There's no such thing as a Virtual Learning Environment

There's no such thing as a Virtual Learning Environment
2020-06-26

Educators around the world are thinking in earnest about online teaching. A global pedagogical experiment is about to begin. Except that there’s no control group. Everyone is doing it. And we’re all asking the same questions: how do we engage students if they’re not in our classroom? What is the experience like for students when all they have is a computer screen instead of a physical campus to go to? How are they going to form a community when they’re not actually together?

In many of these discussions, the term “Virtual Learning Environment” (VLE) pops up. I have to be honest with you – the world ‘virtual’ really irks me. It suggests something that is not real. Something that is less authentic than the world that exists offline. I beg to disagree: the experience of the past 12 weeks has taught me so.

Admittedly, the very first ‘Virtual’ meeting I attended felt weird; it was as if everyone was together in another room and I was alone on an island. It seemed difficult to get people’s attention (talking out of the blue is not my style) and the usual nonverbal communication didn’t work. But that awkwardness was completely gone by the third meeting. I started to notice that all the juicy, intricate features of social behaviour still apply online:

Some people talk a lot. The very same people who would talk a lot in an offline situation. When we are back to ‘real’ meetings I’m sure we will miss the mute button.

Sometimes in a ‘real’ meeting I wish I could become invisible. Well, in the ‘virtual’ meeting, I can! Just switch your video off and walk out into the garden. However, just like in a ‘real’ meeting where you can’t really do that, in the ‘virtual’ meetings I feel unable to do so. Looking at other people’s faces I feel compelled to stay. It’s a social contract.

In a ‘real’ meeting there are lurkers. Those who sneak in and sit on the back row, just listening. It’s the same in ‘virtual’ meetings; you know they’re there because their name is at the bottom of the screen. And just like in a ‘real’ meeting, you wouldn’t cold-call on them for their opinion – you respect that they just want to listen. They’re happy there and that’s fine.

In a ‘real’ School of Psychology building there is the chatter of colleagues from the staff room. When I’m in my office and I’m playing with the thought of joining them (recall that I’m an introvert and I need to overcome something in order to walk into a full room), I feel a pang of sadness if I decide I’m not brave enough that day. It’s the same with ‘virtual’ coffee mornings, knowing they’re all talking together and I’m not. When I do join them (‘virtual’ or ‘real’), it always gives me a buzz that says “I belong!”

So there is hope for the Virtual Learning Environment. There is hope, because Virtual Environments do not exist. The online environment is a true environment, with many of the same features as offline environments.

In addition, the ‘environment’ is not defined by physical boundaries alone. As the students come in contact with the material (concepts, ideas, problems) and interact with their peers (yes, online), their mind becomes the most powerful environment imaginable. It’s there that they might wrestle with difficult topics, expand their existing understanding or change their entire worldview. I believe it is our role as educators to make all of these environments (internal, social, online and offline) as rich as they can possibly be.

Published by The School of Psychology, University of Aberdeen

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