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Niall Sclater

Martin, these issues are also greatly exercising me as we look at where the VLE should go next at the OU. I summed up some of the advantages of VLEs last week at sclater.com which interestingly tally with many of the points you make.

Steven Verjans

Martin, I am not convinced that this will ever happen - at least not in formal learning settings, as some (most?) educationalists are not interested in technology at all (as witnessed by the current minimal use of our VLE). They want to produce clearly structured courses, control the course flow, etc.
Moreover, I think that quality and accreditation issues related to formal education force institutions to have local evidence of learner progress, if only to be able to handle student complaints. Just my 5-pence worth...

AJ Cann

Nice post, but you missed one thing. The walled garden of the VLE provides a "trusted brand" (as Grainne Conole discussed at OpenLearn2007) which is very attractive to students. Otherwise, why would they want to pay us £3k a year for tuition - and then use Google?
Students hate PLEs (but they also hate being forced to use university services such as authenticated email accounts). "We are paying customers and we want value for money".

James Aczel

Hmmm... Déjà vu... The case that some of us have been arguing for many years now is that effort is often better put into linking existing tools, creating the functionality that doesn't exist yet, and engendering the vital hearts-and-minds movement, rather than into erecting a monolithic system with limited, slow-changing functionality. This is not quite the same argument as only using open access social software, but recent developments in the latter area make the case more compelling (as ably illustrated by Tony Hirst). The idea that authentication, accessible interoperability, reliability and tracking require a single system is arguable. I'm sorry I've not been more successful in putting this case over the years.

AJ Cann

It's not a question of requiring a single system, it's a question of what a typical university (or school) I.T. support service is able to provide. (The O.U. is not typical of other institutions!)

James Aczel

Sure, AJ. And you're also quite right to draw attention above to the students' perspective, just as Steven Verjans is quite right to describe the reality of many teachers' situations.
But I'm talking about the situation in which there is a huge amount of resource available. So yes, the OU, but I was thinking primarily of ultimately government-funded initiatives in the EU and US. We are talking seriously big bucks here. And I think decision-makers find it hard to resist the draw of the all-encompassing system. The exciting thing is that willingness to mix-and-match tools seems to be becoming mainstream.

John Connell

For a large-scale deployment of a VLE (such as across a national education system) the merits of having a fully authenticated system are massive. So long as the VLE is tied to broad enough range of collaborative tools, and so long as there is a sensible (ie not overly restrictive) permissions regime, users can bring the two together to create interest groups, online communities, etc, on the fly.

And, if the system also permits the invitation of 'guests' from outside (again within a fairly liberal permissions regime) then that same set of capabilities can extend beyond the bounds of the core authentication system / directory.

Unless the various Web 2.0 tools are somehow brought within the system of authentication, the capabilities will always be limited to your own 'compass' in terms of those whom you already have as contacts, or serendipitously, in relation to those who find their way into your compass. This, of course, is powerful in its own way, but we have to understand the differences in kind between this kind of collaboration and the intra-community collaboration that can be possible using that powerful combination of authentication system, VLE and conjoined collaborative tools.

On a different issue, we also have to be careful to separate the assumed mindset of those who devise and implement a VLE, and the varied uses that can be made of a VLE by those willing to broaden it's use beyond that initial intended set of uses. It's a bit like the difference between teaching and learning - the link between what is taught in a classroom and what is learned can be considerable. So, the difference between the intentions of VLE builders and the actual uses to which a VLE can be put can also be considerable, especially when the VLE is just one component of a larger eco-system of collaborative tools and ID Management.

AJ Cann

"Unless the various Web 2.0 tools are somehow brought within the system of authentication, the capabilities will always be limited to your own 'compass' in terms of those whom you already have as contacts, or serendipitously, in relation to those who find their way into your compass."

No. Everything is miscellaneous. Tagging. The wisdom of crowds. But this is not possible in a closed VLE.

John Connell

Nope - I'm afraid not quite everything is miscellaneous yet. Content - yes (assuming it is in digital form). People - no!

Authentication of people is what I'm talking about.

Why can't there be wisdom in the crowd that exists within a large-scale VLE, by the way?

AJ Cann

I think people's online identities are pretty miscellaneous: EdTechie, [email protected] :-)

"a large-scale VLE" - That's precisely the problem. These walled gardens are not large scale. My large scale VLE is Wikipedia!


I must talk to you about the issues with authentication sometime :-)

There are also issues with silly things like trying to match usernames on systems to student names. Even if you ask them to use their real name, it's always amazing how many will manage to use something different from the name they registered with at the university. I guess stricter instructions might help there though (I didn't realise it would be such a headache when I did this with students two or three years ago!).

John Connell

Alan, I guess it's a valid method of argument to move the goalposts :-)

A VLE, for example, that will include every single teacher and every single learner in a country is reasonably large-scale in my book. My interest (Juliette) is in the schools sector not higher education where, I agree, a VLE can only really include the few thousand inhabitants of the individual institution.

AJ Cann

John, could you send me the url of that VLE that "includes every single teacher and every single learner in a country"?

John Connell


It isn't there yet, but it will within the next year or so.


Tavis Reddick

Would you use a unique learner number (www.miap.gov.uk/services/UniqueLearnerNumbers/) to identify students and staff (in the UK)? I don't think OpenId supports trust, so you'd have to go for something like Shibboleth where users have proved their identity to the institutional federation member. And perhaps a service-oriented architecture whereby users could use their own tools as long as they could connect to your VLE hub.

Elvine Valladolid

My name is Elvine from Pageflakes. And in light of creating a learning environment online, I'd like to introduce an “Educational Start Page” dedicated to teachers around the world (http://www.teacher.pageflakes.com). I am hoping that you can help us to improve it further.

Over the past couple of months - and with the help of the educational community- we have created this start page with a focus on educational tools, news and features.

The “Teacher Edition” is based on the original Pageflakes technology, offering sharing and publishing options, adding your own content, customizing the page, changing the layout – all for free and even without signing up. In addition, we have customized the gallery (click on the big, golden button at the upper right hand corner) and populated it with educational tools and news. We have also created a default page setup (the one that you see when you first check out the site).

There is more to come in the future and I am hoping that you can actively help us to improve the experience. Your questions, ideas and suggestions are more than welcome. I am happy to send more background information and screenshots. I am also available for a call if you want to discuss in more detail.

Thanks for your time and support.



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D Needlestone

For schools the dilemma is very similar. Free tools offer more but a VLE is a safer place and better for teachers who don't want the risks of using external tools. We really do need a better authentication system.
In my school the answer has been to not spend too much on a VLE (using flexible open source solutions) and put the money into training. Then there is no pressure for teachers to use one system just because we have spent many thousands on it.

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