Using the VLE as a Trojan horse to transform practice


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I am working with a number of colleagues at Leicester on our upgrade to BlackBoard 9.1 (this includes the project lead – Jon Gunnell, Alex Moseley, Nichola Hayes, Ale Armellini and Denise Sweeney). This blog post gives an overview of an extensive survey being undertaken at the University of Leicester on the current uses and future plans for the use of our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) Blackboard, as part of our upgrade to Blackboard 9.1.

Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) are an established part of institutions’ core infrastructure. Effective use of technologies, and in particular VLEs, is a key concern for practitioners and policy makers in education. A number of benefits are evident: they offer a consistent/accessible environment for learners, they include tools to support communication and collaboration (such as forums, blogs and wikis), they provide a safe ‘nursery slope’ for academics to explore how they can use technologies to support their teaching, and they incorporate assessment and monitoring tools to enable them to evaluate learner progress. In addition, they can be used in conjunction with free Web tools to augment the core functionality offered by the VLE.

However, despite the evident benefits that VLEs offer, overall they are not being used to support learning extensively. Much use is little more than using the VLE as a content repository or what Oliver (2001) refers to as ‘Web page turning’. Academics lack the necessary digital literacy skills (Jenkins 2006) needed to make effective use of technologies, and see the VLE as additional work, rather than an integrated part of the learning experience. Furthermore, in research-intensive institutions there is a tension between teaching and research.

Leicester is currently in the process of upgrading to BlackBoard 9.1. We see this as an opportunity to help tackle the problems outlined above and as a mechanism for providing academics with the support they need to use the VLE more effectively. Essentially, we are using the VLE as a ‘Trojan horse’ to encourage staff to rethink their learning and teaching methods for the modern, online, student experience. As part of this work, we are undertaking an extensive survey of how academics and learners across the university are using the VLE. This will give us a rich picture of the ways in which it is being used (highlighting good practice), as well as insights into associated support issues. We are also finding out to what extent other technologies are being used by them. The survey consists of an online questionnaire, focus groups with both teachers and learners, and a series of interviews with key departmental contacts. We have the survey results and have started the process of carrying out the focus groups and interviews to be completed in February 2012.


Jenkins, H. (2006). Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide, NYU Press.           

Oliver, R. and J. Herrington (2001). Teaching and learning online: a beginners guide to e-learning and e-teaching in Higher Education. Perth, Edith Cowan University.




7 Responses to “Using the VLE as a Trojan horse to transform practice”

  1. Emma Says:

    “Academics lack the necessary digital literacy skills (Jenkins 2006) needed to make effective use of technologies, and see the VLE as additional work, rather than an integrated part of the learning experience.”

    How much of that, though, do you think, is related to the fact that many face to face students would rather speak to a lecturer if possible - that ‘proper’ blended learning isn’t really used extensively; i.e. that the overall time input required of staff / students is the same as previous, non-VLE supported units, it’s just in different ways.

    I’ve had one unit that I’ve taught over the last several years, it’s intended to be that the content is delivered via the VLE (mini-lectures, directed readings, exercises to do etc) - and then the classroom time is used for further exercises, discussing what they have done. etc. Only trying to get them to *do* is a challenge. Many see it as a ‘light’ unit as it’s got less classroom time. It often takes more or less till the end of term to get them to properly use the site the way I’d like. And then the unit is over.

  2. Gráinne Says:

    Thanks for your reflections Emma and I agree some students prefer face-to-face. Getting them to engage online is really difficult. We were talking about this in relation to an academic practice course we are running, which is a mixture of face-to-face and online. The participants much prefer the face-to-face sessions and it is really difficult to get them to engage with the online stuff… I think we need to be clear about what we are getting learners to do online and why.

  3. David Smith Says:

    I suggest that it is the way the courses are organised, the methods that the lecturer/tutor uses to engage with the students and the clear functions about using/uploading/contributing to the VLE. Students do prefer face to face when their needs are not being addressed by virtual communication. Setting up either blogs/noticeboards/wikis/skype or even email to establish a communication/contribution/learning channel is important and should be very transparent. If these type of expectations are clear at the start (with the appropriate support, Anderson and Bonk have some good material on this), then I have found a successful uptake of this strand of eLearning.

  4. Gráinne Says:

    yep good points David totally agree!!

  5. David Read Says:

    We recently upgraded to a newer version of Blackboard at the University of Sheffield and it was a definite chance for us (I work as a Learning Technologist in the English Language Centre) to introduce teachers to the VLE and to make them aware of how it could be used for more than content storage. Despite several training sessions, teachers are still using it largely as a file repository.

    I think one of the biggest problems is that Blackboard is actually a terrible platform for introducing teachers to the possibility of online learning. The interface is so poorly designed with confusing menus and sub-menus, no clear way to link between tasks you create and very convoluted ways to do very simple things. Creating any kind of engaging or interactive material is so time-consuming and laborious that I completely understand why they don’t bother. Several of our teachers have fallen back to using lighter platforms such as Edmodo or Google Docs simply because the UI is comprehensible.

  6. Gráinne Says:

    Hi thanks for your insights David and agree its a good opportunity to both find out what people are currently doing with the VLE, as well as providing them with good examples and guidance. We will see how things work out over the next few months watch this space!

  7. Dave Morris Says:

    Not only do some academic colleagues lack the necessary digital literacy skills (Jenkins 2006) needed to make effective use of technologies, they are also not given the development time to create an integrated learning experience.

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