Next Generation Learning Environments: my tuppence-worth

Jisc is consulting priorities for co-design programmes, and one of the themes is next generation learning environments #ngdle #codesign16

If you don’t know me: I manage the central Academic Technology team at the University of Warwick, and prior to that I’ve worked in educational technology since 1999, including two stints at Jisc. I’m very aware of the history of VLEs and the openness agenda. I work in an IT services context as well as in an academic development context, with lots of great people. Learning Environments are at the heart of what we do, and we use the Extended Classroom concept as an umbrella for the shared institutional infrastructure and support at Warwick.

So, there is a co-design consultation about learning environments and I have got nowhere close to reading all the responses so far. I’d be very glad of suggestions for people saying things similar to what follows. Please do comment. I plan to join in the tweet chat on 22nd November.

Here’s my tuppence-worth …

British pre-decimal twopence 1797 obverse.png

a tuppence. thanks wikipedia

I feel driven to write this because I don’t recognise what a lot of people are saying.

Some of the criticisms of VLEs are criticisms of curriculum approach. Some are criticisms of even what we teach, let alone how. Sure, these issues come up in discussions about teaching and about technology-enhanced learning. I haven’t yet seen a compelling description of exactly what’s wrong with VLEs at the moment.

Some of the criticisms of what’s wrong with teaching come from disciplines where unbounded and exploratory learning have an important role in the knowledge model. Voices from Education and Sociology are loud. Voices from Humanities subjects on the impossibility and danger of an over-prescriptive curriculum are loud. What about engineering? chemistry? archaeology? medicine? law? Disciplines with a lot of foundational knowledge, or with external accreditation bodies? These are as much part of Universities as philosophy and literature (my degree, for what it’s worth!). Are those voices saying the same thing? Or are they being drowned out?

And another thing … part of the criticisms levelled at the VLE are that it is a tool of mass education. Ditto lecture capture is a tool of mass education. Yes they are. We have mass higher education. Would you like to choose which students you would have turned away in the interests of smaller class sizes? Ouch!

I’d love for someone to do a literature review of how many TEL approach pilots/evaluations are of small groups. In education. Involving postgrads.  I just don’t think the voices that are loudest are representative of the whole scope of what’s done in HE.

So … sometimes VLEs are criticised for supporting bounded, prescriptive, functional, vocational mass education. Which is kind of like criticising a hammer for being good at putting nails in the wall.

Let’s look at more criticisms about VLEs

People criticise VLEs for feeling like clunky old technology

I agree.

The VLE paradigm comes from the late 90s in an era where online interactivity was hard. These days it possible to add interactivity, social interaction and all kinds of clickety clickety action into webpages. Then it needed something that felt like a system. VLEs look like Content Management Systems (CMS) rather than the front end webpages produced by CMSs. It probably derives from them being swiss army knives (as someone commented already). Does it sometimes feel like VLEs are clunky interface design? Yes.

Point accepted.

People criticise VLEs for being systems you have to learn

I disagree.

Expert systems are part of life. If you want to do online banking you need to get used to online banking. If you work in a company you need to get used to their systems. I don’t see a problem with students having to learn their way around a VLE. Actually I think it’s a skill that everybody should have. Websites should be intuitive. Expert systems might not be.

But sometimes the reason they are difficult to navigate is bad information design. And that’s because there are not enough people there to help with creating useful digital spaces. And sometimes its because academic staff want to make their own choices about where content goes. Soft-engineering through templates and locked down sections can be seen as prescriptive. Is that a freedom worth fighting for?

People criticise VLEs for being manifestations of institutional structures that restrict access

But …

VLEs are about restricting access to specific online resources to specific people for specific periods of time. I think That’s The Point of VLEs. If we accept that part of their function is to bring the right people together at the right time, maybe we should look to new technological models to do that. I can imagine a VLE which is actually a framework that glues together activities and content hosted on best-of-breed tools. This is what LTI begins to do. VLE as a shared service identity provider. Couldn’t the VLE be a point of authentication of individuals and groups into a wide variety of tools and spaces? The VLE as identity provider and portal.

Three reasons why the university should be a gatekeeper:

  • The university buys access to software, tools and content on behalf of learners and it needs to manage access. That’s how publishers and software companies work.
  • There is value in institutional identities instead of facebook or google. Why should a student have to connect their personal selves to their student selves? The institutional identifier is the lowest common denominator and allows for people to participate without them having to attach their other identities.
  • If we leave self-organising entirely to students then those with the most “social capital” will thrive. Yes everyone should learn to operate and thrive in a messy world, but we surely need to scaffold it to bring some parity to the starting points? Isn’t it fairer to facilitate students into groups and spaces to at least give a fair start?

But wait, am I saying all teaching should take place behind closed digital doors. No. Academics have autonomy and discretion to direct students to anywhere on the web for content and experience. They do need to ensure that assessment is fair though. Where the wild wild web meets the process of assessment, issues of ethics, inclusion and practicality come in. That’s about assessment design.

So I think the Next Generation Learning Environments should be a shared service identity provider,  to glue together the right people in the right spaces at the right time.

Hang on a minute anyway … this is all about digital activities. The term learning environments means physical classrooms too.

Good point.

This is where Dave White’s term “Coalescent Spaces” comes in.

And the concept of “polysynchronous” :

“Polysynchronous learning refers to a mix of face-to-face, asynchronous, and synchronous channels of online communication; participation by students in diverse locations is cited as a key benefit. It requires physical classrooms to be designed to enable students to seamlessly communicate with others face-to-face and virtually”

via New Media Consortia 2016 HE report, p12. Citing a post “everything you need to know about designing polysynchronous learning spaces“.

What does this mean?

So, 2020. I’m in the room. The academic is lecturing, I’ve had access to the notes and to some commercially sensitive content in advance. I’m annotating the livestream where I want to listen again. I can see online who else is in the room. My planner tells me I’ll have 15 minutes to get to the next session, and it shows me the coffee shop on route. I ping my tutorial friends who wants to walk over with me?

It’s not a revolution, but it’s helpful. And it’s possible!

Students, alone and together, with staff, in physical and virtual spaces. Blending the online and offline social aspects. Without everyone having to give their facebook identity or google identity into the mix. Because institutional learning environments should be smart, flexible and inclusive.

Thanks for reading



21/11/16 16:00 things I forgot to include on the original post:

  1. I knew i’d forget something: the environment needs to allow staff and students to manage presence/availability in smart ways. i think presence-management is a key capability for digital wellbeing
  2. It might be that users can sign up to a notifications service if they want to: google now or something i-ish, but it’s their choice and the Learning Environment just integrates with it. I don’t intend that we should DIY-build the whole stack. But it should be possible to maintain an institutional identity as far as everyone else is concerned, even if the user plugs it into another service for their convenience.


Two Jobs!

Two Three great Academic Technologist roles at Warwick

You wait for a good job opening and then two three come along at once!

We’ve been busy growing Moodle and Technology Enhanced Learning across the University. Thanks to a successful Moodle rollout in Politics and International Studies, Philosophy and Sociology, there is now a post available to develop the good work, ensuring that academics get expert support. And due to a promotion there is a vacancy in the central Academic Technology team to manage the central provision of tools and support.

These are professional Grade 6 roles, full time, £29,301-£38,183 per annum .

And there’s a half time Grade 6 post in the Students Careers and Skills service.


ITS Academic Technology team: 72117-116 (permanent)

Closing date 6th December, Interview date Thursday 15th December

This is a service management role within a larger team, we’re looking for someone to ensure that expert support is provided right across the University, primarily on Moodle. Contact amber (dot) thomas with questions.


PAIS/Politics/Sociology cross-faculty team: 78679-116 (permanent)

Closing date Tuesday 6th December, Interview date Monday 19th December

This is a departmental advice and support role, we’re looking for someone to provide support to academics within the department on Moodle and other technologies in the department.


We will coordinate recruitment across these two posts to make sure we get the right people for each role. Internal and external applications welcome.


Student Careers and Skills 78801-116 PART TIME

Closing date Monday 12th December


Digital humanities research: academic technologist vacancy

Another vacancy!

This post is focused on technical development to support research projects in humanities and related disciplines.

See Job Advert

The Digital Humanities team at the University of Warwick are expanding and have a new position for a skilled and motivated programmer/developer to contribute to innovative research projects, mainly in the Arts Faculty. Working in a small team, you will contribute to varied technology enabled projects spanning the range of humanities disciplines.

You will lead the development and management of a small number of strategically important service offerings that are crucial for digital humanities work. This will be realised through the design and implementation of robust, reusable, supported and sustainable technological solutions. The utilisation of and coordination with IT Services infrastructure will be key to achieving this.

You will have experience with the full stack of web applications and, in particular, demonstrable skills in the management of production web application environments, the prudent use of open source libraries/plugins to extend functionality and ability to code with PHP, Ruby, node.js or python in appropriate design patterns. We are currently developing expertise around Omeka and Drupal, so experience with those packages is particularly welcome.

This is a challenging and exciting role in a burgeoning area on the intersection of technology and humanities research. You will work directly with academics throughout the whole project lifecycle and will very tangibly contribute to Warwick’s research excellence.

Grade 6, £28,982 – £37,768 pa, Fixed Term for 18 months. See Job Advert. Contact us with any questions.

Closing date 8th January 2016.

By the way, if this sounds up your street but you’re more interested in part time contracting, contact us. We’re always looking for talent.

Come and work with us! Academic Technology Officer Vacancies

Back in June I shared details of project post we were recruiting for, and now I’m pleased to report progress on that AND two new vacancies!

The project to develop Technology Enhanced Learning for the Warwick Monash Alliance is now underway. We have been joined by Ross MacKenzie and Dot Powell for 18 months to deliver the activities in this project.

We’re now recruiting again, and we have two posts available. Both are Grade 5 £24,775-£27,864 per annum. They are Academic Technology Officer roles. Think digital skills, e-learning, user support, education and technology. Academic technology is a great field to work in, and there’s plenty of interesting work to do.

One is an 18 month project post to work with Ross and Dot on the Alliance TEL Project. Academic Technology Officer, See Advert for 76718-105.

One is a permanent service post to work with Jim Judges, Richard Clay, Russ Boyatt, Samuel Moulem and the rest of the Academic Technology team, supporting the university in its effective use of technology enhanced learning tools. Academic Technology Officer, Grade 5. See Advert for 76802-105

They require similar skills but are slightly different types of work. The permanent post is about providing specialist user support to an established service, whereas the 18 month project post is more about getting new things started. They’ll suit different people with similar skills but if you’re not sure what suits you you are very welcome to apply for both. We’re a friendly and expert team and these are both great roles.

The closing date for both posts is 4th November and interviews will be on the 16th or 17th November.

Please do email me if you’d like any further information. I’d love to hear from potential applicants!

TEL Manager Role available!

Time flies, it’s over 6 months since my last post, when I posted on what it means to be a learning technologist.

I’m now pleased to announce a new post we’re currently recruiting for.

Warwick has an Alliance with Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. We have agreed an Alliance Education Strategy that will draw on the strengths of both partners to further enhance teaching, learning and the student experience at both sites.

We’re looking for a Senior Academic Technologist TEL specialist to manage several projects and ensure that the technology enhanced learning (TEL) aspects of the plan are in place. It is a full time 18 month post and will be an interesting and varied role. You will be a part of the Academic Technology team in IT Services and we are recruiting two other roles to work alongside you.

Responsibilities will include supporting online lectures and online classes, supporting the development of a teaching materials repository, and advising on the redesign of course materials for online delivery. This is a great opportunity for someone with a range of TEL skills looking to make an impact on a high profile project.

Please see the job ad for Senior Academic Technologist (75856-065) through the Warwick University current vacancies page.

The closing date is 10th July. Interviews are likely to be 20th or 22nd July.

You are very welcome to contact me with questions, on amber (dot) thomas (at) warwick (dot) ac (dot) uk.

Perhaps I’m not one?

There have been discussions on blogs and ALT members mailing list recently about what makes a learning technologist. For the record, my job title is Service Owner: Academic Technology, which means I’m a manager of an elearning team in IT Services that runs the platforms/tools as well as supports people using them in effective ways.

I’m feeling a bit outside the frame of the discussion about learning technologies, because:

  • I work in IT services, because that’s the way we’re organised here, and I often hear learning technologists refer to IT Services as “them”
  • I’m not an academic or a teacher and I’m certainly not a “pedagogue”

If that’s what characterises learning technologists then perhaps I’m not one?

What I *am* interested in is:

  • the place of digital technology in the student experience
  • solutions development and architectures that support the workflows of academics and students
  • the way that organisational cultures and individuals’ practices change
  • what the web means to the creation and sharing of knowledge

I’d like to think that in my 15 years+ in the field I’ve developed some expertise in some of that. I don’t have a templated answer to any situation, I have an accumulated pot of knowledge and approaches that I apply (with varying success!!).

I see the occasional moan on the ALT members list about the senior managers who write their strategies and spend their money and don’t understand how the world is changing. That’s not my experience at all. I hear plenty of interest and passion from our senior team. We’ve just had endorsement of the Technology Enhanced Learning Strategy that we’ve developed, through the TEL Steering group that I chair, and there was plenty of recognition of the importance of TEL.

I think what some people are experiencing is a shift in the point of engagement and the type of support offered by a central learning technologist team, or a departmental elearning lead. Here’s what I mean, with some examples of the types of activity in each zone (this is absolutely not comprehensive):


With a very broad brush, I’d characterise it broadly as follows. From the mid 90s to the mid 00s, there was an emphasis on the bottom left hand corner and it favoured the skillset and mindset of the crafters. There were some great crafters who worked at Becta 15 years ago who were a good fit to the needs then, and have since left educational technology to do other crafting things. The approaches of working with individual academics also became richer, filling up the left hand column. People with great interpersonal skills and curiosity came to the fore. In parallel over the last 15 years or so we’ve had the maturing integration of platforms so that there are some learning technologists dedicated to the IT side of things but they are still driven by the values of teaching and learning. And there are managers like me who, hopefully, know enough about the tools and the practices to try to ensure that university level provision is good.

Incidentally, parts of my team also support research, and I anticipate a growth in types of research technologists. Maybe it is following a similar pattern.

I don’t think it’s just that the content development is being absorbed by academics, I think there’s more to it. In fact I suggest that in addition to the classic learning technologist, and the TEL-skilled academic, there are already several other flavours of learning technologist in my own university:

  • the staff developers and educational developers who are comfortable with learning technologies
  • the learning technologist systems analyst/architect
  • the student experience manager, also comfortable with technology: it’s not their job but it is part of their skillset and mindset
  • the orchestrator who might be a group/departmental administrator or a programme lead, they are at ease with technologies and know how to use them when
  • the content developer (they might be in the library, student skills, webteam) – they have learning technologist skills but wouldn’t call themselves that
  • the researcher/technologist who has half a foot in implementation and half in research – they pay more attention to evidence and theory than their IT colleagues, even when they’re doing similar things – skillset might be similar but the mindset is different

I’m sure there are more. Do I want to draw a clear line between them and the classic learning technologist? No, why sweat it? It’s great that so many people are engaged with the effective use of technology in education.

And another thing: I’m not an academic and I don’t teach. I consider myself to be a para-academic. (Like a paralegal, or a paramedic 😉 ). I have a particular skillset which has a place in universities. I’ve lost count of the number of sessions I’ve been in at elearning conferences over the year where the presenter asks “how many people in the room actually teach?”. Cue a few hands raised and the majority looking down at their feet, embarrassed, as if the 5/10/15 years experience in education counts for nowt. Universities are multi-professional places and learning technologists, in all their flavours, have a rightful place at the table. People like me shouldn’t have to pretend to be something we’re not.

Hopefully this post gives a voice to other learning technologists who feel like they don’t fit the standard description.

Why VLEs aren’t evil

D’Arcy Norman has written “On the false binary of LMS and open” and like Sheila MacNeill, and Peter Reed, I am glad someone else has put this perspective into words.

I too am a big advocate of openness, of open source, of open practice. I think the world wide web is changing the nature of knowledge, I think scholarship needs to evolve. I love the narratives of Catherine Cronin and Audrey Watters. And I am also very proud of what my colleagues are doing with our Moodle. I’m excited about the challenge of creating a consistent, quality, trusted environment that meet student’s “transactional” needs, that provides for the “hygiene” factors. If nothing “transformational” or pedagogically innovative took place it would still not be wasted time.

I know from my own student experience that there are all sorts of anxieties and hassles that can distract from the hard work of learning. As Rob O’Toole would put it: “extraneous cognitive load”. Cutting down on confusion is important. And also I know that there are questions that students help each other with: “when is it due in? how do I know which lab session to go to? did anyone else understand that critique?”. I was lucky, I was a very sociable student, and confident enough to ask the lecturer anything. Many were not, and those that didn’t go out for the post-lecture coffee chat (for reasons of money, or childcare, or culture, or shyness), were surely disadvantaged. We owe it to all our students to provide them with good information about their modules and provide forums for additional information to be exchanged. As David Davies said to me, it’s an inclusion issue.

Outside the university I use online systems to do important necessary things: banking, paying my kids’ school dinners, sorting out my car’s task disc. They just help me do what I need to do and they don’t have to make me feel “wow”.

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. VLEs exist for a reason. I’ve had this conversation very recently and had started to wonder if I was out of sync with other educational technology people, so it is reassuring to see this anti-anti-VLE perspective surfacing.

As D’Arcy Norman puts it: “We have a responsibility to provide a high quality environment to every single instructor and student, and the LMS is still the best way to do that”.