“A bad workman always blames his tools”

A bad workman always blames his tools.


Over on Learning with ‘e’s Steve Wheeler is talking about VLEs. He says

OK, this is my opinion, but many VLEs are not fit for purpose, and masquerade as solutions for the management of online learning.

He continues…

I have not seen a single VLE system yet that works so transparently that students think more about their learning than they do about how to make the damn VLE work. Again, I don’t blame this on the users – it’s a management and design issue.

Though I wonder is it just a management and design issue?

I don’t disagree with him entirely, as many VLEs are badly designed and usability often leaves a lot to be desired. Functionality can often be complex to set up and use. However this is often the case with a lot of online tools and services.

So what’s the alternative?

Don’t compare VLEs with the way you want it to be compare it to not having a VLE.

Think of a VLE as a journey rather than a destination for online learning.

I look at the way our learners use the VLE to enhance and enrich their learning. Is it perfect? Of course not! Could it be better? Yes! Are they fit for purpose, well depends on who designs that purpose, but no they’re probably not. Are they getting there? Maybe!

However compared to the situation five years ago when we didn’t have a VLE, it has enhanced the learning experience of our learners.

Using a VLE does not preclude you using other web based tools, it can be the cayalyst. With RSS it is possible to use the VLE as a focus for other web based services.

The problem with VLEs is that often it is not just the VLE which is the problem.

The VLE is ONLY a tool.

Even with a blunt chisel it is possible to create a beautiful sculpture.

A bad workman always blames his tools

In teaching, you can create learning without a classroom, you can be outside on the grass, in a coffee shop. The environment is only one part of the experience; is it the most important part? I think not.

When learners and teachers complain about the VLE, are they genuine complaints about usability and functionality? Or are they just excuses for not using a tool as they don’t want to use it or learn how to use it.

If we just use VLEs as a repository of materials, why is that the fault of the VLE, isn’t that more of an indicator of how most people teach? Lectures with handouts are the physical manifestation of the virtual repository.

If web tools are so fantastic and so much better than VLEs, why isn’t everyone using them all the time?

The problem is that it is easy to focus on the problems with the tools we use and harder to focus on the problems with the people who need to use these tools.

Photo source.

11 thoughts on ““A bad workman always blames his tools””

  1. I suspect its the usual thing we see, a new tool comes along and some people want to use it for everything.

    OK you can misuse some tools ( I for instance come from Birmingham and often use a hammer to put screws in)

    Equally some of the solutions (tools) are more complicated than they need to be for the task they are used for,

    I’ll throw in one of my favorite quotes here :-
    “Manifestly its better to use simple tools expertly than to possess a bewildering assortment of complicated gadgets and either neglect or use them incompetently. LTC Rolt 1947

  2. When we think of a VLE perhaps a lot of people still see Moodle or Blackboard, a single application that is the be all and end all of The Learning Platform, personally I like to think (and it seems to become more and more natural as I move along) is that a VLE is a suite or collection of useful enhancement tools with a CMS as a Hub, eportfolios, repositories, external subscriptions .. as well as mainstream web tools blogs and micro-blogs, galleries.
    We put up posters, photographs and information on the walls of our classrooms, so why not on the walls of our Virtual Classrooms? The classroom is still the first port of call for any “learning event” and all our resources should be available from that “core” outwards.
    Applications of any kind are only as valuable as the data they present.

  3. The jury is still out on how effective the psychology of this is but we try to view (and pass on the view) of “The eLearning Portal” rather than nailing it down to “Virtual Learning Environment” and present the idea that it’s just like using the MSN Portal or iGoogle or perhaps to a lesser extent Facebook, promote a mainstream attitude towards using the Portal. I feel that seamlessly integrating a learning platform into your culture is critical, we are still dealing with human behaviour and everything must be geared towards that behaviour, it’s not easy, you have to be part teacher, part student, part Seer (and that’s before we start messing with any machines!).

  4. Some good points there James – I know a lot of colleagues (and students) who simply can’t be bothered to learn how to use online tools, including VLEs. However, there are just as many who are perplexed with the complexities of trying to set up and use VLEs for teaching and learning. And they are smart people who really want to use technology effectively. Sometimes the VLE is the most important tool, because it bridges the distance between tutors and students where no other enivronment can work. Sometime the VLE is so badly used or designed that it actually creates (psychological) distance. It is then that perhaps no tool is better than one that turns people away from learning.

    I maintain that VLEs are badly acronymed (I can verb any noun, me)… perhaps they should be renamed VREs because most people use them as repositories, they are designed mainly for that purpose and most have very low potential to promote interactive learning

  5. I have just been wondering.. how often do you feedback to the developers (both technical and educational) of your VLE? How often do you openly discuss it’s specific failings and successes. Do you not feel perhaps it’s down to you as users to prevent the tunnel vision that often occurs with the technical development of any system? As a (technical) developer I’m happy to listen to this kind of thing but find very few people willing to talk about it. I am however, working on that too.. there’s a whole lot more to systems development than semi-colons.

  6. So refreshing to see this feedback. In my view igoogle style learning ‘sites’ that allow the learner to build their own view based on their interest, learning style and media preference are the way forward and the best way to move towards a learner centred support.

    As for changing VLE to VRE…has my full support…..I am not against having the ability to deliver online materials or resources…..its great…but just don’t call it a learning environment….if nothing else it sends a bad message.

  7. I too like the way responses to James’ post are going.

    I’d like to pose two questions: (well one Q and one rebuff)

    1 – quite simply – what is a VLE? never mind the various acronyms (and I’m with Steve to a point with VRE – read on) – Gill is sort-of posing the same question. Are we talking about the out-of the-box corporate purchase or open source build – or something much richer and exciting?

    2 – James said: If we just use VLEs as a repository of materials, why is that the fault of the VLE, isn’t that more of an indicator of how most people teach? Lectures with handouts are the physical manifestation of the virtual repository.

    I don’t think it’s that simple. any teach that way, but unless they themselves are taught how to use technology more creatively, they will never change. The fault here lies with staff development. Do teachers see the need for their own ‘e’ development? if they do, re they given opportunities for that development.

    I’m not a VLE fan but – as we heard from Jon above, if you’re not trained well (or come from Birmingham) you won’t KNOW how to use the tool properly or well.


  8. I totally agree that training is vital in changing practice and inspiring people on the possibilities but the bad design of VLE is also an issue.

    As James says better a blunt chisel than no chisel and these tools did help to start a sea change…however their development hasn’t kept pace with technology, use and research. They are designed as repositories or liner course delivery so that is how they are used. We need systems with the flexibility to allow us to implement our desired pedagogy and provide open access to materials and tools….or at least thats what I want 🙂

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