Edufountain: Virtual and Personal Learning Environments My Thoughts

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.

Hidden 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.


  1. I’m sorry for the tone of what follows, but I am disturbed by many of the explicit and implicit claims here.

    I’m not sure when Blackboard moved from calling itself a “learning management system” to calling itself a “virtual learning environment,” but I can’t say that new identity is at all credible. The services and ease of use described here are all about management–even the metaphor of “router” says as much. The argument about cost strains credulity well past the breaking point, as anyone who’s dealt with Blackboard’s pricing structure and strategies will testify.

    I used Blackboard extensively for many years. I concluded that it reinforces and streamlines all the conventional industrial-model educational processes we now employ, and as such blocks innovation at a crucial, foundational level. The language here contrasting classroom with street corner is telling, as is the commitment to “institutionalized instruction.” There is a none-too-subtle judgment at work in these words that reinforces the idea that a room and an institution are invariably the best environments for learning. I don’t find this model of an “ecosystem” persuasive. When I adopted phpBB, a common Web-based discussion forum, and found the participation doubled in both quantity and quality, I never looked back. Blogging on the open Web, ditto. The implicit argument in this post that information inside closed systems furnishes emergent properties in any way comparable to the information on the open Web is simply not credible. This very blog is self-contradictory in that respect–unless one believes that personal publishing via WordPress on the open Web should not be offered to students. And for the record, UMW did not “disconnect” its blogs from Blackboard. They were never connected.

    Several years ago I had a very frustrating conversation with some Blackboard sales reps who assured me that only fools or spendthrifts would ever adopt an open-source tool of any kind. I am not exaggerating. Obviously that argument didn’t stand up and has now been abandoned–or reshaped.

    But let’s turn the question around. Has Blackboard actually spurred useful innovation on the World Wide Web when it comes to education? Has it supported and inspired the creativity, sharing, and intense collaboration that are native to the very design of the Web? Has it helped faculty become more deeply engaged with the possibilities for integrating ICT effectively into their practice as scholars and teachers? Has it *in any way* brought higher education into a leadership position with respect to what Clay Shirky calls “the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race”?

    My experience is that it has not. My experience over many years of using this product tells me that it has in fact helped to block every one of those goals, goals that should be at the core of our mission in higher education.

    That’s a very expensive router.

    For another researcher’s perspective, see this article by Stephanie Coopman:

  2. Ed Webb says:

    I guess I’m part of that ‘loud’ Edupunk movement/community – you use both terms, I think the second far more apposite, but I’d suggest ‘network’ as superior to both. In any case, none can really speak for Edupunks in general, not even Jim, so what follows is my personal view, no more representative of the Edupunk movement/community/network/collective/rabble than this blog is of Blackboard, Inc. (according to your caveat at the top).

    You say: “The goal of the Edupunk community as I understand it is to upend the institution and perhaps bring about its destruction…” The self-identified edupunks I know are all about improving education, not destroying ‘the institution.” Most of us work for educational institutions. To the extent that we want to change them, it is to make them stronger, to help them survive. If they are to survive, they need to provide an educational experience that meets students’ needs. They will need to be adaptable, flexible, nimble.

    Mostly we’re educators (in a broad sense – faculty, technologists, administrators) who want to start from contemporary educational tasks and choose the best tools to achieve those tasks, not start with a limited toolset and fit educational tasks to what it can do.

    Whatever you may associate with the -punk suffix, this is primarily a creative rather than destructive network.

  3. I too am disturbed.

    Not by John’s post or by Gardner’s reply. They both make good points.

    What disturbs me is this constant haranguing of Blackboard and other LMS vendors.

    Gardner is probably correct when he says that a reliance on a structured LMS has caused some professors to avoid learning new technologies that might be more effective. But there are at least two groups that are usually ignored in this conversation.

    There are faculty teaching effectively using Blackboard and other LMS’s. I have seen it with my own eyes. It is a fact. Is it complacency if a professor is using Blackboard and her students are learning? Who am I, or anyone else, to impugn her motives? When the anti-Blackboard folks condemn Blackboard, they are condemning those happily using it. And yes, some profs are using Blackboard happily.

    There are students who do not want to learn via a constructionist epistemology. Students have diverse learning styles. There are some of us who actually appreciate knowledge transfer, especially in some subjects. Many of my professors in graduate mathematics were “sages on the stage” and did a great job! Now, I am not saying they couldn’t have done a great job teaching set theory using Web 2.0 social networks, no doubt it is being done somewhere – what I am saying is they did a good job with dry erase markers.

    Another point that the anti-LMS folks overlook is the plain fact that the vast majority of professors are not as facile in the Web 2.0 milieu as are they. Is this Blackboard’s fault? We are talking basic computer skills here. My philosophy, from back in my math teacher days, is to deal within the user’s zone of proximal development (credit LV). These professors need to branch out in one direction at a time. An LMS (or VLE, or PLE) provides a safety net for some as they begin to explore other teaching and learning opportunities on the web. There are some bad LMS courses out there. And, no doubt there are some well-intentioned but clueless instructors out there misusing social networks because they think it is the latest fad.

    My last point is the issue of “institutionalized instruction”. Is Gardner saying that non-LMS classes are less institutionalized than those within the LMS. I would say it depends on the instructor. Is structure, in and of itself, evil? Maybe yes, maybe no – I don’t know. If structure is bad, why do we have universities anyway? Couldn’t we all just stay home and read it on the Internet. I’m not being facetious here. I could have learned all that graduate mathematics from a book. But would I? Without the structure? Without tests? Without grading? Not me, I am too much of a procrastinator.

    Lest I be pigeon-holed in the pro-LMS camp, let me state that I am not an apologist for LMS’s. My own viewpoint is more along the lines of Jon Mott’s excellent post on Open Leaning Networks ( I am an apologist for those professors who are trying to teach the best they can with the tool set they have. Should they have a better tool set – surely they should. In the words of Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?” (

  4. One point of clarification. John mentioned UMW disconnected Blackboard integration from WordPress and Gardner said they had done no such thing. Both statements are correct. After Gardner left UMW, I did sponsor a meeting in which folks from UMW and Blackboard discussed connecting Bb and WPMU. There was significant push back from the Bava as one might imagine! So, the project was canned. I still think it is a good idea. Why deprive those classes using Bb the opportunity to also take advantage of WPMU? Of course, there are technical, privacy, and a host of other related issues.

  5. johnfontaine says:


    You may call me Mr. Fontaine, John, John Fontaine or even Fontaine. many years ago today when my mother birthed me out she did not name me Blackboard, and while I have occasionally been called “Old Bb” in the context of a silly You Tube video I do not in fact use Blackboard as a professional name or moniker. My point is that I’m a human being, blogging under my own name and your depersonalization of me to refer to me as “Blackboard” is deeply offensive. Therefore before we proceed with further dialogue I must insist that you apologize and treat me as a human being.

  6. Brian says:

    John, are you suggesting that this post should not be read as a work of advocacy that supports the interests of your employer?

    My own reading of this comment thread is that you have not been ‘depersonalized’, but that you have chosen to personalize criticisms of the company…

  7. Brian says:

    Oh, and happy birthday John!

  8. johnfontaine says:

    I will admit my choice of uwm choosing to disconnect is poor phrasing. The point I was attempting to make is that it is possible to have a connection between these systems or to not connect them, this is a choice of the institution and draw out the contrasting approaches. Disconnect should probably have been elected not to connect.

  9. Mr. Fontaine,

    I really don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve re-read Gardner Campbell’s comment several times to see where he “refer[s] to you as ‘Blackboard,’ ” and I just don’t see it. Can you please make it clear which part of his comment you’re referring to?



  10. johnfontaine says:

    I really don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve re-read Gardner Campbell’s comment several times to see where he “refer[s] to you as ‘Blackboard

    Amanda and Brian,

    He begins his posting by stating that Blackboard is calling itself a VLE.

    I’m not sure when Blackboard moved from calling itself a “learning management system” to calling itself a “virtual learning environment,” but I can’t say that new identity is at all credible.

    In fact I am a person making that assertion. I made specific comments regarding my choice of that term, but instead of commenting upon my arguments Gardner simply states that “Blackboard is making an assertion”. Furthermore no where in his posting does he refer to me as an individual making assertions, instead my arguments are depersonalized and attributed to a corporation. Despite the fact that the opening of this post and the title of this blog make it clear that I’m speaking as an individual. I started this blog to engage in conversations under my own name regarding a set of things I’m passionate about and deeply committed to. Attacking or dismissing my comments as simply the work product of a corporation is just as offensive as if I were to go on your blog and ascribe your statements as a work of your institution.

    I would also state that Blackboard has been referred to as VLE within many academic papers and other publications. The identification of Blackboard as a VLE is not a self defined identity of Blackboard Inc. Originally the category of applications Blackboard belongs to was described as an Instructional Management System (hence the creation of the standards body called IMS), later as a Course Management System, and also as Virtual Learning Environment. We can certainly discuss if Bb is a VLE, or if my definition is incorrect, but please give me the courtesy of recognizing my personhood rather than generalizing me as a corporation.

    To provide some additional comments.
    I think you make some good points about the nature of the Edupunk community. I want to be clear that I’m not trying to diminish the contributions of Edupunks, or their approach. I’m merely trying to state my understanding of the movement. When I use the term “loud” I mean vocal and outspoken, not in a pejorative state. I do think that ultimately some Edupunks see to remake the educational institution in a radically new light. The language of revolution is heavily used within the edupunk world. The Wired Jargonwatch Edupunk entry and the initial The original discussion of the term speak to an opposition to Blackboard and other more traditional institution sponsored tools in favor of a DIY approach. I agree that this approach is constructive and innovative. I also think it will deeply influence the VLE moving forward, however I doubt we will see “peace” between the Edupunk community and the VLE just as many punk bands never came to the major labels despite popularity, but the major labels put out music that co-opted much of the punk sound.

    Thank you very much for everyone who commented. I appreciate the dialogue and hope to keep the conversation going.


  11. Jim Groom says:

    John St. Clair,
    You sponsored a meeting with BlackBoard that none of us knew about before hand. I had no idea John Fontaine would be there, and, what’s more, the idea of coupling our WPMu and BlckBoard installations made no sense then, and still don;t now. I didn’t can anything, and no one is depriving anyone at UWM from using WPMu and Bb, fact is many do, and simply link to their blog from their Bb account. Why make it more complicated, why provision through a system that need not? Single sign-on is over rated, and the idea of simplicity is a stick we have been beaten with for too long, it ain’t hard to link out to another site, and I guarantee you just about any prof using Bb knows how. The bigger issue is why suck WPmu into Bb? There was no compelling argument that day, and there still isn’t.

  12. Ed Webb says:


    I, too, appreciate the dialogue – thank you for hosting it here. I think, though, we’re talking past each other to an extent, due to an elision in your original post and again in your comment between educational institutions and the specific tools in which you are interested – the LMS or, if you wish, institution-sponsored VLE.

    I have a strong interest in the survival of educational institutions. My edupunk-ish take is that educational institutions need to embrace a diversity of tools in order to continue to provide a relevant service and thus to survive. I don’t see the LMS as a necessary survival tool in our changing environment.

    But it doesn’t have to be useless, either. The more genuinely open and flexible an LMS can be, and the more cost-effective, the more likely it is to find a place in the toolkit. The more rigid and expensive it is, and the more it aspires to monopoly status, to crowd out other tools rather than play well with them, the less relevant it is.

    I wouldn’t get too hung up on the specific history of punk and major record labels in this discussion any more than I would in discussing cyberpunk or steampunk. From what I have seen, the DIY ethic is all about getting the job done. And having fun. I don’t know about the possibility of ‘peace’ between edupunks and large commercial software providers. But I can certainly recommend embracing fun as a good strategic posture for everyone involved.

  13. Luke Waltzer says:

    @John St. Clair: You assert: “When the anti-Blackboard folks condemn Blackboard, they are condemning those happily using it.” That seems to me a problematic analytical leap. Criticisms of Bb have centered on its rigid architecture and its position as a system that absorbs existing ideas instead of developing new ones. Most of all, though, criticisms have been reactions to its behavior in the marketplace and the relationship of that behavior to the economic realities of our institutions. Bb is a fine administrative tool; one potentially can teach well with it, as one can potentially teach well with a pencil, a lecture, or silence. That’s beside the point. The key here is what type of investments (beyond monetary) should our institutions be making to support the integration of technology into the working of the university. I’ve seen no study yet that proves to me that the investments our institutions make by purchasing Bb are the best use of resources. As Gardner says, “that’s an expensive router.” And if faculty members take personally criticisms of the system they use, frankly, they should toughen up.

    @John Fontaine: I think Gardner fairly calls you on your attempt to intellectually reposition the LMS as something else, and I find your flabbergasted reaction to his comment over the top… it threatens to take away from the value of your post. As a survey of the landscape of educational technology, it has use. I think your statement about “cost of services” is revealing: it identifies tensions between what IT managers think they can provide and the needs of their communities. You conclude that this has led to a “desire by many purchasers and decision makers to consolidate down to a smaller set of vendors capable of providing a single turnkey service.” I agree. In my experience, these decisions have been too often issued as decrees and not as the product of dialogue, mutual education, and collaboration. The fact of the matter is that Blackboard– the notion of the LMS, actually– is a remnant of a client services model of educational technology, and quite frankly our communities are ready to move beyond that in certain fundamental ways. That is the feeling that has galvanized the edupunk movement and fueled Prof Hacker and experiments across the landscape. Our communities need more, and a single box simply cannot give it to them; if you’re only gonna give us the box, we’ll build ourselves something else. It doesn’t seem to me that the answers for our communities should be dictated solely by the certifications that IT folks have.

  14. @Luke Waltzer: I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts on the cost and ROI of course management systems. But you miss my point. I don’t have any problems with criticizing LMS’s as long as it is constructive criticism. I believe the Edupunk folks have done a tremendous service for higher education. Higher ed teaching needs a good swift kick in the butt.

    I agree that much of the criticism of Blackboard has been centered on business practices. (Don’t get me started.) But not all criticism is about business practices. I know from my own conversations with those interested in instructional technology, that there is a significant sentiment that Blackboard cannot be used to teach effectively. That’s just nuts. Of course there are great classes, effective teaching happening in Blackboard (and in WordPress and in Moodle and in Google Docs and on a plane and on a train).

  15. johnfontaine says:

    A few additional comments. As far as I know Blackboard has not widely used the term LMS as a description of its software for the majority of its history. In the 11 years I’ve been at Blackboard I’ve heard the software described as an Academic Suite, a Learning System (note the deliberate omission of ‘”management”), and a Course Management system, and finally just Blackboard Learn. I’ve selected from an array of terms used by others (not just Blackboard) to describe a category of software to which Blackboard belongs. I’ve outlined the reasons for that choice. Furthermore as one of the authors of Blackboard’s software I think I should be able to put a title upon it and explain its purpose as I envisioned it.
    The fact is Blackboard remains highly flexible. This flexibility can be demonstrated objectively. Rather than simply stating that Blackboard is inflexible is insufficient you must explain how you believe it is inflexible and demonstrate that the lack of function vs. deployment policies. I can demonstrate functionally that Blackboard Learn can be configured to swap out elements, add new capabilities and be customized in a large number of ways. For example a customer could choose to use Blackboard Content Management , or Guinti Lab’s Hive software for centralized content management as an example. Today I’m at the JASIG conference in San Diego where I’ve been talking with Blackboard customers who use uPortal in place of the Blackboard Community module. Within the course environment one can swap out specific learning tools for those of your own making or those created by third parties like Wimba for Virtual Collaboration. Finally at the instructor level you can use macros like tempalte variables to make dyanmic connections to remote system. Therefore I conclude that the argument that Blackboard is a closed, monolithic system is one of perception that lacks and empirical basis. The existence of a large community of Blackboard Building Blocks developers including whole companies who’s origins were in creating extensions like Learning Objects objectively refutes that notion.
    Furthermore the fact that there are a vibrant set of alternatives available from commercial and open source providers suggests that there is a tremendous amount of choice in the marketplace. The argument that you may not need a VLE even extends that point further to show the range of choices available to consumers seeking to use the internet for teaching and learning. Ultimately to continue to be relevant Blackboard and other VLE providers must provide value to instructors. I think John St. Claire has articulated some of the value propositions that a software application like Blackboard provides earlier in this thread.
    Additionally the argument of “why would you want to connect” advanced by Jim Groom, seems objectively counter to the world wide web. The point of this whole HTTP thing was to create a “world wide web” of information connected through hypertext. Linking is the key peice and if we didn’t want linking we would have just stayed with gopher. The whole notion underpinning hypertext is that it should be easy to embed contextual links between different pieces of information. To the extent that Blackboard can enable things like automatic provisioning of WordPress blogs, rss callbacks to aggregate information, and tracking of instructional and teaching activities seem to have tremendous benefit. In fact earlier this week we saw another effort arise to connect WPMU and VLEs via the newly published BasicLTI specification.. This integration was created by the University of Catalonia to connect their Moodle environment, but thanks to BasicLTI is has been shown to work with Bb, D2L, Sakai, and a few other VLE applications. As a supporter of this specification I hope to see more projects like this emerge.

    I’ve seen no study yet that proves to me that the investments our institutions make by purchasing Bb are the best use of resources.

    I think this is a important statement that deserves further study. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I have cited evidence about the overall impact of the VLE on education and I can cite studies such as LSU’s which showed that the move to an open source solution was not free but cost neutral (as Michael Feldstein noted from their final report (cost savings to be redirected towards support of Moodle). From this I would conclude that there is end user demand, measurable benefit. Costs for VLE systems appear to be inline with one another as one would expect in a free marketplace. As to the overall return on investment of the underlying technology, this may require further study. Some benefit may not equal an equal benefit to cost. However I would expect given the wide availability of choices and the information available to decision makers that it would be possible to demonstrate a clear ROI for this technology.

  16. Martha has what imho is the most persuasive argument here in favor of dis-institutionalizing the CMS (at least in schools like UMW). One of the reasons for adopting an institutional CMS is the possibility of tight integration with security controls, identity management, authorization, student information system, and a host of other administrative systems. The ability to perform information analytics on the underlying db present many opportunities for institutional assessment, student retention strategies, and academic research. We do not take advantage of some of these systems and are therefore paying for something we don’t use. For example, here grades are not passed from the CMS back to SIS, that’s done via a different system than the CMS here. (Of course, there is an argument for, we should use what we pay for – but it is what it is.)

    I agree with Martha that UMW, at this point in time, placing a particular system in a “cat bird’s seat” is not appropriate. One must admit that CMS system are expensive (whether in terms of cost from a commercial vendor or in person-hour costs by internal staff supporting an open source solution). The plain fact is that at UMW and probably many other schools, budgets are extremely tight (choice of the word “extreme” was purposeful). Here, we have may profs using the CMS and many who are not. Paying big bucks for a service used by a subset of faculty is problematic.

  17. From seeing this conversation go by, I think it would be interesting to consider the student perspective of the various paradigms mentioned. Have you ever asked what the lives of your students are like? I remember when an LMS was first implemented at my university. It was ANGEL (from back when ANGEL was ANGEL). I loved having everything in one place. To me, ANGEL was a one-stop shop to be assured that (administratively) my academic life was in order. Now, I firmly believe that to be informationally literate a student must have the ability to search, find, and even create their own materials from many places around the internet and library. But as far as course administration, students want one place to go to find stuff. This has been asserted not only by the one student newspaper article John mentions but by many others. Students may have beef with the chosen LMS product in particular, but they love the concept of a central LMS/VLE. This is something that I valued as a student – no longer having to hunt and peck around the calendars of 5 individual instructors’ web sites. I’ll admit that it would have been nice if the calendar could provide an iCal feed to Google Calendar or an RSS feed of course updates.

    For students who are concerned about losing connections with classmates…There has been at least one recent comparison drawn that if Facebook were run like an LMS, you’d lose all your friends and discussions every 14 weeks. I note that this is a choice by institutions to run their systems in this way. There is no rule or licensing constraint that makes this mandatory (at least for Blackboard). Schools generally don’t pay extra for more courses, but they might incur indirect costs for more server storage/capacity. Usually, this cleansing/purging is a result of an institutional policy stating that the archiving must take place.

    For students who are concerned about losing access to content or materials…I hear arguments that students should be able to carry their work forward with them into their lives as a portfolio of their work. I agree, but at the same time I realize that to an extent my digital contributions were trapped in ANGEL back in the day just as to an extent my Google content is trapped inside of Google today. I don’t have records of every conversation I ever had in every class I ever took. Similarly I don’t find that I need these artifacts 8 years later. Because of this, I find this argument against the LMS unreasonable.

    Publishers who have that little access code in the back of their textbooks take note, students do not value having to log in multiple times to multiple different sites with multiple user names. It is particularly frustrating when one forgets one of those passwords and the recovery processes are all different. I’d be curious to see the data that backs up the comment “Single sign-on is over rated.” From my 5 years of Blackboard development/consulting experience, I can assert that this is the #1 most popular requested customization that clients implement. Improvements to the custom authentication API framework are in the top 5 that Blackboard developers request.

    Gardner, I’m curious to know — if your “Blackboard” class was merely a link that signed a student directly into phpBB (provided that the student could also independently navigate directly to phpBB and log in with the same credentials), how would you feel?

    From an instructor standpoint, I understand the argument that there are other tools to support other styles of learning located around the web. I’ve spent many years finding ways to plug such tools into Blackboard. And no – no one ever enters this process with a mindset of “how can I make a teacher’s life more unpleasant and less effective.” Conspiracy enthusiast that I am, there is unfortunately not one to keep the “conventional industrial-model educational processes” in existence. Rather, many of the newer Blackboard plugins and learning apps I’ve seen address precisely the issue of opening doors into the walled garden, to break down barriers and increase participation and collaboration in learning.

    From a technology standpoint, what I like about Blackboard’s product is not only is it very pluggable, but it’s also very modular. Back when I worked at Blackboard, I sometimes got the stink eye when I told clients things like “Don’t like Blackboard Community System? Use uPortal.” Similarly, I’ve seen clients swap in Equella or Fedora for Content System, WayPoint for Outcomes System, and Mahara for Portfolio System. Recently, you could even swap Moodle and Sakai in to supplement the Blackboard Learning System.

    As John says, Blackboard’s platform is becoming more flexible. Other VLEs like Sakai are becoming much more flexible, too. Indeed, “flexibility” spills over into other areas of life. Did I ever believe a mobile phone could provide 100,000+ different capabilities? No. But what if the LMS could provide a central place for instructors to try out a new learning app or a new pedagogy or teaching philosophy in what you describe as a “controlled environment?” And more importantly, what if this instructor could compare the learning outcomes and course activity of this course verus one taught in a more traditional manner during a previous semester? And what if this data could support research to unlocking the combinations of variables that make learning that much more effective? What if the first time an instructor logged into an LMS it asked them what their teaching style preferences were and which tools they’d like to assemble/provision to teach with? Would the LMS/VLE have more value to you then?

  18. Matt says:

    There is an old cliche being ignored here: “Good teachers can teach well no matter how bad the tools are.” I learned that one well when I was a junior high teacher trying to teach with 20 year old equipment. If a professor is teaching a good or bad class in Blackboard, that is because they are a good or bad teacher – Bb has nothing to do with that. I have seen excellent classes being taught strictly through email. It depended on the instructor. In fact, I can give you a long line of professors that are teaching great classes in Bb and complaining about how much they hate Bb at the same time. I can give you several teachers that think they are teaching a good class and are actually teaching horrible classes. Whether a class is being taught well and the students are learning depends on the instructor, not the tools. That should never enter the conversation, but sadly it always does. And from being in several support roles for many years, I can tell you that just because people are happy with a tool, that doesn’t mean that the tool is still good. It may mean that the happy people are just too ignorant to know better. They could just have low standards. Or the people griping could have too high of standards.

    But, beyond all that, I also have to state that I have never read an EduPunk state that you can’t teach effectively in Blackboard. I am sure there is someone out there that has, but in general – that is not the point. There are a wide range of problems they do discuss, from the user interface of Blackboard being too complicated (I teach a course in Bb, and I have to click 5 times to get to read any assignment submitted by a student) to not liking the idea of everything being hidden behind a password (the walled garden argument).

    Somewhere in my office, I do have the propaganda from some conference where Bb was using LMS. They have used a lot of terms (which really serves to confuse more people than help), but LMS is one of them.

    I have also spent my time as a facuty support, where I have seen literally hundreds of courses created in WebCt and Blackboard. 95% of them all just do the same passive, industrialized approach of uploading documents, throwing out a discussion question, and then giving a test. Yes, there are all of these other tools and open things in there, but they can’t figure them out (even after we send them through training). They turn to Web2.0 tools, no matter how techno-phobic they are, because those tools are just easier to figure out, more intuitive.

  19. […] why some certify the death of the virtual learning environment while others consider it alive and kicking; some will seem to be putting all the eggs in the personal learning environment and/or open social […]

  20. Kate says:

    In Europe we have always referred to such softwares as Blackboard as VLEs in the UK, whilst the Dutch generally refer to them to ELOs and the most common term I’ve heard in the US is LMS or CMS. In fact I’ve given a paper (and there’s a blog post somewhere round about the same place John linked to) built on looking at what we call a VLE actually is and how we might better describe them now we’ve done things in the last ten years we’ve had them, not always ‘featured as designed’ things. Realistically speaking, back in 98 when we were working out how to bring content and communication and assessment together and wrap that up in some reflection of the admin of accounts and the ability to customise the experience for each student we never really thought about whether that’s still what we’d want to be calling it in ten years time, but I suspect in the UK it’s too late now, it’s a Hoover kind of vacuum – even MLE (managed learning environment) which was posited as soon as we got the student data hooked up was already too late and never caught on…