The VLE and institutional culture

One of the aims of the initial ‘engagement’ phase of the VLE Review was to broaden our knowledge and understanding about the current use of WebLearn and other online learning platforms at Oxford.

We’re pleased to announce that the findings of our research are now available in the Landscape Report: Current Use of WebLearn and Alternative Platforms at the University of Oxford (single sign-on required).

Quite apart from its role in the VLE Review, the work is significant in being the first large-scale research study in the University dedicated to the use of WebLearn. This means that we have some solid quantitative and qualitative data to replace the anecdotal evidence on which opinions about WebLearn may have been based in the past. This isn’t to disregard the very valuable findings of the WebLearn Student Experience (WLSE) and WebLearn Improved Student Experience (WISE) projects – both of which informed the VLE Review – but their participants were numbered in the tens rather than in the hundreds and they had narrower remits than the VLE Review.

One of the key findings to emerge from both WISE and the VLE Review is the complex relationship between the VLE and institutional culture. Digital education tools such as the VLE should both support an institution’s model of teaching and learning and reflect (or embody) its core values and cultural practices. In Oxford’s selection of the Sakai platform for WebLearn, the main guiding principles included openness within the University (allowing students to explore content outside their home discipline), openness outside the University (sharing resources with external users) and fluidity in roles (e.g. where graduate students undertake teaching) (Lee, 2008).

Guided walkthroughs and formal usability studies conducted by the WLSE and WISE projects respectively (Geng, Fresen & Wild, 2013; Laurent, Fresen & Burholt, forthcoming) suggest that, while Sakai made possible the enactment of Oxford’s values and practices through the VLE, this may have come at some cost: namely, sub-optimal usability and an inconsistent experience for students in particular. The challenge for future VLE provision will be to achieve a balance between, on the one hand, the flexibility needed to support a devolved model of administration and the needs and preferences of different departments and academics, and on the other hand, the constraints that may be desirable to make the VLE easy and pleasant for students and staff to use.

You can read the latest news from the VLE Review team in ‘VLE Review: Next Steps‘ on this blog.


Geng, F., Fresen, J. & Wild, J. (2013). WebLearn Student Experience Project (WLSE): Requirements Gathering Report.

Laurent, X., Burholt, S. & Fresen, J. (forthcoming). Usability Methodology and Testing for a Virtual Learning Environment. Paper accepted for publication in International Journal on E-Learning.

Lee, S.D. (2008). The Gates Are Shut: Technical and Cultural Barriers to Open Education. In T. Iiyoshi and M.S.V. Kumar (eds.), Opening up education: the collective advancement of education through open technology, open content, and open knowledge (pp. 47–59). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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