU site was down, to demonstrate that internally hosted systems are not immune from such dangers.

I would suggest that in a loosely coupled system your risk is spread from a user perspective – if Slideshare was down, that’s fine I’ll do the wiki activity, or look at the YouTube clips, or read the RSS feeds in Google Reader. There is an alternative activity I can be doing, but if your VLE goes down, you are stuffed since everything is in one place.

In general though, Niall is right, this is a concern (and one I mentioned in my original post). But it gets at something deeper I think than just about choice of hosting services – it’s about philosophies and attitudes. The almost universal reaction in all higher education institutions is to control things – be it systems, content, dialogue, roles, etc. And there is a good reason for doing this – universities have a duty of care, both pastoral and educational, to their students, and the best way to deliver on this is to control the environment.

Hence we have educational versions of tools, closed systems, selected readings, etc. And then we have web 2.0 which lets anyone do anything and then puts metrics and filters in place to help you find the good stuff. In order to engage in this world there is going to have to be a good deal of letting go of control – not only will that be hard to do, but it may have serious implications for students (and maybe, legally for universities – what if someone has a bad experience on an externally hosted site which you have sent them to – are you responsible?). I’m not arguing that letting go of control is necessarily better – I just think more and more of it will happen anyway, so we need to be able to handle it. I don’t think trying to control things more is a valid response though. This tension between control (and thus being able to assure education) and freedom (where bad things may happen) will be one of the key questions higher education faces in the next few years, and it’s far more complex than control= bad, freedom = good.

3 Comments

  1. There might be a danger, Martin, in too crudely equating Web 1.0 (and the VLE by association) with the desire to be controlling, and Web 2.0 with the letting go of control. I think you avoid that danger, but others might not.
    I know you are absolutely right that control is precisely the objective of many organisations in setting up a VLE, but a web-based VLE as part of a broader eco-system of technologies (including Web 2.0 tools, of course) can be implemented in a way that devolves decisions on how the tools can be used to the user. Subsidiarity in educational technologies need not be entirely dependent on the wholesale deployment of Web 2.0 technologies.
    Some of this will depend, for instance, on policies around the provision of, or access to, content. Any attempt to use a VLE to restrict access to ‘approved’ tranches of content only will undoubtedly hugely debase the educational potential of the VLE.
    As you say, the complexity of control .v. freedom is a difficult balance to achieve. As someone of libertarian bent, I always prefer the benefit of the doubt to shift towards the latter rather than the former – but much of it comes down to attitudes within the organisation rather than the nature of the tools that the organisation provides (or approves the use of).

  2. Hi John
    yes, you’re right – I think what this shows is that web 2.0 is only about technology 50% of the time. It’s often about attitude – so one could have a very 2.0 course in approach inside a conventional VLE.
    Many of the reasons institutions deploy a centralised VLE ultimately boil down to control – and often control in a ‘good’ way, for example ensuring students have access to a reasonable range of tools, or helping unsure educators use the tools by having a limited set with support, making sure students feel safe in a controlled environment where they are free to make mistakes, etc. As the Kathy Sierra episode illustrated the blogosphere (and by extension the raw 2.0 world) are not always nice places.
    So I understand the urge to control the environment as much as possible – I just think that whether we like it or not, external forces will make control increasingly difficult and unmanageable so we need to be finding ways of addressing this now.

  3. I agree, Martin – just as School 1.0 (or University 1.0?) is becoming increasingly difficult to manage (or, more bluntly, increasingly irrelevant) so the attitudes that see a VLE as an instrument of control will be increasingly marginalised. I hope.

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