VLEs vs. social networking for learning

webtreats-webtreasetc-icons-4141091-hThis week I attended the Westminster Higher Education Forum on technology in higher education.  There were a number of interesting presentations and discussions with contributions from across the sector.  One particular aspect of interest concerned the use of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) by staff and students.  First was a consideration of whether VLEs are really used for learning, or if, in fact, they are  purely a learning management system, mainly used as a repository for materials such as lecture slides and notes.  My feeling from the modules in the School of Health Sciences (SHS) at City University London, is that many modules go beyond the repository, and include interactive elements such as quizzes, even extending to simulated learning, as we’ve seen demonstrated successfully at Health Has Got Talent in recent years. And, even in terms of being a repository, many lecturers are branching out beyond lecture notes to podcasts, and screencasts, or using the VLE to support a flipped learning model.


An additional aspect of discussion concerned whether students want to engage with VLEs, with many in the audience expressing a view that students are less willing to engage with a VLE than with social media such as Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn to name a few.  In SHS, it does sometimes seem to be the case that students are less willing to engage in the more interactive elements of our VLE, with lecturers sometimes struggling to encourage the use of, for example, discussion boards, over more direct forms of communication like email.  This perceived lack of engagement, plus the possible use of VLEs as a simple repository,  raised a question of whether institutions should completely abandon their VLEs in favour of social media.


Points in favour of such a proposition concern the possible lack of training needed for students, a direct connection to technology already being used, and an interweaving of learning with other areas of students’ lives. Indeed, today’s Times Higher Education supplement comments on survey data suggesting that many US academics already connect with students on Facebook.  On the flip side, as social media has generally not been designed for educational purposes, staff and students would likely need training to make effective use of these platforms.  Additionally, students and staff may not welcome the full integration of education into realms where they conduct other areas of their lives, preferring a separation of these domains.  Plus, whilst any form of technology enabled learning raises issues of digital privacy and responsibility, these are likely to be even more prominent if using existing forms of social media for education.


So, in conclusion, I for one am certainly not advocating the removal of Moodle in favour of Facebook.  However,  I do think it is worth considering what we can learn from students’ use of social media to enhance our virtual modules and continue to ensure that our Moodle offerings are interactive spaces where deep learning takes place.

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