Do you keep a blog?  

cartoon showing a newly hatched chicken reverencing a paradigm shift

Doug Peterson says ‘One of my first questions when I meet an educator is what’s the address of your blog?’ Doug’s JISC piece lists reasons for having an online presence. These include blogging for research, employability and simply yourself. One of the reasons I hear for not blogging is not having anything to say. Really?  Nothing? Doug says there’s no such thing as a bad blog. Well, with respect, I disagree. There are plenty of blogs which are too long, too wordy and plain boring but I get his point. Better to blog badly and have an online presence rather than not at all. It’s about digital engagement. Social media are creating niche networks within higher education. Activities like blogging and tweeting emphasise divides between those who do and those who don’t. The gap is getting wider but it’s largely invisible. Like attracts like. If you do it’s with others who do. If you don’t you are less likely to be reading this in the first place.

This week I picked up from a tweet a piece in THES by Bob Harrison about making FE more of a digital experience. Here is the same old language of technology transformation. ‘Hopefully says Bob, ‘this time the transformative potential of technology for learning will be recognised rather than ignored’ People have been saying this since 1997 and the Dearing Report into the future of higher education. Today’s use of technology is mostly limited to uploading documents to a VLE. While this offers 24/7 access to information, the VLE can do so much more in terms of collaborative interaction. The problem is shifting from a repository approach to an activity one. Bob says we need ‘critically, refreshed workforce skills’, a ‘paradigm shift in how learning programmes are designed, delivered and assessed’ (cue favourite image!) and it’s ‘important to remember technology-enhanced blended learning is not a cheap option.’  We know all this. It’s the doing it which is the problem. The article linked to an Opinion piece in the TES about teaching digital literacy.

(This is the risk of social media – one thing leads to another and another until an hour is gone – does this make me digitally literate, a champion procrastinator  or internet addict?)

Matt Dean says ‘FE needs to work out how to teach digital literacy.’  It was reminiscent of the 2007 blog post about technically illiterate teachers. The question for Matt is not should we teach digital literacy, but how to do teach it well. Good question but Matt is writing about students. The academic staff perspective is missing. HE have the same issues. I think we need to go back further and look at how teachers develop their own digital skills and identities in the first place. To see digital capabilities as ways of being and seeing as well as knowing which buttons to click. Digital divides are growing but for most institutions, access has become less of an issue than meaningful engagement. This is where help is needed. Rather than ‘teach digital literacy’ in isolation, it should be embedded in the curriculum to help ensure digital graduate attributes. In staff development and teacher education programmes to support staff trying out digital pedagogies and practices in safe supportive environments.  We not only need to change what we do but change how we think and this is the challenge.

Following B&Qs advice; DIY to DIFY with TEL

image from http://irish-guards.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/diy-your-home.jpg

B&Q have announced a shift in emphasis from DIY to DIFY. Rather than  DIY and do it themselves people are now setting themselves as DIFY – encouraging other people to pay them for doing it instead. I imagine many colleagues being relieved if HEIs adopted a similar attitudinal shift and instead of having to manage their VLE  and TEL experiences themselves, they could have someone else to do all that ‘digital stuff’ instead.

A teaching role contains assumptions – an expectation you will know how to use the technology – but practicing at home is never the same as being centre stage. It’s still common to see conference presenters struggle to put PowerPoint onto full screen especially when Microsoft moved the icon from left to right. Environment changes make the familiar become strange. The digitally confident can take change in their stride but less so the digitally shy. It has less to do with age and more with context – a point usefully raised by Steve Wheeler’s ALTC15 Keynote.

I’ve been watching this on YouTube and reflecting on ‘Lecture Capture’. I can stop, start, rewind, extract images, leave it and go back to it. If the auto-generated captions had been edited it would have been a complete learning experience. Multimedia too often leads to a surface approach. To gain a deeper understanding, to make connections with what is already known and create the fuel for reflection, I need to work with words. I like to have the transcript as well, to be able to annotate it, transfer key points to a mindmap. We all learn differently and effective pedagogies need to enable and support multiple learning requirements.

Back to DIY and DIFY. Too often the DIY approach means not only creating our own digital content but creating it for ourselves.  What I’ve called the MEE Model. We use a Mouse to navigate, our Eyes to see the monitor and Ears to listen to content and how it’s easy to assume everyone else uses a computer and accesses the internet in similar ways. We need to shift from DIY to DIFY. Consider we are creating online content for someone else – who might that transcript you think you haven’t got the time to do or content in a  customisable format so they can change its appearance to suit their own preferences and needs i.e. Word rather than PDF.

It’s the context which matters. Steve Wheeler and his students, Kate Bartlett and  Becca Smallshaw, talked about how adopting the role of teacher brings assumptions of digital competence, the expectation you know what to do, reinforced by two slides comparing the difference in attitudes between staff and students with regard to TEL.

These reinforce how digital divides on  campus get constructed. This week I heard someone defend staff not getting to grips with ‘wizzy’ powerpoint. Not a term you hear so often these days but if presentation software is a challenge, then using app based social media or developing interactive virtual learning experiences is less likely to happen. PowerPoint is a useful digital competence baseline. Too often it’s not a good experience; too much text, too small to read, words over graphics, content flying in with noisy transitions.

Steve made great use of slides with images. When done well this is great to watch. Here’s some examples of how Steve used pictures to tell stories. But it’s a brave step to take. Easy to suggest but harder to do.

There’s a risk digital basics are getting forgotten. We ‘train’ staff on using the technology but don’t ‘teach’  digital pedagogies and practice. Changing practice is never easy and when it comes to digital ways of working – which are personal and individual – most people cling to what they already know. If it’s worked before it’s reliable and can be trusted to work again.

Change is needed, Learning technologists become teaching technologists. Technology ‘trainers’ be technology educators. Then we could focus on context. Bring in accessibility and inclusive practice. Promote interaction rather than repository style models of usage.   DIY is about the singular educational experience. It limits knowledge and understanding of how people manage online whereas DIFY is about others. It incorporates diversity and difference and when is comes to the digital, this is possibility the most important step towards an equitable education.

 

3C’s competence, capabilities…and confidence

UCISA LOGO cmyk_correctPantones

The UCISA Digital Capabilities survey summary recommendations include Creation and embedding of holistic, relevant and creative digital curricula and training opportunities for students and staff.’ Highlighting the need for staff development opportunities is long overdue.

Less than a decade ago UoL hosted diagnostic tests on the VLE and ICT ran workshops on a range of different software packages. Today, anyone wanting support is directed to online help from Microsoft or WordPress or even the more personalised Blackboard support videos.

For a while the myth of the digital natives prevailed.  When Getting Started went institution-wide 5 years ago, it was suggested guidance for using Blackboard was unnecessary as new students could find their way around any online system. Yet recent Getting Started evaluations ask for help with Blackboard – because it’s not Facebook which would probably be the VLE of choice – after all it supports file sharing and chat – what more could anyone want? Yet when it comes to digital confidence, even the relatively unsophisticated Facebook can pose a challenge.

Lincoln EDEU have developed Blackboard Site Standards for September 2015. These will go some way to renewing essential conversations around engagement with VLE. The standards include online submission, having meaningful navigation structures and filenames as well as accessibility – ‘all content (text, images and multimedia) to be in an appropriate format and follow accessibility guidelines.’  Yep – that one was mine! 🙂

Support material will be developed alongside a  series of workshops. EDEU maintains the value of face-to-face contact. Our Digital Educational Developers run Drop-in Sessions twice a week; they can build workshops around programme team or school requirements or answer any of your digital questions. Just get in touch via edeu@Lincoln.ac.uk or http://edeu.lincoln.ac.uk/about-edeu/edeu-staff/

Digital confidence is not only technical support. It’s a behaviour shift which is cognitive as much as kinaesthetic and spatial. VLE have more potential than simply giant electronic notice boards or file repositories – they offer opportunities for connection and collaboration which are rarely utilised. Digital adoption takes time, which is always in short supply, but also demands answers to pedagogical questions around the value of technology for teaching and learning.

For too long a DIY approach has caused confusion about the purpose of VLE. The new required standards offer ideal opportunities to rethink the use of technology for teaching and learning. UCISA are right. We need to create  ‘holistic, relevant and creative digital curricula and training opportunities’ and EDEU are already looking to start discussions with staff who teach and support learning about how best to make these happen.

 

 

Bringing the Me to CPD; developing a reflective imagination

mobius strip image froom http://arnoldit.com/wordpress/2010/01/13/search-vendors-working-the-content-food-chain/

For many colleagues, the process of reflection is unfamiliar. In the Sociological Imagination C Wright Mills calls sociology the process of ‘making the familiar strange’.  TELEDA tries to find ways to ‘make the strange familiar’. They sound like oppositional concepts but Wright Mills suggests tools which can be  applied to both. He calls the sociological imaginations a ‘quality of mind’ for uncovering relationships between history and biography, for challenging the accepted and asking critical questions. Reflection is about our actions (history) and ourselves (biography), it requires taking these actions apart and challenging the accepted by asking the critical ‘Why?’ and ‘How?’ questions. Reflective writing involves the familiar and the strange in a Mobius Strip type of duality.

Reflection is both description and analysis. It’s taking apart the surface experience to see what lies beneath. The two processes are one and the same but different. The alchemy lies in the action because critical reflect ion on practice reveals insights and understanding which were not there before. Reflective journals record narratives of learning journeys; fixing details and events which would otherwise be forgotten.

When time is tight, CPD activities are the first to go. As the ToDo list gets heavier, the tasks we do for others take priority over those we do for ourselves.  Whether it’s HEA accreditation or one of EDEU’s Teacher Education courses it’s less DIY and more DDIY – Don’t Do It Yourself.

Colleagues on TELEDA are amazing; they juggle immense workloads alongside a range of activity based content and the reflective journals show how challenging this can be. I feel guilty about adding to their stress with each gentle reminder of absence or silence. Learning online has the invisible touch. Without a face-to-face timetable, a VLE slips under the surface of consciousness and the longer the lack of participation, the harder it is to re-engage.

Ormond Simpson’s research into retention for online learning is not cheerful reading but the loneliness of the long distance learner has to be experienced to be believed. All e-teachers face the challenge of maintaining motivation and participation in a silent, mostly invisible environment.  VLE are where the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of digital education is realised.  It’s the experiential learning which makes TELEDA successful but it also increases the risk of failure.

CDP is like digital literacies; there’s no-one-size-fits all model and it’s different for everyone. This is a strength and a weakness. Strength because it invites you to make time for yourself and weakness because no one has enough time to give. We have to find the ‘Me in CPD’ so it isn’t the first thing to get squeezed out but becomes a process we hold on to. To rediscover the value of reflective learning and make opportunities to develop a reflective imagination. Like TELEDA itself, the process of reflection is experiential – you have to do it to find out how useful it can be. 

DSA changes; Oh Mr Willetts, what have you done?

In April Mr Willetts announced on changes to the Disabled Students Allowance. Claiming these  will ‘modernise’ the system, he calls  HEIs to pay  ‘…greater consideration to the delivery of their courses and how to provide support’ which should include ‘…different ways of delivering courses and information.’  The definition of disability in the Equality Act 2010 will be the new guideline for access to DSA. This states you are only ‘disabled’ if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’ negative effect on your ability to do normal daily activities.

At the present time, DSA is awarded to a broad list of criteria including students diagnosed with dyslexia. Support for these students is being withdrawn. Reasons cited include ‘technological advances’ and ‘increases in use of technology’. Clever technology!

What Mr Willets is describing is inclusive practice. Taking advantage of the flexibility of digital information to be customised to suit user preference i.e. adjusting font shape and size, altering colour contrasts, listening to content read out loud and providing transcripts or textual alternatives to all forms of multi media.  Institutions are being asked to ‘…play their role in supporting students with mild difficulties, as part of their duties to provide reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act.’ In other words. taking personal responsibility for providing accessible content.

If it were as easy as that Mr Willets, it would already be happening.

Back in 1997, Berners Lee and Daniel Dardailler, internet and www pioneers, had altruistic aims for information democracy. These two quotes are important. We need reminding lest we forget.

“Worldwide, there are more than 750 million people with disabilities. As we move towards a highly connected world it is critical that the web be usable by anyone regardless of individual capabilities and disabilities. The W3C is committed to removing accessibility barriers for all people with disabilities – including the deaf, blind, physically challenged, and cognitive or visually impaired. We plan to work aggressively with government, industry, and community leaders to establish and attain Web accessibility goals.”  Berners Lee, T (1997)World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Launches Web Accessibility Initiative. WAI press release 7 April 1997. www.w3.org/Press/WAI-Launch.html

“The users in our project are the Web users with a disability, like visually or hearing impaired people. The needs for these users are to access the information online on the Internet just as everyone else. The impact of this project on the users with disabilities is to give them the same access to information as users without a disability. In addition, if we succeed making web accessibility the norm rather than the exception, this will benefit not only the disability community but the entire population.”  (Dardailler, D 1997 Telematics Applications Programme TIDE Proposal. Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) http://www.w3.org/WAI/TIDE/f1.htm 

In principle, I understand what Mr Willetts is saying but I doubt we are coming from the same place. I’ve tried to raise awareness of digital inclusion for some time. In practice I believe attitudes like these risk knee-jerk and exclusive reactions. Like lecture capture; sticking a 50 minute recording of a lecture online without content being made available in  alternative formats.

Digital engagement mirrors ourselves as individuals. The provision of accessible online resources involves changing behaviours from unintentionally exclusive to inclusive when the affordances of technology are managed by individuals who all interact with it in different ways. The process of developing digital literacies is complex in particular when it comes to inclusive practice.  History shows how the principle of ‘reasonable adjustments’ is often seen as the responsibility of someone else. It isn’t going to be as simple as it sounds in this statement.

Barriers to a higher education just multiplied and the principles of widening participation diluted. 

Oh Mr Willetts, what have you done?

 

The future is virtual and one of its names is Blackboard

Bb mug

I was in a Blackboard session this week. The plan to show case good practice, to be inspiring, supportive, but the plan failed. Examples of innovation were overshadowed by negative comments about the technology. At great speed the focus turned from positive enhancement to lets knock Blackboard.  It spread like a virus. The potential affordances for learning were unable to break through the Blackboard attack.

Maybe I should have expected it. Lulled with TELEDA and the FSLT MOOC at Oxford Brookes, my immersion in the advantages of VLE have imbued a false sense of security. I worry my ‘I love Blackboard’ campaign will be equally infected.  I’d forgotten the extent to which Blackboard is unpopular.

I love Blackboard #iloveblackboard

No one likes it.  I feel like a lone champion in a world of resentment and frustration. I can quote the negatives; unattractive, clunky, boring, confusing, difficult and students prefer Facebook. I can count the positives on one hand with fingers to spare. Er, um, well, maybe not even that many…

Discussing this with colleagues it was suggested Blackboard is an easy target. It can’t answer back or defend itself so is a useful scapegoat for wider dissatisfactions, not just about the role of technology in higher education but also life, love and the universe.  Sounds possible. Surveys and focus groups tell us students would prefer more consistency across modules but they like rather than dislike their VLE. The anti-Blackboard movement is staff led. I have to ask myself apart from the politics, the rage against the machine and anti-automation movements, what is it about Blackboard which causes hostility and can any of it be changed? Can we get beyond form to function?

I agree some things about Blackboard are a pain. I’m not immune to its failings.  No matter how well you format a course or group email it arrives with odd spacing – this annoys me. It looks like I don’t know how to lay out text. There are still formatting issues with the Content Editor. The notifications don’t pick up new activity in groups. You have to grade a wiki to get notified of new content and this can’t be applied retrospectively.  The blog tool is dull. So is the reflective journal.  Forums aren’t great for large numbers of participants and like most people I think Blackboard could do with a make-over. It doesn’t look as good as it could.

BUT…….

….the majority of UK HE institutions have teams of people managing the Blackboard experience for staff and students. We don’t. This is changing but it will take time to reverse the damage. We have to focus on what matters – the student and staff experience, one which takes the affordances of internet connectivity and utilises them for off campus access to teaching and learning experiences.  Like not judging a book by its cover, we need to move beyond the appearance to what it does.  An ugly pen still writes. Blackboard is accessed by thousands of people every day (including Christmas) and keeping it running takes priority. Once more resource is available we’ll be able to test and pilot tools like Mobile and Collaborate. Maybe reinstate themes so individual appearance can be customised. Explore templates. Enhance the DIY model with central support for content creation. Revisit the social media tools. Promote discovery through case studies and lunch time drop-in sessions. Increase online help and support. And listen to what everyone has to say. I’m happy to hear about all the things which are wrong with Blackboard but let’s make it a two-way communication.  It’s not all bad. The future is virtual and one of its names is Blackboard.

 

The future is Blackboard on a assortment of mobile devices

Planning digital futures in teaching and learning

There are two sides to every story, sometimes three, four or more. Experience influences interpretation and a university should contain oppositional views. Negotiation is the name of the game and there is nothing like educational technology to polarise views.  As the new academic year brings discussions around implementing a digital education strategy, I feel a growing sense of unease.  The VLE is mostly a repository of attachments to module guides, lecture notes and powerpoint presentations; it has become an information conduit not a communication facilitator.

Adoption remains patchy. Early promises of transformation have not been fulfilled. Rather than blue sky thinking around what might be possible maybe we should begin with what we know. Using technology can take more time than it saves, it’s likely to break down, disconnect, not be there when needed, involve steep learning curves, operate through an ever diminishing set of access criteria and is ultimately a poor substitute for human face to face interaction.

I continue to support  teaching and learning online. I believe it enhances distant and blended learning and 24/7 mobile access to relevant content and procedures can only be an advantage to busy people living busy lives.  So why the distance between the users and non users, the early and late adopters? Rather than prioritise innovation, should we pay attention to resistance? Not everyone is comfortable interacting with a machine. One reason is time. Promises of efficiency are diluted by the reality. Managing teaching and learning online requires significant amounts of time to adapt content, facilitate collaboration and group work, moderate communication, and respond to students on individual basis by text or video.  Technology is not always efficient. It breaks down. It confuses. Why cant I find anything on the portal?

In a recent editorial for Learning, Media and Technology, Neil Selwyn* asks how technologies which arrived on promises of a ‘freer and fairer education’ have had the opposite effect. What happened to ‘…pre-millennial expectations of the cyber-campus and seamlessly ‘blended’ learning?’  Where are instances of digital technology which are ‘…genuinely enabling and empowering for those that use them?’  Promises of transformation go on; mobile learning – flipped classrooms – more open educational resources and courses. The voice of the academics are seldom heard. Digital divides by their nature silence those who are late adopters or lag behind.

Unless we listen to staff who are teaching and supporting learning – rather than being driven by interests outside of the lecture theatre/seminar room – we’re not going to achieve bottom up sustainable change.  I still believe in the affordances of virtual learning environments to widen participation and offer genuinely authentic learning experiences. I still believe ICT can disrupt and democratise – but the essential workloads need to be acknowledged and shared. I agree with Selwyn who suggests digital technology for university educators should be developed by the same university educators. Greater resources for courses and those who teach on them has to be worth revisiting as digital futures for teaching and learning are planned.

 

* Selwyn, N., 2013, Digital technologies in universities: Problems posing as solutions?, Learning, Media and Technology [P], vol 38, issue 1, Routledge, Abingdon Oxon United Kingdom, pp. 1-3 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439884.2013.759965#.UgM0jdLqmSo

Contemplating Failure Part Three

As Blackboard faces upgrading and the procurement process grinds on, Getting Started offers its annual overview of the ways the VLE is used across the university. On a scale from good, less good to not at all. Getting Started has always had differential levels of participation.  I believe the disparity has less to do with attitudes to transition and is more a reflection of the way Blackboard is used across individual practice. As a T&L Coordinator supporting the use of technology, the gaps suggest I’m not doing a very good job. My current downer on all things virtual continues.  Students like their VLE but workshops and surveys suggest differential use between modules and courses is an increasing cause for concern. The question of minimum standards has been mooted although how this would be mandated or policed is less clear. I get despondent over exclusive practices, but there are bigger issues around initial engagement in the first place. Feenberg * may be right. The technology has failed.  As Laurillard ** says we are on the brink of transformation – but have been there for some time.

Maybe if we took the technology away?

My MA in Open and Distance Learning with the OU was delivered online. Four  of six modules used a variety of tools and assessment activities. I chose the last two from social science. Resources were delivered in traditional distance  learning style; cardboard boxes full of cds and books. No online element – not even a discussion. Assignments were posted and returned hand marked. This was not long ago. I learned as much about the affordances of technology to enhance learning, and the power of online communities of shared practice to create new knowledge, by their absence as their presence.

Getting Started is a useful snapshot of VLE engagement. I call for inclusive practice but if Blackboard is not being used, or is a holding place for a collection of Word documents, conversation around TechDis Accessibility Essentials or the DDA/Equality Act is doomed. The gap between my conception of virtual learning and the reality of a VLE as a repository for Word and PowerPoint requires rethinking. Discussions around the Digital Education Strategy need to focus on the low end-user and non-user. Pushing up to blue skies will not address resistance.

Is resistance to Blackboard political or personal? Is it indicative of broader attitudes to internet enabled communication and information? You may as well ask if exclusive practice is deliberate or inadvertent? No one intentionally sets out to exclude. There is  innovative and exciting use of Blackboard across the university but they remain in pockets.  The problem with technology is the divide between those advocating use and those who are the users. The digital divide has less to do with access and more the way access is managed and the continual problem of content being presented in single formats based on assumptions the user can access it. I don’t have the answer in the present economic climate. All I know is in their relationship with technology, people will find their own level and stay there. It might not be effective or inclusive – but without increased human resource and ring fenced funding to support change – the current situation of good, less good or not at all is probably about as good as it gets.

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* Feenburg, A. (2011) Agency and Citizenship in a Technological Society http://www.sfu.ca/~andrewf/copen5-1.pdf

** Laurillard, D. (2008) Digital technologies and their role in achieving our ambitions for education  http://eprints.ioe.ac.uk/628/1/Laurillard2008Digital_technologies.pdf

Failure is not an Option! http://suewatling.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk/2013/06/02/failure-is-not-an-option/

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Academic culture shock; the VLE and resistance to learning online

I’m still reflecting on the issue of power, since the lack of it was commented on in my EA2 (see politics and power) This weekend I revisited ‘All Watched Over by Machines of  Loving Grace’ (Adam Curtis, 2011).  The 3-part documentary examines how power is perceived and distributed. I’m writing about resistance to virtual learning. Both are connected to the 1990’s. Curtis revisits late 20th century dreams of a cybernetic utopia with freedom from social controls and conventions. Dearing’s  1997 landmark report into the future of higher education claimed the internet would transform the university. There is more…

Underneath, I’m interested in the social construction of identity; how society controls gender expectations opposed to how we interpret ourselves and ways of resistance. The commodification of gender expectations is a powerful and invisible social control. I’m drawn to Edward Bernays application of his uncle Sigmund’s psychoanalytic ideas to public relations and marketing. I also like postmodernist ideas on subjectivity, in particular Baudrillard on simulation and social manipulation of  confusion between the Sign and the Real. Power is the thread which pulls this altogether and digital media the channel where power operates most persuasively. In Propaganda, Bernays describes PR as the ‘conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses’. He claims this is an important aspect of democracy and ‘‘Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.’

It’s a small step to social controls through corporations and governments. These excursions into power soon encounter Foucault who explored the power and authority of institutions and the state, how it became anonymous and embedded in bureaucracies. For all his ideas have been supported or critiqued, the Foucaultian view of hierarchical surveillance is alive and well and living in Google.

We have become accustomed to digital ways of working, but resist digital pedagogic practice. The lecture and seminar remain the most popular form of transmission and debate. The virtual in learning environment remains largely invisible.

Visions are rarely neutral and with technology they are mostly utopian or dystopian. In 1999 Daniel Nobel wrote Digital Diploma Mills attacking the distribution of digitized course material online, seeing this as a regressive trend towards mass production and standardization in the favour of commercial interests. In 2005 the HEFCE first elearning strategy promoted technology enhanced learning as leading to transformation through radical and positive change. In 2011, Feenburg (author of Questioning Technology, 2001) claimed the promise of virtual learning in the 1990s has come to nothing – and ‘the automation of learning has failed’ 

The embedding of the university VLE affects everyone who works or studies there but it is not universally loved; more tolerated or even hated. It’s possible the sector is still in a state of transition. Socrates complained the written word would damage education if people no longer needed to meet up and discuss philosophical ideas. After Gutenberg, there was concern the book would harm the educational imperative. Resistance to teaching and learning online may be an extension of academic culture shock. Or resistance may run deeper, indicative of caution from critical thinkers and reflective practitioners.

Digital scholarship – shifting emphasis from tools to users

The ongoing VLE Options Appraisal is a useful opportunity to look at the wider issues around virtual learning environments.  VLEs have come a long way since Dearing* but in terms of keeping up with wider developments on the internet, in particular the move to openness and connectivity, they can sometimes look a little out of date.

Open academic practice and the rise in content management systems are examples of formidable challenges to the VLE. Compare a locked down password protected environment to contemporary social media and you’ll soon find support for the VLE critics who say it is a staff driven content store, low on genuine pedagogical interaction and pretty ugly too.

So has the VLE failed? No, I don’t think so. It might never be the number one choice of personal learning environment but it has untapped potential. Rather than be critical of the tool, it may be worth investing more in research not only on the way it is – and could be – used within  the institution, but exactly what staff need to get started – as well as to get innovative.

Over the past decade a giddy variety of technologies have been personalised for education. Their mix is both widening and deepening the gap between active users and those who are less confident with online practices.  Innovation tends to be led by those with digital thought patterns who sometimes find it hard to conceive of worlds where paper and pen are preferred.  The word learning needs to be added to technologist. Learning technology describes roles which can bridge the gaps between technical support and pedagogical design for teaching and learning in a digital age.  Outputs from the JISC Digital Literacies  programme will be useful but how broadly they’ll be disseminated to those who have yet to move beyond uploading content and horizontal browsing remains to be seen.

Unless we shift from the tool to the user then the full potential of any VLE cannot be realised.  The VLE Options Appraisal is an opportunity to look beyond decisions based on the cost of the technology towards how best the university can resource the use of the technology. Digital scholarship in 21st century should include confidence with utilising the affordances of ANY virtual learning environment. To do this will inevitably improve the quality of use of those learning tools which are institutionally supported and maintained.

* Report of the National Committee on Inquiry into Higher Education  (1997) https://bei.leeds.ac.uk/Partners/NCIHE/

Keep up to date at the 2012 VLE Strategy blog http://vlestrategy.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk/