Yours Metaphorically, the VLE…

The VLE is dead. This is what Martin Weller, leading “EdTech” expert, blogger and Professor at the UK Open University, said of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) in 2007. Coming at a time when the role of VLEs in higher education was a topic of intense debate, the statement provoked a memorable discussion in the history of EdTech. This debate has resurfaced from time-to-time over the years, particularly in relation to the dominance of the VLE in our educational institutions and the language we use to describe this type of learning technology platform.

Original VLE Blog Post

A recent paper by three Irish scholars, Dr Tom Farrelly, Dr Enda Donlon and Dr Eamon Costello, published in the Journal of Interactive Media in Education (JIME), traces the history of the VLE through metaphors. Collating descriptive VLE metaphors over a 15-year period (2004-2019), the paper focused on 30 metaphors through a ‘search and selection strategy’ and categorised them under six metaphorical concepts.

Tracing the History of the VLE

In order to make the most of the literature available, including non-traditional grey literature accessible through the Internet, the study drew on metaphors taken from books and journals as well as blogs and social media — including a Twitter thread.

Inspired by Weller’s statement that,

“The ed-tech field is remarkably poor at recording its own history or reflecting critically on its development”

the team of researchers argued that either/or debates are simplistic and do not do justice to the nuances of understanding the development of what has become a ubiquitous educational phenomenon, especially in wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Metaphorical Concepts

The six organising metaphorical concepts introduced are Straitjacket, Behemoth, Digital Carpark, Safe Space, Smorgasbord, and Pathfinder. Here’s a quick summary of each.

“Image by Dmitry Abramov from Pixabay

Straitjacket, or physical boundedness

Metaphors: “classroom with seats bolted to the floor”, “walls”, “silos”, “one size fits all”, and “bus”.

Description: Views the VLE as constrictive to the lecturer and/or student and impedes personalised learning. The argument is that access to learning is generally limited to those who have institutional access.

Behemoth, or industrial hegemony

Metaphors: “Any colour you like as long as it’s Blackboard”, “Undead Vampire”, “Blackborg”, “Shark”, “Zombie”, “Minivan”, and “Baby Clothes” 

Description: Views the VLE industry as oligopolistic and restrictive in that it limits our choice and understanding of what we think a VLE is.

Digital Carpark, or content dumping

Metaphors: “Electronic Filing Cabinet”, “Supermarket Training Wheels”, and “Fast-food Kitchen”

Description: This group views VLEs as a place where online teaching content is simply dropped into, rather than as places of potential learning and interaction — a takeaway service of sorts.

Safe Space, or supportive tether

Metaphors: “Umbilical Link”, “Early Warning System”, “One-Stop-Shop”, “Crutch”, and “Security Blanket”

Description: This concept views the VLE as a supportive environment, regarding the closed nature of interaction and communication as a positive. Its provision of access to library and information systems for non-traditional students is seen as improving participation and inclusion.

Smorgasbord, or multi-functionality

Metaphors: “School”, “Airport”, “Kenwood Chef”, “Closet”, and “Swiss Army Knife”

Description: This concept emphasises the multi-functionality of the VLE in its offerings, despite the fact that most users do not make the most of its potential.

Pathfinder, or sine qua non

Metaphors: “Pioneer Species”, “Trojan Mouse”, “Keystone Species”

Description: This concept views the VLE as a pioneer in ed-tech as it lays the basis for future innovation in the sector — the first settler of sorts. It characterises the VLE as a “trojan mouse” in that it establishes itself as a pathfinder in education, but subtly.

Drawing on these metaphors the authors conclude that…

“Facing into a drastically changed education landscape, one can only speculate what metaphors will emerge in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through this historical analysis of VLE metaphors we hope to provide an opportunity to reflect on historical developments and contribute to the ongoing conversations around technology enhanced teaching and learning.”

Here is the citation for the full article which we encourage other people to read and reflect on as we consider and start to think more deeply about the future of online, blended and hybrid learning, and more specifically the next generation of the VLE, in the post Covid-19 digital-era:

Farrelly, T., Costello, E. and Donlon, E., 2020. VLEs: A Metaphorical History from Sharks to Limpets. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, (1), p.20. DOI: