What do we use VLEs for? Michael Seery discusses the ubiquitous classroom tool

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The virtual learning environment (VLE) is ubiquitous in higher education, and is now so embedded in our teaching that we don’t really discuss its use anymore. We just sort of accept that it is … there. 

I attended the EdTech 2015 conference at University of Limerick a few weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised to see a talk about VLEs by Enda Donlon and Eamon Costello from Dublin City University.

Their presentation brought us up to speed on 'the VLE is dead' debate, started by Martin Weller of the Open University in 2007. I’ve written about my own thoughts on this before, so here I would like to focus on how and why we use VLEs. 

Learning aid or admin tool?

Soon after Weller’s post in late 2007, the Higher Education Academy Physical Sciences Centre published a review of the student learning experience in chemistry (pdf). The findings relating to the students’ views on e-learning were pretty stark:

'Students find e-learning the least effective and least enjoyable teaching method, but appreciate on-line library access and external internet resources. Staff regularly use presentational software, and a virtual learning environment.'

This was a very interesting finding for the time (2008). It indicates the roll-out of VLEs over the previous decade was complete, with most staff beginning to use them in their practice. However, the uptake was not impressing students, who found their use ineffective. Studies in Irish institutions around this time found the VLEs were mainly used as a repository for lecture notes - I don’t think many would argue this situation wasn’t replicated internationally. 

We are now well into the second decade of VLEs. Technology in teaching is even more mainstream, for better or worse. Commercial VLEs offer quizzing, blogs, wikis, video and audio, an ever-increasing list of features. Opportunities to supplement our face-to-face activities with online methods have never been more bountiful. 

But not much has changed. A paper published by my colleagues last week on VLE use in my own institution showed the main use was for sharing files (93%), email (71%), and announcements (70%). Features such as quizzes (25%), wikis (12%), and blogs (6%) were used by the minority of staff surveyed. These results mirror those found elsewhere. 


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This echoes the point made by Donlon and Costello in their presentation: VLEs are really learning management systems used to manage classes and disseminate information, mimicking the actions in a lecture hall. Opportunities for developing student self-awareness through quizzes where they can check knowledge and understanding, or promoting collaborative (and traceable) group work using wikis are the exception rather than the rule. 

False hope

So, the question to address is: what use are VLEs? Their presence offers a false hope to students that they will assist with their learning in some way, only to find they just host an electronic version of lecture notes. 

Are we better off with a departmental Dropbox, and let lecturers who wish to try something extra use third party tools? Good examples of these include Dave Smith’s YouTube video assessments and Claire McDonnell’s use of PBWorks for wikis

When I considered Martin Weller’s argument before, my own reason for hanging on to VLEs was that they offered a universal platform for everyone. But now I wonder if we should just throw caution to the wind and remove our dependence on VLEs. It would then be clear to students that the innovative methods that emerge are truly virtual learning, rather than a catch-all den of discontent.

Michael Seery is a lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland

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