Ten ways to scupper a VLE

May 16, 2003

Appalled by university managers' desperate scramble to install virtual learning environments, Peter Hartley has some top tips for diehard traditionalists intent on ensuring that not is all plain sailing.

  • Provide and regularly reinforce senior managers' inflated expectations of technology. Tell them you are happy "heading for the paperless organisation" or "fully prepared for borderless education" whenever the VLE is mentioned. But resist any attempt to look for empirical evidence of the above. Discovering that computer-intensive organisations consume more paper and distance education requires more support may dampen their enthusiasm.

  • Purchase the wrong VLE for your external environment. Partnerships with other tertiary institutions at home and abroad are crucial to survival in pressurised times. But buying a VLE that is different from your partner college or university poses a "challenge" for everyone, from managers to your computer buffs.

  • Purchase the wrong VLE in terms of staff expertise and experience. VLEs are different in functionality and facilities but, from a user's perspective, they probably have more in common than vendors' publicity brochures admit. The critical difference is the ease of the lecturer-instructor interface. Academics may mouth their belief in lifelong learning, but most will not have the time, will or patience to master an unfriendly computer system.
  • Purchase the VLE on technical grounds alone. This is the flipside of the preceding point. Remember Sony Betamax?

  • Hype, hype, hype. Don't academics just love sales and marketing jargon? The introduction of the VLE provides ample opportunity to spread this rich vocabulary throughout the university. Overlay it with a rich crust of technical obfuscation. Once the academic board is discussing the difficulties of "getting buy-in to enterprise functionality", you know you have succeeded.

  • Use technical experts as product champions. A VLE is a complex technical product, so who better to run staff workshops than those staff who are most familiar with its technical intricacies and complexities, rather than "teaching champions" or enthusiastic users. We all know how academics love to master the most intimate details of new software packages. The daily office cry of "s/he's used *** tabs again" and other cheerful technical critiques demonstrate beyond doubt how so many academics are fully embracing the information revolution. So what is one more software manual thudding onto the desk?

  • Absorb technical support into existing procedures. Software is software after all, so what is the point of establishing separate and dedicated support functions for yet another technical function? Those nice people who control the network will not mind a little extra job.

  • Construct an impressive "steering" group. A fully blown VLE is an significant technical investment, therefore why not form a group of the great and the good who will never use the system? These people can concentrate fully on the numerous statistics that the system churns out on demand ("how many accessed on Christmas Day, did you say?"). Numbers are true evidence of success, after all. Such emphasis on quantitative measures will encourage staff to pile stuff on the system. And we all know the value of more stuff.

  • Underestimate demand and growth. You may have heard tales about exponential growth in demand and access from organisations with a few years' experience. They naturally wish to blow their own trumpet. It is perfectly safe to assume modest growth - planning in advance with separate additional technical and server support is unnecessary caution.

  • Leave student registration and other interoperability issues till later. VLEs can be safely installed and operated without impact on other organisational systems, so why not leave all the tricky issues of student registration and student management till way down the line?
  • Unfortunately, my experience is of an institution that, despite my protestations, has neglected most of the above principles. I am naturally suspicious of reports of extensive and increasing staff and student involvement. Further research is required. I am not ready to hand in my Banda duplicating machine just yet.

    Peter Hartley is head of humanities at Sheffield Hallam University.

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