Reflecting on conversations with students, VLEs and the elephant in the classroom

I know there’s been a lot researched and written on this subject, here I’m reflecting and using the anecdotal evidence gathered over a few months work where I’ve been very privileged to have had the opportunity to have conversations with around 200 students from 11 institutions. Most of these conversations have come about through the Changing Learning Landscape Programme, a partnership between the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, Jisc, the HE Academy and the NUS. Through a series of discussions in Universities and Colleges where myself and others have been able to go in and speak to senior managers (PVC’s, Directors of TEL and e-learning, Directors of IT etc) and also with lecturers and importantly students we have gathered a lot of information about how technology features in the student experience .

In my conversations I wanted to unpick how student used the Virtual Learning Environment and other institutional technology. Almost all students said they used it on a regular basis, valued it and saw it as a trusted source for everything to do with their learning and associated activities at University. So that’s ok, isn’t it?

Well, yes and no.

Get the institutional technology right and add in a driver (an assessment or resource that the students must use to get a grade) and there is no doubt that students will use it. This was verified in my conversations. Dig a little deeper, “do you use the VLE (or other technology) to discuss the course, arrange groupwork, work with peers?” “yes… …if its assessed.”   The conversations at this point almost always turned to the elephant in the classroom – Facebook.

Do you friend your lecturers? – mostly the answer is no.

Is there a course/module page or group? mostly the answer is yes (you don’t have to friend anyone to join).

But in addition to this a lot of the students also were regularly setting up their own groups and pages at both micro (a small group of students on a specific task) and macro (sometimes a group across several cohorts). This is not news to most people who work in education!

But what comes next? Facebook is unlikely to change its business model in the short term so students will most likely continue to use it. A lot of staff are recognising this and whilst still using the VLE they are also decamping to where the students are.

This raises three issues for me.

Firstly, what does this mean for the VLE and its future development? There is a lot written on the cost benefit analysis of having a VLE and there are many models for how to deploy and maintain one. After talking to my (limited) sample of students, most of them treat the VLE as a information store, a reference point and where necessary, and driven to, they use it for all of the admin functions of a course such as submission of assignments. If this is the case, should we redesign it with that in mind?

The second issue is a question about what would happen if we cede control to students. Allow students to self organise the course materials and structure according to their preferences. Yes, we would have to build in safeguards, and makes some elements compulsory to include, but why not allow them to control their own virtual learning environment in the same way as they can control their own personal physical learning environment? They might still mostly use Facebook etc, but if they are self-organising the chances are that there will be more joining up of the activities and spaces. Is anyone willing? Will someone make students the system admin?

The final issue, building on the conversations and the previous two points, is the VLE actually about learning? The anecdotal evidence from the student conversations that I have been having is that is less about learning, and more about access to reliable resources and information, and the main issues that they raise in conversation are about how that plethora of information is presented to them. Should the VLE become an extension of the library, and would that approach, with an emphasis on resource discovery and curation better serve students and their learning?


  1. Lawrie –
    Your observations resonate, and the same story about facebook and the VLE seems to have played out across other European countries also. Your thought about student self-organised spaces is, I think, the way we should be thinking. Indeed, the “learning and development” community seems to be getting rather excited about social learning platforms with peer contribution and expert curation of content. I am rather more sceptical about the use of “game mechanics” in the long run. Gamification is no substitute for something being genuinely useful for studying.

    I think it may be time to swallow some academic pride and to look to products like for some inspiration on where to go next. This probably means we should slim-down the VLE and accept a more fragmented reality, rather than to imagine some more bolt-ons to try to recapture the facebook activity. And yes, there is a big implcation in all of this for the way people are thinking about learning analytics; VLE activity data is hugely misleading.


  2. As someone who spends longer in a VLE than can possibly be healthy, I see the appeal of FB as being that it works reliably, is familiar, easily navigable, has fantastic mobile support (on iOS at least) and updates you instantly when there’s something new to see. Facebook is great for asking questions, discussing issues, working around problems. It’s not ideal for organising lots of static resources.

    Asking students to organise resources in the VLE won’t fix this. VLEs offer at best inelegant solutions to document organising problems (no tagging, search tools that work poorly if at all leading to guesswork at which folder contains what). As a student, I’d rather use Google Docs for this type of thing, but this would strip out the narrative joining documents which places them in context.

    I work in distance learning and while I’m sure students wouldn’t organise materials themselves all the time as part of making sense of them, I don’t think they’d welcome the idea that they do this instead of academics. This is something which is best done iteratively, if not actually after reading and is precisely the kind of thing that students like to be done for them to enable meaningful access in my opinion.

    This said, I’m sure that for some students on some courses, managing the VLE – or using an alternative – is a great educational experience.

  3. Correction: first sentence of third paragraph has a stray “wouldn’t”! Should read:
    I’m sure students organise materials themselves all the time as part of making sense of them

    Also , forgot to say thanks for a topical and thought provoking article. 🙂

  4. As both a librarian in FE and a recent distance learning graduate, I found this really interesting. I think the functionality of Facebook has significant appeal, as noted. It just works! It’s designed to connect people and does…but also works really well on loads of different devices. VLEs seem somewhat lacking in comparison and it takes a really good tech team and install come to close to the Facebook feel.

    Could it be that Facebook provides a way get to get together and talk studies an altogether ‘cooler’ environment? There seems to be something about it that makes it OK to connect using it and talk about studies. VLEs often have this functionality but students don’t seem to take to them this way, so it would be interesting to find out what causes this disconnect for sure. I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘Facebook’s just easier’ comes up.

    That leads nicely to curating your own online learning environment. We’re now at that stage I suppose where it’s rather weird you can’t set up your personal online study space the way you like. If not, why not? Functionality sounds like a plausible answer again, although I know I’m overlooking some of the difficulties that may come with this idea. But I still can’t help but like the idea and wonder why we’re not doing it in some guise already.

    As a librarian I can think of many reasons why we should run the VLE and the fact we think about things like this is definitely of them.

    Thanks for a thought provoking article.

  5. Hi Lawrie,

    Just to say an interesting post, thanks , we are using it again to spark discussion between learners on a postgraduate course in relation to the VLE, social tools and the place, purpose and use of these tools for them as staff and students


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