16 November 2008

The baboon in the machine

I am known (at least amongst those who know me at all, and with whom education tends to be a conversation topic) for both (a) my fanatical enthusiasm on the subject of ICT (information and communication technology) as a facilitator of tailored educational process and (b) my equally fanatical criticism of some implementations of it.

There are three or four targets for my bile. None of them are, de facto, bad things; on the contrary, I have seen brilliant use of each one. But they are so often badly designed or badly used that they usually end up implicated in education which is less than it could be, rather than more.

I'm not going to rant about three or four victims. It would be tedious – especially for those who have many times been my captive audience for such rants in meetings, training rooms and cafés. It would be too long. It would be repetitive. It would use up subject matter that I might exploit at another time. But, having just read "Monkey business" at Learning with 'e's", I can't resist quoting the following passage on just one of the bees in my bonnet – the Virtual Learning Environment, or VLE:

"OK, this is my opinion, but many VLEs are not fit for purpose, and masquerade as solutions for the management of online learning. Some are merely glorified e-mail systems. Others are overpriced aggregations of web tools that you can get for free out on the web if you know where to look for them. I have not seen a single VLE system yet that works so transparently that students think more about their learning than they do about how to make the damn VLE work. Again, I don't blame this on the users - it's a management and design issue. When will we get VLEs that do what they are supposed to do, and with minimal cognitive effort on the part of the student?"

Hurrah! I couldn't agree more. Most VLEs are, on balance and from the learner's perspective, more obstruction than facilitation. They give ICT in education a bad name.

My own (frequent!) contention is that every (yes, every) benefit of the institutional VLE for the learner can be obtained elsewhere with a little thought, using combinations of other information and communication technology tools which are freely and publicly available and already transparent to the target learner. Also, conversely, that most (not all, but most) of the disadvantages of the institutional VLE can thus be avoided.

That may well become untrue in the future, as VLE design becomes more sophisticated and learns from experience. But I'm not holding my breath.

It's quite possible that the author of the above extract would not go so far as that. I don't claim his endorsement. (On the other hand, I did recently participate in a web seminar where he demonstrated some advantages of such alternatives.)

  • Steve Wheeler, "Monkey business" in Learning with 'e's, 2008, Mountain View: Google Blogger. (accessed 2008/11/16)

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