Monday, 9 January 2012

Using the VLE as a Trojan Horse

The Calman Learning Centre
Last week I travelled to Durham for the 2012 Blackboard Users' Conference. Coming immediately at the end of the Christmas/New Year break, it was a shock to the system, and a rude kick start to my brain. But I survived, and came away with my head buzzing. Now, if I can just get time to implement some of those ideas...

The two keynotes, in particular, got me thinking about training and support for our academic staff in their use of technologies for teaching and learning.  The learning technology team at CELT aims to provide pedagogical support for staff in their use of technology, although often we end up dealing with queries about user accounts and basic support for our VLE, Blackboard. Our mantra is that we want to encourage each member of staff, from their current technology use, to do something a little more. We always keep in mind that the teaching/learning is key, and we're just using the technology to (better) support it.

With this in mind, Gráinne Conole's (@gconole) metaphor of the VLE as theTrojan Horse makes perfect sense to me. Since we went mainstream with Blackboard almost 5 years ago, the uptake by staff members has been very positive. Encouraged by automatic enrolment of students in the correct courses, the possibility of easy communication (announcements, email) and demand from students themselves,  academics at NUI Galway have embraced the VLE, albeit (in some cases) with reluctance and/or trepidation.

We have a significant number of early-adopters, champions and people willing to experiment, and these people really keep us on our toes. But we also have a large group of staff who just use Blackboard as a repository, making minimal use of its functionality. Our challenge now is to use this as a basis to encourage them along and to try something new. Gráinne described the VLE as the "nursery slope" for academics: a safe and supported environment where they can learn the basics of technology for learning. But, how to do this when the average academic is already overworked and doesn't have time to even turn up for basic training?

The other image that I liked in Gráinne's keynote was the notion of the VLE+. It's no longer a case of the PLE vs VLE: we can extend our VLE with a myriad of extra functionality to support teaching and learning activities. This afternoon I met with our learning technologies team, to plan our activities for the next few months, and we discussed all of our Blackboard connectors which make up our VLE+. At the moment, the list includes: Campus Pack (Learning Objects); Turnitin; Echo360; QuestionMark; Kaltura. This all provides a seamless environment for staff and students - to the extent that all our support tickets say "Problem with Blackboard", when it's probably not a Blackboard issue at all.

Is this a bad thing? As raised by Nick Pearce (@drnickpearce) in his presentation Beyond Good and Evil, is "closed" necessarily evil?

Ray Land (now Professor of Higher Education at Durham University and Director of Durham’s Centre for Learning Teaching and Research in Higher Education), in his keynote addressed exactly this point. Higher Education is historically closed - with teaching taking place behind closed doors. The newer, digital world, challenges this; it challenges the authority of the academic and breaks down barriers. While there are some that embrace the digital world, for many academics, this represents "troublesome knowledge", and requires a change of culture. The digital world is constantly changing and evolving. For learning technologies, this means a new tool every day (at least) that could be used in teaching and learning. It's difficult, even for those of us who work in the area, to keep track of developments. The VLE is a way to contain that volatility, and slow things down.

Footbridge, Durham
In the same way that teachers will always have a role in leading students through a new landscape (while not necessarily being the source of all knowledge), our learning technologies team will have a role to play in leading academics through the fast paced, digital world, using the VLE+ as the safe and supported environment.

Up next, when I get a chance, some thoughts on the panel session around threshold, minimum standards for VLE courses.

No comments: