I am not your enemy

I am not your enemy. I’m the mug who has been thrown into the lion’s den covered in rump steak, to demonstrate the VLE. I don’t know what I’m walking in to. I do not make decisions. I do not create policy. Frankly, there are times I don’t care if you use the VLE. I’m just here to show you. I am not the enemy.

I should be clear that strong anger and hostility is rare.

VLEs are a bit disappointing

To be fair VLEs are a bit of a disappointment. Actually, let me qualify that. Technology is a bit of a disappointment. As David White says “if you go to technology to be the solution…everyone will be disappointed”.

I think we all hope that technology will just work with very little/no interference from human beings. At least sometimes that’s how I think academics hope it works. I may be being unfair here but there are times I see the “oh I have to do something with this to make it worthwhile” look in their eyes. Sadly the VLE does not know what you want to teach. It cannot absorb your teaching materials through osmosis and organize them correctly for you. It cannot create a quiz for you. It can’t facilitate a forum for you.  It can’t decide the best way to present your learning materials and activities to best aid student learning. Unfortunately, like all technology, it requires some human intervention. More importantly, it requires human intervention to make it meaningful. Technology on its own is meaningless.

Technology gives the impression that anything is possible. That’s true to an extent. Technology has opened up endless possibilities. In a way that is a blessing and a curse. Reality does not always live up to expectation. I hear “surely it can do this”, “surely they can do that” but the reality is there is a LOT of work behind even the simplest idea. You don’t see that, perhaps we ought to show you more?

VLEs are designed to do a job. You might be able to plug stuff into it. You might be able to adapt it but on the whole, it does what it does. Can they be better? Oh of course. But they serve a purpose and do that adequately. I hold out for something better but I can guarantee no matter what comes I’ll still be asked: “can it do this”.

Can it do…

Whenever I demo the VLE it get’s compared to other systems. Can it do x? Can it do y? Can students see z in here? I find myself saying no a lot in these situations. Usually because rather than looking at the VLE for what it is and what it can offer, it’s compared to existing systems, some wholly incomparable. I sometimes wish I had that device on Men in Black so I could remove their memories of whatever system they were using previously so they could look at the VLE with fresh unprejudiced eyes. I don’t have that.

I should add that I always want to hear these questions, as they feed into ongoing developments.

We’re doing everything we can…

Sometimes I feel like people assume the reason it can’t do something is that we can’t be bothered to make it do that. We can. We want to. But what they don’t see is the huge amount of thought and work that goes into every decision around the VLE. Even seemingly simple things like turning on plugins. Although sometimes the functionality just isn’t possible or doesn’t exist. We have to consider each request on its merits. It’s not like switching on a light switch. I wish it were quicker. I wish it were simpler but NOTHING about technology is simple (despite what the marketing people would have us believe).

I promise you it’s added to the list. We’re trying to get through the list but it only gets longer. That’s the problem with technology the work never stops. Everyone wants something, because “surely it can be done”.

Don’t shoot the messenger

Unfortunately, we often become the focus of anger for decisions that we have nothing to do with, made by people we have nothing to do with over which we have absolutely no power. Do I think you should use the VLE? Yes because it can do great things when used well and consistency is something students want and deserve. Do I care if you use it? Ultimately no, that’s your choice but you’re missing out on something. Or more accurately your students are.

I didn’t say you had to use the VLE. Someone else did. Sorry. I’m just here to show you. Am I really the person you should be angry with? Do you really think I can do anything about what’s happening to you? Do you think making me feel uncomfortable will help? Do you think talking down to me will help? Do you think it will help to make me feel small?

No. It won’t help.

Why are people still hostile?

The world of ed tech seems to believe that everyone wants to use technology. That it’s obvious that people should and those who don’t are Luddites and dullards. Often anyone who dares questions the use of technology in education is met with much belligerent, disapproving responses. They are an enemy of the state who must be indoctrinated.

The reality is there is still resistance. People do not believe in the use of technology without question. Unlike the majority in the Ed Tech world, they look at it with a critical mind.  There is legitimate criticism of the VLE (not that anyone can agree on the perfect alternative). They are bloated and feature heavy. They never quite work how people want them to. There’s always something missing. Put enough academics in a room and they will find a reason to dislike it. I believe there is legitimate criticism of the use of technology in education. In fact, I think we are obliged to consider every aspect of technology positive or negative.

I suppose we need to change our sales pitch from “you can do a quiz” to “you can scaffold student learning by creating a formative test each week and displaying feedback and content based on their results. The data can also be used as an indicator to show which concepts are proving difficult to understand and may need to be covered again the following week”. There’s a longer blog post in the “can do, should do vain”.

So what do we do?

We grit our teeth and we bear it. If there was universal acceptance they wouldn’t need people like us. Try to always be their champion. Listen, really listen. Respond when they ask you a question. Remind them that you’re here to support them, not get in their way. Smile. Respond kindly. Be patient. You don’t know what might be driving their behaviour, it could be wholly unconnected with you or what you’re there to talk to them about.

Always, always remember:

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…