Experiences of VLEs from Higher Education

With more schools thinking of installing VLEs next year, it is instructive to look at the experience of the HE sector. They are about three years ahead of us, and starting to see the cracks…

Is the brave new world of e-learning envisaged pre-dotcom / UKEU collapse now in danger of degrading into a prosaic reality of wall-to-wall Blackboard and WebCT courses all looking the same as each other, with most, with a few outstanding exceptions, not doing anything more than being expensive vehicles for content delivery with a few token underpopulated, largely unsupported, and unfocused discussions for good measure?

Across the elearning blogs I read (nearly all HE-orietated) there is a strong move away from monolithic MLE/VLE products towards more flexible (and cheaper) solutions, each of which attempts to do one thing well. In some cases, they are not even installing their own software, but rather encouraging students to use free services – Blogger and Flickr are the most common examples.

The key issue is the motivation behind implementation. College (and school) managers like the data-gathering aspects of all-in-one elearning systems; “If I can measure it, I can manage it”. But any single system has only limited permutations, and this leads to a deadening monoculture in the classroom.

Teachers fall into two groups;

  • those who want to stick with paper anyway and will passively resist any kind of elearning
  • enthusiasts who are driven by a desire to enthuse and motivate students. They value diversity above all else, and will use your big, expensive VLE as just one, occasional, tool in a much larger set they have assembled for themselves.

A bottom-up approach to introducing elearning is likely to lead an ecosystem of many different, competing tools within the school. This does reduce the potential for global results reporting, but experience in HE suggests that potential was never going to be realised anyway. The benefit, as any ecologist will tell you, is that the more species you have in a particular ecosystem, the more more likely the system as a whole is to survive.

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