Blog Review: VLEs

Macneill (2014) compares institutional expectations of VLE usage to living with a dictator. Writing in relation to Blackboard, she demonstrates an appreciation for the advantages of efficient, systematic VLE usage.  However, she voices her reservation that this view opposes the unspoken consensus that critically thinking educators should reject attempts to confine their teaching strategies to the parameters of institutionally-mandated learning packages. She links to Norman (2014), On the False Binary of LMS vs Open, who argues along similar lines, paying additional attention to issues of consistency and scale relevant in large university settings.

Reed (2014) notes a trend for complaining about the tyranny of corporate VLEs in his post The VLE vs. Whatever… . He provides an efficient critique of common objections, summarised by Groom and Lamb (2014) which include the asserted ‘clunkiness’ and ‘inflexibility’ of VLEs, and their tendency to operate within closed systems, discouraging critical thinking. I agree with Reed’s counter-argument: within a commercialised UK HE sector, the inability to provide an adequate VLE course is becoming an untenable position for teaching staff. Additionally university students have chosen to learn via a closed course instead of, for example, a MOOC. Most of Groom and Lamb’s objections are not criticisms of VLEs per se, but of generic poor teaching practice, and a lack of attention to the development of Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (Graham, 2011) within HEIs academic staff development policies.

Consideration of professional context and the curriculum in question are vital to the arguments surrounding VLEs. HE and FE lecturers, schoolteachers and business trainers all have very different issues to consider. HE lecturers do not (yet) develop resources in response to specific client instructions.  Undergraduate populations, whilst diverse, do have commonalities. They often require highly scaffolded support to develop the digital literacy skills required for independent learning. (Margaryan et al, 2011). It is logical that a ‘common and consistent platform’ Norman (2014)  provides a useful starting point, even if the quality of Moodle courses still varies according to their individual creators.

My VLE experience is limited to Moodle, therefore I can only reflect on my experiences of this platform. I understand why teachers find it ‘clunky’ and ‘inflexible’. This was my opinion three years ago when I was shown how to access it and expected to get on with it. Thankfully, my PGCE tutor convinced me that Moodle is (his words) ‘a really powerful bit of kit, if you’ve got the time and inclination to get under the bonnet and learn what it can do’.

However, developing TPACK is time-consuming. I am fortunate; my role allows me this time, and my institution actively supports my development in this area. This is unlikely to be feasible in other contexts, for example for tutors working in casualised roles on zero-hours or  hourly-paid contracts. As noted above, the use of a corporate VLE allows organisations to provide a consistent user experience for students, and support and training for staff in the use of TEL resources. Whether all UK universities are actively pursuing this opportunity remains a matter for debate.

Moodle provides a useful range of ways for me to support my students. Nursing students prefer flexible access to learning materials, frequently accessing them during segments of clinical placement. Students with EAL/SpLDs appreciate the opportunity to see session resources in advance, in order to reduce extraneous processing load and enable them to participate in session on equal terms (Jamieson and Morgan, 2008).

I leave the last word on this to Steve Wheeler (2014), who concisely explains how poor design and implementation can lead to frustration and impeded learning for students and teachers. Arguing that technology must not stand in the way of good pedagogy, he presents his case for Learning First, Technology Second, with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Additional References

Graham, C. (2011) ‘Theoretical considerations for understanding technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK)’ In: Computers and Education 57: 1953 – 1960

Jamieson, C. and Morgan, E.(2008)  Managing Dyslexia at University Abgindon: Routledge

Margaryan, A., Littlejohn, A. and Vojt, G. (2011) ‘Are digital natives a myth or reality? University students’ use of digital technologies’ In: Computers and Education 56: 429 – 44

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