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:

Reflections on hosting MoodleMoot 2015

A recent EDUCUASE Report by Brown, Dahomey and Millichap (2015) estimates that almost 99% of higher education institutions support a Learning Management System (LMS); that is, a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) for those living in the UK/Ireland/Europe. The same report claims that according to the first ECAR survey of faculty and IT in the United States, 85% of faculty use a LMS, with 56% using it on a daily basis.

What is clear is that the LMS/VLE has become an established feature of the digital architecture of today’s modern university and institute of technology. Although the LMS/VLE has many critics, and was recently described by Phil Hill as the “minivan of education” due to lack of style, poor fuel economy, uncomfortable seating, and because people are embarrassed to have one up their driveway, it remains an important platform for advancing and implementing a modern digital teaching and learning agenda.

In his critique of the above analogy, Stephen Downs prefers to think of the LMS/VLE as more like a ‘bus’ that we value as a core component of our public transportation system. While it may lack a bit of style and not everyone likes taking the bus, it generally runs on time, you know where it is going, what to expect, and very few people would advocate for its removal from an integrated transportation system, especially given the level of disruption that occurs when there is a major strike. In this respect the LMS/VLE is a tool that has an important role in the basic provision of  digital learning throughout the higher education sector.

IMG_7130Therefore, last week the National Institute for Digital Learning (NIDL) was delighted to host 328 delegates from 26 different countries at the annual UK/Ireland MoodleMoot at Dublin City University (DCU). The event took place over four days and offered a lively mix of presentations, workshops, Pecha Kucha, posters, and physical and virtual discussions. Notably, approximately 2500 tweets were shared over the period of the event using the hashtag #mootieuk15.

After DCU’s President, Professor Brian McGrath, opened the conference, Dr Bart Rienties, a Reader in the area of Learning Analytics at the Institute of Educational Technology at the UK Open University, gave the opening keynote address. Bart’s keynote set the tone for the remainder of the Moot where pedagogical discussions rather than technical matters were very much the major focus of discussions. A video of Dr Rienties’ presentation will be available in the next week or so but in the meantime you may wish to view this recording from a previous visit to DCU in 2014.

Moodle HQ was well represented at the event and Martin Dougiama and Dr. Michael de Raadt did not disappoint in helping to keep a strong pedaogogical focus with their respective presentations on the importance of feedback and personalised learning. Throughout the event it was apparent that the decision by an institution or organisation to use Moodle needs to be understood as a strategic investment in supporting an open pedagogical and technological culture. In this respect, by analogy, in joining the Moodle community people and institutions have an opportunity to not only influence future decisions about the replacement of the current ‘bus fleet’ but also how to redesign the transport system to better meet our changing needs. That said, in his closing address, Professor Mark Brown challenged delegates to be more creative in their thinking about the LMS/VLE and to develop new metaphors for the future of teaching and learning through new digital technologies.


Finally, we would like to thank everyone involved in helping to make last week’s MoodleMoot so successful, especially Gavin Henrick and Dr. Mark Glynn. The following reflections from a number of NIDL staff who participated in the event provide further personal insights into some of the highlights of this year’s MoodleMoot.

Dr Eamon Costello wrote…

The theme of feedback which was central to Martin Dougiamas’s talk was a common thread that could be detected in most if not all of the UK & Ireland 2015 Moodle Conference presentations. Examples were presented of educational practices that utilised both new and longstanding tools from Moodle’s assessment toolset such as discussion post rating via scales, anonymous and double marked assignments, digital badges, student dashboards etc.


Indeed the Student Dashboard was the subject of one of the workshops on day one of the conference. The Moodle Moot was bookended by workshops/working groups. The day n-1 working groups acted as a form of user focus group for feature specification. A developer Hackfest was held on day n+1 at which code was written to implement ideas that had arisen from the workshop and the conference.

This year, as the Moodle Moot renewed its continuing association with Dublin City University, the decision was taken to take attendees out of the comfort (zone) of a hotel conference venue and plant them instead in the heart of the DCU campus itself – including eating lunch in the student canteen. Moving between buildings on the campus, to accommodate the large crowd for the keynotes, provided peripatetic moments to stretch the legs as well as the minds and put delegates into the physical student spaces. The link between the physical and digital learning spaces was made explicit by DCU President Professor Brian McGrath in his Welcome address where he outlined the University’s ambitious Digital Campus initiative.

An interesting backdrop was that conference took place within the context of a resurgent debate on the role of the VLE/LMS in the educational technology research community including an important recent Educause report. In his keynote Michael de Raadt Director of Research at Moodle HQ outlined his vision of how the VLE can enhance learning by outlining a view of personalised learning that foregrounds student diversity.

Technology is a strong focus of Moodle Moots and the pace of the development of the underlying technical infrastructures, platforms, programming languages, frameworks and development methodologies can be dizzying. Ultimately this all happens in the service of making Moodle more secure, robust, reliable and responsive, particularly regarding the diversity of UX designs in modern Moodle deployments including for mobile, MOOC and so on. The message of the Conference overall was a simple one: the call to continued enhancement of the learner experience. This mission is powered by a vibrant community comprised of specialists from intersecting fields and all anchored around a cornerstone of openness.


IMG_7170Dr Pip Ferguson wrote…

This was my first MoodleMoot and I was a little apprehensive about it possibly being dominated by ‘techies’ to an intimidating extent. I’m pleased to relate that this was not the case. There were lots of exemplars, case studies and stimulating conversations around the importance of pedagogy in the use of Moodle. I really liked the multicultural nature of the attendees and had great conversations with people from Denmark, the Netherlands, Egypt, the United States, England, and of course Australia and New Zealand. I found the conference inviting and friendly. The conference dinner was delicious and an opportunity to get to know other attendees in more depth. I also enjoyed conversations with some of the sponsors, whose products are designed to enhance the Moodle experience, even if DCU is not currently a user of some of these. I always try to engage with sponsors at conferences, recognising their generosity in supporting the event. The only minor criticism I’d have was the difficulty in moving from one stream to the other, given the fixed seating in lecture theatres. So I stayed in the education stream. I hope to pick up some items from the technical stream subsequently, and am chasing up the twitter feed for further ideas.


Noeleen O’Keeffe wrote…

Among the highlights of Moodlemoot for me was the presentation by Hiram Bollaert on the use of quizzes to teach statistics in Moodle, food for thought for our research modules in the Open Education Unit. From the presentations I attended, it is clear there is a lot of great work being done on improving the Moodle experience for both teachers and learners, with the development of some very useful plugins for instance. Of particular interest to me are the plugins on image copyright attribution mentioned in Nigel Owen’s talk which will be very useful when developing learning resources within Moodle. The ability to view a student’s complete submission, grade and feedback history is another nice feature presented by Jessica Gramp and Tim Neumann. It struck me throughout the conference that there was a great willingness to share resources and plugins among the attendees. Well done to everyone for a successful Moodlemoot.


Alan Crean wrote…

The event itself was extremely well run, well attended and had a rich variety of topic content. I attended the event in the vain of cameraperson. It was very much for me like a bag of Revels. By and large most presenters were intriguing and engaged the audience, yet a small few failed to captivate.

I think it’s a great thing to meet so many people from different countries with differing opinions and views and different techniques that have been put into practice. I have since made a new working relationship with a programmer from the Open University of Israel who is currently working on Moodle and Google Drive integration. The conference team worked hard and it showed. The schedule remained pretty much on time. Beverage and snack breaks boosted the energy levels regularly. The social event was amazing, really enjoyed the night… maybe a little too much!

Congrats to all who worked so hard to make it a success. DCU and NIDL should be very proud that such a successful event took place on our campus.