VLE or LMS?

Many people ask me about the difference between an LMS and VLE, and also CMS and LCMS. Although you might find articles and posts that state otherwise, I believe that there is an important distinction between LMS and VLE, and I would also use the term CMS to mean something different. Let’s start with a definition of each.

LMS stands for Learning Management System. For me these are primarily for training, rather than education. They are often connected to mandatory CPD (continual professional development) and generally tend to be used internally rather than being client-facing or used in education. Having said this, JoomlaLMS is clearly calling itself an LMS and in my view it would fit in more with the description of a VLE. So, as you see the two terms are used interchangeably. I would like to create a distinction here for clarity, nonetheless.

VLE stands for Virtual Learning Environment. These would often be characterised by constructivist pedagogical principles and are often used as a place to collaborate and extend discussions rather than merely hosting trackable learning objects. Many VLEs and LMSs have the same features, but the emphasis and also way they are being used would distinguish them. It is possible to use a Moodle, for example, for purely behaviourist mechanical drills and compliancy training and thus it becomes an LMS through the way it is used.

The reason I am making this distinction is that I still see a lot of ambiguity about the terminology in eLearning, perhaps due to its relative infancy as a discipline. I have seen institutions make the wrong choice when considering commercial LMSs and VLEs and I blame the lack of precise definition for this. In language teaching as well, we are often in the rearguard when it comes to implementing new technology, and thus many institutions fall into the trap of simply buying or creating a load of online grammar and vocabulary drills which have been authored as eLearning and then making this available to their students as the final and finished component of their eLearning implementation.

Now, I am not saying this is bad or that we shouldn’t provide such resources for our students. What I am saying though is that this is not much different from a glorified practise book. While the online format means greater access and the possibility for flash animations and embedded video/audio, at the end of the day these are still drills which are useful primarily for test preparation, but not for helping students to acquire communicative competence. No matter how good such activities look, they still fall under the category mostly of Behaviouristic CALL. With small adjustments, it is possible to expand the eLearning platform into the realms of communicative and collaborative CALL. For example, one of the tasks for students on the VLE should be to introduce themselves on the forum. Moodle supports collaborative wikis which are ideal as group projects, and can be given as assignments or class work. There are also blogs, which can be created for free and allow comments and following. These are great ways to get the class working together on projects and have the advantage of showing students ways to continue learning and practising in authentic ways after their course has finished. Another idea would be to have a high scores table or similar, which gives students the option of posting their best scores on a game and challenging other students. This should of course be optional, but works very well for more competitive students, smart.fm is a brilliant example of this.

VLEs do not have to contain all the content within them either, they should provide links to outside content and encourage students to source their own materials. On our VLE we have a side block which shows the latest RSS feeds from the BBC learning English site, which also keeps your site contemporary.

I would love to hear what you are doing at your school and if you have any questions or ideas please share below and keep the discussion going!