HE…Just turn it off and on again!

By Dale Munday and Dr Emma Thirkell

Recognition of the importance of ICT skills and digitalization of higher education (HE) institutions is growing, with national, European and international policies (e.g., International Society for Technology Education, 2016, 2017; OECD, 2015a, 2015b; Redecker, 2017) acknowledging “the need to equip all citizens with the necessary competences to use digital technologies critically and creatively” (Redecker, 2017, p. 12). Developing effective teaching practices within the HE sector is an area of growing concern. Universities within the UK are judged on their competence in this area by mechanisms such as the National Student Survey (NSS) and Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), with institutions anxious to be perceived as offering good quality teaching and learning experiences. The question still remains as to what constitutes both of these ideas, although the use of technologies, such as online learning environments, has pervaded many university courses and the teaching ‘blend’ increasingly relies upon these technologies to contribute towards programme delivery. Recent evidence by Goodchild & Ewen Speed (2019) indicates that those who stand against the ideas of technology enabled learning (TEL) are at risk of being seen as “a curmudgeonly opponent of technological progress.” As Wheeler (2013: n.p) has pointed out: “technology won’t replace teachers, but teachers who use technology will probably replace teachers who don’t”

But what is the impact of this?

The modernization of HE institutions through embracing technological changes and new digital teaching and learning practices is gaining strategic relevance. The governance strategy for educational organisations should align digital age learning with broader modernization priorities of institution and should clearly embrace opportunities and incentives for teachers involved in the changing endeavour. Despite this, it is argued by Bayne (2014) that TEL is often seen as problematic as it overemphasizes the relationship between technology and education. Instead, we should be considering the wider integration of technology outside the pedagogy need, and challenging the use of it in line with the everyday world (Selwyn, 2014)

Is this happening?

Recent debate has centred around the fundamental role that the digital capabilities of educators play in their ability to support the educational development of their students and their ability in turn to engage with technology and self-directed, life-long learning (McKnight et al., 2016, p. 12). A teacher with developed digital capabilities will possess the capacity to develop a curriculum that aligns the learning outcomes with effective use of digital technologies, also developing the seven key elements identified by Jisc (2017) for creating students capable of dealing with the modern world. Nevertheless, Tømte et al. (2019: 111) indicate that the success of applying teaching and learning with technology is due to a “targeted focus on this from the government” as well as a strategic focus by HE institutions themselves.

Are we nurturing or hindering this process?

Current (and always ongoing) discussion surrounding the VLE and its possible demise, augmentation or now even requirement has arisen. With the emergence of Microsoft Teams to the fore, the landscape and discussions are changing. In March 2019 I spoke at Jisc Digifest 19 ‘Not a VLE, but a virtual learning environment’ (slides available but only a snapshot of full session). Since then a raft of blogs (even my own), discussions and even dedicated conferences have occurred.

VLE Collage

Yet data from the 7th Annual LMS Data Update suggests movement within and mainly between the traditional VLE vendors, Moodle, Blackboard, Sakai, D2L and Canvas, with the latter gaining the most momentum. An interesting talk (although there were many) at Keele’s Digital Festival 2019 was from Professor Helen O’Sullivan who touched on something I’ve been trying to address for a while now, a reluctance, aversion, or even inability to be creative. I believe, like Professor O’Sullivan, that current infrastructure can lead to pedagogic paralysis and a limit innovation and creativity in our teaching, learning, assessment and feedback approaches.

Prof Oreilly

Jisc’s Digital experience insights survey (2019) highlighted that 73% of HE teaching staff rely on the VLE for their teaching, yet only 27% state they use it regularly for collaboration and 24% asserting it encourages then to try different activities. So, my question is why have a technology that is so central and fundamental to an institution that really doesn’t command any enthusiasm to innovate or even (more worryingly) follow basic pedagogic principles and really create a sense of community for the students?

Why are we constantly compromising when other options exist?

Virtual learning environments (VLE’s) are now well established in educational institutions as a means to structure, manage and deliver learning activities and content. They are recognised as having strengths in student tracking and managing online assessments. (Jisc, 2016)

Or in other words, we’ve become so reliant on the processes for capturing and tracking assessment activity that we have neglected the underlying principles of what makes effective learning, assessment and feedback. Interdependent systems such as student assignment syncing with student records has become a major factor and are so deep rooted that it is difficult to see a viable way of removing just one element without an impact on the stability of another.

building with tree
Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

Add the reliance, and seemingly unavoidable focus on plagiarism detection, which is built in (or added) to most off the shelf virtual learning environments, which again perpetuates the drive towards specific types of assessment and limited creativity in curriculum design. I believe we are at  point where we have the opportunity to restart, or in terms of The IT Crowd, ‘turn it off and on again’ to reset and create curriculum based on the pedagogic value, not the systems that constrain us.

If we were to re-imagine HE, from its inception, would we really choose to use a traditional VLE?

I’m a huge fan of Microsoft Teams and truly believe that it offers the opportunity and flexibility to create an inclusive, engaging, challenging and connected curriculum. When you draw upon the inclusive and collaborative features of Class OneNote through Teams too, you start to envisage a real virtual learning environment. Although I don’t subscribe to the need for a ‘VLE’, as a virtual learning environment should be what you make it. Enhancing the idea of the VLE to provide an engaging experience rather than just a repository for documentation should be at the forefront of our thinking.

A Personal Account (Dr Emma Thirkell)

Working in collaboration with Microsoft Teams is the Microsoft Class Notebook; a version of OneNote specifically for the education market. The ideas behind OneNote (ie of it being a digital ring binder) are carried forward within Class Notebook. Class Notebook generates a pedagogy of choice for the teacher – one that a traditional VLE cannot complete with. Each student within Class Notebook is assigned their own individual notebook which is shared with the teacher. This not only gives the opportunity to provide immediate, real time two-way feedback but also reduces the distance between the student and the teacher. The customisable options within Class Notebook, in addition to those within Microsoft Teams which focuses on collaboration, give teachers a unique opportunity to both equip their students with the necessary competences to use a range of methods (written, audio, visual) in order to facilitate good quality teaching and learning experiences.

I (Emma) recently had to take over a module at short notice due to staff illness. While this comes with its own challenges, as the teacher I required a level of flexibility and adaptability that a traditional VLE would not provide me with. Consequently, I made the decision to make the VLE Class Notebook. It afforded the opportunity to quickly create, disseminate and deliver material to students, and for students to interact with the material in a two-way process in order to start building their own assessment. Despite initial reservations of going “full Class Notebook”, comments from the students indicated a motivation and engagement that I had not seen when using the traditional VLE. While one student suggested “OneNote is much better than a VLE, I don’t even look at that anymore”, another asked “Why can’t we just use this and Microsoft Teams for our teaching? It’s amazing! You can see what I am writing.


Ultimately this raises important questions over the type of learning we want students to experience: collaborative and flexible with an emphasis on two-way formative learning, or prescriptive and inflexible with a focus on summative assessment. Additionally, there is a need to ensure that students understand why they are using the technologies that they are, and to show them how they may personally benefit from them in their future work. After all, if it doesn’t work, we should just turn it on and turn it off again, right?


Additional Blogs

Evolving from a Virtual Learning Environment to a Hybrid Learning Environment

Is Moodle under threat from Microsoft Teams?

Is Teams a VLE killer? That’s the wrong question

Microsoft Teams – Moving from learner ‘management’, to learner autonomy and skills for the future

Thinking in the open about Microsoft Teams

Academic Adventures in Microsoft Teams

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