Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The VLE as Kenwood Chef

Virtual Learning Environments are a lot like expensive food processors. They come with a lot of interesting looking blades and attachments, but most people use only them to make smoothies.

If you only use your €400 Food Processer as a €30 Juicer, why not get rid of it, and just use a juicer? Content management systems are cheaper to install and maintain. That's an interesting idea, but I wouldn't advise it for several reasons. Installed VLEs nowadays tend to be tightly integrated with other campus systems, plagiarism detection tools and so on. You can't easily turn them off and go cold turkey. Plus, a lot of large scale content management systems are even harder to use than VLE's.

A more important reason is that Virtual Learning Environments act a kind of a gateway drug for online Learning. You come onboard first to put up some handouts because the photocopier fumes give you a migraine. Next thing, you throw up some slides, exercises. It's basic content transmission stuff. You could quit anytime. But for some people, that's not enough. Perhaps a few audio files, to help with revision. Maybe a little discussion forum, to draw out the in class lurkers. Next thing you know, you're digging Downes and Illich, handcoding PHP and you've moved on from the VLE entirely to open source systems. VLE's are for newbs, you'll say, after all, all they do is perpetuate hierarchical transmission models of education, man. For the right kind of mind, VLE's are the start of a slippery slope. First dose free with Moodle!

But in reality, few move past the VLE as a pure content management system. We're all still using our expensive Kenwood Chef as a juicer. But that's ok. If the VLE does nothing more than act as a heavy lifter for the transmission side of teaching, and allows you to execute a flip and use your in class time for something else, fantastic. Over time though, this low grade usage of the VLE will change, as other needs like Plagiarism detection, assessment and grade management come into the picture.  Presently, people tend to use VLE's reactively, to solve problems, rather than proactively, to be better educators.Inevitably, pressure of student numbers create problems, like assessment and retention, and the VLE has tools in place to help to solve them, once the need becomes urgent.

We have the tools already in house to do more than we think, if we learn to use them. Another big gadget won't make us better online educators. That's like people who can hardly scramble eggs fetishising  over creme brulee torches in the kitchen shop. Another cookbook won't help either. I've got dozens, and I still only cook 5 things. Just like cooking, our online learning should focus on doing simple things really well, with the tools we already have, and the best ingredients you can get.

Due credit: This metaphor came up while at the recent EDIN writers retreat in Rosslare. We have a little grassroots community of practice who research on VLE's and were working on a book chapter (see my last post) and this came analogy out of that twelve brain hivemind. 

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