Most agree that the general way VLEs are used, and design of VLEs by software developers, is not perfect. However there are many opinions and viewpoints on what the way forward is.
A good starting point is the 'The VLE is Dead (or is it?)' debate at the ALT-C conference this year (note that the debate has moved forward now). To summarise, four stances are set out.
- VLEs are evil. They aren't focussed on learning, but are content management systems. They are closed to the world and contacts out there who you can learn from and discuss with. They are owned by the institution, which in itself plays a role in switching students off.
- Personal learning environments (PLEs) are the way forward. The VLE is based on the same paradigm as the factory system of education. Rather than promoting learning they are designed to commodify learning. VLEs have the potential to open up learning to those currently outside the institution, and we should focus on achieving this with them. The personal learning environment is set up by the learner, and we enable them to develop one that helps them learn.
- Use the VLE for now, to teach the teachers and learners how to develop PLEs. Learners don't generally know how to use these web services, certainly for learning. The VLE can be involved in guiding students towards these new web based technologies for learning.
- The VLE is good enough, and will get better. The tools in the VLE are good enough. Students expect consistency and reliability, which the VLE (if designed well and used well) should provide.
The idea of web based personal learning environments is exciting to me, mainly because that is where I do much of my own learning. My feed reader would be the centre of this, bringing in blog posts, twitter posts, journal articles and news, making it easier and quicker for me to follow and get involved in many conversations in a variety of subjects that I'm interested in. Someone else's environment might centre on their Twitter account or blog, and that's what makes this more personal than a VLE.
The personal learning environment model also fits in with creating lifelong learners. Where ever I go in life my online PLE is going to be available, unlike the VLE.
Have a look at Steve Wheeler's post, and the resulting comments for lots of other responses to this debate.
Another debate that is going on is talking about whether the system that the institution provides should be a teacher controlled VLE (like Moodle) or a learner controlled network (like ELGG). The 'Moodle- the wrong tool for the job?' post on the Learning Conversations blog contains interesting points related to this.