Becoming a student again

Today I became a student again as I started my Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching in Higher Education.  The course is run by my institution, the University of Dundee, and there are about 30 of us enrolled in this cohort.  We kicked off today with a one day workshop, and whilst we predominantly study by distance learning there are a series of further half day workshops and we are all in small group study sets which will meet approximately monthly.

I’m looking forward to doing this course and in particular to reflect on the role that the Web 2.0 type tools that I use everyday will play in supporting my studies and helping to develop my personal learning environment.  It will also be interesting to experience Blackboard as a student, as opposed to a teacher.  Will my view on whether the VLE is dead or not change?  Watch this space!

The VLE/PLE debate and medical education

Wordle of blogs posts on the VLE/PLE debate

Wordle of blogs posts on the VLE/PLE debate

A couple of weeks ago there was another round in the VLE/PLE debate. Steve Wheeler kicked things of with his two fingered salute to the VLE, where he concludes that it’s inevitable that the personal web will win a straight fight with the VLE.  On a comment Steve has posted in response to a piece by Mark Notess on eLearn Magazine he does admit he is being deliberately provocative to get the debate going.  James Clay responded with his post It’s not dead … yet … followed by Matt Lingard with VL-istically speaking and Lindsay Jordan with The VLE/PLE debate. There is some consensus across these four posts and I find myself agreeing with many of the points raised by Steve, Matt, James and Lindsay.

Whilst I make use of the personal web to support my own personal development and think (hope) that ultimately it will win the so called fight against the institutional VLE, I too feel this is still some way off, particularly for medical education.  There are two main reasons for thinking this

  • the current low level of use of Web 2.0 tools to support teaching and learning amongst both teachers and students and
  • firewall issues in the NHS which prohibit the use of a number of personal web tools to support teaching and learning.

In his post James responds to Steve’s piece by saying,

The concept that the majority of learners are adept at using Web 2.0 tools and services, are engaged with social networking and importantly are able to apply these skills to learning is a flawed concept at this time.

This is a view I would go a long with and the report on Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World published by JISC in May 2009 highlights these same points.  For example the report identifies that nine out of 10 students will be regular users of social networking sites on entry to University, but they have little sense of how Web 2.0 technologies might be used to support their learning and they are not pushing for changes in traditional educational approaches.  This report also identifies the need for targeted staff development opportunities aimed at identifying and spreading best practice in the use of Web 2.o tools in pedagogy.

The results of a study by Sandars and Schroter in the PMJ in 2007 also identified the need for staff development on the use of Web 2.0 technologies in medical education.  They presented the results of an online survey which sought to identify the current familiarity and use of web 2.0 technologies by medical students and qualified doctors to identify barriers to its use in medical education.  This study found that whist there was a high awareness and high interest in web 2.0 technologies there was generally low use.  Sandars and Schroter concluded that for the potential of these technologies to be realised in medical education there needed to be increased training in how to use them.  A couple of weeks ago I used this paper to kick off discussions at the Journal Club run by my colleagues in General Practice.  Rather like the doctors in Sandars’ study my colleagues had an interest in web 2.0 technologies and how they could use them to support their teaching but all identified the need for staff development in this area.  What was also interesting in the discussion was to hear their feelings about the institutional VLE with clunkiness and usability highlighted as issues.

Working in medical education there is an additional barrier to adopting the personal web to support teaching and learning and that’s the NHS firewall.  A challenge that medical schools face is making content available to students in the clinical phase of the curriculum when students are on clinical attachments based in NHS hospitals and GP practices.  Our students can access the institutional VLE from local NHS Trust PCs (albeit very slowly on IE6) however they cannot access the University’s webmail and there are problems accessing commonly used blogging sites, wikis, social bookmarking sites etc because of the NHS firewalls. A few months ago I was invited to do a staff development session with the psychiatrists involved in teaching our students and asked to demonstrate some web 2.0 tools and show sites where free content was available. I couldn’t access about 80% of the things I wanted to show and had to rely on back-up screenshots that I’d prepared as a standby.

I don’t know how we get around the NHS firewall issues but I think there are positive steps we can take to increase the use of personal web tools to support teaching learning.  We need to provide more opportunities for staff development but also identify how we can encourage students to see how these tools can support their learning and not just their social lives.  It’s also important to keep the debate going and to encourage and support the early adopters of technology and pioneers in e-learning to keep on innovating and being creative in how they use technology.  There probably needs to be some sort of centralised VLE-type system which looks after managing cohorts of students and providing a secure environment for some activities, particularly in areas like health professions education where there are important issues relating to patient confidentiality which must be considered.  At the same time the VLE of the future should be more open and support the integration of open tools so that students can pull together their own content to support their learning using tools which they can continue to use after they’ve graduated.

The VLE is dead‘ debate continues at the ALT meeting in Manchester in a couple of weeks time.  Unfortunately I won’t be there but will be following on Twitter.