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George Roberts :: Blog :: VLE Debate: Where's the debate?

December 01, 2008

At the Altered States conference (28 November 2008), Emerge hosted a debate - more of a gentlemen's discussion - with Martin Dougiamas of Moodle and John Fontaine of Blackboard from the VLE makers side and Mark Stiles, Dave Cormier and Lawrie Phipps on the side of the implementers and users; Sean Mehan chaired the affair (links to recorded debate and plenary discussion). But, presenting the discussion as if it had sides wouldn't be accurate. There was broad agreement around a large middle ground: VLEs are useful in different ways for different people. A single institutional monolith is unlikely to find favour with most learners (students, teachers, administrators). But, neither is the completely disaggregated approach of consuming feeds produced by a wide range of tools using an equally wide range of PLE components.

There was broad agreement that a VLE should be an open framework of tools that could be added or removed as required by the learning design. From this consensus, the discussion centered around two poles:
  • what is the core component of the VLE
  • what is the right scale of aggregation/disaggregation.

There seemed to be agreement that there were two core components:

  • a user environment
  • an administration framework.

The administration framework would probably be implemented on a wider scale than the user environment but it need not be, and there is no reason why a user environment shouldn't "talk" to more than one administration framework.

Although he didn't say it explicitly, John Fontaine's position was that Blackboard would be able to provide most of the user-environment tools that plugged into the framework and the framework itself, while all the other discutants agreed that there should be a framework and an environment, but they needn't be vendor-specific.

The core component required of the admin framework is a very fine grained, federated access control system: particular people, in particular circumstances, can use particular tools to do particular things (discuss, collaborate, access content; do, submit, mark assignments; etc).

The right scale of aggregation for the user environment is below that of a whole institution, but above that of a single person or even course module. Recognising that all loci of implementation are different the right scale seems to be at the level of an academic unit: school, department. Environments have both instrumental instructional functions and affective functions in forming and sustaining cohort and group identities. The affective functions are best achieved by common look and feel, visual identity, shared task environment and so on. However it is also recognised that Business Schools will want theirs in a corporate livery while Schools of Education will want theirs in a well-worn tweed. Humour aside, different disciplines have different learning, teaching and assessment traditions. Departments of Psychology may require stats packages, while cultural theorists may need discourse-analysis tools.

It is generally asumed that the right scale of aggregation for the VLE admin framework would be the institution. But this was not really explored. I assert that there is no reason to assume this. A shared services agreement could see the implementation of an access federation and learning management system regionally serving several institutions. Or, conversely, admin implementation could be below the level of the whole institution. The question is as much - or more - to do with cultures of governance and patterns of employment than administrative necessity.

Overview for Keywords: access, Altered States, federated services, ple, vle

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Posted by George Roberts


  1. ummm... i didn't agree with this. "There was broad agreement that a VLE should be an open framework of tools that could be added or removed as required by the learning design." I don't think it "should be" anything. I said they were only useful as a pathway to make money and if you had to blindly program someone to do something... 

    Maybe i was asleep or something...

    dave cormierdave cormier on Monday, 01 December 2008, 23:31 GMT # |

  2. My argument is that the VLE is binding us to pedagogies that we don't like, and that even with the broad framework argument, we are still pedagogy push rather than learning pull. I know it's been said before, but if we asked a student to design a learning environment what would it look like? I'm not nailing my colour to the mast, but right here right now, I don't think I need a VLE to support students learning, I might need one to support the needs of an HEI, but that is not currently foremost in my argument or my practice.

    Lawrie PhippsLawrie Phipps on Monday, 01 December 2008, 23:40 GMT # |

  3. Fair, enough, Dave, you did have the clearest voice dissenting from the "broad agreement", but what are the "they" to which you refer? Are they products, boxed sets, like Bb and Moodle? If we drop the virtual, what do we have? Are they then any different from classrooms of the 60s with mimeographed registers passed around for students to sign in on and lecturers who used the space badly - or well? I agree with Lawrie that the needs of an institution are served by something - call it an MLE, maybe, AND to the extent that learners attach themselves to AND become part of that institution they will make use of that thing. If we could all become heroic folk scholars, like Roger Bacon (was he one of those?) maybe we would be on the side of truth, yet hounded from the institution. Fact of the developed world is that most learners need to be adept with the online environment. Universities have such things, shaped to their institutional needs. Our task as educators is to both use the institutional environment and to expose its very conflicted underpinnings. Stephen Brookfield on critical reflection is still worth a read in this matter. The VLE debate is proxy for a much bigger one.

    George RobertsGeorge Roberts on Tuesday, 02 December 2008, 05:30 GMT # |

  4. Ha. I'll send your comment to the people calling me a Bb fanboy Tongue out

    There is a sense in which the VLE debate does bridge into a larger discussion about the validity of top down knowledge distribution from the knowledge depot... a model that started to lose its validity 10 years ago and is now working its way to the margins. We are in a post-knowledge-scarcity society and the VLE as it is currently conceived is still designed for transimitting knowledge scarcity. It presumes that the 'value' is in the knowledge itself, in the content provided by the university ,and that the contribution of the students is transitory and disposable. This is the old model, the model, ACTUAL student centredness not the 'students get to talk' model we've been sold for years, involves the student s creating their own knowledge in their own space... a PLE or Eportfolio or whatever you want to call it is created as a manner of course. It is the natural result of learning.

    This is an interesting discussion... my only problem here george, is that this is not he discussion I was invited to, and I'm feeling a little (not sure what word to use here that wont sound dramatic, because, really, I'm not trying to make a big deal out of this) confused about being criticized for not answering a different question than the one that was asked. You asked us what the 'future of the VLE' was... and seem, in your blog post, to wish you had asked a different question. I think the points that you raise in your blog post are excellent and should really be the topic of a broad ranging debate. 


    dave cormierdave cormier on Tuesday, 02 December 2008, 14:04 GMT # |

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