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:

The trouble with Moodle…

I ought to have called this post ‘The trouble with VLEs’ as everything here applies to the VLEs I have experienced. This post has arisen from my moving institutions, and VLEs as a consequence, and attending MoodleMoot last week. It was my first Moot and an ‘interesting’ experience.

MoodleMoot 2017

This was my first visit to MoodleMoot. The conference does exactly what it says on the tin. It is a 3 day festival of Moodle. There has always been a ‘those who use Moodle and those who don’t’ mentality in VLEs. If I had a pound for every time I heard Moodle is better I would be a millionaire. I used Moodle for several years, used Blackboard for two and am now back with Moodle again. I expected MoodleMoot to convince me of the superiority of Moodle. I expected to be indoctrinated in to the Moodle cult.

Was I indoctrinated? No. If anything MoodleMoot served only to highlight the issues inherent in Moodle (and other VLEs). I saw people doing interesting things, clever things but I saw nothing that wowed me or anything ‘new’. Nothing persuaded me of its superiority (I know this is not the aim of the conference but that’s the culture that seems to surround Moodle in my experience). It struck me that much of what was presented at MoodleMoot was the work people had done to get Moodle to do what they needed it to do.

We are the wrong people

There were no students and very few teachers at MoodleMoot. I know we technologists are an important community to engage with but I can’t help feeling we are the wrong people.

I can see when something doesn’t work. I can see where things can be improved but I spend my time telling people how to use Moodle. I know how it works and I tell people how to work within the system. I don’t use it in earnest. I don’t teach. I don’t set up and manage multiple sites. I don’t support hundreds of students. I don’t use it along side my other duties (it is my job). I don’t submit assignments. I don’t mark assignments. I am not a real user.

I know how to use the system so it’s quirks make sense to me. I know ‘that’s just how it works’ so I don’t always consider how it could be improved. I don’t do the same processes over and over again so I don’t see the ways it could be made more efficient. Our students and our teaching staff do. Perhaps they are the people we should be speaking to?

The Learning Enhancement and Development team from City, University of London did a very interesting presentation on their review of Moodle with staff and students. They ended up with 95 recommendations on a variety of improvements to their Moodle which included changes to the theme amongst others. They have made their slides available here. You can look at that number in two ways, one ‘they just don’t know how to use it’ or two ‘there are still a lot of usability issues in Moodle’. I look at it as the latter. Yes there is something to be said for training but isn’t there even more to be gained from getting it right the first time, rather than training people around the problem?

A review is time-consuming, it’ll throw up things we can do nothing about whilst inadvertently raising expectations. So we don’t do them. I wonder whether the answer would be for MoodleHQ to arrange a review with users from different institutions (not technologists, actual teachers and students) and listen to the right people. Something to assist in the focus on usability of existing features promised for 3.4 perhaps?

Held to ransom

A lot of the presentations were about developments institutions had made to their Moodle installations. Lots about improving assessment processes and grading for example. One presentation talked about syncing Moodle with SITS the student record system, something we’d all like to do. So if it’s a problematic area for so many then why are we all doing our own thing? When asked whether people were able to share (a principle on which Moodle is based) they couldn’t because it was so highly customised to their own environment. We are duplicating efforts! MoodleHQ these are issues can they not be fixed at source?

Moodle survives largely because of a community of selfless and dedicated developers who maintain it. It is a free, open source VLE but free never really means free. Someone has to sacrifice something. So developers create plugins, fix bugs etc. but they have no responsibility to do it. So many things go unfixed and undeveloped. MoodleHQ has added more and more functions (like badges and competencies) without improving the fundamental tools. This is not intended as a criticism of the developers who contribute to Moodle, I am grateful for their work and I contribute nothing, but we are held to ransom by the way Moodle is developed.

If MoodleHQ don’t see something as important then nothing is done. If the community of developers don’t have time to maintain Moodle and plugins then nothing is done. That’s not to say a paid for service is any better. Having used Blackboard I can confirm they are not better. You have to wait for the next update for things to be fixed and the ‘support’ is flaky at best. Usually problems will be fixed in the next update, by which point you have 100s of helpdesk tickets, annoyed staff and students, or you fobbed off with ‘it’s your configuration’. It wasn’t quick or responsive either. So I assure you that support and maintenance are not just a problem in ‘free’ tools.

There are attempts to make the way developments are dealt with more joined up through initiatives like the Moodle User Association but MoodleMoot seemed to be more of a celebration of the things Moodle isn’t doing than what it is doing well. So MoodleHQ ought to look at MoodleMoot as their opportunity to identify and prioritise issues. Adopt developments other people have made in to core. Come on MoodleHQ there’s a pool of stuff out there already being done, stop introducing new features and make the ones we have better! Other people are doing it! To the Moodle community, let’s work together to get those major issues fixed, let’s stop working in isolation and only coming together once a year. Let’s share.

Core vs plugin

Moodle, for those that don’t know, is made up of core tools and plugins. This flexibility is lauded by the community but it has its disadvantages as mentioned above. Many very useful plugins that are highly used should be part of core but aren’t. A lot of plugins are no longer being developed. A lot don’t quite integrate with core. MoodleHQ need to develop a ‘plugin to core’ development life cycle so those plugins that are found to be useful can be adopted and developed as part of core.

Blackboard vs. Moodle

I think this argument is a little redundant now. The issue goes beyond this silly rivalry. That’s why Jisc started the #ngdle discussions and a debate at Digifest17. The problem is not about which one has the best features, we need to talk about what we want from our VLEs. Do we even want them anymore? Do they still serve a purpose? Are they supporting and enhancing learning?

I can assure you they both have their advantages and disadvantages. I used to long for Moodle. Now I find myself occasionally longing for Blackboard.

The VLE works just fine

But just because it does the job, doesn’t mean we can’t seek something better. Should discussions about next-gen digital learning environments be restricted by a “what we have now works” mentality?

The conversation so far

Jisc recently began a Co-design consultation which seeks the next big ideas on their six challenge areas. Details of the challenges and rationale behind the consultation can be found on the Jisc Co-design consultation 2016-17 page. The 2nd of the six challenges asks

What should the next generation of digital learning environments do? Jisc 2016

In response I wrote a blog post Why won’t the VLE die? in which I question why we still have VLEs despite the dissatisfaction that often surrounds them. I took part in a live debate, (I daren’t watch it back to see how much I waffled incoherently or the unflattering angle it was filmed from) which you can catch up on YouTube #codesign16 Learning Environments and Intelligent Campus. There have been lots of blogs on the subject of next-gen digital environments, my colleague Marcus Elliott puts forth his thought-provoking proposal for student centred systems in his blog Next generation digital learning environment – my thoughts.

Let’s put the student in the centre of our system. In fact, let’s put the student’s learning at the centre. Marcus Elliott 2016

Lawrie Phipps (Jisc) has collected some of the best posts in his blog #Codesign16: The story so far – Next Gen Digital Learning Environments.

I took part in a tweetchat today that encouraged me to write this follow-up blog. You can see the tweets under the #codesign16 hashtag. It lead me to respond to something that troubled me. The conversation seems to be in a loop. We keep returning to tech bashing, being restricted by the possibilities available to us now and not seeing a problem with what we have now. To me, we are missing the possibilities that bringing together so many great minds to discuss could offer.

We need a problem to solve

Do we? Where will “there’s nothing wrong with what we have now” get us? Well it’ll keep us exactly where we are now. There may not be a problem with the VLE, although the amount of dislike for them suggests otherwise, but do we really need a problem to solve to improve it? There’s no denying the VLE does a job, how well and what job it’s there to do is debatable.  Whilst I strongly believe technology should always be led by pedagogy there is an opportunity for technology to open up new ways of working and interacting. Donna summed it up nicely:

We need to free ourselves from problem = solution thinking. We are looking in to the future, what’s next, how do we prepare for that? What does that future look like for learning and teaching? We need to think big, dream big, otherwise we may as well not think at all. VLEs have remained largely unchanged since their inception. Clearly, they must be doing something right or it’s just we don’t know what the alternative is. I strongly believe we can and should strive for something better.

We’re stuck in the ‘what we have’ loop

Discussion keeps getting caught up in the ‘what we have’ loop. We are stuck in what we can do now. We shouldn’t limit our thinking just because what we want might not be technically possible now. I believe if you have the idea the tech will follow, to steal a phrase from a Kevin Costner classic “if you build it they will come”.

The features we have now are not important. What we want is important. It may be that what we want looks very similar to what we have now. There’s nothing wrong with that but lets not start out with that mentality. Forget what we have now, put it aside, think about what you could have if there were no barriers. That is what we are doing in this discussion, we are escaping the realm of possibility. It’s hard to think beyond what we have now, but to do anything meaningful, it must be done.

Tech bashing achieves nothing

Look a lot of us don’t like the VLE. A lot of us are frustrated by its shortcomings. But lamenting over its failings is not what this discussion is about. We can go over all the things that are wrong or right with the VLE but that ain’t gonna get us anywhere. It helps to think about shortcomings but only when followed by a solution. If you see something is wrong, what would you like to see instead? How would you solve it? How would you make it better? We can keep bashing the tech all day long but we need to get on with the job in hand.

What is it we think the VLE does?

I think we need to go back and think about this. Marcus does so nicely in his recent post Next generation digital learning environment – my thoughts. Here Marcus tries to go back to the essence of what a VLE should be for and he rethinks its focus and design to be student centred.

The next generation digital learning environment should be an enabler, not a service. It should allow us to join all these things together. The walls we built to keep our students in our existing VLEs need to be taken down – not just made a bit more porous. Marcus Elliott 2016

I would argue current VLEs do nothing more than replicate what we do in ‘real life’. Tests in class can be done online, papers handed in to an office are submitted online and conversations had face to face in class can be done in online discussion forums. Is this what we want? A replication of what we do? Or something that helps us think of new ways?

The VLE is essentially a piece of software nothing more, it has features, links to other services, internal and external, but it has somehow become a feature of the institution. One so powerful it should not be questioned. Some of us like it, some hate it, others tolerate it but we all (academics anyway) have to use it. Just because according to the ICT feature list it does the job, does not mean it can live in our universe unquestioned. We are held to ransom by its size and it’s power over us but that does not mean we should comply to its whims. We shouldn’t have to bend our teaching and learning strategies because “that’s the way the VLE works”. Perhaps the VLE should start bending to our whims and our needs. It can do better. It can do more. It can do what it does already better. So let’s stop having the same old conversation and start looking forward. What do you want it to become?

Digital = People

To find the next-gen learning environment we must focus on people. Not technology. Let’s look at what people want to do, how they want to interact with their students and how technology can support and facilitate that. If you want a problem concentrate on finding out what is stopping people from using tech and what is restricting their use. People are key. They use the tech. They are the priority.

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

 

“I didn’t know Blackboard could do so much!”

Every time I train staff on Blackboard someone will say something along the lines of “I didn’t know Blackboard could do so much”. In accomplishing day to day tasks we forget to explore. We miss all the opportunities technology can afford.

Reflective practice

one effective way to develop self-regulation in students is to provide them with opportunities to practice regulating aspects of their own learning and to reflect on that practice. (Nicol and MacFarlane-Dick, 2006)

Journal

Journals allow students to communicate directly with you. Private journals are an ideal tool for reflective journals. Students are able to share their thoughts, feelings and opinions in private with you. Students could use a journal to:

  • Reflect on the results of their assessment
  • Tell you about their progress on a project
  • Share difficulties they are having with group work

Blog

Blogs allow students to express their ideas and opinions in a social learning space. Blogs are public and allow students to comment on each others posts. Students could blog about:

  • The development of an idea for a project
  • Record the progress of a project
  • Resources they have found

Collaboration

Students learn a great deal by explaining their ideas to others and by participating in activities in which they can learn from their peers (Boud et al., 2001).

Wikis

Think of a Wikipedia for your subject. Students can collaborate by creating pages, adding content and editing existing content to create a course resource. Students could create a Wiki on:

  • Topics that are covered in the course
  • Create a Wiki in a group
  • Sharing ideas
  • Collecting useful resources

Discussion Board

Discussions boards allow students to communicate asynchronously. Students can discuss course topics, pose questions and share resources.

  • Create a question and answer forum for assessments
  • Ask students to debate a topic
  • Ask students to share useful articles

Peer Review

Students indicated that completing a structured, comprehensive review for someone else is an illuminating way of becoming aware of areas that require attention in their own work. (Mulder et al., 2014)

Turnitin PeerMark

Students can read, review, and evaluate work submitted by their peers. Reviews can be anonymous and instructors can assign a student specific papers to review. Instructors can provide marking criteria and questions on which each paper is to be reviewed.

 


 

Boud, D. Cohen, R. and Sampson, J. (2001) Peer learning in higher education. [online] London:Kogan Page. Available from https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=dHN9AwAAQBAJ [Accessed 8 April 2016].

Mulder, R. Pearce, J. and Baik, C. (2014) Peer review in higher education: Student perceptions before and after participation. Active Learning in Higher Education, 15 (2) 157–171.

Nicol, D. and MacFarlane-Dick, D. (2006) Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31 (2) 199-218.