Why did we ever accept an outmoded VLE concept?

I never understood why higher education educators so readily accepted the VLE/LMS concept in the late 1990s. Certainly the idea of Virtual Learning Environment was misguided. The idea of Management System comes closer to explaining what we have lived with, but even then LMS suggests that ‘learning’ can be managed by a third party which, in retrospect, was always disingenuous. Subsequently, the VLE has straight-jacked us and has not only established a digital norm, but compounded a culture of instrumental and surface learning in other spaces too. Investment in technology for teaching, the abuse of the word ‘innovation’ by technology-led investors, and the dominant voice of ‘digital estates managers’ rather than educationalists in our institutions, have all contributed to the loss of a learning ethos as a driving force for a higher education. I wonder if the VLE has held us back in our thinking about teaching and learning decades.

If we look at the possibilities for teaching and learning in the 1990s, the idea of the ‘learning paradigm’ as presented by Barr & Tagg (1995), seemed to tee us up well for a shift away from the teacher and content dominant context, to one in which experience and social moderation and mediation could be valued and in which the teacher’s role was to be guide and ‘meddle-in-the-middle’ (McWilliam, 2009), and whose primary act was to have been to develop intrinsic motivation.

This paradigm stood in stark contrast with what was an unsophisticated understanding of the emerging Web and monolithic technology at the time. In the late 1990s higher education had still not resolved how the Internet could become an interactive medium, being wedded to non-scaleable multimedia CD-ROM and hand-coded HTML website production driving expensive resource-based learning. Technological space and learning space were like oil and water, and there was little sense of how they might blend. Out of this, before we were ready, came Blackboard and other VLEs: we were impressed by the fully-formed technology and how ‘anybody’ could build sites for resource-based learning. It seemed to solve some of the problem of the massification of higher education. In other sectors the relentless hype around the promise of the web eventually led to the bursting of the ‘dot com’ bubble c.2001.

The discussion boards in these systems were full of potential, but often viewed as a space for advanced users, though I don’t remember too many success stories of sustained online discussion in support of campus-based delivery at the time. I remember being on an international masters course in 2003-05 in which the discussion board was essential and our use of it then was perceived to be groundbreaking and exceptional (Clegg, Hudson & Steele, 2003). What was exceptional was the teaching and the specific learning community, not the technology.

This coincided with the sudden appearance of Web 2.0 and social media, as has been well documented. In 2009 the U.K. ALT-C conference debated ‘The VLE is Dead‘ to a packed room. My thought then was that we know we have a problem, but we don’t really know what to do about it. We’ve gone too far and invested too much, uncritically.

My point is, we formed an idea of digital learning space out of ignorance and invested heavily in selling this badly. In general, the dominance of the VLE/LMS has communicated clearly how learning can be highly structured, delivered and certain – just as the teacher-as-provider would like it to be. But that is not learning at all. Learning is messy, personal, socially constructured and driven by carefully supported exploration of the uncertain.

This explains my interest in personalised learning spaces and ideas about voice, identity and network in learning. As Jisc asks about co-design and next generation learning environments, we need to take the opportunity to reimagine the learning space with the benefit of the time and experience that was not available to us at the turn of the century.

I commend Lawrie Phipps for opening this debate. I managed to catch up with Lawrie at ALT C this year and he and I had a good chat with Marcus Elliott who has blogged about this – Next generation digital learning environment – my thoughts. Marcus has produced a visualisation of what can be. Importantly for me he picks up on the word ‘enabler’ as being important. This contrasts with a detetministic view of technology as a provider. We need to move from provider mindset to enabler mindset.

Our pervasive use of social media demonstrates a maturity of our academic user-base to adopt a pervasive, networked and social constructivist approach to establishing digitally-enhanced spaces.


Clegg, S., Hudson, A., & Steel, J. (2003). The emperor’s new clothes: globalisation and le-learning in Higher Education. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 24(1), 39-53. DOI: 10.1080/01425690301914

McWilliam, Erica L. (2009) Teaching for creativity : from sage to guide to meddler. Asia Pacific Journal of Education, 29(3), pp. 281-293.

About amiddlet50

Educational developer working in academic innovation in higher education in the UK
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