Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Death of the VLE?

There has been a good deal of discussion in various forums on the Web about the downside of technology, for example the overuse of PowerPoint. Some time ago I Googled for “Death by PowerPoint” and got around 375,000 hits, leading me to sites that criticised the excessive use of PowerPoint in presentations both in the business world and in education. This is not to say that PowerPoint presentations are worthless, rather it is a warning not to regard technological innovations as a panacea.

VLE’s are often in the news these days and, like PowerPoint, are often hailed as a technological panacea, so I decided to Google for “Death by VLE”. I got about 87,000 hits. I have always felt that VLEs – like the language lab of the 1960s – were designed to put learners to sleep, and I cannot see that they will ever be in serious competition with the many exciting Web 2.0 developments we have seen in recent years, so the high number of hits for “Death by VLE” did not really surprise me. This reference came at the top of the Google hit list:

Stiles M. (2007) "Death of the VLE? A challenge to a new orthodoxy", Serials, the Journal for the International Serials Community 20, 1: 31-36. Here is the abstract:

“The VLE has become almost ubiquitous in both higher and further education, with the market becoming increasingly 'mature'. E-learning is a major plank in both national and institutional strategies. But, is the VLE delivering what is needed in a world where flexibility of learning is paramount, and the lifelong learner is becoming a reality? There are indications that rather than resulting in innovation, the use of VLEs has become fixed in an orthodoxy based on traditional educational approaches. The emergence of new services and tools on the web, developments in interoperability, and changing demands pose significant issues for institutions' e-learning strategy and policy. Whether the VLE can remain the core of e-learning activity needs to be considered.”

Source: http://uksg.metapress.com/index/55K7732DTHRQ6GK1.pdf

Interesting, eh?


Anonymous said...

Searching google for "Death by VLE" (with inverted commas for an exact match) gives only 3 hits (two of which are to this page)... so you might be overstating the case here?

Searching Death by VLE (without inverted commas) does yield thousands of hits, but have a look at page 3 onwards - nothing to do with your topic!

Graham Davies said...

Fair enough! It's mainly Mark Stiles's article and PP presentation that comes up.

I was just being provocative. Everyone appears to be saying thjat VLEs are the greatest thing since sliced bread, so I thought I would hunt for different views - as I was taught to do at school when planning an essay.

These things worry me about VLEs in educational institutions:

1. Copyright is being breached left, right and centre. Big chunks of textbooks are being posted on some schools' VLEs without permission having been sought. And why use an electronic medium in this way to present texts that are easier to read on paper?

2. Many VLEs just consist of a collection of linked multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank exercises, which are (a) boring and (b) could be presented via a "normal" website.

3. Most commercial VLEs are (a) expensive, (b) high-maintenance, (c) difficult to use. Look at the flak that RM's Kaleidos is receiving.

But then there is Moodle, and at least Moodle is free and open source but, like many other VLEs, it's not being used very imaginatively. The Open University is using Moodle now, but I have read several messages on the Web from OU students and teachers, who appear to be tearing their hair out trying to get used to it. I think the most positive aspect of Moodle is that it makes a collaborative learning environment possible - and this can be effective if it is set up properly.

Mark said...

I'm glad you found my article stimulating Graham. As someone who created a VLE (aimed at active pedagogic approaches)10 years back (predating our market leaders), I was initially excited by the imaginative use colleagues made of my (and others)system. As time has gone on, rather than this innovation expanding, we seem to have dropped into a couple of orthodox mainstream approaches (largely replicating the less imaginative traditional approaches).

I see VLEs increasingly being used for attempts to control learning and learners. I think Web 2.0 and beyond offer the opportunity for learners to wrest control of their own learning back from the institution and for educators to innovate their practice.

If anyone would like to see how this thinking has progressed, see:

Stiles, M. and Yorke, J., “Technology Supported Learning – Tensions between innovation, and control and organisational and professional cultures”, Journal of Organisational Transformation and Social Change, 3: 3, 2007, pp 251-267

Best wishes

Mark Stiles

PS I found this courtesy of Google Alerts

Graham Davies said...

Thanks, Mark!

I posted the same (deliberately) provocative message in six different blogs and forums:

TES / Modern Foreign Languages Forum:

Linguanet Forum:

EUROCALL Discussion List:

LLAS Forum / E-Learning Café:


ICT4LT Blog:

I’ve thought a lot about their pros and cons of VLEs for some time and raised the topic on many occasions, but this is the first time I have had useful feedback.

Mrs Moodle said...

I posted my thoughts on TES too (with difficulty but that's another story...) I can't find anything to disagree with on you or Mark on this - but I think as with Powerpoint ,the problem's not in the software itself but in how it's used. Time and again I've had people come on courses saying 'well, we've had Moodle for a couple of years but it's never reallly taken off' - then I ask to have a look -and see nothing but the so-callled 'scroll of death' - monotonous lists of uploaded word docs/ppts (or even overused hotpotatoes)- and they wonder why their pupils aren't interested. And the staff think they've done their job once they've uploaded their old worksheets. Or else - it's just a small group of techies - usually the ICT dept - who launch Moodle and nobody else thinks it's for them so it doesn't catch on. I think the secret of avoiding Death by VLE (and that is slightly different from your title : Death OF the VLE, which I'm not sure will happen) is to get the pupils involved - use the VLE's equivalents of web 2.0 tools - get them discussing in forums/contributing in wikis/glossaries/making Vokis/pocasts in MFL/voting/blogging/peer assessing plenary quizzes they've made themselves/creating their own webpages - give them (I hate these modern terms) 'ownership' of it. We have a group in each year who have their own year course page onto which they add quizzes, polls etc. They self moderate (in the knowledge that we can see everything they do anyway!) and -while it might not be of immediate educational use - it gets them and their classmates onto the VLE -so why not check out that homework while theyr'e there? Re your points: 1: Yes, I agree about copyright absolutely. Incidentally I find very few teachers or VLE admins (I speak of Moodle but presume other VLEs have it too) are aware that if you use Hotpotatoes you need to buy a licence for your school ,because it is only free if you make it freely available on the web, not if it's on a password protected VLE. 2. Yes - and some VLEs are nothing more than glorified websites except they're not that glorified because the VLE 'skins' (Moodle in particular) often aren't as attractive as regular websites. 3. Agreed. My limited experience of others sugggests that Frogteacher's not too bad but I have not heard a good word about Fronter And finally - I think it needs to be remembered that nothing will ever permanently replace the teacher in the classroom with text book, paper and pen. We have so many other alternatives now but still need that human contact.

Gavin Dudeney said...


Of your three worries, two of them are the fault of the people designing courses rather than the VLE.

Point three, as you say, is mitigated by the existence of Moodle, etc.

In that sense I don't think those are reasons to predict the death of the VLE - easier to predict the death of 90% of the so-called 'Web 2.0' tools - and a good reason not to build a custom VLE using them, I reckon.

Mark said...


Please note I have not actually predicted the Death of the VLE - I question what their future role will be though.

I couldn't agree more that one shouldn't construct custom VLEs out Web 2.0 tools - that is merely replicating (in a more unstable way) my criticism of much VLE activity - the endless addition of more and more add-ons (I see this as an example of "system bloat").

My own view is that the main function of a VLE is in articulating the intended learning experience. It is not, in my view, a good idea to try and embed all the tools which enable that experience into the same system however.

In the educational sectors with which I am familiar - 16-19, HE and CPD - it is increasingly the case that learners have their own preferred sets of tools to support their learning and resist attempts to make them migrate activities into a "corporate system". Therefore my approach is, increasingly, to facilitate learners in connecting their learning activities with others rather than trying to insist they (or their teachers) use a single system.

Also beware the "my VLEs is safe" belief. I've been involved in all of this intensively for some 12 years, and have see the market leading VLE change several times thus far. In my own case this necessitated us moving hundreds of courses from one system to another - an experience I have sworn not to repeat!

"Some" Web 2.0 stuff is AT LEAST as sustainable as the main VLEs - if I had to invest, I'd sonner put my money into Google than Blackboard for example!


Graham Davies said...

Web 2.0 is just a concept, isn't it? And the goalposts keep moving. I use the term Web 2.0 to describe those tools that have made communication and sharing easier - which is how Tim Berners-Lee foresaw the development of the Web long before the term Web 2.0 was coined by Tim O'Reilly in 2004. See ICT4LT Module 1.5, Section 2.1, headed "What is Web 2.0?":

I cannot see the need for a VLE, except maybe in a few limited situations, e.g. the OU in the UK. A well-designed website, using whatever Web 2.0 tools are available at the time, can probably do the same job as a VLE.

What worries me most about VLEs is that that are being forced on schools and FE and HE institutions in the UK, regardless of how suitable they may be for the range of subjects on offer. Management and ICT buffs like them because they offer the possibility of control, but many teachers - especially language teachers - won't touch them with a barge pole. Read the secondary school teachers' blogs and forums and you'll see what I mean.

Mark said...


And interesting comment, however I would remind you that I am BOTH a senior manager AND an IT professional and I (and others I know - mainly other VLE "pioneers" like myself) have the same reservations!

The article I referenced in my first comment discusses the whole issue of "control" and how this impacts on both the sustainability of innovation and the growth of "individualised" approaches to learning.


Graham Davies said...

The Death of the VLE featured as a theme in Patrik Svensson's plenary presentation at the EUROCALL 2008 conference. The title of his presentation was "Language Learning in a Digital World: From Language Laboratory to Parkour Performance". The presentation was streamed live and will shortly be available in the conference Virtual Strand archives at:


Graham Davies said...

There is an interesting discussion going on right now (October 2008) in the MFL Resources discussion list regarding the pros and cons of Fronter and Moodle. Have a look:


The old issues are being raised once again:

1. The issue of using VLEs for the convenience of management in storing and tracking students' grades.

2. How easy it is to pull in resources from outside the VLE.



cuppacoffee said...

Hi Graham,

It seems I got to this debate quite late - today I designed my first multiple choice test in moodle and after feeling that my EFL school had finally lurched into the 21st century, I find this doom and gloom!

I think the article makes several fair points but as one who cannot design my own website, I am amazed so far at what I can do with no training using moodle.

Whether this will impact greatly on the teacher or learner experience is another issue. Time will tell.

Graham Davies said...

It's not all doom and gloom, cupacoffee. Many schools and colleges are using Moodle successfully. Out of all the VLEs Moodle appears to be the one that is working quite well. The Open University has adopted Moodle, making it the biggest user of Moodle in the world.

The important point is not to allow the VLE to dictate the pedagogy. You, as a teacher, dictate the pedagogy and make the VLE comply.


Anonymous said...

Hi everyone

Taking all the above on board, I'm researching the efficacy of non-synchronous/mixed teaching using either VLEs or blogs. As teacher, blogging is simple, quick, informal, multimedia etc. VLE is clunky, slow, complicated and not esp. user-friendly. I needed no training to blog - no amount of training will make me really make Moodle sing.

But what about the users? My students blog as part of their coursework. Two focus-groups have shown significantly that blogging is superior to VLE access in usability, access, 'open-ness' and peer and future employer access.

What does VLE do that blog doesn't? Except maybe provide managers access to who, what and how students visit...

Graham Davies said...

You have a point about blogs being a lot easier to use. I think there is a lot of evidence that shows it is the "control" aspect of VLEs that appeals most to educational management.