Using appreciative enquiry

The idea of undertaking a review of learning and teaching practice using the VLE can run the risk of appearing threatening to academic staff if they feel they are being 'audited'. Similarly, when talking to stakeholders about the current VLE, you want to find out what they like as well as what they feel needs improvement.

Appreciative enquiry is a technique for approaching change in a positive way. It starts by discovering what you already do well and building on this to dream and design a new future. There are examples of universities using this approach in the resources for this section.

Managing or learning

A 2015 EDUCAUSE report on next generation digital learning environments, concluded:

"What is clear is that the LMS [learning management system] has been highly successful in enabling the administration of learning but less so in enabling learning itself."

This echoes what we heard from many contributors to this Toolkit. VLEs are still frequently used as repositories of learning content and, although they serve many mission-critical functions, these are primarily administrative and designed from a course and tutor centric perspective.

The University of Lincoln produced this diagram to illustrate the academic and administrative aspects of the VLE. They are initially focusing their review on the teaching and learning aspects but note that it is important not to ignore the practical considerations of administration and management.

Andy Beggan CC BY. Developed with reference to Diana Laurillard's conversational learning model and ABC learning design.

The VLE is used for storing knowledge and acting as a gateway to it but active learning in the form of investigation, collaboration, production etc is commonly happening elsewhere.

Andy Beggan, Dean of Digital Education,
University of Lincoln

How well we handle management and administration does have an important impact on the overall student experience and we cover this topic in the section on Clarity and consistency on the VLE.

Top tips

Think about where your VLE fits in terms of the overall IT ecosystem and its usability. Students and staff need to navigate their way round multiple institutional learning, teaching and assessment systems. Use the opportunity of a review to address themes of integration, coherence and consistency for end users.

Are there any disadvantages to a review?

In general the process of undertaking a review achieves benefit whether the outcome results in product change or renewed interest in the existing VLE.

You should however be aware that the very fact of conducting a review with an uncertain outcome carries an element of risk. It is a costly and time-consuming exercise that can raise expectations that may not ultimately be met and cause existing momentum to stagnate whilst people await clarity on future direction.

This extract from a business case recommending continuing with the existing VLE highlights the problems:

Academic staff awareness of the existence of a review process has already led to variable engagement with new features as staff are unwilling to learn tools which may be changed in a few months time. The Learning Technology Team have already experienced significantly increased workload through the review and have had to reprioritise other work as a result. Continued engagement with the review will lead to further disruption and uncertainty. There is a significant risk of losing staff momentum on a range of projects as a result.

Anonymous VLE review project manager

You need to be very clear from the outset about the scope of the review and ensure that your communication approach manages expectations. Read more about this topic in the section on Stakeholder engagement and communications.

Focusing the review around learning and teaching principles and good practice in designing learning activities in the first instance can help mitigate against this risk.

Timing of the review is also critical. It may not be a good idea to undertake a project such as this whilst there are other major changes going on in the institution.

VLE reviews can be a very useful opportunity to check the tools you are using are the right fit for the institution. However, you can make a review achieve whatever outcome you want it to so you need to be very careful about appropriate stakeholder involvement, openness and transparency to ensure no undue bias.

Rob Howe, Head of Learning Technology,
University of Northampton