There’s a saying I’ve heard repeatedly made at conferences around NZ in recent years; “It’s not the technology, it’s the pedagogy“. Problem is, when it comes to support for ICT at a system level we still see a lot of emphasis on making the technology available based on the assumption that the professionals working in the field will have the pedagogical nouse to constructively adopt and implement it. Learning Management Systems (also known as Virtual Learning Environments) are a good example it seems.
A recent report from Ofsted in the UK based on a study of of virtual learning environments (VLEs) reveals that schools and colleges have not made great progress with the introduction or use of them. The study found that in many schools and colleges such systems were still on a “cottage industry” scale, although where they were more developed, particularly in colleges, such services were able to “enthuse” students.
The fact is, like any innovation, it all boils down to the enthusiasm of the early adopters. Even in our regular schools/classrooms what we see occuring in classrooms is dependent to a very high degree on the teacher. Referring to where the Ofstead researchers saw good use of VLEs their report quotes:
The best VLEs depended on an enthusiastic teacher, trainer or manager to develop materials and encourage their use amongst learners and staff. A good grasp of information technology was not critical to a good VLE; they flourished where skilled and confident teachers and tutors treated the VLE as an extension of their normal work.
Intersting also that only three of the institutions surveyed had a VLE strategy – a clear sign of the ‘early adopter’ syndrome. The report comments that the benefits to learners [of VLEs] are so far “not yet obvious”, and that “despite expectations”, the arrival of these online support services for learners was “still in the early stages of development”.
An important thing for me is to understand what is meant by the expectations referred to above? The only reference to a declared expectation I could find in the report was reference to “…an expectation from the Government that increased use of technology should enhance learning.”
From my experience there’s no one set of expectations, and, in fact, the differences in expectation often lead to the confusions about what exactly we expect from something like at LMS/VLE, and the fact that these are most likely defined by the particlar context of the individual. This perhaps explains why the nomenclature itself is problematic, as referred to in the footnote on page 8 of the report:
VLEs might also be called a learning management system (LMS), course management system (CMS), learning content management system (LCMS), managed learning environment (MLE), learning support system (LSS), online learning centre (OLC) or learning platform (LP).
In New Zealand the Ministry of Education has convened a reference group to begin looking at establishing some guidelines and practical solutions for what they are terming a Managed Learning Environment (MLE). (But don’t go looking for too much information on this yet – a search of the Ministry’s website returns a nil response for anything to do with Managed Learning Environments, and the only return I got for MLE was an interesting powerpoint dealing with property issues and reference to a Modern Learning Environment).
Already there are emerging tensions between and among many of the participants, with some focusing on expectations of an MLE as a means of sharing and distributing content, while others look to an MLE to enable student driven learning, providing an environment to foster creativity and contribution. At an institutional level expectations and use varies from the provision of online courses to a convenient form of school webiste or extranet.
Of course, these points of view are not mutually exclusive, and the tensions themselves will utlimately make the working group productive (assuming appropriate facilitation). The point I’d like to make, however, is that until these expectations are fully exposed and well understood, then it is unlikely that we’ll see a useful form of VLE/LMS/MLE emerge, and when it does, it is unlikely to be in the form of a specific product or application.
In it’s coverage of the report the Guardian newspaper included the following comment which illustrates how different expectations are manifest in the way VLEs are implemented:
Christine Gilbert, chief inspector, said some schools and colleges were using VLEs as “dumping grounds or storage places for rarely-used files, rather than for material that enhanced the face-to-face learning done inside the classroom”.
She said: “The best VLEs allowed learners to reinforce their routine work, or catch up on missed lessons. In those best cases, the material offered was fun and helpful. In the least effective examples, documents had been dumped on the system and forgotten.” In some cases, she said material posted was unhelpful.
The report is also featured on Teacher’s TV and the 2min40sec video report there is worth viewing, if for no other reason than to observe the examples of classroom learning environments that are used to illustrate where the VLEs are being used – personally I found this difficult to reconcile in terms of the comments by Gilbert above 🙂
Ah well – I guess we’re still embarking on the journey. What I’d hope we’ll see though is an equivalent amount of energy, effort and expense put into understanding the pedagogical value and opporutnities of a VLE/LMS/MLE as we are seeing go into the development (and sales) of products, systems and applications.