Online and Digital Learning

Reflections on VLEs, design tools, the Cloud and more: Grainne Conole’s keynote (Durham Blackboard Conference 2012)

Part of a series of posts on the Durham Blackboard Users’ Conference 2012.

Half-baked ideas

Conole openly championed the notion of using social media as a way of forming half-baked ideas into more fully-baked theories and practices. In this post I won’t be repeating the content of the keynote (check the slides), but will explore some of the key themes that emerged and attempt to contribute to the baking of the ideas.

The VLE as a Trojan horse

Conole’s keynote focused on the idea of the VLE (virtual learning environment, a centrally available tool to administer and support technology enhanced learning) as a Trojan horse. Effectively, this is a metaphor for the way VLE adoption in a faculty can be used as a way for teaching staff to become engaged with technology enhanced learning (TEL) and drive change (i.e. TEL is introduced in a subverted way).

Conole used the term “nursery slope for practice” to describe how staff can be gently introduced into the TEL teaching and learning concepts through use of VLE tools to “explore, develop and give students access to material.”

This approach describes what has happened in my Department: our adoption of a baseline approach has offered staff an easier way to ‘try out’ new ideas on the VLE. By establishing VLE usage as the ‘norm’, staff have overcome what may be described as a ‘threshold concept’ of the use of technology to support traditional face-to-face learning. Thus, elements of ‘blended learning’ are now more common on campus-based courses. For example, staff are looking to use technology to solve teaching and learning problems unable to be or inefficiently achieved in face-to-face environments. This is done not as a ‘special case’ but as a matter of course.

My view beyond the metaphor

I’d like to look at this metaphor and contribute some considerations. We must not forget that we are looking at the VLE as a conduit for a different approach to learning, or rather an approach to learning which complements or extends the learning activities that may take place in classroom situations. Our perceptions as learning technologies (LTs), aware of such learning and teaching practices and how these relate to VLEs, are different from teaching staff. The VLE may be perceived as new ‘technology’ by staff, not as offering a new ‘learning process’.

The concept of a VLE may be too abstract for staff taking first steps into TEL. They may have no prior frame of reference with respect to the tools available. This would lead to training and development focusing on the technical skills rather than a balance of technology and pedagogy. Hence, in using the VLE as a Trojan horse (taking the metaphor perhaps too literally), we may be encouraging a technology-centric approach to developing TEL.

The problem with technology-centric approaches is that we run the risk of technology being used for technology’s sake, without an appreciation of the underlying pedagogical and interaction differences that occur through online learning. The Trojan horse as a VLE must therefore be accompanied by the Greek army representing the pedagogical and interactive principles which underpin it. That’s probably where LTs come in.

Use of design tools

Conole presented a range of design tools which may be used by teaching staff to help them consider the pedagogical benefits of TEL. The approaches will be familiar with traditional classroom-based activity development, however there is a greater emphasis on interaction and collaboration.
Anderson’s (2003) model is one I particularly prefer and describes three types of interaction involving the student, tutor and content (interactions may be with other types or with themselves, e.g. student-student, student-tutor, student-content, etc). Anderson states that at least one of these interactions must by strongly supported by a TEL activity.

Hence, there needs to be more awareness of different approaches to teaching and learning which offer the opportunity for such interactions. See Conole’s slides for some examples of learning design tools.

Risks of design tools

A counter argument to the use of design tools is that they overcomplicate matters. (Just to chip in here, that I actually find design tools really useful!)

From my experience, small pockets of TEL activity can sometimes work to great benefit in encouraging teaching staff to think about the role of online learning to complement their face-to-face practices. I don’t go through a full activity design process all the time when advising staff, particularly where the activity is ‘low-risk’ in terms of the potential negative impact on the student experience. Instead, I use such cases as an opportunity to engage staff to ‘try out’ TEL. From my perspective, I think asking staff to consider in detail the learning activity may dissuade staff from adopting TEL through over-complicating the issue.

I am not for one second suggesting that the considerations of a learning activity should be ignored or that activities shouldn’t have a sound pedagogical base.  However, such activities are not planned with such detail for face-to-face tuition. As such, the processes staff undertake for online teaching and face-to-face teaching need to be equitable. This is particularly important when considering the often cited arguments of time, priorities and skill. As these processes are not equitable (or rather not perceived as such), this acts as a barrier to adoption.

One obvious compromise is to embed the processes of developing online materials firmly within overall course development processes, such as the module planning and writing stages. Where the teaching staff do not have expertise in online teaching, they seek out training and development in the same way they would face-to-face teaching. Perhaps though, we do not currently make clear that there is a different skill set required for online teaching and learning practices?

Beyond the VLE and use of The Cloud

‘The Cloud’ is the term used to describe the range of (not necessarily) free services available online. These services typically address specific needs or have a specific focus. For example: Google Docs is a cloud-based simple Office suite; YouTube is a cloud video hosting service; Facebook is a cloud service for archiving every detail of your life(!).

Conole acknowledged in her keynote that we need to be more conscious of the way that the Cloud is being used by our students. In particular, that we must “focus on activities not technologies.” Whilst VLEs provide “consistency, monitoring, common language and simplicity,” there are benefits also for students to use Cloud-based technologies.

One of the biggest benefits that struck me was the way that students will need to adapt to using different tools throughout their lives. Conole highlighted this by expressing the “need to support [both VLEs and Cloud]” solutions, as students will engage with different tools for different purposes “and at different points in [their] lives.” For me, this is one of my biggest concerns as an LT. Although the use of a VLE provides a managed, secure and private environment for learning, I feel we may be at risk of trapping students’ content in one place. For example, blog posts, assignment uploads, wikis – all of which are (we must admit) quite difficult/clunky to export easily from institutional VLEs for students to keep afterwards.

Conole emphasises the need to “integrate the VLE with the Cloud.” From my perspective, this integration is more important going from the VLE out to the Cloud, rather than embedding content in from the Cloud. At this point in time, I’m not convinced that the technology exists at a level to do this easily (easily as in from the ‘average’ student users’ perspective). Platforms like Blackboard, Moodle and Facebook are very good at getting content in (e.g. Flickr and YouTube embed widgets), yet getting content out in meaningful and controlled ways is far more challenging.

The dumbing down of the net generation

OK, so that might be a slightly over-dramatic heading, but it’s a threat that more of us are considering. We are all conscious of the way that knowledge is now primarily stored on the internet rather than in people’s heads (Ray Land touched upon this in his keynote when he talks about Verillio’s concept of the “universal accident”). Conole took a slightly different angle on this by looking at the way technologies are leading us down the path of shared ideas rather than facilitating new thinking.

Referring to the idea of internet memes (concepts, such as an image, which for no real apparent reason become iconic of a culture or in-joke usually), Conole draws attention to the way that the internet is a rapid method of idea sharing and imitation. A meme gains popularity because a majority (e.g. an internet sub-culture) circulates it and in effect labels it “this is good…”. This is dangerous in the development of new knowledge and understanding, as the only process that is occurring is circulation and imitation.

This is best summarised by the phrase used by both Conole and Land in their keynotes as the “convergence of thought.”

For a more detailed (and hence better) explanation of the idea of memes, see Gráinne Conole’s blog post on memes and metaphors.

Other ideas from this keynote

  • A few other points came out from this session, which I just wanted to make a nod towards here:
  • The preferences of learners to learn formally or informally (in discussion of MOOCs – massive open online courses).
  • How does the use of social networks impact on our views of plagiarism and collusion (because it is written is it any less different to the informal chats between classmates in the corridor)?
  • What would we do if we built the University from scratch (i.e. we are still bound by the printed text in our current thinking)?
  • YouTube video by Michael Wesch – Rethinking Education.
  • Digital literacy skills are required as a way of life. (I wonder: does this imply staff need to adapt to a new pace of life and adopt new digital skills just to ‘survive’?)
  • Establish your students personal learning environment: “get people to write down what their PLE is, what tools they are using, why, what don’t they use?” (I’ve done something similar and it proved very useful in helping to plan this year’s training support.)

Things to keep an eye out for this year

  • Learning analytics: the use of statistical and usage information to shape approaches to technology enhanced learning
  • Internet of things: pervasiveness of electronic tagging on everyday objects
  • Horizon 2012 report due soon
  • Creativity as a concept and creativity’s role in technology enhanced learning


Anderson, T. (2003) ‘Getting the Mix Right Again: An updated and theoretical rationale for interaction’, International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 4(2), 1-14. Also available online at (last accessed 8 January 2012).

Wesch, M. (2011) ‘Rethinking Education’, YouTube video available at (last accessed 8 January 2012).

Any quotations from my text above come from Conole’s talk.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.