Saturday, November 17, 2007

VLE theory doesn't match reality?

Random musing time...

I think there's a real risk that when a course team is designing into their offering the means by which students are 'allowed' to communicate with others, that they risk (unintentionally?) showing students the virtual door.  There's an interesting perspective which seems to say 'pedagogically this is the best thing, so it's what we'll do'... but forgets that more often than not these are the result of finger in the wind musings and that other, equally valid, needs and thoughts may be ignored as a result.  It smacks of a patriarchal stance which doesn't seem to tie in with constructivist thinking or even just the fact that students want to meet others... or not.  It all depends!  There is no 'one size fits all' model.

Here's an example.  One of the OU's postgraduate education courses has no course-wide forum, only regional offerings.  A request for an informal, OU-hosted but OUSA run one is turned down.  No reason given.  Fine - but how do I communicate with others on my course?  How do I know who else is studying it other than the very limited pool of people I'm being 'allowed' to connect with?  How do I maximise the possibility that out there are interesting, engaging people to talk to and exchange ideas with if I'm only being revealed a restricted hand?  VLEs have lots of plus points - but this idea of 'we know best' in dictating what services are or aren't offered is a serious drawback.  You want to control the students' experience of their learning environment?  VLE!  You want to control the students' experience of their learning environment but don't end up giving them what they want / need?  Off into the big wide virtual world they go to find what might actually meet their needs.  Bye bye virtual campus.  Hello Facebook?

I can't help but wonder, are VLEs really a supportive environment?  Does it become institution = them.  Students = us?  Are institutions scurrying after the students they themselves drove away?  They can come trampling into Facebook or MySpace etc... saying... 'Sorry... didn't mean to drive you out of our systems... we're here now.  Everything's okay!'  Why not be flexible in implementation?  Be responsive rather than dictating?  Or is this an inherent drawback with VLEs?  They become a lumbering beast which is all about design and control... and casts their users as subservient and unquestioning?  Doing 'what's best' for them rather than what's really best for their users...

1 comment:

  1. I work with OU course teams who put together VLE-based courses. I certainly find evidence of a course team-, rather than student-centric approach and there's a tradition of that here - for some time the, technical support was known as the 'LTS-IT Helpdesk', for example - meaningless to a student, in much the same way as calling the forums (or conferences) 'First class'.

    I'm please to say I'm seeing a shift in this perspective, but it will take time as some course team members make the transition from the practices and beliefs of conventional teaching models and the those transformed or replaced by innovations in elearning.

    But even though I agree with your sentiments to some extent (who wants patriarchal oppression?), I'll play devil's advocate (I'm not a course team member). I feel sympathy with the course team on the 'one size fits all model'. OU academics go to great lenths to be inclusive, and aspire to create courses which address the needs of all students in their cohort. I think it's a question of practicality. Yes, you can create a course-wide forum and it's difficult to see why this was rejected; but if you want to encourage tutor-group discussion that's supported by an associate lecturer, for example, you might feel it necessary to impose constraints on the numbers (to make it more manageable for those involved, to encourage those who lack confidence in online discussion across a wider platform, for example).
    I think the title of your post might reveal a different kind of disparity between what's real and what's VLE, at least from one perspective - and that's where technologists are in danger of forgetting some of the basic issues involving student support, existing infrastructure and pedagogic practice, and different levels of ability when advising which systems to use in their courses. I know I've been guilty of that - but sometimes the dizzying whiff of unlimited freedom, it is feared, might paralyze a student unfamiliar with the net and its tools. Besides - how do you assess the free for all?
    In this model - your reality of the experienced, motivated, and confidence online student - like the ideal reader, an ideal elearner - sounds very different from the kind that course teams have in mind when creating courses.

    I can't continue to talk on behalf of the course team but I do see them grapple with these kinds of ideas in a non-patriarchal-oppression kind of way. I agree, tho, it just sometimes seem they don't...



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