The debate over digital learning platforms in HE often focuses on the choice of technology. It misses issues around supporting engagement with digital learning and the production of quality assured, inclusive content. Those involved in the VLE v Web 2.0 discussions should look backwards as well as forwards. A decade ago, in the wake of the Dearing report into the future of higher education, and the government’s Harnessing Technology, funds were made available to embed VLEs across the sector, but with little attention to the resource implications for staff. Failure to see the resourcing of virtual learning as important as the provision is with us still. In 2009 we are in strikingly similar position to that of ten years ago. The Edgeless University and the government’s Digital Britain report advocate increased reliance on internet based communication and opportunities for virtual higher education experiences. JISC supports a greater use of Web 2.0 type technologies as appropriate tools for meeting the diverse needs of an ever increasing diversity of students. As budgets are cut it’s perhaps inevitable that the question of value for money is raised.
The death of the VLE headline is not new but criticism can be skewed and fail to reflect the wider picture. The source is often from the 3Cs corner; Computer Confident and Competent where a RTFM philosophy (or in these days WTFV) only serves to widen the digital divide. Narrowing the gap between those comfortable with a keyboard and those still at the pen end of the digital continuum should be a priority.
The old fashioned and clunky VLE may be uninspiring to some but for the majority it is a prerequisite to engagement and offers a ‘way in’. Web 2.0 tools require digital literacy and that takes time to learn. We are far from a situation where these skills are universal. Whether a VLE is replaced by PLEs made up of learners own preferences, or an institutionally provided set of customisable tools, there will still be a requirement for an entry level environment that enables rather than disables both staff and students. The support implications, and their cost, of any virtual learning platform should be a key issue. Without this there is little chance of encouraging the levels of digital engagement required for the virtual provision of high quality and inclusive higher education experiences.