By Susannah Diamond and Stuart Hepplestone, Academic Innovation.
Change is inevitable for the e-learning platforms and tools we constantly use. For example, students are increasing familiar with a range of Web 2.0 tools, businesses expect interns and graduates to have a certain level of preparedness and digital fluency, and staff are becoming aware of the new requirements for digital fluency. However, web 2.0 tools are not the only changes becoming possible alternative tools to the commercial Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). There is debate among leading voices about the future of the VLE in education (see for example, Steve Wheeler’s post: The VLE Sucks). Models proposed include replacing the commercial VLE with freely available Web 2.0 tools, with Open Source VLE software created by the educational sector, or with externally hosted applications (see Cloud Computing made simple).
Whatever happens, it’s important for us to be aware of the possibilities for and implications of change. Whilst such alternatives may seem enticing in comparison to the restrictions of commercial VLEs, these alternatives need to be brought into critical focus and evaluated. Here is a shortlist of issues:
- Inclusivity and diversity. There will always be a range of preferences, trends and expectations among students from those comfortable in embracing and remixing with their online personalities across both their social, working and academic lives, as compared to those who welcome the safety and transparency represented by the institutional VLE. Likewise we cannot expect staff to be familiar with all the different tools, so there needs to be a compromise position that allows flexibility for students but does not put undue expectations on staff.
- Practicalities. In practical terms, the institutional VLE requires large investment of staff support time, but provides a consistent service and set of tools available to all staff and students. At the same time the online tools and mobile technologies are overtaking the VLE in their attractiveness, ease of use and functionality. These provide powerful incentives for allowing flexibility where appropriate. However the use of Web 2.0 tools raises further issues of privacy, reliability of the service, backup of information and security and authentication. And we need to consider access for those students in placement settings where access to social software is restricted.
- Cost. This will potentially be the major driver for change. In an age of budget cuts, large investment in commercial software will come under increasing scrutiny. The possibilities of using cheaper alternatives such as Web 2.0 and Open Source software seem alluring but have uncertain funding models and hidden costs in terms of support. Also, there are likely costs for staff and students in the time taken in evaluating and choosing from a diverse range of options.
Final thoughts: Surely there’s the possibility of an optimal compromise here, taking the best elements from commercial, open source, Web 2.0 options. We need the reliability of locked down software for mission-critical aspects of enrolment and accreditation. If, as seems likely, cost becomes an overriding issue for the sector, the major Open Source players seem to have achieved maturity as affordable and well-supported options. And in terms of flexibility, staff and students will use 3rd party software on the web as and when they feel confident and competent to do so. As educational developers, we’ll continue to encourage staff and students towards digital fluency, maintain awareness of the evolving landscapes of options, and be ready to recommend change if we spot a tipping point.