e-learning,  VLE,  web 2.0

The VLE/LMS is dead

(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!


  • Niall Sclater

    Martin, these issues are also greatly exercising me as we look at where the VLE should go next at the OU. I summed up some of the advantages of VLEs last week at sclater.com which interestingly tally with many of the points you make.

  • Steven Verjans

    Martin, I am not convinced that this will ever happen – at least not in formal learning settings, as some (most?) educationalists are not interested in technology at all (as witnessed by the current minimal use of our VLE). They want to produce clearly structured courses, control the course flow, etc.
    Moreover, I think that quality and accreditation issues related to formal education force institutions to have local evidence of learner progress, if only to be able to handle student complaints. Just my 5-pence worth…

  • AJ Cann

    Nice post, but you missed one thing. The walled garden of the VLE provides a “trusted brand” (as Grainne Conole discussed at OpenLearn2007) which is very attractive to students. Otherwise, why would they want to pay us £3k a year for tuition – and then use Google?
    Students hate PLEs (but they also hate being forced to use university services such as authenticated email accounts). “We are paying customers and we want value for money”.

  • James Aczel

    Hmmm… Déjà vu… The case that some of us have been arguing for many years now is that effort is often better put into linking existing tools, creating the functionality that doesn’t exist yet, and engendering the vital hearts-and-minds movement, rather than into erecting a monolithic system with limited, slow-changing functionality. This is not quite the same argument as only using open access social software, but recent developments in the latter area make the case more compelling (as ably illustrated by Tony Hirst). The idea that authentication, accessible interoperability, reliability and tracking require a single system is arguable. I’m sorry I’ve not been more successful in putting this case over the years.

  • AJ Cann

    It’s not a question of requiring a single system, it’s a question of what a typical university (or school) I.T. support service is able to provide. (The O.U. is not typical of other institutions!)

  • James Aczel

    Sure, AJ. And you’re also quite right to draw attention above to the students’ perspective, just as Steven Verjans is quite right to describe the reality of many teachers’ situations.
    But I’m talking about the situation in which there is a huge amount of resource available. So yes, the OU, but I was thinking primarily of ultimately government-funded initiatives in the EU and US. We are talking seriously big bucks here. And I think decision-makers find it hard to resist the draw of the all-encompassing system. The exciting thing is that willingness to mix-and-match tools seems to be becoming mainstream.

  • John Connell

    For a large-scale deployment of a VLE (such as across a national education system) the merits of having a fully authenticated system are massive. So long as the VLE is tied to broad enough range of collaborative tools, and so long as there is a sensible (ie not overly restrictive) permissions regime, users can bring the two together to create interest groups, online communities, etc, on the fly.
    And, if the system also permits the invitation of ‘guests’ from outside (again within a fairly liberal permissions regime) then that same set of capabilities can extend beyond the bounds of the core authentication system / directory.
    Unless the various Web 2.0 tools are somehow brought within the system of authentication, the capabilities will always be limited to your own ‘compass’ in terms of those whom you already have as contacts, or serendipitously, in relation to those who find their way into your compass. This, of course, is powerful in its own way, but we have to understand the differences in kind between this kind of collaboration and the intra-community collaboration that can be possible using that powerful combination of authentication system, VLE and conjoined collaborative tools.
    On a different issue, we also have to be careful to separate the assumed mindset of those who devise and implement a VLE, and the varied uses that can be made of a VLE by those willing to broaden it’s use beyond that initial intended set of uses. It’s a bit like the difference between teaching and learning – the link between what is taught in a classroom and what is learned can be considerable. So, the difference between the intentions of VLE builders and the actual uses to which a VLE can be put can also be considerable, especially when the VLE is just one component of a larger eco-system of collaborative tools and ID Management.

  • AJ Cann

    “Unless the various Web 2.0 tools are somehow brought within the system of authentication, the capabilities will always be limited to your own ‘compass’ in terms of those whom you already have as contacts, or serendipitously, in relation to those who find their way into your compass.”
    No. Everything is miscellaneous. Tagging. The wisdom of crowds. But this is not possible in a closed VLE.

  • John Connell

    Nope – I’m afraid not quite everything is miscellaneous yet. Content – yes (assuming it is in digital form). People – no!
    Authentication of people is what I’m talking about.
    Why can’t there be wisdom in the crowd that exists within a large-scale VLE, by the way?

  • Juliette

    I must talk to you about the issues with authentication sometime 🙂
    There are also issues with silly things like trying to match usernames on systems to student names. Even if you ask them to use their real name, it’s always amazing how many will manage to use something different from the name they registered with at the university. I guess stricter instructions might help there though (I didn’t realise it would be such a headache when I did this with students two or three years ago!).

  • John Connell

    Alan, I guess it’s a valid method of argument to move the goalposts 🙂
    A VLE, for example, that will include every single teacher and every single learner in a country is reasonably large-scale in my book. My interest (Juliette) is in the schools sector not higher education where, I agree, a VLE can only really include the few thousand inhabitants of the individual institution.

  • Tavis Reddick

    Would you use a unique learner number (www.miap.gov.uk/services/UniqueLearnerNumbers/) to identify students and staff (in the UK)? I don’t think OpenId supports trust, so you’d have to go for something like Shibboleth where users have proved their identity to the institutional federation member. And perhaps a service-oriented architecture whereby users could use their own tools as long as they could connect to your VLE hub.

  • Elvine Valladolid

    My name is Elvine from Pageflakes. And in light of creating a learning environment online, I’d like to introduce an “Educational Start Page” dedicated to teachers around the world (http://www.teacher.pageflakes.com). I am hoping that you can help us to improve it further.
    Over the past couple of months – and with the help of the educational community- we have created this start page with a focus on educational tools, news and features.
    The “Teacher Edition” is based on the original Pageflakes technology, offering sharing and publishing options, adding your own content, customizing the page, changing the layout – all for free and even without signing up. In addition, we have customized the gallery (click on the big, golden button at the upper right hand corner) and populated it with educational tools and news. We have also created a default page setup (the one that you see when you first check out the site).
    There is more to come in the future and I am hoping that you can actively help us to improve the experience. Your questions, ideas and suggestions are more than welcome. I am happy to send more background information and screenshots. I am also available for a call if you want to discuss in more detail.
    Thanks for your time and support.
    My Pagecast!
    Pageflakes Inc.

  • D Needlestone

    For schools the dilemma is very similar. Free tools offer more but a VLE is a safer place and better for teachers who don’t want the risks of using external tools. We really do need a better authentication system.
    In my school the answer has been to not spend too much on a VLE (using flexible open source solutions) and put the money into training. Then there is no pressure for teachers to use one system just because we have spent many thousands on it.

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  • Jim Buchan

    Very interesting post and comments here – brings out a whole raft of useful and interesting points 😉 I also believe that content discovery is also important. It good to have a “common platform” where people can publish , discover and share content 😉
    But there is also some danger that content silos can be be created between a collection of loosely coupled systems. Which could be a disadvantage!
    So I would add to the discussion here that as well as there being huge value in having a pervasive user authentication system is also essential to have comprehensive search capability which can discover content both with in the component parts of the learning platform and also know worthwhile content repositories which exist out with it!

  • SDisbury

    As a secondary school teacher the idea of having all my different tools in different places seems unrealistic and time wasting. Ts & Cs have to be checked on every site, security and safety of content must be a consideration, school firewalls need broken down for most web2.0 applications, age restrictions apply to many sites and 13 year olds barely remember 1 password let alone different passwords for different accounts!
    I use http://www.edu20.org for pupils. I can use any online tools I require and embed them or links to them in the VLE, as can the pupils. The VLE allows me to upload work appealing to different learning styles and set assignments which can be individual or collaborative. There is secure chat and forums and pupils don’t even require an email address to join in.
    These services are provided free of charge and whilst, yes, I am at the mercy of an outside provider I will rethink my plan when the needs of my classes/pupils change.

  • Nina

    I believe that on the one hand the creation of this system solves some problems and helps students to develop, acquire knowledge, to create their blogs and so forth, but on the other hand the creation of such systems, I’ve seen similar ideas on the site http://www.queentorrent.com / limits the ability of students to communicate, most of the time students spend on the computer.


    Very interesting post. I have heard a few people parroting the “VLE is dead” mantra lately, but have not seen any coherant ideas as to what would work instead.
    VLE’s are not dead, they are moving forward and gaining wider acceptance every day, to the point that “software giants” are taking an interest in applications like Moodle due to their massive user base / mindshare.

  • pakati

    Moodle 2.0 – just check the features.
    There will be possible to embed and include a huge vary of web 2.0 tools.
    You have a controlled and safe VLE on your own server, but you have all the possibility to open for web 2.0 tools to include.
    Maybe thats the ideal solution.

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  • Laurence Cuffe

    For some core teaching inteations we need strong two way authentification. This is identification of the learner to the teacher/Course and of the Course/teacher to the learner. In most countries, we also need secure and private comunication of assesment related material i.e. marks and assignments.
    This doesnt rule out the use of broader tools, just as the use of a register, and a set textbook does not rule out the use of newspapers to teach in a traditional classroom.
    For me I think the key issue is the potential public exposure of my students learning proceses, which may be undesirable for many reasons. Asking a student to go up in front of the class and show me something on the board is one thing, asking them to do so in front of the whole world, forever is another.
    We may also be sending mixed messages here, we warn them that anything that they post to the internet is potentialy there forever, and we then ask them to ignore this warning…

  • Mick

    Forget learning systems. Universities are primarily assessment centres. A student can learn what knowledge and skills they wish but if it is not assessed by the university then it doesn’t exist.

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