Over the last two days, two approaches to learning technology have caught my eye. The first is by Jim Farmer guesting on e-Literate. Jim writes authoritatively about the Social Constructivists and eLearning, specifically about the use of VLEs such as Blackboard and Moodle. The second is Mike Wesch on YouTube.
The two approaches could hardly be more different. The VLE, by its very nature, is structured and top down. The Wesch approach is as near learner-centric as he can get it without complete anarchy – after all, universities do have to have grading systems and term times. So, the question arises: which is the better?
My answer is a conflict of head and heart.
Universities need order and predictability to keep the finances working smoothly. This means a VLE is a lot more attractive than several hundred Michael Weschs all getting creative with whatever technology is to hand. The reality, however, is that every university I have ever been in (that’s a lot) that possesses a VLE has to keep reminding its staff and students that all work must go through the VLE. Of course, no matter what the mooted reason (security, finance, trackability, grades), there are always a few rogue offline emails ‘because it is easier’. The Wesch approach also requires students to be to some extent guinea-pigs within an academic system that is bound by accreditation requirements and funding councils. That has the potential for exciting times in academic committees.
That, however, cannot be the whole story. The YouTube and Netvibes evidence shows a high level of interaction between students and engagement in their course. (Don’t worry if you cannot log into Netvibes but it is worth a look as a personal desktop aggregation tool if you can be bothered to set it up.) Students who were, by their own admission, simply suffering the classroom are clearly engaged in a highly social form of learning that uses all available forms of technology to gather information and construct personally meaningful learning. It is powerful.
Today, on Rowin’s blog I see that Blackboard is investigating whether or not SecondLife can be incorporated into the VLE. SecondLife began its journey in teaching as a revolutionary, social approach. Merging the two sounds both exciting and possible. The core problem, however, remains: how does the use of fast-changing, learner-preferred technologies integrate with accounting, scheduling, grading and accreditation systems that – by their very nature – need to change as little as possible and as slowly and transparently as possible?