Over the two days I heard a dull introductory speech by Charles Saumarez Smith, an excellent keynote address by Gráinne Conole, and attended a series of parallel sessions where 17 presentations were made on various subjects including: blogging, podcasting, the use of 3D environments in design teaching, visual literacy, teaching rhetoric online, Second Life, and various always fascinating takes on e-learning practice. I met some very nice people and exchanged a lot of useful information with colleagues. One balmy summer evening we were all treated to a superb dinner at the Tate Modern, and whilst chatting amiably on a terrace high up on the river side of the building watched the sun go down over the city. Marvellous.
I came away from the conference with two over-riding impressions. Firstly, that teaching staff universally loathe the Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) they use. I didn’t meet a single person who had one good word to say about either Blackboard or WebCT. Frankly, I’m not surprised: as pieces of software they’re slow, clunky, lumpy, and plain butt ugly. The only VLE anyone seems even vaguely enthusiastic about is Moodle, which I can’t comment on because I’ve never used it.
Secondly, a theme that emerged from the presentations was that students were using a wide range of services and devices as technological support for their learning: iPods, mobile phones, blogs, wikis, search engines, and other “peer approved” social networking sites. Communication was seen as being mixed mode, and, importantly, not necessarily routing through institutional channels. (For example, how many students use their university email account? That would be roughly, er, none.)
Now clearly these two observations are related! They suggest to me that the current generation of VLEs are not fit for purpose. They’re totally outmoded; huge, lumbering, expensive dinosaurs. The softwares available on the open market—usually free—are vastly superior in terms of both their technical implementation and the underlying design principles: they’re open, adaptive, ever-evolving, personal, social, creative, involving, and yes even fun.
They are truly software.
That’s it. An excellent conference that provided much food for thought (if not necessarily any answers).
[Note: Looking at the Blackboard and Web CT websites it seems they’ve now merged into one company. Shudder….]