VLE Checklist...  




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Some things you should consider before selecting a VLE

  • Will it integrate with your existing management systems?
  • Will it allow you to collaborate with others outside of your organisation?
  • Is it easy for staff and students to use without excessive help and intervention from 'experts'?
  • Is it easy to administrate the different areas of the system?
  • Does it have good reporting tools?
  • How much control do you want over the software and hardware?
  • What happens if the person managing your VLE leaves you?
  • Can you provide reliable access, e.g. 24/7, 365 days a year?
  • Do you have a strong leadership team who will promote VLE use?

Read Becta publications here.

Outcomes from Experience

A VLE has to be accessible to everyone in your organisation. Whilst leadership from the top is essential to drive the process forward, it is equally important that all learners feel a level of ownership and engagement.

A common problem encountered in schools has been an unwillingness for class teachers to develop online materials for their learners and an unwillingness for learners to engage with elearning activities. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Lack of clear leadership from the school leadership team (SLT)
  • A feeling of elearning being "just another educational 'fad' or 'initiative' that will go away"
  • A feeling that using elearning in the physical classroom is pointless
  • Inadequate or no allocation of time for training or resource development
  • Learners seem uninterested and remembering logins is problematic
  • Low level computer skills among non-ICT staff

Read the January 2009 Ofsted report - Virtual learning environments: an evaluation of their development in a sample of educational settings.

Early issues for schools have included:

  • Shortages of computers (and/or adequate specification)
  • Poor broadband service
  • Little understanding of what elearning is about or what is required
  • Poor software provision from private companies and slowness to respond to customer demands for improvements despite promises

Developing Issues of Concern [in the UK]:

  • Slowness of Government to respond to developing needs and changes with focus placed on business models over educational requirements
  • A mish-mash of systems and tools coming from a highly competitive private market and being targeted at Local Authorities and their educational establishments
  • Little thought for integrating existing local systems or insisting on national / international compatibility / standards of provision
  • Mixed messages surrounding collaboration between organisations - competition (League Tables) versus collaboration (Sharing 'best practice')

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The Development and Future of eLearning

(A personal view of VLE development)

The development of reliable and usable VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) and MLEs (Managed Learning Environments) has been quite a slow and expensive process. Even the UK Government’s own foray into building a national platform failed some years ago – with millions spent and quite a few red faces. These things have never been as straight forward as the ideas and levels of initial enthusiasm behind them!

Back in 2000, I worked for Cranfield University developing multimedia online lecture material for use on the VLE, Blackboard – created by a couple of twenty-something’s in America. After trying a number of programs to create PowerPoint with audio and video content, in 2002 Microsoft suddenly came out with Microsoft Producer for PowerPoint. In tandem with this, Impatica was supplying ‘Impatica for PowerPoint’ and ‘Impatica OnCue’. In conjunction with Camtasia’s recordable mouse movements, it was actually possible to produce some quite acceptable material – so long as you didn’t want everyone to see it! Firstly, Impatica converted everything into streamed Flash (to overcome problems of [at the time] low bandwidth and dial-up modems), but the work wouldn’t resize to fit any screen resolution and the average academic lecture could last for an hour and a half – so it meant ordering a template for a smaller resolution (that became difficult to view on a larger resolution due to looking rather small on-screen) and lecture material had to be broken into a maximum of 20 minute segments (to be small enough to stream properly). Secondly, MS Producer had incredible flexibility but, you needed to download the right codecs in order to enable your media player to run it – something that one of our clients had difficulty with, since their use of computers only extended to traditional office use and could not accept a version of Windows Media Player that would run the codecs or the program!

Even in spite of all this, both programs were very fiddly to use and mistakes were easy to make and time-consuming to correct. It was also difficult to get audio-video material to run in Blackboard when different web browsers were used. One solution was to resort to using CDs to send out. However, this rather defeated the point of real ‘online distance learning’. For several months, I liaised with both our partners at RMIT in Australia and Imperial College in London and also, regularly with both Blackboard and Microsoft in America – even gaining for a time, a few personal inside contacts… at one point I thought I was going to be invited to America to help them work on solving compatibility issues!

By about 2005, a new product crushed the opposition: Articulate’s ‘Presenter’. This was a very slick and polished program – easy to use and effective but, more expensive. Cranfield invested in this and ditched previous programs. Articulate worked well on Blackboard and bandwidth / broadband speeds continued to improve year on year.

In 2005, I joined Kirklees LA (Local Authority) who were forming a Collegiates 14-19 team partly responsible for delivering online learning through a VLE to support transporting learners to specialist courses at schools and colleges, not their own. This was the first time I encountered the ‘remotely hosted’ (in Brighton and London) ‘Digitalbrain’ and, at the same time, Kirklees started to connect its schools with broadband. Sadly, broadband connectivity fell behind schedule and users became quickly dissatisfied and turned-off from the “LA’s” VLE. Added to this, was an expectation from schools that Digitalbrain would provide two-way connectivity with its MIS systems – a promise that could not be fulfilled even after 5 years of lobbying! We persevered with using Digitalbrain (which changed to Db Education) and, in fairness to them, their product gradually improved and, as an aside, has one of the best ticketing help systems around. By 2008 the Db VLE became unrecognisable from its early clunky program. It also put a lot of work into its Primary product which is now excellent.

It was probably the continuing difficulty of creating 2-way synchronous links with MIS systems that has led Db Education to pull back from further developing its Secondary platform and at the end of last year they announced they would be acting as UK agents for the well-established Australian company, Editure. It seems likely that the Secondary Db platform will eventually be withdrawn and replaced with the more sophisticated Editure platform – leaving the original Db developers to concentrate on their Primary offering. On the face of it, Editure looks like a combination of Db’s slick Primary coupled with the functionality of Frog Trade’s Frog teacher.

When VLEs were introduced into schools, it was like the introduction of the first computers: Why do we need these? Traditionally, schools started with a need and searched for a solution. In the world of computing and VLEs schools were provided with a solution that they had no obvious or evident need for!

As time has moved on, schools, teachers and their learners, have not only seen the potential of new interactive technologies, but also started to demand more from what is available. Following on the heels of this, is Government Policy to extend and develop personalised, bespoke, life-long learning, opportunities. A mismatch of expectation over ability to supply, has led to confused messages from the DCSF and BECTA as to how schools should proceed with implementing its vision with technology that is only just beginning to catch up with shared reality. For a couple of years, many small (and some big) companies saw the potential of what was coming and took the opportunity to develop software and approach schools directly with their glossy sales delivery before the DCSF could really get their ideas in place – but, did not fully understand the requirements of education over its more usual industrial and commercial practice, or the demands that were going to be made on educational establishments by Government. This has created a situation where Government departments started to recognise what could be used, started to offer alternative ‘corporate’ and ‘free’ solutions (produced by yet more private companies) and added into its agenda first an ‘expectation’ and then ‘mandatory’ dates, when they would effectively force every educational establishment to comply with a media-driven, publically popular, Political vision.

When I worked for [what was] Bretton Hall College (Wakefield UK) in the 1980s, there was a bit of a joke that one year resources were centralised and another year they were managed by departments. This cycle had a repeated and alternating pattern about every 5 years. In current times, a similar situation has arisen with VLEs and MLEs. Should we have a local server in school, where we have full control... or should we have a remote service, where we have less control but, someone does all the maintenance?

After teething issues with broadband in Kirklees affecting the speed of a remote service, together with slow development and upgrades, many schools voted with their feet and moved to platform solutions which allowed them to have local in-school servers, providing faster and more reliable access. Sadly, one of the best thing’s about Digitalbrain was its facility to be able to collaborate across the whole LA; schools, colleges and work based providers. When schools started to ‘abandon ship’, initially setting up [allegedly] free open source solutions such as ‘Moodle’, and later, after some of their IT specialists moved to higher paid jobs, spent more money on ‘Rolls-Royce’ solutions such as Frog, the ability to collaborate between organisations was severely diminished. Learners travelling between schools and colleges to undertake specialist courses went with a planner full of logins – or just didn’t bother using a VLE at all – for additional working.

Another long-standing issue for the slow development of VLEs (and I stick to the VLE component here rather than the MLE) is the lack of time and support given to teachers for learning about a VLE and developing subject specific content. Instead, management has often hijacked the VLE for its potential to be a MLE providing all sorts of learner tracking and statistical evidence for successful school activity. Never mind the content – show us the results! Or to put it colloquially: putting the cart before the horse.

And just when some of the Secondary Schools were beginning to engage with the potential of a learning platform – BSF (Building Schools for the Future) arrived. Suddenly, we are back to planning for a managed service with the ability to collaborate across [a yet undisclosed] learning platform. This has caused much concern among LA schools – again at risk of losing their autonomy and choices for direction to best suit their organisations. You can tell in the BSF meetings sometimes – many finally end up nodding in perceived compliance but, under their breath they draw in a gasp of: “Over my dead body!”

I’m quite sure that it will all turn out much better in the end than many might currently feel but, teachers, schools, their learners, and their LA supporters have been here once too often. Expertise in diplomacy and change management will have to prove by example that the new way is going to be the final and best way. And even as we postulate and discuss the minutiae of VLEs, MLEs, and Learning Platforms – are we really going to see these as the path towards educational solutions for collaboration in learning, parental engagement, tracking, assessment, and political vindication, over the next 10, or even 5, years – or are we going to be led across a broader field of technologically open opportunities for mobile devices, social network collaborations, and discoveries only available through accessing whatever media is suiting us at the time – no walls or electronically barred confines – just truly open, life-long learning – anytime, anywhere, with anyone who can help and support our discoveries...

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