[Update: It took several slightly different drafts and published versions for this post to reach this finalish version. Since its original publication on 23 January 2017 I corrected typos, rearranged paragraphs, tried to remove annoying repetitions and attempted to make the discussion more concise. A blog is a sandpit… The latest changes, hopefully the final ones, were saved on 24 January 2017 11:24am 25 January 2017 12:23pm GMT.]

As the new year and the new academic term get under way, I find myself thinking again of the implications of the ‘Virtual Learning Environment’ (Moodle in  my case). As an exercise in reflective practice, I share the following notes from a personal perspective as a lecturer.

Some of you may be more familiar with the term ‘Learning Management System’ (Wikipedia definition here). Jisc defines ‘VLE’ as ‘a means to structure, manage and deliver learning activities and content. They are recognised as having strengths in student tracking and managing online assessments’ (‘Virtual learning environment’, 12 February 2016; my emphasis). An Oxford University Press resource defines it as ‘a system for delivering learning materials to students via the web. These systems include assessment, student tracking, collaboration and communication tools’ (‘Learn about Virtual Learning Environment/Course Management System content’, 2016; my emphasis).

I am interested in the cultural assumptions behind the design of educational tools, in relation to how much time and labour they require to be customised successfully and effectively. When design enables function customisation, the assumption is that (most or some) users will need, want and be able to use those features accordingly.  On Moodle, one thing is to merely drag and drop files onto a module, something else is to upload files adding relevant accurate metadata, attributes following accessibility guidelines, being mindful of licensing, customising for different cohort(s), permissions, roles and particular needs, etc.  If you add up enabling and using the collaboration and communication tools to your module, as well as any other ‘blocks’ we may want to add (widgets for reference managers for example), things get even more time-consuming. And if you add to that the fact that often notifications from message boards or submission areas are often forced subscriptions, with few users knowing it’s up to them to unsubscribe, the email workload added by the VLE is significant.

Under ideal circumstances the VLE can no doubt considerably enhance the learning that is supposed to take place during the classroom lecture. However, those ‘ideal’ circumstances are by definition not pragmatic ones and therefore it requires unusual effort to craft a successful and efficient VLE module. The result is that often VLEs are mostly used as file repositories. This means that rather than enhancement, what he have is a complement, an appendix, at best, a box of tools (those tools assist in functions, such as marking and feedback, that could be performed elsewhere or through different means). Apart from course documentation, the standard files in these ‘repositories’ are normally PowePoint or PDF files of the material shown or discussed during the weekly lectures. Given the current circumstances, using the VLE as a file repsository, rather than as a proper ‘environment’,  is a reasonable and pragmatic solution. Less is often more when setting up pages for courses.

My concern is that there is a growing gulf between educational technology (a field for which I have great admiration and respect) and the pragmatic conditions of teaching preparation, pastoral care and the actual lecture. Simple customisations can take many precious hours: on Moodle, there is no such thing as ‘frictionless’ editing… every item takes at least 3 if not 4 clicks to edit. Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow, wrote the poet. (For an important discussion of how VLEs or LMS  fit within infrastructures and social systems, I recommend this 2009 post by David Jones).

Something else that interests me are the cultural consequences of administrative and pedagogical decisions/requirements to use the VLE, and the behaviour and expectations the VLE contributes to develop in students. The VLE, even when used at its most reduced capability, is not merely a tool. Like all technologies, it should be commonplace now to say the VLE is never neutral. The mere existence of a VLE creates demands and expectations, develops situations and defines behaviour and culture. (This is why it is called an ‘environment’). Because it has been implemented and has been normalised as what must be used, even an unused or seldom-used VLE is doing things. The environment, indeed, defines us and the way we relate to each other.

I believe we have given too much importance to the VLE, and as a sector, those of us in UK Higher Education using VLEs as the centre of student learning interaction have contributed to creating a culture where programmes, syllabi, subjects, topics, disciplines and approaches are ‘sites’, places that can be entered in and exited, services where students are supposed to find everything they need. Real learning does not happen like this, and we all know it, including our students. There will never be a single place or single person that will deliver everything for you. One learns this.

It is a question of perceptions and expectations. The existence of a module (or series of modules) on the VLE can be perceived by students as synonymous with the existence of a course, and the slides file synonymous with the existence of a lecture. Synonymous with the lecture. In this sense the implications are that the lecture is not seen as an opportunity to think about specific situations but to be at the receiving end of information that will offer solutions to such situations. If students expect to get everything they need to meet learning objectives on the VLE, one fears (with evidence or not) that other valuable learning skills, such as independent research, search and information discovery skills, may get deteriorated, or remain unpracticed.

The challenge is therefore finding ways to make the VLE work for our students (and for us) without it replacing the prevalence of the presential learning experience. At the moment I suspect VLEs are more likely to be experienced by academic staff as an administrative burden rather than an exciting teaching too. For students, we have already an essential resource, the one point where they can go to understand what is going on, what was said in class and what they need to do. For lecturers today, presential classroom learning is increasingly resembling distance online learning, and pedagogic duties increasingly imply research and teaching data management duties. Important things (including not only academic staff wellbeing, meaningful academic student satisfaction and the future and sustainability of taught programmes) are at stake in being able to have wide skillsets, but at the same time it seems important to preserve pedagogical (and therefore technological) distinctions.

We should be able to communicate to students that a course or module is much more than its syllabus. Those fortunate enough to lecture and to attend lectures enjoy a precious opportunity for information (hopefully knowledge) exchange, in real time and shared space. The lecture can be that privileged learning space that can help organise and establish connections with other learning practices (information seeking online and in libraries, networking activities, public engagement, data collection methods, etc.) In terms of feedback, it should be possible to rebalance the current feedback/assessment/’student satisfaction’ culture back again towards the classroom. ‘Feedback’ is not only that which is given in grading and marking, on writing, or on personal tutorial sessions. The lecture should be a space for feeding back to each other, and an opportunity to test ideas, approaches and clarify doubts.

It might be time to ‘flip’ the attention back to the time-space of the classroom. This would fit a general need to reconsider what our actual function and goals are. This reconsideration would include issues of student tracking, management etc. that increase and expand, implicitly or explicitly, the current workload of the lecturer. I am old enough to remember what it was to study and teach without VLEs, email and even computers, so I have witnessed how educational technologies have in many areas increased workloads, not necessarily made things easier for teachers.

Part of the challenge is in making the lecture much more than the mere delivery of content included in decks of slides shared previously online. ‘PowerPoint karaoke’ is as damaging to the educational experience as an over-reliance on a site that is expected to provide you with everything you need to know. We should be able to lecture creatively and to expect our students to pay attention without the comfort of knowing that it’s OK not to pay attention (or to not attend the lecture at all) because they can always go back to the slides file. Lecturers should be able to introduce elements of surprise, humour, related conversational asides, intellectual and creative challenge, and to do it while also accommodating any students’ neurodiversity needs.

Given the real conditions in which presential higher education is practiced today in the UK, the VLE has the potential to support learning, but we should not let it replace the effort required in structuring and delivering a course/module by other means. In other words I suggest the main focus/centre of presential student learning should not be the VLE. Needless to say this gets harder the larger the cohort- getting 220 students sitting in a room engaged (and ‘satisfied!’) is not an easy feat. Regardless of class size the norm for lectures cannot be mere content delivery.

Perhaps it all comes down to a reconsideration of the role of ‘remediation’ in 21st century teaching and intersubjective relations (Bolter and Grusin 1998). Unfortunately, critiques of technological determinism in Higher Education can be caricatured as luddite resistance to innovation. Far from resisting technological change, a crtitical approach to educational technologies is a key component of reflective pedagogical practice. My gut feeling is that we need to be able to invite our students and ourselves to be mindful in real time and space, to be open to discovery, wonder and the unexpected, opening our learning horizons, and embrace the questioning, not just any answers provided.