A couple of weeks ago I was quoted in the Times Higher decrying Virtual Learning Environments. There is a wider context to this. For one thing I referred to most “Learning Technologies” and didn’t intend to single out the VLE.
VLE’s were essential to confronting the serious challenges facing the online educator in 1997., They were, in part, created to address the challenge of kluging together various online tools. An html webpage, a discussion board, a file uploader, login and identification. Methods of communicating, content creation, and participation online is much less of a barrier in 2015. The initial need for these content and collaboration tools within a VLE is now easily fulfilled with a plethora of tools, mostly freely available, and so the vast majority of the ‘improvements’ to VLEs have been administrative – managing learning and processes.
Furthermore, the development of VLEs was based mostly on constructivist models of learning, where in this case, technology was being used as a tool to leverage both the learning process and the space in which it was occurring.
As we begin to understand the emerging behaviours and spaces associated with being online we must also review different pedagogies. As scholarly approaches emerge around social media and pedagogic models develop, for example connectivism and rhizomatic learning. These participatory approaches build connections between learners using these social technologies that not only increase value during the course, they persist after the course is done. We must ask ourselves if these ‘do your course and be done with it’ VLEs (and to a lesser extent e-portfolios) are inhibiting the innovation of pedagogic practice? Or indeed inhibiting education itself?
Many of these learning technologies were developed at a time when Marc Prensky was promoting the idea of digital natives and digital immigrants (sic).For many years this idea was considered dogma by some. In order to teach an adult online, you needed to remediate for their inability to fully immerse themselves in the technology. The deployment of VLEs and ePortfolios are the natural extension to fixing, or managing, that ‘problem’ based on the Prensky’s premise.
We are also seeing new behaviours develop in online spaces, students assimilate practices quickly and sometimes discard them just as quickly. Rather than trying to exist in harmony with these emerging behaviours and new spaces we have a tendency to want students to either not use the spaces, or come to our space, using tools such as VLEs and ePortfolios as a way to command, commandeer and control. This digital colonialism, trying to align these emergent cultures with our own pre-existing preferences at best, or at worst forcing an ideology driven by a technology tool, may create barriers to learning for students, but also reduce staff skills in the way they adapt and innovate their own practice.
Rather than aligning or at least existing in harmony in these spaces, through tools like VLEs and ePortfolios we seek to change behaviours, to align these new behaviours to our own pre-existing preferences. This “digital colonialism”, appropriating the spaces and exploiting them, seeking to change behaviours and trying to bring existing cultures into line with the predominant ideology of a technology tool may create barriers to learning or possibly reduce the ability of users to adapt and innovate with emerging technologies in the future.