Why won’t the VLE die?

Ever since the inception of the VLE it feels like we have been asking ourselves this question. We await the next generation, the technology that will save us all from the tyranny of the VLE. VLE (or LMS for my American friends) systems are a divisive technology in education. Some people hate them, others love them, most tolerate them. The benefits of their use are still questioned and explored. So if we’re not convinced that they are beneficial, why won’t they die?

If you haven’t read this post, titled Christ, I hate Blackboard written by user Davenoon please do.  Not only is it hilarious, it demonstrates the level of loathing the VLE can produce.

“These are the words, if I could shit them into being, that I would use to catalogue the depth of my loathing for Blackboard.” Davenoon 2014

The comments that follow the article demonstrate the dichotomy of feeling that surrounds the VLE. This post will not debate the virtues of Blackboard, Canvas or Moodle. What I am interested in is why we are still using them. How, given the speed of technical innovation in all other areas, the VLE remains very much unchanged from where it began.

We are asking the wrong question

We constantly ask what the next generation of each technology we use should do. Therein lies my issue, what it should do. What features it should have, what functionality we expect. But this narrows our thinking. Boils learning to a series of tasks and processes. Learning is much more complex than that.

So the question ought not to be why won’t the VLE die, what the next generation should do; rather what do we want to explore. What pedagogies? What teaching methods and strategies? How will technology support or enhance those things?

We allow ourselves to be technology lead

This point really relates to the one above. We spend so much time worrying about the technology, why it doesn’t work, why we hate it, what we want to see, what’s next, that we miss the most fundamental thing.

Technology use is about people. Technology would be nothing if we didn’t use it. It is that interaction between teacher, technology and student that we should be concentrating on. How can technology help to facilitate this interaction, how can it support or enhance it? We should ensure that the technology enhances, not detracts, from the humanity of the learning process.

Technology is created the wrong way

We are feature focused. Probably because that is the way our minds work. We think about activities, “I want students to do x”, because really most technologies just replicate what we do. They rarely fundamentally change our activities, they might make something easier, sometimes technology even enhances an activity but it’s rare that it replaces it entirely.

It’s hard to escape this way of thinking and I’m not smart enough to suggest how we can do it. It is easier to think about features, “I want to be able to do x”, as that is how we are conditioned. Imagine if we could. If our ideas were unbound from reality, to what currently exists and what is currently possible.

When VLEs were first created I’m sure they were answering a teaching need, chiefly the ease of access to materials for students, sadly since then ‘the problem’ appears to have been forgotten and what has been created seems to be a feature heavy unusable beast. Lots of features are being added without rationalisation or thought about how people actually use them or how they interact with ‘real world’ teaching.

We like things that reproduce what we already do.

VLEs were supposed to be a revolution. According to many the VLE would replace the lecture and, in the opinion of many doom mongers, the lecturer too. Students would all learn online without once meeting face to face and the University would crumble in to oblivion. That hasn’t happened (yet) and I can’t see any evidence of an appetite for that amongst the majority of the student body.

Neil Selwyn, in his 2013 book Digital Technology and the Contemporary University: Degrees of Digitization, describes technology as replicating what we do in the real world. The thought had never occurred to me but as I reflected I realised how true that is. We do in class tests, now we do them online. We used to hand in paper assignments, now we do that online. We ask students to discuss topics in class, now we use online discussion boards. We carry out our lectures and seminars online using video conferencing but we’re still largely following the same format as a face to face session, it’s just online. Yes in all of these examples the technology may have brought some efficiency or flexibility but it has made little fundamental change to our processes.

Change is easiest accepted when it’s incremental and I have always found explaining the use of technology easiest when I relate it to something people are already doing. I’m not entirely sure we are ready for a revolution.

Adoption is a matter of culture change

Even if we had something different. We would need to change the existing culture and processes. If you’ve ever introduced something new in to HE, you’ll feel the pain of this process. It is not quick, it’s not painless and it certainly isn’t easy.

Because we will never win

Even IF we could think of something different, some incredible revolutionary environment, I can absolutely guarantee someone would say it doesn’t work for them. It doesn’t suit their needs or their teaching style. So what we end up with is a bloated, mangled, customised behemoth to make sure that everyone is catered for. Then we receive complaints that it’s bloated, mangled and customised and no-one wants to use it.

In my experience, when it comes to technology, we are never going to win.

ICT dictate what we do

Related to the points below, ICT in my experience largely dictate what we can and can’t have. Rightly so, they need to make sure it works with their infrastructure, is sustainable and reliable. But why should we be shackled by their infrastructure? Should we be held back because they do not have the staff with the necessary skills?

Controversial I am sure but it has to be asked. Why do ICT think that they are experts on the learning process? On teaching? On students? They are the experts on technology, on infrastructure, networks etc. but they have limited experience in any other area. If this is what we need to move forward why should they be allowed to hold us back?

Other technologies hold us to ransom

Related to the point above the existing infrastructure will often not allow us to explore what we need to. We are limited by student management systems, timetable systems etc. that we want to plug-in to our environments but won’t work with one another. This is the ICT departments headache and one of the reasons they can be dictatorial about what we adopt.

Our processes hold us to ransom

Neil Selwyn describes the VLE as a tool of management and surveillance. Another way for management to keep an eye on teaching staff. Again, I had never thought of it that way. It helps to explain the scepticism and mistrust that surrounds it. As the VLE has become part of management it has resulted in a high number of processes being integrated with the VLE. In many instances the VLE has become an absolute necessity for these processes to be completed. Once a technology is part of a process it’s very difficult to remove it and even more difficult to persuade people that they can change it. We are creatures of habit.

We don’t like change

And mostly because…

change

 

What is Institutional Digital Capability?

If you are reading this in search of a definitive answer, I am sorry, you will not find one here. This post is not based on months of arduous, thorough, rigorous research, it is based solely on my own experience and conversations I have had at a Jisc Digital Capability Service Modelling workshop.

This post, and its content, does not speak for Jisc. They have not sanctioned this post nor asked me to write it. They are working on their definition and supporting materials. If you want to know more speak to James Clay. I am just writing down my own poorly formed thoughts.

Infrastructure

An institution should have the basic infrastructure necessary to be ‘digitally capable’. Hope that helps. Oh, sorry, were you wanting more information? I don’t know much about the infrastructure necessary to support an educational establishment but I’ll give it a whirl.

So basically people need computers right? Internet connection, WiFi, an efficient network, storage, communication tools, software etc. I don’t think listing  names of technologies will help here given they constantly change and by next week this blog would be outdated.

Access and Availability

Access to and availability of, for staff and students,  technology is vital. It’s all well and good encouraging staff and students to use technology but if they can’t access it you’ve failed already. Not only should institutions make sure they have the ‘basics’ but they should be keeping their eyes firmly on the horizon watching out for emerging technologies.

Strategy, policies and expectations

Strategy is very important, it  sets the ‘direction’ and ‘tone’ of a University. It tells the outside world what a University is about. Although I admit that often strategies are more words than action. It also tells prospective staff and students what will be expected of them and what they can expect. An explicit reference in strategy shows that the institution sees value and benefits of engaging in the digital.

Whilst I’m not keen on policies, as dictating what people do is not always the best approach, a solid set of basic policies help to set expectations. Policies around the use of the VLE, electronic management of assessment etc. are useful in that they show what the institution expects of staff. They are also useful to start conversations. Talking about the ‘minimum’ will often lead in to conversations about the more advanced.

I think setting expectations is key. Especially in staff. I think that job descriptions should specifically refer to the digital. It should be clear from the outset that the institution expects staff to engage in the digital and develop. This should be followed up in the interview with questions raised about how they can demonstrate their engagement. Appraisals should similarly focus on their digital practice and engagement.

I will caveat all this with the following, all of these things should be developmental not used as a stick to beat staff with.

Responsibility and Duty

The responsibility is everyone’s. The institution has a responsibility to make sure everything is in place that is needed. Infrastructure, CPD and support etc. It is my opinion that the institution has a duty to ensure their staff are developed whilst they are employed. If an institution can say “when you work here, you are developed and supported, and will leave a better xyz” I think that is very powerful. I also think that’s their duty as it is with students.

Staff have a responsibility to engage and develop their skills. Staff cannot rely entirely on the institution to do everything for them. There must be give and take. They have to engage. That is what they need to do to deliver to todays students.

Values, narratives and culture

What does the University want to say about itself? What attitudes does it want to engender in its staff and student body? Decide these things early and make sure your strategies, expectations and actions are all aligned to it. The culture will change as a result.

Investment

This is absolutely key. The institution needs to recognise that a significant investment, not only monetarily is necessary but also in time. Transforming people is not quick or cheap.  Building a capable infrastructure is not cheap either.

In my opinion, time is more important than money. The institution needs to be mindful that developing people takes time. Not only does it take time, they need time. The space is most important. Space in the curriculum to explore and also space in their schedules. Developing resources and learning new skills is time-consuming. Even more so if you want it done well.

I have always liked the idea of a ‘digital day’. Where staff are given a day to explore and develop their resources for the next year. I know getting a whole day timetabled would not always be easy but it’s a start surely?

It’s Personal and Professional

A digitally capable institution recognises that it’s not all about professional skills. That it’s not just about preparing staff and students for work. It’s also about their personal development and, in my opinion, that is more important than the professional skills. This is about caring for your staff. Again, what does the institution want to say about itself? Surely it should show that is cares about its staff and student body.

It’s not about technology

A lot of the things I have mentioned here have nothing to do with technology. They are about transforming people. You can put in as much technology as you like but if you don’t change people, it’s all for nought.

Change in institutions is hard because people are hard to change. At its core, digital capabilities are about people, their skills and confidence. People will make the difference. Support them.