Educators find that providing a varied educational experience is better for student attention, the idea of students having differing “learning styles” has been with us for a while (although it is contested theory and its worth looking at the research before making decisions).
Most would say that varying the learning method and the learning environment (class, labwork, fieldtrips) improve the learning experience. However when it comes to the online world we are often persuaded by the convenience of having all our students automatically added to limit our environment to the VLE and when we need more functions to add tools to the VLE. Indeed some institutions reinforce this either by policy (you can only use approved tools) or by funding (only approved tools have training and support).
Now all 3 of those are good reasons for using the VLE, – you and your students are automatically added and can find it easily, you are not going to accidentally break any rules (mainly data protection laws – something Universities should and do take very seriously) and if something does go wrong then there are people who know the system who can help you.
There are also good reasons for looking beyond the VLE, the online world is moving faster and if a new cloud tool does appear will probably be 2-3 years before you see it in your VLE on your campus (assuming development cycles and upgrades – there are faster ways for example you can use LTI (Learning Tools Interoperability) to plug tools into your VLE and this can be done with a couple of weeks testing) also VLEs tend to suffer from having to be all things to all people so the tool list grows making it harder to find the things you want.
The biggest reason to go beyond the VLE though is not about the shiny tools but about the 2 main aspects of the internet – sharing and open. A VLE is a closed system and so it is difficult to have conversions outside of the VLE and to bring individuals into it (other than asking for accounts to be created for external people and then emailing them the account details and the url and the instructions and ……..).
Outside the VLE you can share with anyone you have the email/contact for, and your students can as well, without having to get permission from a central administrator. Potentially they are learning with the brightest minds in the world not just the brightest minds on campus. The open part means that they are building up a positive digital footprint, all that brilliant thinking is available for people to find ( university admissions boards, employers, potential research collaborators). I still find this post “5 Reasons Your Students Should Blog” one of the best descriptions of why learning in the open is better.
So to provide your staff and students with the best learning environment you need a VLE (its a good safe starting point) but also a raft of other supported learning tools of varying degrees of open.
You support your staff to choose the ones that suit what they are trying to achieve. Your training helps them understand the implications behind the levels of openness they choose. You give them an agile route to suggest new tools/systems – and ideally make this fairly open as well. Then finally you remove as many obstacles from their path as you can.