What makes a modern VLE? 9

A couple of days ago, me and a colleague gave a presentation at an internal university conference on why our centre had decided to drop Blackboard as our virtual learning environment and were going with an alternative – Google Classroom – instead.

The heart of our argument was that Blackboard gave our students a sub-par digital experience and – given our centre was the first university place they came into contact with upon getting to the UK – we wanted to make sure they were given the best chance to interact digitally with their teacher and their classmates. One key consideration was the mobile experience. Google Classroom has a fast, slick and intuitive cross-platform app and you can do pretty much everything through it that you can do on a desktop. Blackboard, despite being a massively wealthy company with huge resources at their disposal, have turned out a buggy, woefully-designed piece of crap that will leave you most of the time staring at a spinning grey wheel as it decides whether it wants to actually connect you to any of the content. The one thing in its favour is that it does give you plenty of time to reflect on your life, though often you’re just thinking about why you ever bothered downloading the app in the first place.


Compare this excellent mobile app interface in Google Classroom

....with the spinning wheel of death that accompanies every click in the Blackboard app

….with the spinning wheel of death that accompanies every click in the Blackboard app

Our move away from the university platform and our general dissatisfaction with it did lead me to wonder whether these monolithic institution-wide VLEs such as Blackboard or Moodle have stopped being effective for the purposes for which they were originally designed – and whether universities need to rethink how they engage digitally with their students.

Let’s get some terms out of the way at the beginning. These digital learning platforms are commonly referred to as either a Virtual Learning environment (VLE) or a Learning Managements System (LMS). Now, I’m not sure there’s a clearcut distinction between them and if you want to read a fairly geeky article trying to distinguish them go here but in my head those two terms are synonymous and it’s just personal preference which ones you use.

If you’ve never come across one of these before, a quick clarification of what they are and who some of the major players are:

Basically a VLE is an online platform for partially or fully supporting and managing student learning. From within it, teachers can upload documents connected to the lesson (Powerpoints, PDFs), create content such as quizzes or tests, set assignments for students to submit, post news/announcements and engage students in forum discussions and provide links to outside content or useful websites. This can be used in a fully online environment such as when students are taking courses at a distance or combined with face to face classes (‘blended learning’) as an adjunct to the course.

If you’ve studied or worked at a university in the last 10 years or so, it’s likely you’ve used one of these to a greater or lesser degree. And It’s likely that it was either Moodle or Blackboard, the two main players in the Higher Education VLE space, though there are others such as Sakai and a more recent addition,Canvas. Apart from Moodle, all of these are commercial operations and the cost of buying them for your institution can be incredibly expensive. It’s difficult to get specific figures, but you’re probably looking at tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per year depending on the particular deal and the number of users.

Moodle is an open source project, which means it’s free to use, but the hidden costs are in the hosting of the software and the personnel needed to constantly maintain and update it.

Outside of higher education, there are other options that can be free or considerably cheaper. If your university or school uses Google Apps for Education (GAFE) then you may be able to use Google Classroom with your students for free. Others such as Edmodo or Schoology can be paid for by an institution or used independently by teachers for free with their classes. These types of VLEs tend to look a lot slicker, have excellent mobile apps and have many sharing and design features reminiscent of social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. They tend to be aimed at secondary rather than further education, which explains some of the parental control features they often have.

edmodo pic

Edmodo has a very familiar social network-type layout for students

Now, what’s interesting about these newer arrivals such as Classroom and Edmodo is that they are not trying to be an all-in-one solution as Blackboard and Moodle try to be. These older VLEs try to cram in every possible feature, from document management, assignments, forum discussions, quizzes, tests to portfolios. Which in theory sounds good. Except it’s not. The problem is the jack-of-all-trades one, no individual feature is particular well developed and you only have to look around outside the VLE to see how it can be done much better.

Just to give an example. Blackboard – I’m using this one because I know it well – has a forum feature, but they are complicated to set up even for quite an experienced and tech savvy teacher and navigating them is confusing and clunky. You could go and look at any dedicated forum on the internet and find more user friendly interfaces. Or portfolios. Again, the portfolio option in Blackboard is confusing and when I tried to work out how to use it, I was left scratching my head. My students don’t have English as a first language and I’m sure they would find it hellish to work out how to actually use it.

The problem is that all these features just sit there in front of teachers and cause confusion and frustration as they try to find the feature they actually do want.

blackboard pic for post

Like a complicated menu with impenetrable text and confusing options? Blackboard are happy to oblige…

Modern VLEs take a different approach in that they don’t assume they are able to meet all the needs of the teacher in terms of the tools required, but instead gives them the option of pulling in resources from other websites. So, for example, Google Classroom has now implemented a share button that you’ll find on many educational websites such as Quizlet and Discovery Education This works rather like a Facebook or Twitter button and allows you to send any content you’ve created on one website quickly and easily to the VLE. Edmodo does something similar with apps that can be plugged into your class to add functionality (give some examples here).

From apps like Quizlet, you can easily share to Google Classroom

From apps like Quizlet, you can easily share to Google Classroom

Some may argue that Moodle and Blackboard have similar functions, that you can add plug-ins and modules that add functionality to the platform, and while that’s true, it’s normally still controlled by the administration of your school or university and they generally avoid rolling out too many new features. The tutors/professors don’t have much control themselves over what is added and they have to rely on the monolithic processes that might add the odd feature every year or two.

This nimble plugging in of various features or external services to add functionality to a VLE seems to be the way forward to cope with the new demands of students and the incredible development of technology in the last few years. And I’m not sure these older VLEs such as Blackboard and Moodle really have the agility to be able to quickly adjust to meet the demand for things such as audio and video. Even adding a You Tube video can be a protracted process, at least it was the last time I tried in Blackboard.

When I was using Blackboard, I would constantly ask people: ‘Can you embed (some web service) on a Blackboard page?’ It might be Padlet or Voicethread or some other cool service and the answer was either ‘no’ or ‘yes, as long as you’re prepared to mess around with HTML and various settings’. This shouldn’t be something teachers have to do!

The design and functionality of these VLEs seem stuck in a time capsule, maybe 10–15 years ago what they offered was acceptable and possibly revolutionary, but now they appear tired and clunky. When you compare it with these newer, lighter systems, you can understand why students don’t really want to use them for anything more than document retrieval.

I would like to see universities be bolder in reevaluating their use of digital tools to manage student learning and look at alternative solutions to the one-stop-shop solution provided by these companies. I don’t think that either teachers or students feel there’s anything particularly wrong in using several different services at the same time to ensure that they get the best digital experience available.

To give an example: during the summer we used Google Classroom as our main platform for most of the classes on our pre-sessional course. However, for assessment purposes, students had to submit their assignments to Turnitin to generate an originality report and this could only be done through Blackboard. At first we thought this jumping between different platforms would prove confusing and difficult for both students and teachers, but it didn’t. For students it was just another digital tool they needed to use as part of their studies.

So, for me, the point is: I want to use the best possible digital tools to give my students the most engaging and interactive lessons possible. But that shouldn’t confine me to one particular platform. If I want to create a quiz for my students, I may not want to use the ones available in Blackboard/Moodle because they are difficult to administer and instead use an online tool such as Socrative or Kahoot to generate it. Or use the wiki function within those platforms but instead use tools such asPadlet orLinoit.

What I think teachers and students want are very ‘light’ platforms – and by that I mean not bogged down with loads of features and menus – that can easily hook into other services or apps. A good example of this might be something like Slack, a team messaging app that is the currently darling of Silicon Valley. Where it excels is in pulling in notifications and information from other apps (Gmail/Skype) so that you can access a lot of this information in one place but without feeling tied to it. This kind of agility is something that is still lacking in most VLEs but we’re beginning to see signs of it in tools such as Edmodo and Google Classroom.

Within Edmodo you can now add apps in the same way you'd add an app to your smartphone

Within Edmodo you can now add apps the same way you’d add them to your smartphone

This has been a bit of a ramble through my thoughts on VLEs, but I suppose what I want is for the VLEs that most universities have to use to be, well, less crap. To have interfaces that are easy to use and intuitive for both teacher and student and have mobile apps that actually work and work well. And to be a lot more agile in keeping up with changes in technology and being able to integrate outside services a lot better. At the moment, it seems that they are relying on the fact that most universities have devoted thousands and thousand of pounds and hours into creating the infrastructure for these platforms and suddenly deciding to change them would be a massive upheaval.

I would be interested to hear what other EAP teachers use as their class VLE. Do you have to use the one your university uses or can you choose your own? And what do you think of the one you use?

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About David Read

I work at the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield as the Director of TEL (technology-enhanced learning). I've been an EFL/EAP teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years and have worked in 14 different countries. Settling down is clearly an issue for me.

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9 thoughts on “What makes a modern VLE?

  • Mura nava

    hi David

    I think they way forward are like initiatives such as A domain of ones own where students get to control their university work, and for teachers things like Wikity which offer ability to copy and remix content


    • Profile photo of David Read
      David Read Post author

      Interesting idea, never heard of Wikity before. I suppose the big issue might be the legal requirements of universities keeping students work for a set time (7 years?), there has to be provisions in place for securely keeping student work. Most of the teaching we do at our centre is pre-sessional so that’s not a consideration, but those are issues that have to be considered.

  • carole macdiarmid

    HI David

    Interesting, as we’ve all no doubt suffered from clunky VLEs. So is the follow up /on article on Google Classrooms- interested to hear what and how you use them (see a posting on Google Apps but assume much more).

  • Jennifer Walsh Marr

    Thanks for this. I whole-heartedly agree that universities should be pushing the envelope with what’s cutting edge. It should be noted, however, that my Canadian university has a policy that we cannot require students to use a LMS or program with an American server. This is in order to respect students’ privacy and protect them from collection of data through Homeland Security.

    • Profile photo of David Read
      David Read Post author

      hi Jennifer,

      Yes, I’d heard that from a Canadian colleague and I think it’s a sensible move. What VLE do Canadian universities generally use? Moodle? Blackboard? Which VLEs are out of bounds due to the server rule?

  • Andrew

    I use our Moodle to set tasks which may include recording video, the new iPhone records videos in quite large files which can be too large to upload to Moodle. Our IT say nothing can be done, so to get round it students upload to YouTube (with no public access) or email me the file meaning the purpose of getting peer feedback and discussion disappears. I agree moving from one monolithic provider to a menu according to need and purpose would work much better.