Seeing Steve Wheeler’s Emporer’s New clothes blog post reminded me of a little something we produced many years ago - now rebadged as The Vice Chancellor’s new VLE. Thanks to the wonder of Google Desktop I was able to find the original from about 8 years ago based on the experiences we had in about 1996 when I was working with Mark Stone on the development of PILL - the Plymouth Internet Learning Lab (sadly defunct, and I wish at the time I’d known we had done).
I’ve updated it slightly but this was produced at a time when the VLE was seen to be a general panacea to Teaching and Learning and written after sitting through endless pitches and presentations from solution providers.
THE VC’S NEW VLE
(with many apologies to Hans Christian Anderson)
Once upon a time there lived a Vice Chancellor whose only worry in life was to have elegant Teaching and Learning policies. He changed strategies almost every week and loved to show them off to his people.
Word of the VC’s refined habits spread over his kingdom and beyond. Two scoundrels in the Computing Services Department who had heard of the VC’s vanity decided to take advantage of it. They introduced themselves at the VC’s sumptuous chancellory building with a scheme in mind.
“We are two very good software experts and after many years of research we have invented an extraordinary method to deliver teaching materials so quickly and efficiently that the process looks invisible. As a matter of fact it is invisible to anyone who is too stupid and incompetent to appreciate its quality.”
The Director of Computing Services heard the scoundrel’s strange story and sent for the Head of the Department for Education Development . The Head notified the Pro Vice Chancellor (Academic), who ran to the VC and disclosed the incredible news. The VC’s curiosity got the better of him and he decided to see the two scoundrels.
“Besides having invisible processes, your VCness, this Virtual Learning Environment will have a colour scheme and new logo created especially for you.”
The VC gave the two men a bag of gold coins in exchange for their promise to begin working on the VLE immediately. “Just tell us what you need to get started and we’ll give it to you.”
The two scoundrels asked for a server, database backend, and a team of Learning Technologists and then pretended to begin working. The Emperor thought he had spent his money quite well: in addition to getting a new extraordinary learning environment, he would discover which of his staff were ignorant and incompetent. A few days later, he called the old and wise Pro Vice Chancellor, who was considered by everyone as a man with common sense.
“Go and see how the work is proceeding,” the VC told him, “and come back to let me know.”
The two scoundrels welcomed the Pro Vice Chancellor. “We’re almost finished, but we need a lot more course materials. Here, Vice Chancellor! Admire the colours, feel the pedagogy!” The old man bent over the high-resolution monitor and tried to see the learning environment that was not there. He felt cold sweat on his forehead.
“I can’t see anything,” he thought. “If I see nothing, that means I’m stupid! Or, worse, incompetent!” If the Pro Vice Chancellor admitted that he didn’t see anything, he would be discharged from his office.
“What a marvellous learning environment”, he said then. “I’ll certainly tell the VC.” The two scoundrels rubbed their hands gleefully. They had almost made it. More course material was requested to finish the work.
Finally, the VC received the a message that the two software developers had come to take upload the module details needed to roll the VLE out over the VC’s shiny new network.
“Come in,” the VC ordered. Even as they bowed, the two scoundrels pretended to be access their VLE using their shiny Personal Digital Assistants.
“Here it is Sir, the result of our labour,” the scoundrels said. “We have worked night and day but, at last, the most beautiful VLE in the world is ready for you. Look at the Student Portal and see how accessible it is.” Of course the VC did not see any module content and couldn’t access the Management Information System.
He panicked and felt like fainting. But luckily the throne was right behind him and he sat down. But when he realized that no one could know that he did not see the multimedia learning experience, he felt better. Nobody could find out he was stupid and incompetent. And the VC didn’t know that everybody else around him thought and did the very same thing.
The farce continued as the two scoundrels had foreseen it. Once they had created a list of available modules, the two began creating empty module folders.
“Vice Chancellor, you’ll have shred your old course handouts before trying your online learning system”. The two scoundrels setup an account for the VC and showed him how to login
“Yes, this is a beautiful VLE and it looks very good to me - the other Vice Chancellors will be so jealous,” the VC said trying to look comfortable. “You’ve done a fine job.”
“Your VCness,” the Pro Vice Chancellor said, “we have a request for you. The staff have found out about this extraordinary VLE and they are anxious to see you in launch it via a Webcast.“
The Vice Chancellor was doubtful about using technology and showing himself online to the staff, but then he abandoned his fears. After all, no one would know about it except the ignorant and the incompetent, and possibly YouTube users.
“All right,” he said. “I will grant the staff this privilege.” He summoned his technical services team and a Webcast was formed.
A group of eLearning champions disseminated the great launch event and anxiously scrutinized the faces of their academic colleagues as the Webcast began. All the staff had gathered around monitors, pushing and shoving to get a better look. Applause welcomed the start of the Webcast. Everyone wanted to know how stupid or incompetent his or her neighbour was but, as the VC happily clicked on supposed links to content, a strange murmur rose from the crowd.
Everyone said, loud enough for the others to hear:
“Look at the VC’s new Virtual Learning Environment . It’s beautiful!”
“What a marvellous navigation system!”
“And the pedagogy! The learning models of that beautiful pedagogy! I have never seen anything like it in my life.”
They all tried to conceal their disappointment at not being able to see the purpose of an empty learning environment, and since nobody was willing to admit his own stupidity and incompetence, they all behaved as the two scoundrels had predicted.
A student, however, who had no important job and could only see things as his eyes showed them to him, went up to the nearest lecturer.
“The Virtual Learning Environment is naked,” he said.
“Fool!” his lecturer reprimanded, running after him. “Don’t talk nonsense!” He grabbed the student and took him away. But the student’s remark, which had been heard by the bystanders, was repeated over and over again until everyone cried:
“The student is right! The Virtual Learning Environment is naked! It’s true!”
The VC realized that the staff were right but could not admit to that. He though it better to continue the Webcast and demonstration under the illusion that anyone who couldn’t see his VLE was either stupid or incompetent.
And he stood stiffly on in front of the camera, while behind him a senior librarian held the login details for the next project, the imaginary digital research repository.
So a few years later on have we made any progress? The VLE is still being heralded as the way foward by some and some insititutions have more than one.
I work for an institution that has that well known Enterprise level Document Management Platform, Sharepoint, as it’s VLE. Does it work, well - not at the moment. Will it address our Teaching and Learning needs? Doubtful.
At this institution, as with many others, there are small groups, sometimes a lone voice, some sparks of inspiration who have been doing elearning for many years. They use free hosting, flickr, youtube, open source, anything they can get their hands on for delivering what they want to deliver to their students. It’s done from a sense of frustration trying to escape from the corporate one size fits all solution. They recognise that there isn’t ‘a solution’, there are many solutions out there so why not choose the one, two or many that address the needs of the learner rather than the monolithic structure that’s managed and controlled but empty, unused and probably unusable.