Saturday, March 10, 2012

What's in a name?

A few days ago, I had an interesting discussion over on Google+ (think this may be the first time I've ever said that!) with A.J. Cann - which we both wanted to share publicly but resharing would lose the conversation we'd had... so... here it is.  He'd commented on a blog post I'd made and in return I'd asked him what he would rename virtual learning environments if he could and the exchange went as follows:

A.J. Cann's profile photo

A.J. Cann  -  Virtual? So 1980s :-)
Learning? That debate's going to run a while...

Let's ask ourselves:
a) What would students call it unprompted (generic, not brand)?
b) What message do we want to send to staff who will use it?

6 Mar 2012   
Sarah Horrigan's profile photo
Sarah Horrigan  -  Okay - terminology... what would a student call it? They probably wouldn't. It isn't really a thing, they're just going to do the thing they're doing. I'm not 'facebooking', I'm 'chatting with friends / sharing a photo / playing a game'. They don't say they're going to use the 'Office Productivity Suite', they write a document. I wonder if the name is actually relevant to students in any way? VLE certainly implies that learning will magically happen in the 'environment'.

Will return to that thought in a bit... (meeting interruptus)...

6 Mar 2012  -  Edit   
A.J. Cann's profile photo
A.J. Cann  -  I think it needs a label. Facebook is now a verb.
I'm into positive psychology here. "Learning Space" is too twee. Are we headed back to Nathan Bodington here?
6 Mar 2012 (edited)   
Sarah Horrigan's profile photo
Sarah Horrigan  -  Please let it not be the Nathan Bodington Building! Learning space is twee - but increasingly it seems to be what 'they' are calling buildings / rooms at universities anyway. In some ways I've often thought that calling VLEs 'Content Management Systems' is more honest than implying that they are doing much more than helping to administer what may or may not be going on inside them. You have got me thinking though. Is a VLE a 'thing that needs a name' at all? And what is it that we're naming? Why does something that so routinely strips all learning from learning need us to get hung up on its name. Aren't we at the 'next please!' stage already?

6 Mar 2012  -  Edit   
A.J. Cann's profile photo
A.J. Cann  -  Let's come at this from another angle:
What's the difference between Blackboard and WordPress?

We never got round to finishing the discussion but it has made me think about what exactly *is* a VLE?  I suppose I'm coming round to the point of view that the name things are given can matter greatly if they're given the wrong name.  Or a name which implies they do something automatically.  For example, I could call my daughter's bedroom a 'domestic learning environment' (DLE - I do like a new acronym!) because she loves to spend hours reading books up there.  But that doesn't make *all* bedrooms DLEs.  Just as with VLEs, you might well have learning which goes on in them, but the name doesn't magically transform them into centres of educational excellence or negate the fact that learning may never happen there.

Back to the question of the difference between Blackboard and WordPress.  Okay, so there are lots of differences.  However, there are a few which stand out:

1.  I stand a chance of being the designer and creator of a WordPress-powered site.  If I'm a student, that won't happen where Blackboard's concerned.
2.  I can customise WordPress the way I want within broad limits, Blackboard is customisable only within narrow limits.  And not in any truly meaningful way if I'm a student.
3.  With WordPress, I am the creator of the content.  As a student, I am the recipient of Blackboard content - and any content I do create is within the artificial bounds of the 'learning journey'.
4.  WordPress, my content is open.  Blackboard, my content is closed.
5.  WordPress, I create the account / install WordPress.  Blackboard, *you* create the account for me... and close it again when you say we're done.
6.  WordPress = mine.  Blackboard = yours.

So.  What is a virtual learning environment?  If you're a distance learning student, the VLE *is* the university.  It's attending class. It's discussing things with your classmates.  It's a centre of administration.  It's a place to get help and support.  If you're a campus-based student, the VLE is just another computer system that they use.  The name of it can quite happily be the name the institution has bestowed on it (at the University of Sheffield, for example, our VLE is called MOLE - My Online Learning Environment).  Just as when talking about cleaning the carpets and the words vacuum cleaner and Hoover are interchangeable.  When I talk about 'doing the hoovering' you know what I'm talking about.  The context of the use and terminology is more important than the overall label where students are concerned.

For staff, the name 'Virtual Learning Environment' allows us to exist in a blissful state of positivist ignorance.  Otherwise, we'd call our institutional VLEs 'Document Dumping Grounds' and congratulate ourselves on our brutal honesty.  Have you been on your institutional DDG lately?

Otherwise... Computerised Learning Administration Support System.  CLASS.  What happens in CLASS varies according to the teacher / student mix that meet within its digital walls.


  1. Back when I had a 'real job' (i.e. before teaching!) we were working on something called our Intranet. Same idea, different name, no less clunky...

  2. I think the wall around the environment is the key. Having control over whether or not there's a wall at all is one of the major difference... but letting go some of that control is far harder than it might seem, I think

  3. we're in the process of upgrading our Blackboard system right now and recently had to choose a url for the system to live at. We arrived at mycourses which conveniently follow a mythis and mythat naming convention that we have for several internal services but it was also chosen because it is accurate in it's description.

  4. At Sheffield our VLE is called 'MOLE' - My Online Learning Environment - we've got the same 'My this and that' naming convention. Everyone just calls it 'MOLE', i.e. it's on MOLE, did you look on MOLE, MOLE's slow today etc. No-one calls it Blackboard or even really the VLE.

  5. At Bournemouth the Blackboard installation was called 'myBU' (My-Bournemouth-University), so everything "was on myBU" or "look on myBU for that". This fitted the branding done across the services like 'SportBU' and 'AskBU'.

    Now I'm a University of Leicester it's just 'Blackboard'. I haven't been here long enough yet to know what the students call it, but would guess it's just Blackboard to them too (it's what they know, it's familiar, and it's what the staff call it).

    I haven't come across a student who uses the term VLE or Learning system, or something like that, unless it's been introduced AND explained to them first.

    I'd be interested what a decent Personal Learning Environment would be called, especially when it's made up of different systems from different 'providers'.

    All the best, David


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