How can VLEs survive?

I hope Megan will forgive me for using such a cultural stereotype as an illustrative image. It is a beautiful picture, though...I’m grateful to Megan Poore (online learning consultant to various Australian Universities) for this and other links. Here’s a link to her excellent tumblr blog – Being a much more concise thinker than I, Megan tends toward microblogging rather than the swathes of prose I tend to spout on this site.

The man in the video  (Jim Groom, University of Mary Washington) is, believe it or not, sponsored by BlackBoard. And even he suggests that the VLE (or the ‘LMS’ as the rest of the world calls it) can’t compete with open-source or other free tools. His prediction BTW is that Google are most likely to come up with the ubiquitous solution for online learning.

VLEs serve certain administrative functions well – particularly sensitive central services like assessment, where identity, authenticity, privacy, Intellectual Property and submission timeframe are crucial in order to achieve fairness. But I’m not so sure that a VLE is the best tool in providing learning – the interface may be (by necessity of technical implementation) just too clunky compared to free web tools, many of which have $millions spent on R&D.

Perhaps there’s a continuum of control that looks something like this.

Centralised account admin ———————————- User-based account admin

Authenticated ——————————————— Unprotected

Closed VLEs ———————————————– open websites

Then perhaps there’s a continuum than comes out of these

Centralised admin ——————————————-user customisation

And, to extrapolate further, perhaps this leads us to a straightforward choice

University-administrated online learning ———- teacher and learner-controlled online learning

Does this equate to a darker, more controversial choice, where centralised University admin systems actually mitigate against optimum online learning? If so that’s a powerful ironic tension between the raison d’etre of a University – to create learning – and the current methods of delivering it online.


  1. If open-source and free tools are the future (and I’m not disputing their usefulness), how does the HE community protect its own IP? As Jim Groom intimates, this gives free providers (or whoever is supplying the service) massive potential control over our content and ultimately over our learning and teaching. They may be innovative and efficient, but can we count on them to be perpetually altruistic? I guess the tension you describe could also be described as a tension between optimum online learning (provided by free-market corporate structures) and the hierarchies of what in the UK is largely a state-funded system. I’m not suggesting that we turn our back on efficient learning tools, but I guess we do need to bear in mind the risks that they may bring with them.

  2. Protection of Universities’ IP is one of the major hurdles. I’m not saying that implementation of free tools is without its problems for HEIs – just that it’s impossible to resist the fragmentation effect of tutors and students gravitating toward the free tools because they’re easier to use, free, and have more/better features.

    [charlespiano wrote]
    >this gives free providers (or whoever is supplying the service) massive potential control over our content and ultimately over our learning and teaching…

    Does it, though? Read Google docs’ privacy policy – you still own all the content you create, regardless of where it’s hosted – an external provider has no ‘control over content’. In providing a desktop application (MS Office) Microsoft doesn’t have a claim on any Word document you create – so why would a web application be any different? One argument that is often raised about this relates to the suggestion that a third-party provider may take content offline, or crash or whatever i.e. the HEI has no control over them. This is true, but can be taken care of in a single disclaimer document making it clear to students that the free web tools are not provided by the University.

    My point is that whatever the rights and wrongs of this, change is inevitable, because it is led by the students and staff as web users. Legal, procedural and institutional change will always be slower than user behaviour because users follow usability and benefit for them personally. Witness the deletion of iTunes’ DRM or the climbdown that PRS is making with Google over YouTube. The original position was legally right in terms of IP – but the consumer’s end-use requirements conflicted with the law.

    They fought the law… and the law lost.

  3. Another insightful post, Joe 🙂

    We are currently tackling these issues at my university and, as such, we’ve become very familiar with various providers’ Terms of Service! We’ve been working through many issues to do with risk, liability, business robustness and lots more.

    In dealing with IP and copyright, however, we are sure to choose providers that allow users to retain their rights; as Joe says, check out Google … and WordPress and Wetpaint and Ning etc.: they all allow you to retain your copyright and your IP, which we think is important. What they ask for is a sub-licence (or non-exclusive licence) to your IP so that they can display, publish, adapt, translate, etc. your work. If you think about it, this makes sense, as you can’t use the service unless the service has the right to display etc. your work! When it comes to ‘adapting and translating’, again, all that means is that if the service provides a translation facility (as does Google), then, of course, your work might be subjected to that facility by another user. Similarly, if the service had to alter its back-end display defaults (or whatever), then that would count as an adaptation. Reading a Terms of Service is one thing; understanding it is quite another, but it is important that these things >areexclusive< licence to the staff member’s IP, as it does in my institution (our University also takes certain types of copyright from a staff member, but that’s getting down to tin-tacks). Our staff can apply to the DVC for a special exemption but currently there are no automatic approval processes in place to get this exemption in the case of educational use. But we’re working on that 😉

    The attitude of our Legal Office seems to be one of ‘it’s here, we’ve got to deal with it, so let’s find ways of keeping the university as safe as we can from risk and liability’, which I think is healthy. What is not so healthy, imo, is either of these approaches: 1) “I don’t understand it, so let’s try to control it by shutting it down” and, 2) “What could possibly go wrong? I’m the teacher and going rogue and bugger the high-ups”. From my perspective, these tools provide us now with ways of engaging students that have for years (let’s go back to Dewey …) been recognised as good pedagogy. To my mind, we therefore have a moral obligation to find ways of making this stuff work — it can’t all just be too hard for us.

    As Joe points out, you can start to make thing safe for staff, students and the institution by providing a disclaimer document to users. We are also giving users full briefings on what the Terms of Service that they are signing up for actually mean — and we are doing lots more besides.

    Check out some of these links (especially the ‘important considerations’ area) (a project I’m currently wrapping up where you can see how some teachers I’m working with are starting to deal with these issues. You can also look at Real Live Examples of student blogs, wikis, social networks etc. by accessing the ‘Members’ sites’ on the left-hand side) (The University of Edinburgh’s guide to all this stuff. We’re working on a similar document at my institution)

  4. Just going back to the research online issue you may be interested in a new book by the distinguished British musicologist Daniel Leech-Wilkinson (King’s College London) who has just published his most recent book freely available online. The Changing Sound of Music: Approaches to Studying Recorded Musical Performances (London: CHARM, 2009) is available at

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