Virtual Learning Environments: ViabLE or ViLE?
Masters Critical Analysis (987 words)
A Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is an on online learning system used within higher education, collating resources for the assimilation of course materials and enabling interaction between participants (Wilson, 1996). This article aims to offer a critical analysis of an online debate between two blog-authors as well as providing discussion around the merits of using the VLE system.
It seems an ongoing debate has been happening behind the scenes for some time now, regarding the use of virtual learning environments within education, in particular within higher education institutes (HEI). Inspired by the presentation “Beyond the LMS” (Audrey Watters, 2014), Sheila (“How Sheila Sees It”, 2014) joins Audrey in taking a stand against those opposing learning management systems (LMS). The theme of Audrey’s presentation is resounded by Sheila in the question “if everybody hates it, why are we still doing it?” Research carried out on attitudes to VLE, found that teachers describe a burden of time and effort (Hilz 1993) which has evolved in more modern times to reluctance to share the control of material with the students (Picollo, Ahmad and Ives, 2001).
Advocates for VLE insist that it is vital to have a static learning platform in 21st century education as it is adaptable and convenient (Perry and Pilati, 2011) with some of its benefits including; consistency between staff and students, material delivery to large numbers and technical support availability (JISC, 2017). Tutors have commented their appreciation due to the simplicity of having lecture material and submissions within the same shell, also being able to monitor student activity and participation (Sneha, and Nagaraja, 2014). The evidence from such surveys reveal that tutors main perceptions surround ease of use and decrease in workload, they do not generally indicate favour in terms of content.
Sheila is almost apologising and squirming in anticipation of a backlash as she attempts to defend the VLE Blackboard, using words such as “indoctrinated” and “evil dictatorship”, but is this a pretence as she prepares to raise her shield to protect from the onslaught? It seems that many experts are willing to write off the VLE due to reasons such as the alleged boring interface, clunky appearance and features dating back to the early days of Web 2.0 (Huang, Rauch and Liaw, 2010) – on this basis it would seem fair to say that aesthetics and userability are the main reasons for complaint, which on the surface seems rather superficial.
Peter Reed would be one to join the front line of defence, stating that it has almost become a trend to badmouth VLE these platforms in his blog ‘The VLE vs “Whatever”’ (2014), advancing the arguement that the complainants are against the existence of VLE alone, rather than specifically moodle, blackboard or “whatever”. His main arguement appears to come from the attitudes of the users, labelling them “silos” and implying the mindset of not being willing to share the content with individuals within the HEI organisation. Whilst the purpose of the VLE can be simplified to basic levels of receiving lecture notes and being able to upload assignments, Reed advises that the educators have to provide some alternative to invading the other social media residences of their students, such as facebook (2014).
Following on from both blogs, a valid issue has been raised; the existence or potential for reasonable alternatives to VLE. There is no question of travelling backwards to a time of classrooms and textbooks, technology and education are now entwined and teaching techniques have already been subject to change to accommodate this – person to person education is a thing of the past, person to machine is the future (O’Reilly, 2005). An integration of VLE with interactive Web 2.0 technologies is in existence, but is not widespread in the practice of most teachers. Blackboard or moodle forum is unfortunately the closest may educators may get to meaningful live interaction with their pupils, which isn’t helpful when students frequently express frustration at the time lapsing between question and answer (Sun et al., 2008). Therefore it is reasonable to suggest an integration between VLE and social media, however evidence would dictate that Twitter is preferred to Facebook and gave better results in terms of commitment to engage (Matzat and Vrieling, 2016).
To sum up the debate between blogs I turn to Reed’s rhetorical challenge, “what would you do if VLE was removed?” We are in receipt of a warning about the shallow and ungrateful reliance on free access to sources such as Google and research databases. Educators should be mindful that our industry should centre on the individuals, who are students rather than users of a site or visitors of a webpage. Reed implies that higher education institutions place more value on enhancing programmes through technology than on the pupils. This is quite a cynical view, perhaps in an attempt to draw controversy. More palatable is research by Kember, (2009) who appeals to educators to instigate a higher level of student-centred learning using the direct involvement of students. Additionally he suggests that award-winning good teaching practice should be analysed and use to improve better practice. Although a noble suggestions, if the analysis was carried out by tutors, could the students be sure the opinion of good practice is similar to their definition of good practice.
In conclusion, virtual learning environments remain unloved but necessary. In appearance they are unattractive, in easy-of-use they are cumbersome but for a practical application, they do an unglamorous job well. Interaction through social media and exciting interfaces could increase engagement, however buy-in needs to be unanimous amongst the higher education staff. Good practice needs to be explored and shared, eventually implemented throughout the faculties, but ultimately in order to be a success, the student needs to have a say. The take-home message is that the grass is not always greener; we should enjoy the freedom of unlimited knowledge available at our fingertips rather than complain about the ugly appearance of these programmes.
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