Living with the VLE dictator

You know how it is, you listen and read to some “stuff” (and seriously great stuff that is worth listening to and reading). It sets all sorts of triggers in your head about how you work, what you do, and more importantly what you can do to in response. You get a great title for a blog post, then you see from your network that someone else has pretty much written what you had been thinking, but far more eloquently than you. At this point, dear reader, you really can just read this post The False Binary of LMS vs Open from D’Arcy Norman.

However, as the roots of this post were really seeded by listening to Audrey Watter’s recent Beyond the LMS presentation at the University of Newcastle, and as I’m still thinking about her ALT-C keynote and the importance of non North American narratives, I’m going to continue with my tuppence worth.

“Blackboard sucks” – that’s the consensus right? But as Audrey pointed out, even the new LMS/VLE kids on the block are selling their products by saying things like “it’s like just like Blackboard, except it’s blue like Facebook”. They are all about management, administration and not about the learner. They are built on a very traditional model of education. They are walled gardens. If you haven’t listened to Audrey’s presentation, you must.

As I was doing just that on Friday, a number of things were swirling through my head. At this point I probably should mention that here at GCU Blackboard is our VLE and for quite a while I have been mulling about writing a post titled “why I quite like Blackboard”.

Had it taken less than a year for me to be indoctrinated by the evil dictatorship that is Blackboard and by default all other VLEs? Am now I a willing conspirator in maintaining their status quo? Shouldn’t I be leading the insurgency or at least doing more to fight for open? At the sametime, scarily I was thinking terribly un-pc thoughts about benign dictators holding things together, and wondering if I could write a witty, yet well informed post comparing educational technology to the current situation in the Middle East or closer to home the Scottish independence referendum. I quickly realised that I probably couldn’t.

This morning via my networks came across D’Arcy’s post. And as I said, he had kind of written my post. Like D’Arcy, I work with and support the need for the boring, but oh so important administrative functions that our iteration of Blackboard support and that are needed for teaching and learning just now. If we got rid of Bb, I think it is fair to say there would be a fair amount of chaos for our students and staff alike. I have been in several meetings over the last year where a new shiny (and sometimes not so shiny) thing has been talked about with almost awe and wonder. This despite the fact that it just duplicates what are already doing within Bb but without the crucial integration “thangs” that automagically assign modules to students and staff. In these cases I have very much been advocating sticking to the ‘devil we know”, and trying to have a more holistic conversation about learning, where and how it (could) takes place in our context. I don’t want us to just move to something else that does the same thing only with a slightly nicer interface – if we are going to jump I want that jump to matter.

Too often our some of my colleagues really have no idea about what our students and staff are actually doing in terms of collaboration, networking. Because they don’t see it everyday, they think it doesn’t take place. Bb is one of our most stable systems too which again often goes unnoticed and unreported or there is an assumption that no-one uses it.

We are encouraging and seeing more sophisticated use of learning technology across our institution, we are committed to blended learning not only in the sense of blending f2f and online teaching, but also in terms of blending the systems we use. We can (and do) blend third party systems with Bb. Increased use of specs like LTI is opening up new possibilities. Bb themselves are going through some big changes and have been very supportive in listening and reacting to our need. Oh yes, I hear you sigh, that’s because they want to continue to get your business. Which of course is true, but from what I can gather that hasn’t always been the case.

Of course, changing culture is the key to making any technology have an impact in education (or anywhere else), and Audrey did highlight that in her talk. Much as I would love to experiment with more open, connected, student owned technologies such as the example she gave of the “domain of their own” the University of Maryland Washington, the culture in my institution isn’t quite ready for that yet. But it is a great example and one I will be sharing with colleagues and looking to see if we could do anything similar. I am seeing an increasing positive trend in terms of portfolio development which encourages and facilitates networking and open sharing by students.

Networks are also crucial for staff to share ideas, narratives, experiences, and often for me a sanity check. Realistically I don’t have enough influence in my institution to make sweeping changes, but I hope that I can bring ideas back from my network which can help move forward, or at least open up some different debates around our thinking and development of learning and teaching. I need to hear people like Audrey to make me reflect on my practice and share ideas with my internal nework.

So, although in one sense I may be living within a dictatorship, I do believe it is a changing one, one that is trying to catch up with evolving expectations. I may not be leading an insurgency but I hope that I am able to influence changes from within so that we have a truly flexible infrastructure and support mechanisms to allow the space and security for some radical thinking and changes to take place.

18 thoughts on “Living with the VLE dictator”

  1. Hi Shelia,
    An insightful blog post. And you’ve hit an important nail on the head. *If*, you are still looking to deliver learning and teaching within the university constructs of terms/semesters and with defined cohorts starting and ending at certain times, then a VLE does a lot of the ground work for you when tied in with student information systems. I agree it’s not cool or innovative but take that away when you’re dealing with cohorts of 100+ and who’s going to do that admin?
    Also, as well as the mindset of our academics, our students come in with some preconceptions of how learning may be delivered. They have been in that start/finish/class mindset for a long time before they even get to university.
    Perhaps, a phased model is more appropriate where, as student move through their years at an institution, we relax that dependence on those formal constructs.
    If you are going to abandon the whole shebang then you also need to look at how to deliver education without those constructs. Something along the lines of: ?


    1. Thanks Elaine, yes I think phased is key. We can’t transform overnight and people (staff and students alike) get confidence from a degree of conformity and consistency which our semesters and classes provide. Thanks for the link too – hadn’t seen that.


  2. I have also detected a movement in Bb towards a more “beneficial dictatorship”. Their more open approach to community via BITS and the various Blackboard conference sessions that have gone out on YouTube for example. Plus, the sneak peeks I have seen of the new UX (not all of it catchup) have me looking forward to the next service pack release. I agree that we have to accept that our colleagues and students are probably comfortable in the VLE and our priorities should now be to exploit more of the native and plugin technologies where appropriate to raise the level of usage beyond the mere content repository.

    A review of the VLE is on the agenda for my institution this year. So these thoughts (and those of D’Arcy Norman cited here) are timely indeed.

  3. Interesting post Sheila. It’s been 18 months since I retired and I can’t say that I miss Blackboard;) However when I did use it, my approach was pragmatic and I did appreciate its integration with student IS. The area that I really wish that had been developed as free – standing interoperable systems is workable content repositories (analogous to institutional research repositories not the other object repositories that we have seen). Just imagine if the ‘will’, effort and money directed at, say, MOOCS had been applied to proper content management. Then institutions would have been less vulnerable to supplier lock – in and in a position to make a real decision in the future about how they manage learner/tutor interactions (the small percentage that actually need to be managed that is). Imagine content that can be easily shared and reused by learners and tutors not locked away in endless copies in module spaces accessible only to that session of students.
    Of course that would require enlightened management of technology and academic activities, and a recognition that the creation of teaching and learning content may be driven by an author or team of authors, but relies on the ideas and work of many whose contribution should be attributed as much as possible, rather than snapshots ‘owned’ by institutions. Does that remind you of the content of institutional repositories? Journal papers use citations, attribute sources and clearly identify authors. OK teaching and learning content would need a different style of attribution and ownership but a lot work has been done in OER that could feed in. Of course, student knowledge contributions should be included too.
    OK – rant over – back to lying in the sun in France;)

    1. Thanks Frances. I think that “enlightened management” is key. I think we are still waiting for some of our senior management across the sector to fully engage with learning and teaching activities and the potential around open education. I have another post bubbling away based on the findings from our visitor and residents work around boundary spaces, learning design and just interacting with more administrative services at the most appropriate point. I think what you are saying here about easy of sharing and interactions fits nicely into my thinking. But I need to think a bit more about it before sharing.

  4. In recent years I’ve also admitted to liking Blackboard, not for what it does or how it does it, but for what it ‘could’ do if we let ourselves look at the whole system and work out what fits in what we want to do.

    What do I mean … simply put, Bb has a lot to offer. For some, too much, for others, not enough. For some the system is too rigid and too commercial. For some the delay in patches or upgrades to fix faults or ‘features’ is too slow and too restrictive. For some the grass is greener on the other side of the VLE hill. For some it’s just the corporate speak and endless changes to the road map and other such jargon.

    But for me it was 7 years using, training, learning, teaching, and general living inside the Bb system that made me comfortable with it’s quirks. I’m not saying it is good, or the best, or even adequate as a VLE, it was just what we had, and what I had to use. Therefore I worked out what I wanted, from where, and why, and when. Much of the system was ignored as either too complicated, too useless, too intrusive, or just wrong (learning analytics based on some arbitrary value of logins or performance in an MCQ?).

    I will say this for the VLE – many of the VLEs I am aware of (including Bb) are far more aware of the learners now that before, when the awareness only went as far as the procurement office. This has yet to actually produce a decent ‘learning’ platform that can adequately ‘measure’ learning beyond MCQ tests and login attempts (or time between logins). Increasing social elements within the VLE are still blinkered to the “we must replicate FB without admitting we’re replicating it” and “give everyone a searchable profile whether they want or need it or not”, but they are getting better (aren’t they?).

    Where is the next VLE … ? Look to the students, they’re the ones who use it or not. I hear stories of students setting up their own FB groups or other networks, one student logs into the institutional VLE, downloads the files/resources and posts them on their own area. THAT is where the VLE is, not where we want them to be. Work out how to develop something the students want, not the procurement office or the copyright officer or the academic, and that is where the success will come from.

    I think that’s a brain-dump. Sorry, David.

    1. Thanks David, well said! I think we need to have a much broader concept of what a learning environment is. It is not just Bb, moodle, the VLE as a system. It is the physical campus, the learner themselves, the staff everything. This is something Bill Johnston and I touched on in our work around defining the digital university. Will email you link to Vermunt

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *