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.

Image sources

I may need a bigger biscuit tin!

biscuit tin

Determinist approaches to technology continue to dominate strategic thinking. Buy it, build it and learning will happen. Technology is still seen as the answer to widening participation, internationalisation, changes to the DSA, transition, alumni, you name it technology will be spoken of as the solution. This is in spite of a trail of failed projects and broken ideas across the sector. We must learn from the past and not ignore it. Technology simply cannot exist in isolation from the people who use it – not just pay for and provide support for – but who are the users i.e. learners and teachers. With technology comes the need for investing in digital capabilities and confidence but this message is still struggling to get itself heard.

dig tech pixabay

I’ve been at Hull for nine months. Its nearly the end of the 15/16 academic year. I’m looking backwards, reflecting on the Hull journey and forwards to what is to come. My challenges at Hull include developing a digital capabilities framework for learning and teaching as well as supporting the big three (pedagogically speaking) investments; Canvas, Panopto and Pebblepad.

dig ed 1

No one automatically knows how to use new digital tools. I’ve been working with learning technology for some time but new platforms still require ‘time to learn’ while even more demanding is the head space it takes to grasp all the different ways they can support disciplines and levels. This is where technology advisers, education developers, academic staff and students can benefit from sitting together in the same room. We need to talk!

Hull have recognised the need for investment in the TEL team but the bigger problem is the digital capabilities learning curve. All VLE requires a broad understanding of digital ways of working. If you’re not a great fan of technology or a great user of the internet then expecting you to find your way around Canvas, record and edit video or build an online portfolio is a big ask. To do this in front of students is even more of a demand.

cartoon showing a person battling with a wall of a technology

My task is to find a way to not only make this seem manageable to but to recognise and reward the time it takes to develop digital confidence in the first place. It’s layered learning. The buttons-basics but also the understanding of constructivist and connectionist pedagogies, the benefits of group learning and peer review, the higher order critical thinking and reflection skills. All these can be supported by thoughtful use of technology but it won’t and can’t happen in a vacuum. It needs a community of practice and inquiry approach, at module, programme, school, faculty or institutional level. Getting people together to talk about how technology can extend and enhance learning because it can – but we need to get back to basics and ensure the baseline competencies are there in the first place.

Jisc Digital Capabilities Framework image

For the next academic year I may need a bigger biscuit tin!

plate of chocolate chip cookies

biscuit and digital technology images from 
Jisc Digital Capabilities Framework image from

Digital overload, choice and consequence

digital wave image

There’s been an interesting debate in the TEL-Team this week over online communication. It’s set me thinking about information overload and how many channels we can be expected to simultaneously manage. This led to thoughts around digital capabilities. It didn’t take long to conclude reluctance to adopt new ways of working is not necessarily a matter of digital confidence. It’s about choice and consequence.

image of a red pill and a blue pill symbolising choice

We’re expected to manage work loads. This involves making choices about when and where to communicate online. The ubiquity of email makes it a hard act to follow. We complain about volume but most of us have devised methods to cope.

emial inbox menu showing 99999 items

Any alternative doesn’t take the place of email. It sits alongside it, doubling the need for checking, reflecting and response and represents additional workload. When it came to adopting additional social media for internal communications, the TEL Team responded in different ways. If we apply the Residents and Visitors analogy, some were residentials, slotting the new channel alongside existing ones while others adopted a visitor approach, using it as and where necessary. Others were reluctant to use it at all. This reaffirms how digital engagement is ultimately about choice.

martini logo with the words anytime, anyplace, anywhere

Social media is the epitome of the internet effect. Like the Martini add, wet. We can be connected to anyone – anytime – anywhere – but only if they are also part of the digital shift. It’s easy to make assumptions about engagement but ultimately we make choices about what works best for us. Decisions are based on assessment of investment versus payoffs. If the initial expense offers what seems like poor returns then adoption is unlikely to take place. For new ways of team working to be effective, they have to be meaningful. Without personal reward, change is unlikely to last beyond initial trial and taste.

question mark made up of jigsaw pieces


So where does that leave us now? I think it may give insight into the wider issues around digital adoption. The TEL Team are a talented group of people with individual specialisms and expertise. We’re all comfortable with being online but still choose to engage in different ways. So if eight digital professionals can demonstrate such disparate responses to adopting a new communication channel, what does this tell us about VLE adoption across a large university campus?  Is reluctance more about digital overload than digital resistance? What are the consequences of  choosing not to change? The answers to some of the bigger questions around digital capabilities may be closer to home than we realise.


digital wave image from
email inbox from 
red pill blue pill image from 

digital resistance – a question of attitude or time?

#creativeHE week poster image shows dawing of a mountain with people climbing it

This week #creativeHE has been offering opportunities to reflect on creative approaches to learning and teaching. Before applying creativity to practice, it helps to explore what it means to be creative in the first place. Definitions include the use of imagination and challenging traditional ways of being and seeing. Be original. It reminds me of Imagist Ezra Pound’s call to ‘Make it new’. When it comes to the VLE, there’s scope for reviewing current approaches. Digital depository models show little evidence of creativity. They replicate transmissive style lectures which many staff seem welded to.  We need to ‘Make it new’ in TEL-world and rethink the promotion of blended approaches.

Make it new slogan with black and white picture of imagist poet Ezra Pound

Each #creativeHE day began with a video and questions to consider. These can be viewed on the site. They are well worth a look. One core message from the week was how creative thinking needs time; a quality always in short supply. James Clay’s has examined the excuse ‘I haven’t got the time’ concluding it’s a question of priorities. But as an excuse, it implies ‘I would if I could’. True resistance is ‘even if I could I wouldn’t because I don’t want to’. This is the reality for many TEL workers and digital education developers, caught in the middle between institutional strategy and academic resistance to change, especially of the digital kind. I’ve come to the conclusion it isn’t a question of time. It’s a question of attitude.

How can creative thinking be applied to VLE adoption? My own solution has been an experiential approach. Digital CPD where staff are enrolled on the VLE with a student view. This does two things. It highlights low levels of digital capabilities. These are the norm in most HEIs but get rendered invisible to those accustomed to working with digi-tech on a daily basis. Like attracts like. Also staff will see how a digital depository model is little more than a text dump. Students need to read but you can get them searching and synthesising for themselves rather than throwing up a wall of hyperlinks. Creating activities which adopt social media techniques of user-generated content and file sharing will build on and extend existing practices. Talk to your TEL team about online pedagogies. Talk to your students. Make it an expectation the VLE constitutes a core part of their learning experience.

open watch showing inner movement

Don’t get me wrong. Time is an issue. I struggle too. A p/t creative writing degree, p/t Phd, full time job plus an allotment keep me time-poor and stressed while I’ve been an ‘online student’ enough to know it requires motivation to succeed. But the value of digital space is choice about where and when to access while affordances for communication and collaboration provide valuable extensions to face-to-face learning. Institutional support for digitally resistant staff, unwilling to adopt the VLE as part of their teaching toolkit, is essential.  As #creativeHE has shown this week, the first requirement is always time but when faced with resistance to using VLE in the first place then I suspect it’s attitude which matters most of all. The #creativeHE site offers free examples of how online learning can be interactive, meaningful and fun. This is the digital future of education and we should all aspire to be part of it.

Make it new image from 

clock image from 

digital dilemmas

image of different faces

The word digital is busy. Not only does it casually prefix a host of other words (e.g. graduate attributes, citizens, skills, education) contemporary digital developments are leaving most of us behind. If students aged 18 are not arriving at university already equipped to make critical use of internet resources and devices, who within HE is going to support the development of appropriate digital graduate attributes, such as those identified in the Jisc report on Technology for Employability? The recent surge of activities around Visitors and Residents has been doing excellent work in challenging the idea of young people as digital natives. However, it is doing little to recognise and surface the NAYS, those who have Not Arrived Yet. The theory of VLE as tools to extend and enhance student learning falls flat when it comes to practice, never mind how they might also support the development of professional communication, collaboration and safety in online places.

The problem is digital development has been segregated rather than integrated. Its always the responsibility of someone else – student services, learning development, the library, ICT departments – it’s never situated within core curriculums. Most of the support for digital ways of working is optional meaning students can graduate with the same digital habits they bought into university 3-4 years previously. Why is this?

The thinking about digital aspects of higher education is not joined up. Digital competence is translated into being ‘techie’ while responsibility for becoming digitally capable is too often perceived as sitting with someone else.  All the work being done to include digital ambitions within strategic directions and investment in operational  TEL teams risks falling into big black holes which suck in excuses and  extenuating circumstances for non-engagement and exclusion.

When it comes to the effective use of digital tools for learning and teaching, the digital divides are widening. It’s not just in HE. Schools are focusing on programming rather than generic ICT while ‘There are still 12.6 million people who lack the basic digital skills to succeed in our increasingly digital society and this week’s budget focus …seems to be on digital infrastructure at the expense of skills’ 

This lies at the core of digital diversity. Until the focus shifts from systems implementation to the people using them on a day to day basis to support and enhance learning and teaching practice, then nothing much is going to change.


image from 

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.