Developing the Virtual Learning Environment: What’s taking so long?

According to M. Weller, author of Virtual Learning Environments, the acronym VLE refers to ‘the components in which learners and tutors participate in online interactions of various kinds, including online learning.’ (2007:3).

Thus, a virtual learning environment can be any electronic space where learning can take place or where interactions occur.

In the past decade we have seen a rapid implementation of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) in advanced education and in the schooling sector. Educators and institutions are progressively turning to VLEs to enhance the time spent teaching and facilitate students who use the Internet as the fundamental tool for discovering information and resources. The term Learning Platform or VLE describes an expansive scope of ICT systems used to deliver and support learning. At the core of any learning platform is the idea of a customized web based learning space for the student (Harasim 2012). Therefore, this space should offer teachers and students access to saved work, e-learning resources, openings for communication and facility to track progress. (Weller 2007). However up till now there has not been a strong track record in integrating VLEs effectively into teaching and learning programmes.

The core reading of my research into VLEs consists of two blogs the first one by MacNeil (2014). Her views on VLEs state that they are all about bureaucracy and not about the learner. Blackboard (Bb) indoctrinated by her institution, is described as the ‘VLE dictator’ because it restricts teaching and learning. Conversely, it is argued that without Bb there would be chaos as it does a lot of groundwork in terms of administration and management for student information systems of large cohorts.

Despite the reasonably large scale uptake in VLEs, MacNeil (2014) suggests that the perceived benefits have not yet been widely realised. Bb is not cool or innovative enough to keep up with the more sophisticated use pedagogy such as blended learning. In the changing culture, there is a need for the removal of formal constructs and more experimental models. She highlights the need to re establish connections with networks of practitioners to reflect on and support advancing pedagogy. MacNeil (2014) reinforces Starkey’s complexity theory (2012) which emphasises it is via these connections that knowledge emerges. From this process of change, knowledge about teaching and learning will continue to emerge in the digital age.  

In Paul Reed’s (2014) blog The VLE vs ‘Whatever’ agrees with MacNeil’s (2014) opinion that getting rid of the VLE ‘would cause mayhem’ however challenges the role of the VLE and its purpose in the Higher Education context. He debates that some form of technology is needed to support learning, teaching, assessment and administration in HE and questions, ‘Do VLE’s need to be the most innovative products in the tech industry?’

Reed‘s research (2014) suggests that what HE students want out of VLE is the basics- access to information, power points/ presentations and to be able to submit work online to meet deadlines. Sheila MacNeil’s (2014) comments in her blog; educational technology is a fast changing world with a variety of platforms that are built on a very traditional model of learning. But I disagree. I understand her frustration with the need for a changing culture to have an impact on technologies in education however, the culture in some institutions isn’t quite ready yet. There are an increasing number of schools making use of a VLE to support teaching and learning activities beyond simply using it as a place to share content and resources. David Hopkins (2014) posted on VLE vs ‘Whatever’: “All in all, the VLE is only dead if no one uses it. If the academic staff don’t use it, then neither will the students.”

In conclusion, although MacNeil’s (2014) post encourages connections through networking and changes with more sophisticated use of learning technology, she also explains that VLE cannot transform overnight. Of particular interest to me is the assumption that the use of a VLE is not or cannot be as good as a face-to-face experience. Facer (2011:15) states: ‘we need to create schools that are capable of supporting communities and students to come together to imagine and build sustainable futures for all.’

Reed (2014) deduces technological advances in Higher Education will seldom have a disruptive effect because ‘it is not a tech industry; it’s a people industry.’  We all need a much broader concept of what the learning environment is and I think the key is that we need to understand and address what the students want.

My experience with VLE:

For the past fifteen years of working within various Colleges in the Further Education sector, I have experienced many instances where a VLE has been introduced; training given on the essentials of how to upload material onto it, then it has been left to deteriorate through lack of use. On the other hand, there are examples of where I experienced excellent use of VLE, where it has become a part of the learning hub of the college, acting as the exchange for course content, tracking systems, participation in projects, communication with parents etc.

I have been very much taking the approach of ‘better the devil you know’ in terms of VLE and my teaching practice, most commonly in the form of Moodle as a platform. As a lecturer in construction, a predominantly practical course, the main challenges I have faced is how I ensure that I’m not simply adopting the use of a VLE to enable online learning and blending it into an inconsistent practical model. I include some of the pedagogical practices that exist in our face to face workshops, however not everyone is always involved which has caused the VLE to fail miserably. For example, a lot of what occurs in our workshops remains a hangover from the “transfer of knowledge” days, where the emphasis is on the ‘delivery’ of content, rather than what is being experienced and practiced in the construction industry. Technology is growing at a fast pace, there is a strong need for change and resistance has surfaced from threatened colleagues.

Over the last 5 years there has been a sense of chaos and detachment among teams in the school of construction. Louise Starkey (2012)describes her complexity theory as a model on how teaching and learning may change in the digital age. Complexity theory suggests that emergent knowledge, a new way of thinking and understanding, develops at the edge of chaos. Therefore the edge of chaos can inspire change among those involved, and if the individuals believe they have the power to exchange their ideas through connections and influence the change, then the condition exists for emergent knowledge.

I’m an advocate of change to teaching and learning in the digital age and am fascinated by how it is connected to the teachers’ beliefs, experiences and pedagogical approaches. In 2013, I took on the role of Advanced Practitioner and still work closely with the London FE Coaches Community of Practice, where ideas from all levels of the educational sector come to light. It is a supportive environment where coaches of teaching and learning meet to reflect on and develop specialist practice. Knowledge emerges when communities share ideas, develop innovative methods of teaching and learning and implement them within our practice. (Starkey 2012:127).

This network of connections has opened my eyes to become actively involved in more sophisticated use of learning technology and have stronger digital collaboration with my students. I am currently in the process of collaborating with managers to develop our Moodle platform into a more student centred e-learning provision by using a range of facilities such as Planet eStream, a media server enabling video assessments; ProMonitor, a student based tracking of progress system; Course assignment submission areas for blended and distance learning with unique plugins. We are also updating our Markbook system and linking it to turnitin for Internal Quality Assurance purposes.

So far my experience with VLE has been a slow process however I have come a long way in terms of technical pedagogy within the college domain as well as the local community programmes such as Croydon Tech City. Therefore, I will continue to explore the challenges and rewards of the digital age because in the end it comes down to how I can use VLE, rather than what use can potentially be made of it.

Reference list:

Facer, K. (2011) Learning Futures: Education, technology and social change. Oxon, Routledge. Available from:
https://moodlecurrent.gre.ac.uk/mod/folder/view.php?id=747631 [Accessed 4th February 2019]

Harasim, L., (2012) Learning Theory and Online Technologies. New York: Routledge.

MacNeil, S. (2014) ‘Living with the VLE dictator’, Ponderings from the world of educational technology in HE, 15th September. Available at: https://howsheilaseesit.blog/2014/09/15/living-with-the-vle-dictator/ (Accessed: 10 February 2019).

Reed, P. (2014) ‘The VLE vs ‘Whatever’…’ The Reed Diaries, 15th September. Available at: http://thereeddiaries.blogspot.com/2014/09/the-vle-vs-whatever.html (Accessed: 10 February 2019).

Starkey, L. (2012) Teaching and Learning in the digital age. Oxon, Routledge. Available from:
https://moodlecurrent.gre.ac.uk/mod/folder/view.php?id=747631 [Accessed 4th February 2019].

Weller, M., (2007) Virtual Learning Environments: Using, choosing and developing your VLE. Oxon: Routledge.

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