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 …