Institutional VLEs, why bother?

As part of a current debate on the role of the LMS and the VLE in an agenda of openness, Amber suggests that VLEs can be many things but they are not fundamentally evil:

“VLEs can be used as a platform for fantastic blended and online learning, but even if they are not used to that extent, they are still important.”

The comment I left in response was based upon a consideration that while universities are in the business of education, where students pay a considerable fee to attend a course, there is inevitably going to be a differentiation between what they receive and what someone who doesn’t pay a fee receives. This is actively being played out in many institutions as part of an exploration of pedagogy and platforms for open courses, especially MOOCs,  vs fees-based accredited courses. Usually these are different. For example, platforms tend to be more social to support large communities of dispersed learners in a MOOC, and pedagogies tend to favour tutor-based support for fees-based accredited courses compared with peer-support in massive open courses.

In exchange for the fee that students pay to attend courses at university, currently £9,000 a year in England, they might reasonably expect a consistent standard of experience across modules in their course. I think institutional VLEs should play an important role in that by providing a minimum module standard of content, support, and activities that students can expect. For some teachers however, that in itself can be a challenge to their practice given competing priorities forced upon most academics. Furthermore, not every teacher is an innovator – should they be? – so it’s inevitable that different teachers are going to provide a different experience, some better than others. Nonetheless minimum standards should be a goal expected by the institution for and on behalf of students. The VLE can certainly help with consistency through templates. But minimum standard is just that, a minimum. The maximum need not be described or prescribed. I’ve yet to see a VLE that stops a teacher from being innovative should they wish to be.

Conference Twitter overwhelm, is it just me?

Social Media Information Overload
Social Media Information Overload by Mark Smiciklas, on Flickr

I was at a conference recently that was actively promoting the use of social media including Twitter. Most conferences do these days it seems. It was a good opportunity to share thoughts and experiences with other participants and to engage with an audience not attending the conference itself by tweeting for example using the conference hashtag. Indeed there were folk back home that appeared to be tracking what they were missing by following conference session tweets, and in some cases there seemed to be meaningful interaction between conference participants and those listening in, which broadens what it means to be a conference participant these days in that you no longer need to be present to join in with conference delegates.

For me, however, I have a confession. I felt totally overwhelmed by the volume of information that was flowing through my social media channels, Twitter in particular. It was partly my fault for keeping my devices, an iPad and iPhone as it happens, always open during sessions rather than just listening to what was being presented. But also because I totally failed at finding any kind of balance between what was going on at the podium, and what was going on online. The volume of stuff that was being posted was impossible to keep up with, so I didn’t even try in the end. However that created another problem for me, digital eavesdropping. By not being able to follow everything that was posted I ended up felling like an outsider at someone else’s party. I was that person on the periphery of a circle of friends clearly having a good time, but not actually contributing. That is apart from the occasional comment or interjection that invariably gets ignored.

I enjoyed the conference but left feeling that I had actually missed a vital part of it, as others were saying how useful the online engagement was. How did they manage to participate in person and online in any meaningful way? Was I, am I, missing some important new skill for the new extended conference experience, and should I be worried? It’s the last question that’s been troubling me most, and regresses me to by late teenage years when I felt a mild form of social anxiety at potentially missing all the best parties. I’m sure that probably tells you more about me than it does at the use of social media at conferences. But I do wonder.

Anyway, wondering how people manage to integrate the tsunami of tweets (I actually referred to the tsunami of twits in my only conference Twitter contribution), what are your personal strategies for using social media at conferences?