Myths and Misconceptions Reflections

Is Teams a VLE killer? That’s the wrong question

Many of Jisc’s member institutions are looking at the potential of of MS Teams to be a core system in the support of learning and teaching. Here Chris takes a look at the fundamental difference between Teams and the traditional VLE to ask whether one could be a direct replacement for the other.

Cheesy stock photo of people in a team jumping
Silhouette of team of adults jumping on the beach for some reason

[Part of an occasional series on Myths and Misconceptions in the world of technology enhanced learning]

We seem to be in the early stages of an important discussion in the TEL community. It’s one that I think will be a feature of lot of events and meet-ups for the next 12 months at least: is Teams a viable alternative to your VLE? 

I don’t think there’s a yes or no answer. In fact, I think the question is wrong. 

There’s already a lot of good reflection published online and I’ve linked to some of it below. This is just my reflection based on our work at Jisc with VLEs, our own use of Teams as a platform for learning and a visit Zac, Lawrie and I had to Microsoft’s UK mothership near Paddington a few weeks ago. 

I’m not the first to say it, but Teams is not a like for like swap for the VLE. They are fundamentally different types of system. This can be obscured by the fact that they share a lot of features. For example:

Both can be used to store documents and resources. 

Both can handle interaction, discussion and so on. 

Both can incorporate 3rd party plugins and add-ons to enhance functions. 

The difference comes down to the fundamental assumptions about how teaching and learning happens that are baked into the system design. 

Content and interaction

At the heart of the VLE is the idea that learning happens within a certain structure and focuses on the delivery of discrete units of learning and content.  I’d argue that content is key in the VLE universe.  

Teams’ assumption would be that the primary process, in our case learning, is interaction, either with teachers or with peers. Yes, it can be a store for content but I’d contend that the system is designed so the content supports the interaction, not vice versa. 

The point is arguable but I’m basing it on what happens when people follow the path of least resistance with these systems. As we observe with Jisc’s member institutions, the most common practice (not necessarily best practice, mind!) with VLEs is to use them as a file repository or assessment hub. They are capable of so much more and that’s something we try to encourage along with the TEL teams at most institutions. The fact remains, incorporating the social and interactive functions involves extra time and energy – both scarce resources for many teachers. 

Similarly, with Teams, the easiest thing to do from a technical perspective is to interact. It’s a communications platform first and foremost for people working in collaborative groups. We’ve chosen to use Teams as the principle platform for Jisc’s Digital Leader’s programme over a more traditional VLE. We are trying to encourage online engagement on the programme and once you’re in a team or channel, interacting with individuals or the group is only a click or two away. I’ve found the file management side of it, particularly it’s links with SharePoint, a bit perplexing at times, making it seem a bit like a secondary function.

It’s all about practice

The systems in use aren’t the only things creating paths of least resistance, of course. In education, it comes from a complex picture of quality assurance processes, assessment criteria, personal preferences and established practices. 

For me, there are a few key points to bear in mind. 

  1. Can we use the opportunity that this extra attention on platforms gives us to think about how processes, systems and technologies simultaneously reflect and shape how learning happens in organisations? 
  2. Teams-style platforms and VLE’s share characteristics but have different DNA. They’re also not mutually exclusive necessarily so we shouldn’t force ourselves into a binary debate. 
  3. Moving to Teams will not be a magic bullet. Yes, it may solve some problems and offer new possibilities but will bring with it a whole new set of challenges and shortcomings. 

I think difficulties will arise if we try to get one platform, Teams say, to fulfill the same function as the VLE and in the process bringing along all the same practices as before. A move towards a more Teams-style ecosystem should come hand in hand with a re-appraisal of practices in teaching and learning. 

Further reading 

By Chris Thomson

I'm a Subject Specialist at Jisc focusing on online learning and digital student experience.

3 replies on “Is Teams a VLE killer? That’s the wrong question”

AFTERTHOUGHT: A question for another time is thinking about Microsoft’s position in the balance of power with other platform providers but also with institutions and learners. We owe it to staff and students to also assess what it means for a large tech corporation to both leverage and consolidate it’s position as the main provider of platforms and productivity apps across educational, commercial and domestic sectors, but that’s a discussion for another post.

We are currently in the same situation. We have used a VLE (Frog) successfully over the past 10 years. It really was a place where students went to get school information and post assignments. Our Management Team made a big push towards Teams without thinking of the Parents access to homework. It has been ok for the past 2 months but come Septemeber Parents will want to be more involved. If there was a way to merge the best of the VLE with the collaborative side of Teams we would have a winner!

I think this is really helpful in highlighting that a Teams/LMS dichotomy is very much apples and oranges. Teams is a real-time comms app with some nice education apps. In this time of blended and remote learning it has rightly come into its own. An LMS is designed more around asynchronous communication and the curation and creation of content – including advanced interactive content that can free the teacher from constant and intense online interaction. And of course Teams and and LMS like Moodle aren’t necessarily separate entities – they can be fully integrated so that, depending on the teacher or institution’s preferred interface, Teams meetings can be held in the LMS and/or LMS activities can be displayed and completed in Teams.

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