Why provide a VLE?

Christopher D. Sessums pointed me to this post by Graham Attwell about VLEs. Graham suggests that:

We assume students will provide their own word processors – be they proprietary or open source. Why then do we persist in providing e-learning systems. Not because of generosity I would suggest but because institutions are desperate to maintain control.

I think this is possibly true for unconnected learning environments, although there’s also a dissemination issue. (VLEs are often actually quite useful for distributing lecture notes and other course materials.) But when you start connecting people up – when learners start to collaborate and discuss online – there really needs to be some kind of central infrastructure.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily need to be a full VLE as we understand them today. But it does need, at the bare minimum, need to be a set of standards that let people talk to each other. If students are writing essays, in theory it’s fine if one uses Microsoft Word, another uses WordPerfect and a third uses OpenOffice. The output is the same. But when you talk to each other, you have to speak the same language; it’d be no use if every student had their own system and none of them spoke to each other.

I think it’s the institution’s responsibility to provide that framework, just as it’s their responsiblity to organise courses and keep up the classrooms. They should probably provide at least one interface, just as university computers tend to come with at least one wordprocessor installed. But if an institution is serious about giving flexibility to its students, and letting them choose, it has to provide standardised hooks that allow for a variety of different interfaces. They need to be able to pick and choose, and the institution needs to provide a flexible enough framework to support many different kinds of learning; that’s where the student control will lie.

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