CMS and VLEs vs … something else

Increasingly, I’ve become frustrated by the VLEs I’ve seen in the various institutions I’ve taught in (‘Virtual Learning Environment’: what in the US is more likely to be called CMS). Regardless of the provider, the VLE belies what its utopian name implies. I remember in the late 1990s doing a workshop at Leeds University on what I later realised was a VLE. I remember the language very clearly: that we would create virtual ‘spaces’ that students would ‘enter’ to work ‘in’. Looking at what is now standard across many HE institutions, it is far from a virtual environment that is truly interactive; the US acronym is much closer to what the software feels like – a ‘Course Management System’. It’s also closer to what students perceive it as. It might well be the digital face of a tutor’s module, but it still feels very much like the institutional face of that teaching; and it feels that way to students and tutors alike. Having an interface that tries to combine ‘hard’ features (institutional information, assessment portals – including plagiarism detection software – grading systems) with the other ‘soft’ features (such as resources and links attuned to the ethos of the tutor and their specific module) creates an odd and unappealing amalgam that does not best enable – from the student – a productive engagement with the module. I have seen wonderful things provided on the VLE pages of some my colleagues’ modules: but even at its best, it can still tend to be a rather one-sided digital conversation.

If we want to create a parallel learning space (and I use the spatial metaphor advisedly) to the space of the lecture or seminar or tutorial – and I think we should – then I’ve come to conclusion that we should move away from, or provide something else other than, the VLE / CMS. I’m perfectly aware that the major providers have been adding a huge variety of platforms to mirror the direction of web 2.0, but mine and my colleagues’ attempts to use the in-built blogs or the wiki packs have not been successful. This is partly to do with the clunkiness of the interface: it’s not intuitive, so students get caught up in the mechanics at the expense of the purpose of the exercise. But it’s also to do with the institutional effect of the VLE. I recently asked my class on eighteenth-century fiction about what kind of digital / online forum they would prefer if they wanted a ‘space’ parallel to the seminar and they overwhelmingly voted for something outside the VLE (they actually voted for Facebook because it was something most were familiar with). Recently, Carrie Shanafelt posted an adroit series of observations on using wikis in the classroom and, in particular, the negative effects of compulsion which I think my own observation on the institutional effect of the VLE / CMS parallels.

My thoughts have been also catalysed by an ongoing experiment to develop (with the help of Gavin Wilshen – thanks!) a blog-site for an MA programme. The potential opportunities for a properly interactive interface between students and tutor are underlined by the ability for tutors and students to post a continuous series of news and commentary and links to create an ongoing conversation around the topics of the course that is parallel to – and to an important extent – outside the space of the institutional face of the VLE.

I certainly thinking that some form of free blogging software is the way forward. So, right now I’m considering what particular platform might best enable a more intuitive way for my undergraduate students to interact with the materials and the topics of my modules in an online space outside or parallel to the classroom, but perhaps also outside the VLE. TBC …


2 thoughts on “CMS and VLEs vs … something else

  1. Don’t know if you’ll like it or find it helpful, but a Miltonist-turned-technology and teaching consultant, Gardner Campbell, made this observation:

    “I think a password-protected course website that helps to manage documents within a course has its uses, though I’d never say that such a site “manages” learning. I don’t think learning can be “managed”–as I’ve explained in my posts, it’s the wrong metaphor, and it does matter what we call things. What I see, though, is that such websites *become* the online presence for every aspect of the course, and thus furnish data on “student involvement” that form the basis for “analytics” that measure with fantastic precision an activity that occurs within, and perpetuates, a brutally reductive paradigm of learning.”

    I think the concern is that the CMS model is based on an overly standardized, reductive model of teaching and interaction. Gardner claims elsewhere that BlackBoard (our nemesis in America) was invented to protect academics from the transformative potential of the internet. In some sense, I think this is correct. So whatever you do, try to find a technology that doesn’t foreclose too many options for you or your students.


  2. I heartily agree. Environment is a spatial metaphor, as is web ‘site’- a place or a space that you visit. But we’re used to the ‘site’ metaphor suddenly switching to ‘pages’. Page, for the time being however, is a more-or-less acceptable metaphorical leap, given that most web pages, including this one, consist of vertical columns of text. We’re just used to this being the norm.

    So, what of VLEs? A Virtual Learning Environment if implimented with skill and imagination could (should?) offer an interesting and engaging site, place or space to visit. As it’s name suggests, there you would, hopefully, be inspired to look, learn, explore, imagine, interact and plug into some switched on conversations and so forth. Instead, what confronts you in most cases (Blackboard being a case iin point) is a learning Administration system…. a ‘front end’ that is a management or administrative gateway to a load of tools and chunks of course materials organised in a manner akin to a filing cabinet. A real turn off! Again, a loose conconction of terms and jumble of metaphors. Paradigm confusion reigns!

    LMS (Learning Management System) would be more appropriate terminology for what currently passes for a VLE. I think it’s time to go back to the drawing board on VLEs, believing that learning environments require some imaginative ‘blue skies’ thinking – to be reborn in new forms – but with their administrative backbones being mostly invisible.


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