The VLE and Machines of Loving Grace #nationalpoetryday

grey robot looking at a red flower

Yesterday was #nationalpoetryday. When I think the digital in the poetry world it’s Richard Brautigan’s All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace which comes to mind. Brautigan offers a vision of a cybernetic future from 1997. This is the year  the report from the Committee of Inquiry into the Future of Higher Education was published. In Brautignan’s cybernetic ecology, machines have freed us from labour and watch us live the Utopian dream. In the Dearing Report, the VLE represented a more efficient and effective future, internationalizing higher education, reaching the parts people couldn’t reach, crossing traditional barriers of time and distance and so on and on and on…

It didn’t really happen did it?

The internet bought us the global village as predicted by McLuhan at a time when television represented cutting edge technology. Now we have the internet. Social media has given a voice to everyone with access. VLE have revolutionised higher education – or maybe not.

In Our Digital Capabilities Journey Kerry Pinny describes a 25% response rate to the Jisc Discovery Tool at her university. When I piloted this self-diagnostic digital capabilities tool earlier this year, a professional services department achieved over 80% response rate (not the TEL-Team or ICT I hasten to add) whereas a Faculty scored so low it was meaningless. 25% would have been a dream. Kerry asks how to reach the other 75%. I wonder this too. The V in VLE seems to have passed so many people by.

open laptop with the word learning on the screen

Liz Bennett @LizBennett1 and Sue Folley @SueFolley from the University of Huddersfield facilitated a D4 Learning Design workshop at Hull this week. The focus was digital capabilities but in a covert, through the back door, approach. Using Appreciative Inquiry and focusing positive rather than negative or deficit thinking, we constructed learning activities which blended face-to-face and online interaction. Inevitably the discussion turned to VLE adoption and the question of reaching the unreachables. I’m never sure whether to laugh and cry at how we need subterfuge to trap people into dealing with VLE but was also struck by Sue’s comment that everyone across the sector has the same problem.

Its nearly 20 years since the Dearing Report. What ever we’ve been doing, in that time it isn’t working.

panning drawing with pencil and ruler

Both Dearing’s Committee and poet Brautigan saw technology as the future. Well, the future has arrived and I don’t see the VLE as having made a great deal of difference. There are pockets of excellent practice but overall the dominant model of use remains a digital despository document. Video may be more prevalent but ultimately it’s supplemented read this with watch this. How about do something with this instead?

Postmodernism is vanishing into the wings. Learning analytics is stepping centre stage, bringing Big Data with all its positivist baggage of targets, metrics and ranking with it. SCoT also seems in danger of disappearing. The Social Construction of Technology suggested the development of machines was dependent on the people who used them. The potential of the machine for change was not enough. In the 1960’s, McLuhan told us how new technology would replicate existing practice and in the 1980’s Bijker and Pinch were predicting new technologies would not determine human action but be shaped by it instead.

If a higher education is the passive transmission of knowledge, memorised and regurgitated for assessment, the VLE is perfect. We have made it into what we want it to be.

The question is – where do we go from here?

red question mark on a keyboard


All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.


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