I used to be a big VLE fan – a proper VLE-vangelist, as it were. I was convinced that one day I would have it working fully to support my teaching and engaging with my learners, and all the stuff it was promised to be.

My first stab was with the awful WebCT, very nice for the learner experience but epically roundabout in its functionality for teachers. I know that the fashion of the time was (and is) to only care about the learner experience, but this was ridiculous.

Then my institution of the time moved onto Moodle, which was clean, fairly straighforward and had that bare nuts and bolts feel which somehow made it cooler.

Time progressed, I became more confident, braver and bolder with my VLE use, we had documents, spreadsheets and presentations, links all over the place (and no more tedious dictating of links to learners, or watching them precariously typing the link in and forgetting to put a hyphen or misspelling, etc.), there was a chatroom and a forum and collaborative working through wikis. Woohoo, I thought, this is the way forward! One day I will use lessons and quizzes properly and I shall be a Moodle Master.

Oh how the mighty have fallen. Or perhaps risen beyond it? But instead of being snipy and nasty here is a simple list of what I like and don’t like about the VLE. I’m mainly thinking Moodle, but I think some of the main points are universal.

Things I like about the VLE

  • The way it functions as a way of getting stuff (slideshows, links, documents) across to students.
  • Ease of delivery of web based sessions
  • The relative ease with which simple things happen on it, and the largely intuitive nature of Moodle.
  • the way quiz questions are stored and can be easily used as a later quiz or review
  • The fact that it feels part of the college experience, mainly through corporate type branding – and this is important on many different levels for learners, especially ESOL learners who can feel marginalised as part time adult learners in a college system focussed on 14-19 year-olds.
Things I don’t like 
  • The way on Moodle you have to click choose to choose a file to add, and not just click the file name (which opens the file)
  • The agonising slowness of building even simple quizzes
  • Assignments, just assignments. Argh.
  • Blogs – is it one blog shared by many (so as a learner I’m unlikely to be anything but relentlessly upbeat) or is it my blog I can control? Or shall I just go use a professional blogging platform which can be managed more easily.
  • Clunky web editing system which sometimes lets you do stuff with tables and sometimes doesn’t, may allow you to format text or insert pictures if the wind is from the north east and the parrots are eating juju berries.
  • wikis which disappear and reappear with nothing on them
  • “lessons” which take an age to write and require about ten times more planning energy than something outrageous like face to face teaching
Finally two “don’t like” biggies
  • The fact that a VLE is sometimes perceived to be the be all and end all of elearning
  • The way in which the whole thing is about what the teacher posts up, is teacher-centric on a massive scale, and allows little room for learner interaction except in a very teacher managed way. A real one way street.
And in balance?
To be fair, there’s an element here of the shiny new toy not being so new, or indeed shiny. So some blame has to go on my magpie tendencies towards glitter and my attention span (seen it, tried it, added to the repertoire, moved on). I tend to be like this towards most things educational, except where things have developed slowly over time for me.
And a VLE is deeply useful for those bits of the course which I want deep levels of teacher control, like getting stuff over: indeed the materials repository aspect is pretty much the best thing about it. Which is good, but also a shame because e-learning could be so much more.
But the overriding model of learning on a VLE and indeed of a lot of elearning, has generally been that learning is acquisition & knowledge is a commodity held by the knowledge rich and passed on through their selected means and in particular “filling the empty vessel”. There are tools out there which better support a collaborative, more socially constructed model of learning, for example; blog services like Blogger, WordPress and Posterous, plus Twitter, various chat services, a number of different online learning tools, Google docs, or Office Live if you prefer it, Etherpad. I’d rather use these services in combination than their equivalents on Moodle, simply because they do it better. E-learning  is less and less the preserve of big proprietary software, even open source software, but instead workable through smaller services providing one aspect of those big programs, but much more effectively.
That said, I do use the VLE as a jumping off point for those services, and definitely for me remains a combination of repository and place to post links. So it’s not bad, per se, but it could be so much better.

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