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.