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January 19, 2009

The strategic impact of the PLE in HE?

I was chatting to a colleague earlier on today about the state of learning management systems in UK higher education.  My sense of the current situation goes something like this:

  1. The traditional virtual learning environment (VLE) market is now quite mature and largely sewn up by Moodle and Blackboard.
  2. Neither of the systems in 1 is viewed particularly positively, either by learners (because of poor usability) or teaching staff (because of limited pedagogic possibilities/flexibility).
  3. As a consequence of 2, some thought leaders (i.e. those people who write about such things in blogs, etc.) are suggesting a move towards unbundling current VLE functionality across multiple services (some of which are inside the institution and some outside) in the form of the personal learning environment (PLE).
  4. Conversely, institutional investment in one or other of the systems in 1 is pretty high, so there is a significant level of policy/strategic inertia to overcome if institutions really are going to change as per 3.
  5. There is a growing lack of clarity in marketplace as we see cross-over between VLE-functionality and repositories (e.g. IntraLibrary), e-portfolio systems (e.g. PebblePad), collaborative tools (e.g. Huddle) and blogging tools (e.g. Wordpress).

Is that a reasonable summary?

As a result of the conversation, I asked on Twitter, "is the PLE approach (unbundling monolithic vle fundtionality) having any significant impact on real institutional strategic thinking yet?", to which I got 5 or 6 responses, one of which one suggested that it is (Ravensbourne) while the others were somewhat more hesitent.  Clearly, this provides nothing other than a snapshot that is both random and partial!  Heather Williamson of the JISC also suggested that their User-owned Technology Demonstrator projects might be able to help with the answer in the longer term.

It's an interesting question to ask because it seems to me that there is a high potential for disconnect between those on the ground (so to speak) who are dissatisfied with current provision and feel able to articulate a better solution vs. those who hold the purse strings and who may feel that they are too far down a particular strategic road to turn back?

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Yes, a reasonable summary. We use Blackboard at my institution, and I've long been complaining about it. In fact, the only component in that environment I actually like (TurnItIn) is a third-party service.

While I prefer Moodle after a quick look because it's a) open and b) in general it strikes me as superior to Blackboard, I can't help but come to the conclusion that this market remains poorly served. I have, however, come across discussion of integrating tools like moodle and elgg, which may point the way to the more distributed approach.

This ties up well with a conversation I had at work today ... especially points 2/3

You've mentioned that Blackboard/ Moodle have got most of the market (at least in the UK) between them. Do you have up to date figures for % of Unis that have a Universal (Compulsory) VLE, & those that have a University wide VLE, but allow faculties / depts etc,. to branch our (presumably self supporting, rather than using central support)
From things I read earlier, the gut feeling I got was that Blackboard/WebCT was more likely to be the Uni wide option, but on top of that, Pre-92 unis were more likely to allow faculty/dept to have other tools, where Post-92 unis were more likely to have to use the central system.
I could be entirely wrong here!

Student & academic staff dissatisfaction with centralised VLEs is, clearly, not a new phenomenon. Likewise with CMS, repositories, finance systems....

What of the institutional management? These are the people to whom Blackboard have marketed their heavier offerings - their Vista product was sold to an institution I once worked for because of its features supporting marketing of courses, tracking of student participation.... nothing to do with usability, pedagogy etc.

Also, the academic staff who wanted to use a wide range of systems were often a vocal minority....

@Emma - no sorry, I don't have those kinds of figures. Your assertion about attitudes in pre- and post-92 institutions sounds reasonable to me but, again, I have no firm evidence on which to base that view.

@Paul - I agree with all 3 of your points. On reflection, I suspect my post should have been given a StatementOfTheBleedingObvious tag.

RE: Paul's comment:

"Also, the academic staff who wanted to use a wide range of systems were often a vocal minority...."

That certainly fits with my experience supporting IT within the University of Plymouth where I find very few staff shouting about using 3rd party or even more open systems, but those who are the ones who attend the right committees as they have an interest in the technology, and so they are seen as very vocal.

I attend a lot of programme committees (2 faculties worth as best I or a member of my team can get) where the majority staff view is that they just want a very simple document repository so they can dump their PowerPoint slides in - so that the students are happy(ier).

Then there's a much smaller group who _would_ like to do more innovative things and wish the centrally provided system would hand hold them through doing so. I'm refering to simple things like including video or a fully featured discussion board system, not web 2.0 things specifically. I should say, we use a system based on Sharepoint which can basically do anything anyone would want, including everything Web 2.0 (see the number of major websites delivering good services out there which are based on it) but it's mostly up to the individual module/programme leader to implement the integration of technologies at the moment...although we do have dedicated learning technologist staff in each faculty who _can_ provide this assistance, the basics on Sharepoint (even for things like permissions to a document library or sub-site) can be so confusing for some people that few requests to be innovative can actually be accommodated - hence the LTs can't afford to be too innovative yet...relative to what is possible).

Then there are the very small number of staff (less that 5%?) who think open source/"free"/3rd party services are the panacea for them and therefore implement bespoke ad hoc amalgams of these for relatively small groups of students (<2% of the FTE?), and bemoan that the central systems can't do the same things, and that therefore the centrally provided services are a waste - which to me, misses the vast majority of the staff who are barely utilising the most basic parts of the centrally provided systems despite training and support being available for those. It also seems to miss the business risks and the real total costs of these "free" systems in terms of larger scale implementation for the support services and the need for integration with the corporate information systems (ie one of the most common student issues we have is the number of times students need to sign in to access our services - now, we've made great strides towards a single sign on infrastructure, but a few parts are still to be tied in yet - and just those few parts needing a separate sign in is enough to frustrate students enough to mention it in many programme committees. I hate to imagine the complaints from students who might need to access 10 or 20 different 3rd party services to deal with their learning materials and collaboration tools, including having to register for and then maintain passwords for each! Yikes. Actually, I'd love to read research which looks at students perceptions of the overheads of working in an ad hoc PLE they've had to create themselves from 3rd party services compared to a fully integrated centrally supported learning environment delivering most of the same features - and which can work with whatever 3rd party services they may wish to utilise too)

So yes, I think this is spot on - that a very vocal minority are the only ones beating the drum for an outsourced PLE.

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