A couple of months ago there was a fascinating debate on the net inspired by a session called The VLE is dead at the ALT-C conference in Manchester. The debate was about whether or not universities needed to use learning management systems (or Virtual Learning Environments) like Blackboard or Moodle. Could we not simply let teachers and students use their own blends of social media, so-called personal learning environments, and escape from the central control and uniformity of the VLE? There's always a tension in most organisations between demands for central control and efficiency and demands for decentralisation, freedom of expression and diversity. Creating a balance between these poles is not easy and I find myself swinging between them almost every week.
One side of me is attracted to the idea of the university deciding on one LMS/VLE plus a select few other common tools and providing coordinated practical support for both students and teachers. The majority of faculty are not familiar with the latest social media and simply want to use reliable, easy and standardised tools. Too much choice can cause stress and confusion so a limited selection of tools with practical support appeals to most. There is a widening digital gap and I suspect that many people realize all too well that they missed the boat many years ago and feel they have no chance of ever catching up. As a result, some of them steer clear of IT as much as possible. The last thing they need is to be presented with the Aladdin's Cave of digital delights that is Web 2.0!
On the other hand there are the experienced teachers who are constantly trying new approaches and experimenting with new technology. They're the ones who feel restricted by the constraints of the standard LMS/VLE and advocate a free PLE approach. It's essential that we explore all the new opportunities available on the net but how do we encourage that without alienating the majority who want a stable and secure learning environment? I like the idea of breaking out of the walled garden and creating truly flexible learning environments but the vast majority of staff (and probably students) are not ready for such freedom.
I don't think students would appreciate a situation when every course they take uses a different mix of tools all with different log-ins (of course!). How does the university provide support for such diversity? How do we link them all with our administrative systems? How much academic freedom can you allow before it becomes unmanageable?
Too much flexibility can have negative effects; what's flexible for the teacher becomes a burden on the student or the administration and vice versa. As the conference debate showed there are appealing arguments for both sides of this question and the answer probably lies somewhere inbetween. Standard supported solutions for the majority but some kind of flexibility to let the pioneers experiment as well.