The low-love-levels for VLE

Blackboard bashing is a popular pastime. An incremental one. Someone begins and horror stories escalate; each one trying to outdo the other. I have a few of my own, but hesitate to blame the VLE as if it was a sentient being rather than a consequence of code.  At BETT Tech this week I was called a Blackboard advocate and asked to feed back all the things which were wrong. But it’s not the brand of VLE, it’s their principles I advocate.

I started out with ye-olde-worlde Virtual Campus. I’ve dabbled with Moodle, served ten years on Blackboard and am now looking at a version of Sakai (called E-Bridge) with plans for an institutional shift to Canvas later this year. All VLE are much the same. It’s what you do with them that counts. VLE made by computer scientists*, used by academics, may create a  mismatch connected to low rates of adoption. It’s tempting to blame poor design, maybe initially, but it can’t be the whole story. Institutions employ people with learning technology and education development skills to bridge and reconstitute that gap. Explanations for VLE low-love-levels must go deeper than that.

Is it about behaviour change? Teaching is fundamentally a social activity. Not much has altered since Socrates and the Athens Agora or Medieval lecturers talked to groups of  students not unlike those we see today; some listening, others talking, reading, staring into space or catching up on sleep. Yet it isn’t all about contact time. Students traditionally do homework, prepare for seminars and presentations and revise on their own or in small groups.

University lecture @1350 Laurentius de Voltolina
image from

Is it about status? Academics are accustomed to being the go-to person; the source of subject expertise and no one wants to be replaced by a machine. The internet hosts the largest source of knowledge, information and personal – maybe biased – opinion. Anyone with means of access can potentially find out anything. But finding is not the same as understanding so VLE technologies have the potential to ensure the role of the academic even more valuable.

School of Athens painting by Raphael
School of Athens by Raphael image from

Is it about control? VLE adoption has been mostly imposed by institutions rather than asked for by staff. Fears of deskilling and replacement, as per digital diploma mills are as old as the technology. It hasn’t happened as predicted. One reason may be the hype of the online content revolution wasn’t realised. Retention rates for online courses can be problematic. Students find it difficult to learn online in isolation and in spite of massive change, applications for an on-campus HE experience continue. Few universities have shut shop completely and where mergers and closures have occurred it has been about far more than digital competition.

Drawing of different elements of VLE
VLE System drawing by Pete Whitton from

So if it isn’t changes in behaviour, status or control, what is it really about VLE which makes them so unpopular?  They get compared unfavourably to social media, in particular in terms of appearance and functionality, yet social media has its own issues; students wanting to keep teachers out, inappropriate use, unanticipated downtime and third party data protection. Really, truly, deeply – how successful is teaching by social media compared to by VLE? While the pedagogical value of active social learning compared to passive transmission modes is accepted, is it because VLE are poor mediators of educational experiences?

I’m wondering if it’s the gap between the promise and the reality. When you’re sold a dream which turns out to be not quite as expected, and the learning curve of change is higher than anticipated, reluctance to engage becomes more understandable. Does resistance emerge out of disappointment? Is it the initial hype which is to blame? I’m revisiting Edward Bernays to see if there are any clues in his 1928 (revised 1955) little gem of a book called Propaganda. Fresh from the buzz and excitement of BETT, I’m curious to find out more about the art and science of person-suasion.


* from someone I met at BETT – digital ‘I spoke to you’ reminder cards with photos would be really useful. Twitter profiles are not always enough to identify someone after an event.