Sunday, 22 October 2006

Is the end nigh for WebCT?

It is hard not to get carried away with the apparent frenzy for open source software. The open source model seems in so many ways attractive: the software is free (no cost); the software is fully customisable to the users' needs (with good developers); and it is constantly being updated and upgraded by other like-minded users. With these benefits, offered by current alternatives such as Moodle and Bodington, is a pay-by-subsription service such as WebCT unnecessary and outdated?

It's hard to find arguments in favour of WebCT. Murmurs from the blogosphere accuse it of ring-fencing student networks, encouraging inter-connection within the platform, but without offering anything back to the wider world web. This may not necessarily be a bad aspect of the system, as it may keep a sense of cohesion amongst the student body, whilst protecting copyright of work. This latter point has always been an issue for large learning institutions, particularly amongst science subjects. There can be significant monetary gains from some research, and a protectionist view to teaching has always made sound financial sense. However, a protected network of learning is likely to inhibit learning on a larger scale. Conole (2002) mentions that open-source VLEs adopt a 'more learner-centred approach of collaborative learning,' and the wider the accessibility and networkability of ideas and data, the faster new developments will come. As Oxford uni found with their use of Bodington, material that is openly available is great for the joint honours system amongst other things. Open source networks of learning ultimately benefit the learners themselves, and HE institutions that are true to a learning ethos, should support this.

The second main argument in favour of open source teaching systems is for the adaptability of the system. Oxford Uni again say that the fact that Bodington is free from locked-in code, it is fully customisable. And as mentioned in the Wikipedia link, the 'dynamic decision making structure makes strategic decisions depending on changing user requirements'. This cannot be done with WebCT. And with the current rapid rate of change and demand for cyber-facilities, this adaptability is vital, if learners are to be able to make full use of resources.

Finally, there is the concern that there is no longevity of connection between students after the course if WebCT is used. Sure, students can continue to interact using seperate networking systems, but they will not have access to the VLE unless authorised by the university. This I fear comes from an effort by HE institutions to use VLEs in a similar way to a bricks-and-mortar system. The student uses the VLE much like they would a lecture theatre or tutorial room. At the end of the course, students have no access to these rooms - they are 'owned' by the universities who control access. 
This concern is partly linked to Cousin's (2006) worry that the Higher Education Funding Council for England's current e-learning strategy suggests that 'e-learning should be driven by pedagogical considerations rather than the demands of the technologies themselves'. She is concerned that this mindset will 'block our view of the full potential of computer technology for learning purposes'. I share this view, that to fully realise the scope that VLEs have for initial and lifelong learning, universities must relinquish this need to create a system that models the traditional didactic approach, as mirrored by WebCT.

It will likely require a paradigm change, as Cousins hints at, or a new 'learning ecology' (Garrison and Anderson, 2003), if HE institutions are to support students in a way that makes full use of current learning technologies. And currently, it is the open source VLE model that takes things furthest away from a traditional linear approach, to something that has the greatest scope for adapting to current changes and potentials of online teaching and the changing needs of students.

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