Last year, I carried out a bit of research into how ESOL learners perceive and feel abt the notion of online and blended learning, and I had grand plans, or plans, anyway, to trial some sort of blended element to one of my courses this year: adding an online element through the VLE as an adjunct to the main course, and linking into the main course as its been taught.
It didn’t happen. In fact, for most of the classes I taught this year, the VLE generally has been a non-event: not unused, for sure, but much less promoted and enforced as I might have done in previous years. Strangest of all, I spent a significant chunk of this year teaching ICT, a context in which VLE access might be seen to be somewhat integral for all sorts of reasons.
There are several ways a person could react to this. There might be knee-jerk outrage that I might be so openly rejecting best practice in elearning as espoused by my institution. Frustration, perhaps, as well as outrage, that someone so evidently capable of using the VLE without much specific effort has simply failed to engage. Yeah, whatever. So sue me. I’ll put it in my action plan for next year, if you like.
However, the only really interesting reaction is to ask questions about why this might be. which is a great question, but I’ll tell you what, I don’t really know. I’ve always blown hot and cold on the VLE as a general thing, often finding it too staid and dry, with clunky interactive tools that are much easier to replace with externally sourced things: Google forms and documents replacing quizzes and assignments, for example, emails and the occasional Facebook update forming communication and feedback channels for student work. And you know what, there has been paper: real texts, bits of cut up paper, photocopies, all the stuff that works bloody well without the extra fart-arsing of logging into a system, whether through college devices or BYOD. Controversial, I know.
There just hasn’t been a need. There hasn’t been a gap that the VLE has had to fill. There has been no process which could have been more efficiently or effectively managed through a college VLE. Indeed, for some of my courses, the VLE would have created an extra layer, extra stuff to do, an extra barrier to learning, and arguably not an enabling thing at all.
And let’s not forget that the notion of a VLE as the be all and end all of online or blended learning is essentially flawed. From a certain perspective a VLE has many benefits: tracking learning, monitoring engagement, that sort of thing. I can see that, although that is at least one of the reasons a VLE is just so horrendously dry and tedious.
I’ll tell you what, though, we’ve been blending all over the place. Most digital technology use in class is no longer special, and lessons are connected in ways which were simply impossible in the past. The biggest visible impact, of course, would be student’s own devices: I’ve done whole ICT sessions with students using their phones to carry out search activities, for example. The interesting thing there, of course, is that the activities themselves tended to be printed on paper to enable more comfortable switching between task instruction and the web search. Sure multi-tasking smart phones are pretty average these days, but it’s still not easy or smooth on anything smaller than a tablet simply because of the physical dimensions involved. Student devices feature most prominently as reference sources: dictionaries using either spoken or written words, google images to find simpler meanings, that sort of thing. Apps have had very little impact, apart from dictionaries. I think the paid for nature of that aspect places significant limitations, although some amusement was found with the google translate app which can sometimes show translations of printed words floating on top of the original in a very cool augmented reality stylee. We’ve had some iPads at one of our centres: I’ve used them a few times with maths: researching prices, for example, or number based information to form the basis of some numeracy practice.
And I’ve got to admit the interactive whiteboard has really come into its own this year for me: being able to manipulate an audio recording, then annotate the answers to the questions has worked well this year, and generally using the IWB as part of whole group checking of answers, as well as simply as a projection screen has been fairly normal. In one class we managed to bring to life the inexplicably common subject of house types by looking up students’ houses using Google Streetview. Quite why words like “terraced house” and “semi-detached” which are neither high frequency nor terribly useful are so often taught at low levels is always a bit of a mystery, but still, we did, and it became real.
Then there has been my own use of technology to develop resources. Just because the students haven’t used the tech themselves doesn’t mean the tech hasn’t had an impact. I create a lot of my own resources, using, yes, digital technology to do so, utilising the web as a source of authentic texts, both written and spoken. Then there is the cation of resources, digital and otherwise using technology: I created a neat little jigsaw speaking activity using a photo of the college canteen menu with the prices blanked out: I took the picture with my phone, and then edited it in word using text boxes to cover prices. Easy as pie, and an authentic, realistic, communicative speaking task for a group of beginners. I emptied my wallet onto a table and took a photo of the (edited) contents to teach money and simlar vocab: this formed the presentation on the whiteboard and the practice and speaking work that followed.
Still, by all means, tell me I’ve not being using online learning. In one regard, perhaps, I might as well not have bothered using the technology at all if it isn’t tracked through the VLE because there is no evidence to an outsider that any of this happened. This is hardly a reason to use a VLE, of course, if the impact on learning is negligible. I have scant respect for this kind of auditing “evidence” of learning in lieu of professional trust, not least because fifteen students accessing the VLE every week for ten minutes isn’t proof of anything apart from, well, accessing the VLE. I’ll concede I don’t think I’ve been innovating particularly, mind you. All I’ve been doing is making use of the technology in a way which is normal, without forcing in the technology because someone thinks it’s best practice. This “normal” technology is embedded in a way that the VLE could never be. I have been using the VLE with one group, my evening class, fairly regularly as a support for and extension of lessons, or for people who miss class, because I know it works well in that manner for that group of students.
But for the rest of the time? It’s just not the best tool for the job.