Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Figuring I.T. out

Figuring I.T. out

Virtual learning environments are the 'next big thing' in technology for teaching and learning. Jim Donnelly looks at the questions senior leaders should ask before investing half their budget in one.

The world of education has always loved its acronyms, as has the world of ICT; when the two collide, a new language is sure to be invented.

For example, the following will actually make sense to most readers: "We put our KS3 SATs, our KS4 GCSEs and our KS5 AS and A2 results into SIMs, which then transfers them into our VLE."

The only acronym that may be new to readers is 'VLE'. It stands for 'virtual learning environment', sometimes referred to as NLE (networked learning environment) or MLE (managed learning environment). They are occasionally used to mean the same thing, although strictly speaking there are nuances.

A VLE refers to a web-based package (therefore easily accessible from home or school) which allows courses to be developed and tasks to be set and sometimes marked.

It is likely to include a space in which students can store their work and can provide a means of communication between learners and with teachers. Teachers are also likely to be able to 'publish' materials on the VLE for their students to access.

Publishers are rushing their products to market, in order to gain a foothold in schools and colleges. Once this is done they will be able to sell more and more products, usually software packages, not only to schools and colleges but also, they would hope, to individual students.

There is undoubtedly great potential in a VLE. However, much of the early work in this area has been driven by technological possibilities rather than by pedagogical needs.

Early enthusiasts have also sometimes been guilty of ignoring the changes that are needed to the basic education infrastructure before VLEs can realise their full potential.

There are some questions which senior leaders need to ask before they commit time and finances to a VLE.

Reality check

The first thing that one needs to look at is whether in practice the VLE - or various pieces of technology used as part of curriculum delivery - will deliver pedagogical gains over ordinary classroom practice.

Is what the VLE promises really going to happen? Most of those who try, for example, to learn a new language using only technology soon realise that it is harder to be self-motivating without teacher and peer input and without an easy way to check for accuracy of speech or written work.

Just because the technology says that something is possible does not mean that it will work in practice. There are undoubtedly examples of good practice - the sales people and their glossy brochures will provide some of these - but they need to be subjected to proper scrutiny.

Many of the VLEs that are on sale expound the virtues of students being able to contact their teachers and/or peers in real time (now, not later). Do schools really want this?

It is one thing having a help facility coming up to examinations for a set number of hours with a paid teacher; it is quite another to expect teachers to receive work at any time of the day or night and have it marked for the next day's lesson. What about work-life balance? What, indeed, about some sleep?

There will always be enthusiasts - and they are always needed - but if VLEs are to play a sensible part in education then they need to enter the mainstream and that means the issue of teacher time will have to be addressed.

There are some cases where a VLE can be a great benefit, for example with school refusers and pupils in hospital, but the vast majority of students are educated in schools and colleges for a large part of the day. With extended schools on the way this is not likely to change.

Hidden costs

Some VLEs come with a high cost attached, not only in software licence fees but also the time needed to set up a system, ensure that resources are available on it and check the assessments that may rush towards the teacher.

Some CDs or CD-ROMs might be able to carry out the functions of a VLE more cost effectively. Indeed, the potential of such technologies is often undervalued in schools. Most students have a CD player and it is not too expensive to provide revision CDs for languages or science, for example. The same applies to DVD players, which are plentiful in most homes.

There are also two issues regarding student access. The first is that schools or colleges may be tempted to buy different products from different suppliers. This can mean that students have to access different pieces of software using different user names and passwords. This can be overcome by identifying one VLE, but then all the desired software may not be available.

The new Diploma in Digital Applications (DiDA) course requires students to create their own website as part of the curriculum and assessment. Other subject areas may have a VLE they want to use, which may require a different type of access. The school or college needs to make sure that they do not conflict with each other.

Home access

The other access issue relates to the large number of students who do not have adequate, unshared access to the internet at home. Unless the school can provide this - possibly three to four hours of access nightly in examination years - the gap between the 'haves' and 'have-nots' will grow even greater if much of the curriculum delivery is by a VLE.

I have looked critically here at VLEs, mainly as a counter-balance to the hype surrounding them. This is not to deny that they are of value or that they will gradually become part of the mixture of learning tools used by our students.

For those who would like to learn more, the website moodle.org is a good place to start. This is based on open source, or free, software and is proving very popular; its interface is available in around 60 different languages. Happy moodling!

Jim Donnelly is head of Litherland High School, Merseyside, and seconded part-time to the local authority as school projects director for ICT, MFL and international links.

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