Virtual Teaching Environments – what’s taking so long?

I got the hump reading E-Learning 2.: All You Need To Know on ReadWriteWeb.

Allow me to opine at length, like my friend on Irate about. I shake my head and tut at the post-structuralist direction higher education has been taking for the past god knows how long. Witness the proportion of entrants who come trotting in fresh out of school with all the assessment-orientation, weak conceptualisation and attachment to clear instructions – immaturity, you might call it – which that implies. I note that while educational policy makers continue to (distantly and arm-chairedly) champion the self-directedness of learners and hawk all kinds of software such as ELGG to personalise their learning experiences and social lives, and Facebook to personalise their social lives and learning experiences, teachers are practically out in the cold. Teachers, the hope of the nation. They may perch uneasily, ignored by educationalists with student-tinted spectacles, on the growing heap of radical constructivist theory but nobody seriously thinks they should go away.

I endorse the Personal Learning Environment movement, but why does that mean that teachers have to be saddled with stiff-kneed moth-eaten virtual learning environments which belong in a donkey sanctuary? Like students, teachers need to create representations of their domains which are as fluid, enduring, expansive, shape-shifting, contingent as the knowledge domains themselves.

If this e-learning 2.0 project rides on syndication, and if it is vital that students have access to their teacher’s conceptualisation of a subject areas – as ballast and because the expertise of their teacher is one of the reasons they chose the course – then where are the teaching environments?

There is none, and I rule out the following as OTS teaching environments on grounds that they don’t do either the right thing or the thing right:

  • blogs – the content management for the non-blog content (pages etc) is bad. The default most-recent-first presentation is both linear and rigid.
  • Moodle (and all VLEs, I believe) – you should be able to, but can’t, syndicate all content. The course area boxes, and the boxes within course areas, are tyrannical and militate against meaning making. The content management is appalling.
  • Second Life – it’s just like real life – moments in time. SL can overcome distance, unite media, and enable (rather clunky) simulations, but for a whole course representation there’s a need for something more enduring.
  • Facebook – not very flexible at all. And unless it is indeed “the last mashup” there’s likely to be an exodus when something is spotted on the horizon.

Where does that leave us? Well, my solution for a Virtual Teaching Environment (VTE) is Moodle with a drag and drop interface, ability to visually make piles and link between them, blended pictoral/textual interface, ability to dynamically and visually – but loosely – link different elements, and a choice of different presentation styles for different perspectives (e.g. as file management style, graphical style etc). In fact, this is a departure from Moodle and what I’ve actually just described is Zoho Notes with a Thinkball garnish. But is it too much to ask for an open source Web2.0 VTE? There, everything a teacher created, uploaded or linked would be syndicated, and students’ reader software should allow them to arrange, rearrange and connect the aggregated material as they saw fit, as well as integrating it with their own materials (again, like Zoho notes). Ideally – and more than likely, given findings about students wanting more access to the “great minds” at their institutions – students would feel encouraged to revisit the VTE on a regular basis out of curiosity – how had their illustrious teacher originally contextualised the content which appears undifferentiated in the student’s reader?

So, none of that is very ground breaking. It all makes emminent sense. So where is it?

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