There’s been an interesting debate going on in the blogosphere over the last week about the future of the VLE. It all kicked off with Steve Wheeler’s (intentionally over-polarised) post suggesting we should stick two fingers up at the centralised VLE. Posts from James Clay, Matt Lingard, Lindsay Jordan and many others swiftly followed.

I thoroughly recommend you read their opinions before reading on. Go on, I’ll wait…

Right then. My take on the whole thing is heavily coloured by my use of Unix-based computers over the last 10 years or so. To cut a long story short, it’s long been common on these systems to have lots of small separate tools which each do one job very well; you can then do more complex tasks by combining them in various ways through well-defined interfaces.

Compare this with, for example, Windows. Each piece of software is fighting with all the others to include every feature the user could possibly want, which results in big, heavy programs which take ages to load and are often full of bugs. I accept that I’m overgeneralising here, but I hope you understand what I’m aiming at.

So, one of the big problems that I see with the current generation of VLEs is that they try to do everything all in one package. The result is a textbook illustration of the phrase “Jack of all trades, master of none”.

WordPress, Blogger and others do blogging better. MediaWiki, WetPaint et al are better for wikis. Facebook and friends connect people much more easily.

I agree with James, Matt and Lindsay (and, I suspect, Steve as well, despite the stance in his post) that there’s still a place for the centrally-run VLE. But it should be more flexible. The word that keeps coming to my mind is ‘agile’. We should be following good software engineering principles and providing tools that are best-of-breed and put the effort instead into making them play nicely together. And we should give learners and teachers the option of using something else if they prefer.

This is where the idea of the personal web/personal learning environment comes into play. By providing a diverse toolset instead of insisting on one monolithic solution our learners and teachers can choose what works best for them. The VLE can evolve into a framework to help coax these tools to play together nicely, and to join them into a coherent whole for those who lack either the time or the inclination to choose their own.

Open standards will help with this. Open source will be a big help too, particularly if a community of developers with educational experience start to contribute. But above all, we need to start trying it out. We’ve got the tools already, all we need to do is persuade our institutions to use them.

What’s your take on all of this? Do you think the VLE should lay down quietly to die? Or should we bravely resurrect it and bring it back to its former glory? Leave your opinion in the comments below, or by linking here from your own blog.