Beware Walled Gardens – Part 1

Walled Garden

This post is the first of a four two part series, initially prompted by the release of Diipo, a new Web2.0 learning platform. In writing it though, it has come to more accurately represent my current thinking about Virtual Learning Environments in a broader sense. I currently use Moodle in my own teaching practice but have, more and more, looked beyond it’s walls to find tools that do a better job.

The trouble with VLEs

Diipo’s about page explains that it brings together social networking, blogging, online collaboration, file sharing, as well as the kitchen sink. It also boasts a secure environment allaying (the usual) fears about privacy and safeguarding. The combination of tools wrapped up inside a secure environment may provide convenience as well as reassurance, but at the same time, a walled garden is created. The wall separates the learner from the real world and often puts their learning inside of a silo, where it can be difficult to get information both in and out of. Moreover, as Colin Maxwell argues: “they’re (VLEs) closed environments, and only teachers and registered students can access them – but education happens everywhere and shouldn’t have these boundaries.” I couldn’t agree more having already argued that education needs to be given back to the people (en mass) not locked away.

This is not to say that all VLEs are bad. They have their place and some are used really well; you only have to look at the Open University to find evidence of this. Their VLE is accessed by a significant number of learners from around the globe, logging on, choosing to get their education online rather than from within the confines of traditional institutions.

However, many VLEs become nothing more than web based content management systems. They offer little in the way of effective learning and can turn learners off as much as they could potentially engage them. Doug Belshaw, interviewed at the Plymouth e-Learning Conference, suggested that learners do not necessarily want to have another place to put things… and went on to ask the question: should we not go to where the learners already are?

While Diipo, Moodle and other learning platforms offer a variety of learning solutions in one neat package it is my contention that the same is offered openly on the web in more relevant and manageable applications.

Social networking

In case you haven’t noticed Facebook and Twitter do social networking really well. All of my students use Facebook and quite a number of them use Twitter. Why would I choose to engage them in a social network that has zero credibility when they are already participating in the two most powerful and engaging online communities that exist? Privacy? Safe guarding? The fact is that Facebook and Twitter are part of young people’s lives. They spend a significant amount of time using them and so do many adults, including their parents. By blocking Facebook and Twitter in schools (as is done with many other aspects of the World Wide Web) we simply reinforce the message that schools are for learning and that anything you learn outside of the classroom (physical or virtual) is not as valid. Well, we surely don’t believe that, do we?.

Learning is changing; where and when learning happens is shifting. It’s time that more of us (educators/learners) begin to address this shift and consider ways to plan for what Dean Groom has coined “downtime-learning“. A number of schools and universities are effectively doing this, using Facebook and Twitter to keep students and parents informed about events, key dates and setting homework. Some, have gone further creating study groups and completing assessments online. Just take a look at Nottingham Trent University’s Facebook page to get a flavour of its potential and both Yale’s and Johns Hopkin’s Twitter streams are goldmines of useful information, available to not just their own students but anyone who chooses to follow them.

By following some straightforward rules Facebook and Twitter can be used by both teachers and students without putting either party in jeopardy. There is no need to be ignorant when there is plenty of guidance available about how to harness the power of social networking safely.

Embracing social networking as a useful and valid learning tool can remove many of the earlier mentioned barriers, and open learners up to a broader spectrum of thought. The truth is that  many of your students already discuss their homework with each other while they are on Facebook. Mine do, all the time. What else could they be discussing/doing while they are logged in? I actively encourage my A-Level Media students to put their finished films on Facebook as it will be the quickest and most effective way of generating the feedback they need to complete their evaluations. I’m not logged in, I’m not chatting with them online, but I am saying to them Facebook is good, it has value, harness its power.

A global classroom

Facebook (600 million users) and Twitter (200 million) represent a significant portion of the world. And the world is the biggest classroom there is. As we prepare young people to be successful within a global community should we not teach them within that community rather than shutting them off from it for seven hours each day? When they leave my class they go online (via 3G) and when they go home they log on. I can’t control this, nor can their parents to some extent. What I can do however is teach them to be responsible and safe when they are there; helping them to use the World Wide Web to improve their learning, to improve their lives.

Diipo, Moodle, Blackboard do little more than put walls around learning keeping the selected few in and the rest of the world out. They reinforce the traditional notion of teacher directed learning, of school based education. If schools do kill creativity, as argued by Ken Robinson, do VLEs contribute to this? Should we be defining when and where learning takes place? Learning can (and should) happen wherever the learner is. Perhaps, it’s time we went to them rather than the other way around?

Coming up in part two: collaboration, assessment and why Google’s myriad of apps is a better deal than Diipo, Moodle or Blackboard.

Image: Guimo on Flickr

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James Michie

Husband, Educator, Writer, Runner...

12 thoughts on “Beware Walled Gardens – Part 1”

  1. If you replace the word virtual with physical, does your argument still make sense? In some ways it does, let’s close down schools and colleges for the same reason. Should we not go to where the learners already are in the physical world as well?

    VLEs have their place for the same reasons that physical educational establishments have their place.

    A couple of my blog posts on why the VLE can still be useful.

    One of the key assumptions you have made though is that ALL learners are somewhere else. Are they?

  2. By the way, re 200 million Twitter accounts.

    Very few of those are used in any meaningful way.

    From Twitter’s very own blog

    # 140 million. The average number of Tweets people sent per day, in the last month.

    This means that the average number of tweets per person per day is less than one…

    It’s not been used…

    Of course doesn’t mean that the VLE is, but…

    1. Thanks for your comments James.

      To clarify my argument: I am not suggesting that there is no place for the VLE or schools for that matter. I wouldn’t want to put myself out of a job for a start.

      What I am suggesting is that VLEs are often chosen by schools for the wrong reasons. They often see a ‘learning platform’ as a one size fits all solution to engaging students in learning, in and beyond the classroom. The fact is that while there are pockets of excellent VLE use out there (your good self included) there is a significant amount of poor use (what I would call misuse). Part of the problem being that many VLEs, ‘Moodle’ included, are not user intuitive and lead to many teachers (and students) being turned off after their first attempt at using it. More’s to the point, for many schools, they become nothing more than a content management system rather than a learning platform.

      I don’t believe I have assumed that all learners are elsewhere as you suggest. We all learn in a myriad of places, school is one of them but more and more learning is taking place online. We only have to look to ourselves and the way we use blogs, Twitter, Wikipedia, YouTube and other online tools to know that. Would it not be relevant to use and engage our students in these spaces and activities as well? Without giving too much away about what I will be saying in parts 2-4, I think that you are right in that VLEs are what works for some. However, for many of us (I’ve been using Moodle since 2005 by the way) there are better tools that can be as easily (if not more so) harnessed to meet our learners needs.

      Finally, your stats on Twitter are irrefutable and I should have know better than to include figures in my post. That said, I think that what I was driving at is sound. The world is out there, a significant portion of it is on the World Wide Web and as such provides excellent opportunity for meaningful learning that in my opinion will not necessarily be achieved as effectively behind the walls imposed by the likes of Moodle and Blackboard.

  3. James – Last year our school purchased a content management system and I have yet to use it consistently. After reading your post I believe that part of my feet-dragging is the “walled-effect” you described. “Embracing social networking as a useful and valid learning tool can remove many of the earlier mentioned barriers, and open learners up to a broader spectrum of thought.” Is a statement I believe and model in my own classroom. Students use social networks daily for personal use, I feel it is my job as their teacher to model examples of how to effectively use these tools educationally and professionally. Thank you for voicing so eloquently what I have had a hard time expressing myself! I will refer to this post numerous times with my students and fellow educators, I am sure!
    -signed one of your biggest fans!

    1. Thanks Shaelynn.

      I also wonder if you have not engaged with it as you had already found tools that worked for you. When I began using Moodle, six years ago, it fit the needs that I and my learners had at the time. But as other tools have arrived I have simply found myself using it less and less. This is not to say that a VLE is not right for some teachers; it is to say that perhaps for some of us the VLE is not the right solution.

      Glad you enjoyed the post!


  4. A great post James.

    I agree with your comments regarding students & VLEs.

    Is a VLE just for students?

    Don’t forget teachers are learners too-often they use VLEs more than the kids do!


    1. Very true and I think that accounts quite significantly for the success of the OU’s use of Moodle. However, I am an adult learner and do the majority of my learning on the World Wide Web, often via my mobile phone. Do we really need bloated learning platforms when I can surf and locate what I need without them?

    2. Very true and I think that accounts quite significantly for the success of the OU’s use of Moodle. However, I am an adult learner and do the majority of my learning on the World Wide Web, often via my mobile phone. Do we really need bloated learning platforms when I can surf and locate what I need without them?

  5. Just a few points / ideas about the argument for the future of VLEs.

    1) Remember that the walled garden gives teachers / educators the opportunity to track and monitor pupil activity on the VLE. For example, time taken reading an article or attempting a quiz. Could the other tools offer such feedback? For example, how do we know that a pupil has read a tweet or a status update?

    2) Many schools open their walled garden for the public, releasing their old courses or courses of interest to engage the local community.

    3) In primary school, we operate in very much a wall garden for very good reasons…..if we miss secondary education for a second… University, again a walled garden and at work, questionably more so. Should we adapt for the 7 years they are at secondary school only for them to adapt again? When entering University, do people say to their lecturers ‘Send me a twitter update?’….no, restricted access.

    Yes, we can be more open to channels to communicate with students, but one needs to remember that the school is the driving force here. It is up to them to create a stimulating learning environment irrespective of which VLE they use.

    In essence, the water should be be encouraging enough for the horse to go to the water. We don’t need to always dig up new ponds for them to drink from

    1. Hi Laura

      I take your point about monitoring pupils’ activity and when I train teachers in the use of the VLE it is one of the first things they often want to know about. I will ask you what I ask them. Why do you need to monitor the time they are spending on something? Before the VLE, that sort of assessment would be made when the student submitted their work. You can tell instantly when a student has put the time in and when they haven’t. Watching over students and their learning in this way, IMO, pangs too much of big brother. I never use those features in Moodle as I trust my students to value the work I set them and give each activity the time it deserves. I know the ones who choose not to and deal with them accordingly. This feature of VLEs is not for me reason enough to merit their use.

      Also, you assume that all primary schools are operating behind a walled garden. Just look at the successful nature of class blogging by David Mitchell and his pupils at Heathfields: I think the students there are safe but I do not consider them to be protected by a wall. They have developed, having been taught, a mature approach to using the Web and other online tools. I acknowledge that their teachers act as gatekeepers to some extent but that is a more active approach than erecting a wall that does the protecting for you.

      I couldn’t agree with you more about the water though. It should be encouraging enough for the horse to go to and drink from. I just prefer mine fresh from the tap rather than bottled and repackaged.

  6. I agree in part James. I am not sure the emphasis on not using a VLE is helpful. In a school, the ICT team is obliged to provide technology services to teachers and pupils to help them use technology. If a teacher or pupil finds an alternative, the best technologist schools will facilitate a means of including that content in a platform that incorporates the class discussion. Should we embrace this? Yes.

    Should the school provision be available to the public? Sometimes. Should the ethic of the work be to publish to the world? Sometimes. What should the default position be? I think it is up to the people involved. David’s work at Heathfields will at times require privacy and discretion.

    Some of this agrees with your post. For me though, the possible flaw in your model is that school should not be somewhere the pupils go. This echoes the comments of @jamesclay a bit. It is okay for a school to be a place pupils go – physically or virtually. Another destination on their journey. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be beneficial for school activities to push out to pupils facebook feeds.

    I suppose, the ultimate model is to facilitate pupils to create and publish to the world but feed this into the micro-community where the learning is monitored. Whatever social network or learning platform is being used it is vital that those exploiting technology are able to include their evidence without building it again.

    Google Apps is a great facilitator of this sort of approach. Blogs even more so possibly. It might be (someday) that every pupil has a blog and that becomes their tool of choice. Posts can be fed into a school platform where they are relevant and to draw attention of others in the micro-community (class).

    I have played with online text assignments in Moodle where pupils had to upload a link. A bit round the houses but it allowed pupils to choose their weapon of choice. I was able to edit or comment in the chosen app or service and mark and comment in Moodle. Not perfect but effective. Not easy at first.

    I like the thrust of your idea but I think caution is required. The answers are always complex. One thing I am ever-increasingly clear about is that lock down is wrong.

    1. I agree with most of what you have said Dai and I don’t want to comment here too much on blogging as I will be addressing that in Part 3.

      What I would argue is that in the current model students have to come to school or the VLE. Could we not have a system where they choose where and when to get their education? Radical and fraught with dangers but empowering none the less.

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