Thursday, 16 April 2009

In praise of the walled garden (VLE)....

I have to start this by saying I am not a techy. I struggled a few nights ago to install MS Office on a netbook. But I am interested in how new technology can improve the way that we do things.

Back in 2004 I was invited to go on a Blackboard training session as there were plans that the medical school would use the VLE " increasingly to deliver course information and material". But when I went to the training session it wasn't this that got me excited but the discussion boards. I immediately thought that this would be a good way for me to communicate with and facilitate communication between 300 2nd year students undertaking a course I co-ordinated over 9 months. They were not even based in the same building as me. I've posted more about this here.

This year I used discussion boards, wikis and a course blog. Participation is voluntary. I don't assess contributions to the boards but students seem to find them a good way of accessing me and sharing with each other. The connections that they make through the discussion boards should help them to do better in the assessed written work.

So in my experience VLEs can work.

But many people do not like VLEs, or the way they are used or what they stand for (large, monollithic companies which I don't like either).

Martin Weller said the VLE is dead or dying back in 2007.Instead we will using "Loosely Coupled Teaching"... lots of different, freely available websites pulled together. Yes, that could mean lots of different log-ins and getting to grips with different websites but learning how to use wikis and discussion boards and blogs takes time no matter where they are, and tools such as openID, and facebook connect, might get past the log-in problems.

In 2009, Mike Bogle wrote about Distributed Online Learning Frameworks, now possibly including twitter, and was inspired by the experience of David M Silver.

But talk about moving away from VLEs is not just that they are big and cumbersome and slow, there is also a sense among many that it is the walled garden that is the problem. Access is restricted to those within the course within the institution. It is anti-edupunk and anti-connectivism. Mike Johnston thinks the VLE might be 'killing connections' for the institution's benefit.

But might there not be advantages to a walled garden? Can't students benefit from being able to talk and share in a private place where they can make a mistake and ask or say something stupid. We know the Cisco Fatty story. We're learning about digital identities. Is education in public really better? If institutions have any role in education might it not be the provision of a walled garden or safe space?


  1. I use VLEs a lot (we have to) & can see where you're coming from with the "walled garden"; however, my complaint would be that the walled garden is the *only* choice.
    If you're using a discussion board (e.g. phpBB) - then you can have the option to have all/some of it as walled garden.
    As far as I know, Moodle's really the only VLE that gives that option.
    (And, as far as I know, it's only "read" to outsiders; have to have an account to comment)
    (I also have a lot of other grumbles about VLEs ... but that's another post!)

  2. But surely I do have the option to go off and set up a public discussion anywhere and link to it from Blackboard? What is stopping me from doing that?

    Anyway, glad to know that you can see where I am coming from:)

  3. The problem isn't the VLE, but the people that use it :-)
    VLEs are very good at certain things (e.g. authentication, document stores, etc), but no VLE competes with the functionality of Twitter, WordPress, delicious, etc. The mistake is to try to use the VLE for things it's not good at rather than as a hub other services can hang off.
    And then at least if students invest in other services they control access to, they don't get slung out as soon as their course ends!

  4. Anne Marie asked: But surely I do have the option to go off and set up a public discussion anywhere and link to it from Blackboard? What is stopping me from doing that?
    Technically, nothing. But, in our place, they'd be rather annoyed (if they found out...!) We can justify off campus things that WebCT Vista doesn't do (just), but not those it can. (Even if "do" means "does with reduced functionality")

  5. Anne-Marie – a very thought provoking post, raises lots of interesting and complex issues – sorry for the rather long reply!

    Maybe it's not a case of either-or. Even walled gardens have gates to the outside world. Perhaps, people first need to become proficient and confident within a constrained space in order to prepare themselves to venture further afield and explore alternative ways of teaching and learning. What we don’t want is for the gates to always be locked and trap us in :-(

    What’s considered fit for purpose depends on your perspective. The ‘subject specialist’, i.e., the clinician, is primarily concerned with enabling a student to acquire medical knowledge/skills, whereas the ‘educator’ is concerned with developing the learning to learn capability of the student. Ideally, both forms of knowledge acquisition develop in a balanced and integrated way.

    I think you’re right, to begin with there are definitely advantages for novice teachers and learners to work in a highly controlled and constrained VLE. By restricting opportunity and choice it reduces the amount of complexity and hassle people have to deal with, i.e., the outside world. A clinician is likely to view this as a positive, because it allows more attention and effort to be given to the acquisition of discipline specific knowledge/skills, however, from an educational point-of-view the opportunities presented for learning to learn are limited.

    Use of a Blackboard discussion boards, wikis and blogs will be valuable up to a point in promoting and enabling information exchange, question asking, dialogue and reflection. With sufficient input a good e-tutor/facilitator will be able to compensate for deficiencies in the tools. However, ultimately the student has got to stand on their own two feet in the big wide world. They must somehow acquire the ability to assess the value and relevance of a variety of communications tools and services in order to be able to independently form their own networks, initiate dialogue and information exchange with others beyond their course. Working within an environment like Blackboard will prepare them up to a point, but it will not provide them with the versatility and adaptability essential for continuing their learning and teaching as professionals.

    At the other extreme, I don’t believe complete immersion in a fully open environment from the start is the answer either. For both ‘subject expert’ and ‘educator’ the overhead associated with identifying, understanding and applying different tools would be too great. Ideally, during the course of undergraduate studies the institutional VLE would morph into the Personal Learning Environment that the individual has been equipped to maintain for themselves for life.

    So, in partnership, learner and teacher dismantle the garden walls together :-)

    Now…how we go about achieving such a transition through undergraduate education is another interesting question.

  6. Delighted to see your comments!

    @AJC Why is it better for an undergraduate student to have a dialogue with me and other students in public on Twitter, rather than on a discussion board within a VLE? I guess that is at the heart of my post. David M Silver doesn't seem to expect those outside his course to start following the students involved on twitter. It doesn't seem clear to me that we are being encouraged to interact with the students. So what is the advantage of this being public? Is this education in public for the sake of it. I also doubt that twitter (no matter which interface) would be a better tool for me to use.
    The argument over students not being able to carry forward content produced in Blackboard keeps getting made but I guess I would like to know more about how students actually feel about this.
    Would they agree that is is worth sacrificing privacy to be able to access content after graduation?

    @Emma When you say 'they' who do you mean? IT departments? Why does it nother them? If I started linking to a wordpress blog or using a discussion board outside Blackboard I can't see what the harm would be. I wouldn't be expecting anyone else to support it.

    @Joe Thank you for taking the time to thrash this out with me. The way that I have been using the VLE is part of my educator role, rather than as a clinician. I am trying to help students figure out how to learn more after visiting these families. Sometimes we unearth that they don't know how to perform a literature search, that they don't know what qualitative research is, or the value of epidemiological studies. As a student you might fear saying something silly in front of 300 peers but it might be even worse to do it in front of the whole world. So I don't think that this argument about learning in a safe space rather than in public is less relevant to non-clinical subjects. Yes, we do have specific issues around confidentiality in medicine but they are not the problems I am talking about.

    By the way, clinicians do not seem to spend much time exploring the possibilities of VLEs. Perhaps it happens in other medical schools but not where I am:)

    I ask students to learn about the complexity of the outside world. I ask them to go off and find blogs and forums which help them understand the experience of patients. But we have the conversations about what they can learn from this in private, within the walls of the VLE. I really can't see what could be better (for those students) about having that conversation in public. It might inspire other teachers to try and do something similar. So it might enhance learning in the community at large. But my describing and reflecting on the process in this blog might have similar benefits without compromising student privacy.

    Uhmmm, I can see that more thinking needs to be done about this by me at least!

    I do like the idea of dismantling the wall as we transition through the undergraduate course. But I do wonder if in 5 years we will still be so sure that public is good. People are talking on twitter about blocking followers, and of reducing the size of networks to something more manageable and personal.

    Thanks again,

    Anne Marie

  7. I suppose it’s all about how we guide students to the point at which they are able to take control and initiate a dialogue with people other than those on their course. Ultimately, it will be those health professionals who have acquired the necessary self-assuredness, discursive skills and knowledge of appropriate means who will be able to form and participate in productive networks.

    Somehow we need to design appropriate learning activities where students are gradually exposed in supportive ways to risk, so that they can overcome their fears and concerns. The important aspect is the nature of the facilitation we provide for students to help them gain confidence, shape their questions and encourage deep consideration of their responses – regardless of medium.

    But I think the important starting point is acknowledging that they MUST make this journey – somehow, someway.

    ps. I see no problem with modifying networks to make them more manageable, it’s a valuable skill to be able to do so and yet retain its worth.

  8. Kia ora Anne Marie!

    I think many issues arise when it is believed that everything should be done within the VLE.

    The VLE is a tool. It is also a conduit for other web tools. Blackboard is, for it provides a platform and a safe one to launch other links. The problem arises when it is not fully understood where the precincts of the VLE start and finish.

    A link within Bb, say, that takes a learner to a Web2.0 app, lies outside the walled garden. The link is a gap in the wall. It is no safer, if that's what's required, than providing the link in an email.

    What the VLE does do is provide the ability to monitor access to that Web2.0 app provided it is done through the VLE. It's possible to know who goes through the gap and how many times that occurs.

    However, what the learner does beyond the link is not monitored.

    My feeling is that there is a lot of ignorance surrounding the use of VLEs, their potential, their limits and their capability in providing a component for blending different elearning methods.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  9. "Why is it better for an undergraduate student to have a dialogue with me and other students in public on Twitter, rather than on a discussion board within a VLE?"
    It's not a question of better, it's a question of wether. If students have a "real" discussion on a VLE (as opposed to a "OK, I've jumped through the hoop, now gimme the marks" discussion), that's fine. In my experience, they don't. But what long term damage are you doing to student's experience of participating in online communities if they perceive them as artificial because they get slung out when the course ends?

  10. Hello
    Sorry for the delay in replying. It's not that I haven't been thinking about the issues, just that I have been busy preparing for my GP appraisal and other parts of my real life.

    @Joe Why do we have to move the students towards collaborating with those beyond their course? I fear I am in danger of sounding stubborn but I think that trying to establish weak links with 300 other students might be a grand enough aim. I am a reasonably net-savvy doctor in the UK but for clinical work or queries I tend to turn to the colleagues who I work face-to-face with, or are based in my locality. Maybe this is just an experience in primary care.

    There are mnay online social networks for doctors appearing but they are not in anyway mainstream and I don't think that is just because doctors don't know how to use them. I think we really need to explore more about how doctors deal with uncertainty and learning on a day to day basis in practice.

    It's always difficult to imagine that not everyone has the same experience as you and I know that I have to do this to be able to move forward on this. Unfortunately few jobbing doctors seem to come across this blog! But perhaps a future post should address this.

    I guess if I had a real life example of how the kind of sharing and learning you describe happens now, then I would see that it is possible. But it doesn't seem to exist yet and I want to know why.

    @Ken Thanks again. I don't spend hours checking whether students have used the links I provide them with from the VLE. It is of minimal interest to me and I am happy to include really useful ones in an email as well. In fact this year I was using delicious to host links.
    (I was a bit worried when a student joined my network and then bookmarked a link for a page with some sparkly hotpants she was thinking about buying. Did she understand the public nature of delicious? She wouldn't have done this within Blackboard I am sure.)

    I suppose when I talk about the parts that I want to keep private and walled I mean the collaborative spaces such as wikis and discussion forums. I am just not happy about asking students to do this in public at this stage. I think if students get confident and familiar, then as Joe suggests they may wish to take advantage of bigger more public networks (when they eventually exist).

    @AJC I think it is really interesting to consider the fucntion of social networks. Perhaps it is my bias that I don't expect a busy medical student to consider ones that I direct them towards as anything other than task focussed. They may very well set up their own groups which will extend beyond the course, but I am setting them a task where sharing and collaboration are rewarded.

    In any case I really appreciate everyone's feedback here. It is really useful and continues to give me much food for thought.

  11. Kia ora Anne Marie!

    I don't spend hours checking whether students have used links either. But some people do and they feel that there is a need for this. Mind you, I'm talking about secondary students here.

    About student use of email/delicious/other web apps - with young users, my experience is that some are apparently oblivious to the public nature of the Internet - never mind Bb. Of course, Bb is not public in the usual sense.

    What raised my eyebrows were the email addresses that young girls in particular would choose for themselves from such providers as hotmail!

    You can perhaps understand why cybersafety is a major theme for me in my work as a distance teacher.

    Catchya later

  12. Thanks all for the interesting discussion.

    From my perspective the major benefit of a VLE or LMS is ease of use.

    Over the last two years I've been using blogging and RSS feed aggregation to provide the week-by-week instruction to all students within our programme (2 year diploma of massage therapy). Most of our theory-based courses are largely taught online. Students blog assessments, and work with Google docs, etc. We've chosen to go down this route because be believe that it's important that our students develop digital information literacy skills, particularly as most massage therapists are pretty illiterate in this area. I would like our students to get the bug & start building the massage-information web. Of late, I've started to wonder if this is a good idea.

    If I compare this distributed approach to teaching with the use of Blackboard/Moodle, it's clear that it
    1) Takes more time to administer
    2) Is more complex for the students
    3) Is more complex for new staff to come up to speed with.

    While 1 is important given our ridiculous workloads in the NZ education system at the moment, and 2 is important because clarity of instruction is a massive contributor to student satisfaction in online learning, it's 3 that I'm really concerned about.

    I've been training a new staff member this year, and it has taken her much longer than I anticipated to come up-to-speed. Because the use of these technology platforms is not very strongly institutionally supported, I need to train her & also take on more workload as she goes through her learning curve. This puts the programme at some risk. At present it can't run without me. If she chooses to leave at the end of the year I'll be back to square 1.

    The other issue for me is that VLEs tend to have fairly good options available to support the creation of formative testing & interactive learning modules. From my review of the literature, it seems that this type of learning experience is one of the real strengths of online learning, and it's difficult to find easy, free options out there on the web that don't involve the students needing to set up another account with username & logon. A big downside of open-education to my mind.

    So after 1 1/2 years of pushing towards this goal, I'm starting to think that I should go back to using Moodle. :-S

  13. Hi Dave, everyone :)

    Dave, aren't the 3 points you list a product of the issue you cite as a problem in your sector?.. exactly the lack of digital information literacy.. that your teaching staff, and naturally the students are grapeling with on so many levels. So in this regard we have a chicken or egg problem. My suggestion for that would be to develop the capabilities in your staff for their own learning long before trying it with students.

    Also, with regards to the over all topic of the post and discussion, it is unfortunate that there is a thinking that private communication is not possible or desirable with the "free" tools, when obviously there are many situations where it is. The challenge is (I think) to use tools where it is possible for people to discover the benefits of openness at some stage, and not to use technologies that limit the possibilities of that discovery.

    Many of the free tools offer very good privacy settings so that small group and private interactions can be conducted within a system that has an over all open and connected context. private blogging, private email lists, private video sharing, private social networking platforms,, they're all there.

    But the multiple log in problem, and complexity of managing multiple web services persist, and this relates to the literacy problems.. and I think there are strategies we can devise for logins though.

    Mine is to ask a group to each tell me the user name they think they might use. I can usually tell right away if that would be available. For example, JaneSmith is highly unlikely to be available, so I would ask Jane her middle initial, and then ask her to have 2 alternative user names in mind and written down. Then I advise people to set their passwords as initials followed by their phone numbers, along with "never do this for ecommerce sites!!" That way I can prompt them when they forget, and the password works across all platforms. Sure, lots of people strongly advise against using the same user name and password everywhere.. just another important thing to consider when learning how to use the Internet really.

  14. @David

    Ease of use is a major factor - for staff and students. Look how much time is spent discussing aggregating content through services such as Friend-Feed for us non-students. Maybe the future will look more rather than less like a VLE for everyone.

    I'm sorry but your description of helping students formulate usernames and passwords really would put me off this approach, and I think it would be an issue for anyone with more than 40 students in a course. You ae going to a lot of effort and for what real gain? I really would like to know more.

    Thanks to you both for continuing the conversation.


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