I should emphasize that these are my personal opinions and thoughts and where cited the opinions of others. These should not been seen as official or unofficial communications from Blackboard Inc.
I’d like to thank Kate, Thomas and others who have commented on the opening thread.. If you are just joining go back to that page, or check out the vle-ple tag to read more posts in this series. I highly recommend Kate’s posting on E@T on the subject of the death of the VLE should be required reading. As additional background you may want to watch this video regarding the “Death of the VLE” from the fall 2009 ALT-C conference
The VLE and PLE a Definition of Sorts
Around the world nomenclature for the LMS/VLE/CLE/CMS shifts and changes between various product offerings and regional dialects. This diffusion of terminology comes from different educational practices and implementations of products as well as the unique combination of features emphasized by different software authors. Of the terms available I am partial to the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). This term seems able to include a wide variety of use cases while at the same time focusing on the critical elements of purpose, place and construction (learning, virtual, and environment respectively). I think of the VLE as the transmitter and it immediately creates a receiving environment called the Personal Learning Environemtn (PLE). I view the VLE as institutional and instructor driven vs. a PLE which is organized and maintained by the individual learner. Educause has published a nice tip sheet on the PLE that expands the PLE definition. I prefer the term environment over system. “Environment” seems appropriately neutral for reasoned discourse, while terms such as “system” seem to imply a certain organization or structure and perhaps a monolithic entity. I use this categorization to refer to tool sets and not individual tools which may play a role in either category. A VLE is composed of a number of tools that are organized around units of instruction delivered through an institution or by an individual instructor. These tools may be strongly coupled (e.g. as inside of Blackboard Learn ® or Moodle) or loosely coupled and collected together from a variety of existing tool sets). The PLE is always loosely coupled and organized by the learner. The PLE includes tools like mobile phones, bookmarks, rss readers, web browsers, social networking tools, eBook readers, hard drives and storage. There are bridges between these worlds such as ePortfolios, wiki tools and blogs which may live in either space. Increasingly we see institutional adoption of tools which previously had been in the realm of the individual. When the instructor or institution controls the toolset it moves from personal learning tool to virtual in my view. The shift in management is the key difference in my view. This should not be seen as a one way transition, we have also see some tools formerly in the hands of the institution going back to the individual. One recent discussion on the CIO listserv related to supporting multiple operating systems raised the issue of staff increasingly working on a Bring Your Own Technology (BYOT) model. Is the company laptop going to become as outmoded as the company car or personal secretary?
The VLE’s Alleged Inflexibility and Static State
There is an ongoing debate about the nature of innovation in a the world of virtual learning environments. Michael Feldstein wrote an article about a year ago arguing that all LMS’s have become become fairly even in terms of functionality. This perspective would establish a fixation of feature set for the VLE which would lead to tools becoming mere commodities within the universe of groupware. I believe that academic institutions are a distinct cultural entities and as such they required specialized software to support the group activities. A classroom and a conference room both share architectural features but the infrastructure around the classroom is quite distinct as are many of the activities. I believe that the ongoing evolution of the underlying cultural entities (universities, schools, etc) will drive specialization and furhter differentiation from generic groupware. We are also seeing segmentation in the larger groupware market. Wimba is fundamentally different from Confluence as are Drupal and WordPress. They may all have collaboration capabilities and feature sets in common (like polling), but this does not mean we are headed towards a convergence. The trend in human civilization is to create more tools, not less (go visit your local Home Depot and look at the variety of saws, hammers, screwdrivers, etc).
A second thread of argument on the evolution of the VLE featureset is that the VLE is inherently inflexible. Stephen Downes and others have argued that the VLE is inherently closed and inflexible. As a VLE platform evangelist and one time VLE author I often wonder if its just a misunderstanding of what’s possible with modern VLE’s. We certainly set out to design an open and flexible system that could be easily extended and there are thousands of people doing it. Yet in spite of this contradicting empirical evidence the statement continues to be treated as fact.
Change Agents Driving VLE Innovation
Three prominent change agents driving innovation in the VLE are: continued evolution of web collaboration model and tools, desire for service providers and IT organizations to reduce operating resource requirements and the emergence of new tools from the loading of data into the VLE.
One change agent is the exploration of what features are core to the VLE, vs. which tools are add-ons. For example is a synchronous collaboration tool a separate capability or is it assumed that all VLEs have this baseline functionality. There have been a number of discussions in the VLE community of users around how new tools such as blogs and wikis should find their way into the VLE. From a classic Courseinfo/Webct viewpoint these tools didn’t even exist, so they were not included. Today many would argue that wikis have become pervasive and that the need for including the wiki in base functionality has long since passed. Others have suggested that the ability to plug-in Media Wiki, Confluence, or the Learning Objects application is more powerful and enables a richer feature set beyond the simple wikis offered in many VLE’s. The counter-argument is that Confluence really doesn’t have the specific participation reports and workflows needed to see and manage group based projects delivered through a wiki. The question of even integrating tools like blogs and wikis at all has been subject to discussion as well. Princeton has created a building block that enables COTS based blogs and wikis to be provisioned from with a Blackboard Course. Others like University of Mary Washington disconnect their WordPress instance from their Blackboard Learn environment. Jon Mott has argued for a loosely coupled grade book that can attach to assignments located throughout the web. There a spectrum of affiliation that has at one end the position that these tools should be very loosely affiliated and at the other end demands a tight integration. This may be debated from a philosophical perspective about the theories of the Internet as a medium of information storage and exchange, or a practical perspective of an IT systems manager with limited resources.
This leads to my second change agent, cost of services. No organization has an unlimited budget. My experience has been that IT managers work from a utilitarian perspective seeking to provide the best overall service to the largest number of stakeholders. Managing multiple contracts, security relationships /certification, configuration and help desk support can be very challenging for an IT organization. Tool usage continues to grow at many institutions and as instructors and students come to depend upon these systems the consequences of downtime become increasingly high stakes. The results has been desire by many purchasers and decision makers to consolidate down to a smaller set of vendors capable of providing a single turnkey service. The Edutools website provides an extreme checklist approach which seems to highlight systems which can check off the most boxes. There are countless examples of RFP’s which follow the same approach. This desire to consolidate and expand service will tend to drive specific tools into the VLE in order to optimize costs.
A third driver in the evolution of the VLE is the virtuous cycle established by the act of putting data into the machine. As instructors put materials online and students do increasing numbers of activities within the system we are increasingly able to refine program assessment, student engagement and retention programs and measure behaviors never before apparent within the system. We are also seeing the VLE drive continued movement away from raw grades towards ePortfolios and more sophisticated learner assessment.
The Purdue SIgnals Project, USF User Performance Assistant, Blackboard Outcomes Assessment Module, and solutions like Starfish Retention demonstrate the ongoing shift in web 2.0 and the VLE. Where web 1.0 was about getting materials online, it is my view that web 2.0 is about the emergent properties that result from information being available.
Furthermore we’ve seen academic validation of this early intervention and data profiling capabilities such as with the previously mentioned Signals toolset. Dr. John Campbell and his team profiled CMS usage and student information and found 6 predictive indicators. Beyond SAT/ACT score, and grades the other indicators were CMS usage driven from overall activity, assessment, assignment and calendar usage were shown to be highly predictive especially for freshman.
The ability of the CMS/VLE to provide a hub for this activity data around teaching and learning will be increasingly important. The recently published US National Education Technology Plan calls for “integrated capabilities to support data-driven assessment of individual students, individual educators, and the resources (content) and processes serving teaching and learning”.
This requirement is often overlooked by those who see the VLE as a simple tool, or perhaps as imperfect copies of other tools. Our goal isn’t just to throw up the syllabus and discussion board to let students collaborate. It is to create an ecosystem that supports and enhances learning and the many discrete requirements created as a result of institution managed learning. I’ve often said that teaching and learning can happen anywhere, but there is a difference between the street corner and the classroom. The VLE exists to support institutionalized instruction.
If we conceptualize the VLE as the router in a network of tools and information, there is a set of core tools and services that route and organize information. Student want some way to figure out how to get to their class. They want to be able to roll up information, like grades, calandars, assignment due datse and announcements from their classes and student life. The students also require support based on many diverse capabilities and needs. From the other end of the educational system we hear that institutions want services that can measure and report on program assessment. Institutions are legally and morally obligated to protect student privacy, comply with accessibility regulations and deliver accredited programs. This creates a set of complex software requirements that will require a continuous focus from the institution. Instructors want tools that let the meet the needs of their institution and the learner.
Given the specialized requirements and growing reliance of institutions on web based activities in support of academic activities I personall believe that the VLE is not a closed fonteir, but is still wide open for exploration and innovation. With the emergence of requirements for supporting Mobile Learning, eBooks and the new iPad we are likely to see the VLE tools set evolve on a more accelerated basis.
In summary and transition to the next bit of this increasingly long blog. I will reference the debate performance from John St. Claire of Mary Washington with the VLE as a Conventional Mid-sized Sedan
The Edupunk and the VLE
Of those who critize the VLE, perhaps the loudest are the members of the Edupunk movement. The critique is that the VLE is promoting the wrong values and ideals for education. That instructors can ignore institution provided tools and homebrew their own toolset for online teaching and learning. Some have suggested a compromise can be reached. This provoked an amusing response from Jim Groom one of the leaders of the Edupunk movement. Posting in the guise of Rorschach from the Watchman comic he notes:
Jon Mott responded via his own blog
Jim appears to be concerned that I’m advocating a “middle-of-the-road” approach that validates the LMS paradigm. Lest anyone else be confused, let me state that nothing could be further from the truth. If you listen to my entire presentation, I hope it’s clear that I’m not advocating the perpetuation of the single, vertical, integrated technology stack that is the LMS. Rather, the AND that I’m really advocating is the blending of the secure, university network for private, proprietary data (e.g., student records) and the open, read-write Web.
I think what the Bava is saying is that the Edupunk community can never really be reconciled to the VLE community just as punk music could never really be reconciled to the major labels. The goal of the Edupunk community as I understand it is to upend the institution and perhaps bring about its destruction; while the VLE is ultimately a creation of the institution.
In defense of the VLE
Early web based learning environments like WebCT and Blackboard were developed by students and instructors seeking to make their lives easier. Some of my collegues who built early versions of CourseInfo while attending University have told me how they were frustrated by the fact that they had this new thing called a web browser created by universities, connected to the internet, but they couldn’t actually get any class information; but they could go shopping. The simple use case of making it easy for a class to post and share information through a secure website continues to be a highly useful and has had a great impact on teaching and learning.
My colleague at Blackboard Dr. Demetra Katsifli wrote a research paper with the University of Kingstown which provides a summary of research into the impact of the VLE on education in the last 10 years. It summarizes a enormous volume of research demonstrating the positive impact of the Virtual Learning Environment on education.
Finally, when surveyed I do not see students requesting that instructors use Blackboard less. A recent editorial in the GW Hatchet argued for Blackboard mandatory
Simply put, Blackboard is one of the best educational tools GW has to offer. Classes that utilize the software in some capacity, even if it is just to display the syllabus and roster, are much better for it. That’s why GW should mandate that teachers of all disciplines incorporate Blackboard into their courses to some degree. I know that’s a tall order, but the benefits of this policy demand it.
The number one search term in many major metropolitan areas where Blackboard has been implemented was for access to the local Blackboard system. Look at the list from Google where FCPS Blackboard (Fairfax County Public Schools), Penn Blackboard, etc are found in the top searches.
There is a continued demand for centralized delivery of instructional materials easily and securely accessible online. The impact of making these materials online improves the learner and instructor experience. Institutions have obligations for security, privacy and accessibility that are most easily managed within a software tool specifically developed with those requirements in mind. The combination of demand, utility and specialization means that there will continue to be an entity called the VLE for some time to come. The demand for capabilities that build upon the base data set placed inside the VLE, continued requirements for uptime, performance and end user expectations will drive further innovation.
Finally I want to turn to one last issue that of the hidden innovation going on in the community. Deployment cycles for a VLE are much longer than VLE product cycles. There are many institutions running older versions of popular VLE systems. The slow adoption cycle has been created by the realities of large scale software roll outs. IE 6 was the worlds most popular web browser for a long time and remains very dominant; despite the availability of much better browsers (including IE 8, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, etc). It is only recently that large organizations have made the concerted effort to stamp out this older browser despite security flaws, stability issues and the inability to support modern web standards. The large population of mid-late adopters can create institutional perceptions about applications and tools, and drive early adopters/innovators away from the base technology solution. An end user may wrongly perceive that there has been a lack of innovation in the base solution, simply because they are unfamiliar with the latest release. VLE vendors and implementers can do a better job communicating the capabilities of more current versions and the road map to piloting and implementing these capabilities.
More Topics for Discussion and Comment
Is the feature set of the VLE continuing to expand, or should it contract? Which features of the VLE are the most meaningful for you today?
What has been your personal experience with the VLE in the past 10 years?
What conclusions do you draw from the research presented on the impact of the VLE?
What tools compose your personal learning environment?
Other Resources To Read and Review
The PLE Conference in Barcelona Spain looks very interesting.
A new International Journal of Personal and Virtual Learning Environments has been published by the Information Resources Management Association.