It’s not dead… yet…

Why we can’t bury the VLE just yet…


There are many people out there who believe that the institutional VLE is dead and we should allow learners to use their own PLE (personal learning environment) and/or a selection of Web 2.0 tools and services.

For example Steve Wheeler in Learning with ‘e’s says in a recent blog post on the death of the VLE that:

The institutional VLE is led by the entire institution and is therefore slow to respond to change, whilst the personal web is led by one user. The personal web has one more key advantage – it is owned by the individual who created it.

In another of his blog posts, Steve argues that

I have previously argued that VLEs tend to constrain students into particular ways of thinking and stifle creativity. I also maintain that most proprietary VLEs have been designed by businesses not by teachers, and therefore are unfit for purpose.

To be honest I don’t actually disagree with Steve on principle. I do believe that in order for learning to be accessible and personalised for all learners, institutional services often fail as they provide a service for all which can only meet some of the needs of some of the learners. Eventually learners will be able to choose the tools they want to use and when they want to use them. For those learners the VLE will be dead.

However we do need to question whether we bury the VLE now or wait…

Why wait?

Well Steve argues that learners are able to utilise the online tools and services available on the web to facilitate their learning.

There’s a big problem with this, in that most learners do not know how to use the web effectively and many of these only “visit” the web to do some stuff.

The concept that the majority of learners are adept at using Web 2.0 tools and services, are engaged with social networking and importantly are able to apply these skills to learning is a flawed concept at this time.

Most learners are not using these tools for anything let alone learning. There are no digital natives and there isn’t a Google Generation. Various papers have been published on this subject.

From my experience, most e-learning professionals aren’t engaging with the Web 2.0 tools and services out there let alone learning professionals. At ALT-C 2008 for example, six hundred delegates who were coming to a learning technology conference, and of those less than 8% were using Twitter! Though I expect the situation to be different at ALT-C 2009 I still don’t see the majority of the delegates at that conference engaging with the very technologies that are supposed to be replacing institutional tools.

Most learning professionals aren’t engaging with the web tools and services, so will learners?

Most learners who engage with post 16 learning could in theory already choose a personalised individual route to learning and use the wide variety of tools out there. They don’t choose that route though, they choose to engage with their learning via a physical learning environment, a college, a university, they choose to engage with a learning environment which is led by the entire institution and is therefore slow to respond to change.

If the VLE is dead then  maybe we need to ensure that the physical learning environment is buried alongside. However it will be some time before we see the demise of the physical learning environment, why it’s not perfect, but it does a job.

Steve in his recent blog post concludes:

All things considered, it is inevitable that the personal web will win in a straight fight against the institutional VLE. The VLE has had its day and will meet its demise, even though its supporters cannot see it coming. The personal web is on the rise.

The personal web will probably win, the personal web however is currently the domain of a select few individuals and not embraced or used by learners. For these learners they need guidance and advice on what tools they should use. This does not need to come from tutors alone, however where do these learners start from? Where should they go first? They need some kind of starting place (and dare I say it) some kind of portal to their learning.

The VLE can be that starting point.

Using an institutional VLE does not preclude using other Web 2.0 services and tools, on the contrary, a VLE and web tools can be used together. For example this blog has an RSS feed which feeds directly into my institutional VLE. I use Slideshare to host my presentations which I can then as well as embedding into this blog, also embed them into my institutional VLE too. As well as embedding presentations, I also embed YouTube videos, videos from this blog and other sites too. My delicious tag cloud is embedded into the VLE to allow staff to see what I am bookmarking. My Twitter stream is streamed into the VLE to allow staff to stalk track my activity.

The VLE is not perfect, but it does a job that with the current cohort of learners and teachers could not do by themselves.

Eventually the VLE will be replaced as are all tools, but at this time we can’t afford to bury a tool which for some is their starting point on their learning journey.

Is the debate over?

No it’s just beginning. You can join myself, Steve Wheeler, Graham Attwell and Nick Sharatt at ALT-C 2009 in our symposium, “The VLE is dead” where we will be presenting and debating these issues.

Is the VLE dead?

Not yet.

Photo source.

21 thoughts on “It’s not dead… yet…”

  1. Top post. One aspect we must all remember is that it is not the people who use the VLE who are the ones who choose what system to use; it is (more often than not) the central services who won’t actually use or even support it that make the decision. They are often not willing or able to make a choice that does not fit into the procurement process of “costs + support + accountability = valid option”, especially the option that does not have a multi-national corporation behind it.

  2. i can see this debate to go on for some years.
    With google entering the university email business i can see that day nearing faster that before. Google provides many of the PLE type tools and is a unifying platform. With federated access to several existing and upcoming services a PLE dream may realised (this will help overcoming some of the technical difficulties).

    Above all there is a lot of money that is invested in VLEs and no one is going to back out in a hurry on the huge investment already made. The colleges who have moodle are lucky as they did not spend loads of money in acquiring a paid VLE for their institution.

  3. Hear hear! A lot of assumptions are made about students’ skills today. Also agree that one of the best uses of a VLE is as a portal for other more flexible tools.

  4. Thanks for that James. I think you are a little premature on declaring the Digital Native as extinct; whilst I am quite sure the age-related aspect of Prensky’s Digital Native idea is adequately disposed of, there are those who can quite reasonably be thought of as digital natives. They may not be as common as the evangelists would have us believe, but they exist.

    Most post-16 learners probably feel the need for that irritating piece of paper to reward them for their studies, and a major factor in choosing physical learning environments may be down to the availability of them that way as opposed to the rather limited availability through engaging with a personalised learning route. We need to have a robust method of assessing portfolio material distributed across a number of services to make a PLE only route demonstrate the same sort of value as the existing institutional one.

    I agree that learners need some sort of advice and guidance on what tools to use. A portal is certainly one way of providing this – a VLE is rather the opposite in general use, being a way to shut out all that nasty personally ‘owned’ technology. Open the VLE up so it provides a loose framework, and you are good to go. Or, use a mashup site…

    Whether the learners have the skills to use a PLE and develop a Personal Learning Network by using it is not really the primary concern at the moment, in my opinion. Much more important is to provide ways for them to develop the skills. Access to the tools is one thing, but we all need to develop our skill in finding, assessing, and using the tools. I consider myself a digital native, but I know that I always have a lot more to learn about the technologies. And that is going to be a common theme for everyone – it is very unlikely that people will stop coming up with clever systems, and it is up to us to learn how to use them to best effect and to pass that on to students and peers.

  5. Fully agree, James. I can’t see an end to a VLE for a long time to come; in many ways I see it as more of a “library” than a personal study space. Just as we point the students in the direction of the library & its resources (books, videos, group study areas, solo study cubicles, copying machines, etc) , so we point the students in the direction of the VLE & its resources (group discussion areas, readable / watchable items, space for personal notes etc).

    However, we’re also in the business of getting students to explore – what suits one student won’t suit another; that’s where the PLE comes in. It’s helping the students develop their own set of resources (which mayn’t even be electronic!)

    While I can see where Manish is coming from re. Google, I’m not sure that it will be quite as all encompassing; to start with, they’ll always be the students who aren’t interested; then they’ll be those that think Google is way too big & powerful (probably they think that MS is too, so are using Linux to access other bits of the Interweb!)

    Like students in the past – we can try to teach “study skills”; some students will arrive at Uni having a well developed personal set of skills (probably with a strong e-element), others will have an openness to learn; others mayn’t necessarily. But, that’s a different discussion to the need for a centralised access point to online resources – that all students (and lecturers) can get to – regardless of their interest in the tech behind it all.

  6. We’re only just recognising the need to teach ‘digital literacy’ and having spent 15 years trying to teach study skills in FE, I know that we make too many assumptions about what our learners know/can do especially re: web 2.0. Don’t get me started about staff either!

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