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.

Ed tech’s rosy glow of happiness

BETT Tech was fun – I could have played all day but it’s also business. Walking around, I had a moment of doubt. Was this the wrong place to be talking about low levels of digital engagement? I should have read the BESA introduction in the BETT handbook. ‘The importance of CPD is vital to the effective adoption of technology.’ Yes! While not a fan of the T word, I agreed with ‘…never lose sight of the importance of budgeting for training with all technology investments…or only a fraction of the investment potential will be realised…training and support continues to be a very significant barrier to the successful adoption of new technologies.’ Just wish I’d read it before not after my presentation!

Bett Learn Live Higher Education lecture theatre

But doubts were dispelled. The Learn Live Higher Education Space filled up and people stood three deep in the doorways. The microphone might have helped. To me it sounded loud enough to reach all of London so may well have attracted curiosity. Typical tech when the sound is tested and the speaker is only one who doesn’t get to hear it.

There was lots of useful conversation. This included experiences of online seminars where student expectations were passive rather than active so not dissimilar to traditional lectures. Interaction was embedded but collaborative learning not happening. It’s clear discussions about digital engagement are not only about staff who teach and support learning, they’re about student learning practices too.

Opening slide to e-teaching presentation

Digital resistance needs attention. Ed tech is presented in a rosy glow of happiness and stories of disengagement, which challenge the dominant discourse of transformation, rarely appear in the literature unless there is a happy ending. The language of Bett Tech is predominantly about success; flick through the handbook to see examples of achieve, attract, empower, enrich, be effective, inspiring and innovative. It’s good to be positive but there is a need for realism too.

BETT is like a techie Christmas with lots of children opening their pressies and getting excited all at once. That was just the adults. The coolest gadgets were in the Steam Village and BETT Futures located at opposite of ends of the Hall. My feet hurt. Wear comfy shoes and watch out for the floor height difference on the stands. Step up!  I wasn’t there long enough to make the most of it. Once I’d registered, found my space and searched unsuccessfully for the Minecraft Big Green Stand (everything looks blocky. you can’t miss it, but I did) it was time to head back to Kings Cross for my off-peak trip home and a couple of hours for reflection.

comparison of presentation titles showing the range of digital technology usage
Presentation titles show the range of digital technology usage

Whether it’s an institutional VLE, 360° VR landscapes or crafting a succinct sentence in 140 characters or less (with an collectible hashtag), I do believe technology can make a difference. Not as rhetorical transformative promise but through more gently enhancing and extending the student learning experience.

Technology has become part of the social world and to be digitally aware and competent is an essential graduate attribute. Students arriving at university with mobile devices and social media confidence is not the same as demonstrating critical management of digital ways of working. Somewhere between induction and graduation the appropriate and effective use of internet enabled communication and collaboration has to happen. Where better than embedded into the curriculum students come into higher education to experience.

If more reluctance and resistance towards digital education were surfaced, and digital development time allocated and protected, institutions might be in a better place to utilise the platforms they are investing in.