The VLE landscape

The virtual learning environment (or VLE) has been a feature of the student learning experience for many years.

The UK has always used the term VLE in preference to learning management system, or LMS, which is the more commonly used term globally.

A short history of VLEs

The first systems that we would generally recognise as having the components of a VLE were tools such as WebCT and Lotus Learning Space in use from the mid-1990s onwards.

Most of the products in common use have grown out of the higher education sector. WebCT was started at the University of British Columbia; Blackboard Learn was originally designed at Cornell University; Brightspace by D2L (Desire2Learn) was designed by a student at the University of Waterloo and Instructure was founded in 2008 by two graduate students who went on a road trip of US universities before designing Canvas.

Closer to home the University of Wolverhampton's WOLF (Wolverhampton Online Learning Environment) VLE was marketed as the commercial product Learnwise by Granada Learning.

Proprietary and open source products have coexisted as long as VLEs have been around. Bodington was developed at the University of Leeds in 1995 and later adopted elsewhere such as at the University of Oxford. Moodle was first released in 2002 and Sakai development began in 2004.

Mergers and acquisitions have been common with Blackboard in particular taking over a number of other companies including WebCT. The VLE market has also been subject to lawsuits and patent disputes. In 2006 the United States Patent and Trademark Office granted Blackboard a patent for 'Internet-based education support system and methods' which gave rise to a number of legal challenges and issues until the company terminated the patent in 2010.

VLE market share

The image below published by e-Literate shows the changes in market share of various VLEs in the US and Canada and the UK situation is not dissimilar.

In the 2016 ucisa Technology Enhanced Learning survey Blackboard and Moodle had 88% of market share almost evenly split between them with Canvas by Instructure and Brightspace by D2L (Desire2Learn) emerging as relatively recent entrants.

What has changed?

The above heading is deliberately ambiguous. It could mean what has changed about the nature of VLEs over time or it could mean how have VLEs changed our practice? The two are interrelated.

VLEs have traditionally been a home for learning content and criticism of the use of VLEs as simply an 'online ring binder', ignoring their capabilities to support communication and collaboration, goes back many years. The affordances of VLEs have developed considerably but, in the research for this Toolkit, we frequently heard colleagues bemoan the fact that their VLE was still largely used as a content repository.

Most VLEs are still used as drop boxes not tools for teaching and learning.

Stewart Watts, Director of Sales, Europe, D2L (Desire2Learn)

We talk about how to move beyond this type of use and enhance your learning and teaching practice in the section on Delivering the benefits.

Although the rest of the world has consistently talked about a learning management system, or LMS, the UK initially tended to think about the academic and management aspects separately. For many years people worked on creating managed learning environments (MLEs). There was never an agreed definition of the term but people generally meant a joined up infrastructure of learning content, support and administration linking systems such as the VLE, library system, student record system and timetabling.

The term MLE has largely dropped out of use whilst at the same time VLE products have grown in scope and begun to encompass some primarily administrative functions such as module information, announcements, assessment administration and sometimes even attendance records.

The trend towards VLEs becoming increasingly monolithic was noted many years ago and has, for the most part, continued with Jisc's 2016 report on next generation digital learning environments (see the resources for this section) stating that 'feature creep' has long been a characteristic of the VLE market.

... there is a worrying trend towards bloated and monolithic systems with endless features being bolted onto them.

Mark Stiles, Emeritus Professor Staffordshire University,
Death of the VLE? (2007)

Even though institutions renewing their licences with current learning platform providers will obviously benefit from this increased functionality, it is possible that the systems may become increasingly unwieldy and inflexible with high costs, in terms of resources and time, if migration to a new system is considered.

Jisc, Next generation [digital] learning environments:present and future, 2018

What really differentiates VLEs?

We talked to a range of VLE suppliers during the research for this Toolkit and there was a high level of agreement between them that VLE products were about 90% similar and each had a component of c.10% that really distinguished their product. Some went so far as to say they feel the VLE market is quite commoditised, with a very standardised set of functionality, and that clients aren't really asking for anything new.

Most of the suppliers felt that universities are increasingly interested in what the supplier is like to work with as a long-term partner. However, it was also suggested that many European universities are doing a better job of reflecting the emphasis on relationships and fit with institutional strategy in their tender documentation than those in the UK.

Universities really need to look at the whole environment rather than just a set of technical tools. They need to know that they are going out to purchase the right thing and see where it fits into the bigger picture.

John Usher, Senior Manager, Global Proposal Team, Blackboard

In the cloud world functionality that changes every three weeks isn't the deciding factor. In the last two years people have been thinking more about what is the business problem we have to solve and how is this going to be a future-proof platform?

Bas Ten Holter, Director, Higher Education Europe, Instructure

There is more of a shift now to focusing on where the University is heading from a strategic perspective, and finding technology that supports that vision. Universities are finding it much more important to find the right partner to help them achieve this vision.

Stewart Watts, Director of Sales, Europe, D2L (Desire2Learn)

An Excel spreadsheet of features is not how software is built. Universities should focus more on outcomes and less on features. You need to change the input specification to an output specification and then hold suppliers to this.

Anders Krohn, Co-founder and CEO, Aula education

When we asked universities about what differentiates the different VLEs, a couple of issues came up as key.

Assessment

Supporting effective assessment and feedback practice and the associated workflows is a major factor for many institutions. High-stakes assessment is also an area where universities are notoriously risk averse.

Some current UK specific requirements with regard to common practices, such as double-blind marking, are not well supported by existing systems.

People are also looking to the future and seeing the need to have effective solutions for digital examinations e.g. they might look to run live exams on campus through the VLE and therefore want features such as locking down student access to browsers/file repositories, and authentication.

Some universities have opted to decouple their VLE from their digital assessment systems and processes in order to reduce dependencies.

One of the institutional contributors to this Toolkit talked about suppliers being in a race to provide better assessment and feedback functionality and felt that any supplier who cracked UK requirements such as double-blind marking and anonymous grading would take a lot of market share.

Usability

All of the institutional contributors to this Toolkit have told us that usability is a crucial factor in the choice of VLE.

You may however find that you are faced with something of a 'Catch-22' situation in assessing usability: the bane of same versus the pain of change.

On the one hand your review might be driven by the fact that staff or student users have a poor experience with your existing VLE whilst on the other hand you find there is a close correlation between usability and familiarity. In other words users might tend to prefer a product that is quite similar to what they already have and shy away from anything that appears radically different.

In the section on Requirements gathering and prioritisation we look in more detail at what you actually mean by usability and how you might go about measuring it.

Other factors that you might think about when comparing different products include:
  • accessibility of the product to users with a range of disabilities;
  • whether the product is fully mobile compliant on all devices;
  • how well the product meets your needs in terms of undertaking learning analytics;
  • whether the product supports personalisation and/or adaptive learning;
  • how well the supplier's roadmap and approach fits your own strategy.

To the untrained eye VLE products are much of a muchness but, when you have a lot of experience in a particular aspect, you can see big differences between vendors.

David Walker, Head of Technology Enhanced Learning, University of Sussex

What is driving the market?

It appears that both institutions and suppliers complain that the VLE market is becoming highly commoditised with a very standardised set of functionality. It seems however that we get what we ask for.

The way universities write specifications has come in for criticism as the example below from the US shows.

Nobody comes to the table with an affirmative vision of what an online learning environment should look like or how it should work. Instead, they come with this year's checklists, which are derived from last year's checklists.

Rather than coming with ideas of what they could have, they come with their fears of what they might lose.

When LMS vendors or open source projects invent some innovative new feature, that feature gets added to next year's checklist if it avoids disrupting the rest of the way the system works and mostly gets ignored or rejected to the degree that it enables (or, heaven forbid, requires) substantial change in current classroom practices.

Michael Feldstein, Blog post Dammit, the LMS (2014)

Some see the procurement process itself as part of the problem. They believe that suppliers having to focus on ticking the boxes against an ever-increasing list of functional requirements prevents them from concentrating on what the real problem is that you are trying to solve. It also inhibits thinking about different ways of approaching this.

We consider this topic further in the section on Aligning with strategy.

It's a vicious circle: if specifications are designed based on the existing systems, and only the products that are best adapted to the procuring process survive, it makes sense that products get increasingly similar - almost commoditised - and less and less innovative.
Software should be procured as a solution to a set of problems rather than as set of features that the institution thinks it wants.

Anders Krohn, Co-founder and CEO, Aula education