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Can you get the best out of a VLE?


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#1 Ed Waller

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Posted 13 March 2006 - 09:16 PM

Can you get the best out of a VLE? Guided Research of the Roman Empire

a) The School Context

As the development of the internet began, it also began the marginalisation of the School Text Book. One can imagine a time in the future when schools are 'free' from the requirement to provide books, when every student has a laptop with internet access for all. Although the idea of "settling down with a good book" will probably not vanish, the advantages of the internet over the textbook are probably obvious: updated, flexibility, low cost.

However, just as one wouldn't recommend leaving a class of 30 students to work through a textbook (and I might add "any more" here) one wouldn't leave a classroom full of students alone with the internet and expect that they will achieve the lesson objectives any time soon.

Even for the committed student who wanted to learn and progress, the internet, purely because of the size from which it derives its usefulness, would find it difficult to hit the right sites. As an example, imagine you asked a Year 7 (11 and 12 year olds) to carry out a research project on the Roman Empire. They beetle off to Google and type in "Roman Empire" the outcome? 15.6 million hits. There's more chance of winning the UK lottery than getting the best six sites from the search.

This is one of the reasons many teachers have developed their own websites with guides or links to the places that suit the needs of their students studying their curriculum. Many of these have become excellent resources not just for students at that teacher’s school, but for all teachers and students.

While this remained true of a few teachers in some subject areas, it was simple enough to deal with. As the levels of ICT literacy among staff has grown, there has been an increase in the number of teacher websites, controlling, arguably, increasing amounts of their own destiny as they produced a transferable commodity.

At the same time a many schools around Europe and beyond have sought to improve their 'branding' and have produced their own websites. While this may have begun life as a marketing tool, ensuring people were aware of what the school offered and thus increasing the demand for places, the school website has grown. Regularly pages that once formed part of the teacher's own pages were supplanted by the corporate package, and moreover the corporate package was edited and updated by non-teachers. This has the potential to 'cut across' the teachers websites, perhaps making them less effective, as content associated with the school has seen to 'belong' to the school, and the content has lost its intimate connection to the teaching staff.

Equally the success of the few with websites and interactive work of their own is something management has seen and wanted to spread across the school, and VLEs are one means of 'encouraging' this spread of good practice.

Thus the decline in the growth of teacher sites has mirrored the growth of the school sites. If there is one difficulty with the school website it is that they do not offer much in the way of didactic content. My own department website has what are referred to as exam tips for GCSE, ways to make the most out of questions set by the AQA examining board, but beyond this it doesn't help a great deal. What is needed is another solution.

B ) The Student Context

Students have become increasingly ICT literate, albeit that they might not recognise their achievements in the same terms. I-pods have replaced walkmans; video/audio phones are replacing text/audio phones; Satellite broadcasting has changed the nature of television.

The nature of their engagement has significantly changed as a result, and the teaching of history (among other subjects) has changed with it, and generally for the better. The change in students has demanded a change in the approach of teachers who have had to create engagement rather than merely expecting or demanding it.

Again, we are in need of a solution.

c) The VLE solution.

I should note early in this section that VLE is A solution rather than THE solution. First of all it offers something that the Headteacher will be able to agree to as it can be designed in line with the corporate image website. Similarly it is something that can and would be seen generally as under the control of the school, and confer ownership of any resources or material. Increasingly schools are looking towards VLEs to provide a learning experience which is both controlled and effective.

VLE software is primarily a communication tool. It enables the school to pass information to the student and for the student to pass completed work etc back to the institution. It has an extensive if finite list of possible ways of executing such communication. This includes certain types of email, forums and task-specific assignments, which incorporates standard MS software types and usually one or more VLE-specific options.

In these ways it is similar to the teacher website, and adds means of monitoring the frequency of student work on an assignment. The task-specific assignments also include guidance on what is required, and through the 'internal' email system offers the opportunity for teachers to answer any queries that might arise.

The downside of VLEs is the same as any 'off the peg' solution: It comes as a package, although there are bolt-on extras to make it feel tailor-made. The natural corollary of this is that it limits the creativity of the teacher in producing material for the students. Any constraint is a constraint on thinking and execution. For the more advanced in ICT skills a VLE is likely to prove a disappointment.

The other major disadvantage of a VLE is in some ways also its strength in that it is a school-wide solution. Despite the forward march of ICT skills, many teachers skill levels are such that they would find a VLE intimidating. Those who fight shy of MS Excel and even MS Word, or those who rely solely on presentation software may simply fail to use a new system that requires them to learn a number of different ways to present information and assignments. The future may be different, and the increasing use of drop-down menus might increase the take-up rate in any given school. Certainly VLE providers will be less keen to develop advanced software applications within their package if this is likely to meet resistance among the users it is designed to help.

Equally there is an issue regarding students' ICT skills, however once they learn how to access the VLE, they tend to be happy to use it.

Once a VLE has been chosen, as with any new initiative, time is a key factor in how helpful it can be. Setting up a number of activities for all your classes for every week is simply beyond many teachers' available time. The advantage that once done it's there forever is a fallacy inasmuch as one might always wish to review or 'tweak' whatever was attempted last year.

So you can get the best from a VLE, but remember that its best may not be everything that you want and have aspects you won't use.

Edited by Ed Waller, 13 March 2006 - 09:19 PM.


#2 David Richardson

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Posted 14 March 2006 - 11:56 AM

A few of my thoughts about VLEs:

1. Many VLEs have been created for a corporate market (that, interestingly, hardly exists - it's a really existential situation that). Thus they tend to have plenty of tools for monitoring individuals who use the system, which is a feature many teachers find less useful. Another consequence of this is that their 'default' systems for creating tests tend to be rather primitive pedagogically (lots of emphasis on multiple-choice, for example). The look-and-feel of many VLEs tends to be rather old-fashioned, too. My explanation for this is that producers of VLEs tend to put lots of resources into the programming and almost none into pedagogics. The end result is about what you'd expect from amateur teachers: programmed learning!

2. It's often the case that the 'admin' tools are difficult to get your head around (I remember one that I was engaged to help develop had pages where you had to start from the bottom and work your way back to the top in order to create course pages!). However, there are some basic principles to bear in mind:

You're going to have to create users … put them into classes … create course materials … and then connect course materials up to classes. Bear in mind, though, that what I've just written is a very 'teacher-oriented' way of looking at VLEs (we tend to see pupils first and course materials later). Many VLEs will force you to create the course materials first or the classes first before you can start creating users. Sometimes you have to create the course materials in their entirety and you can't amend them later. The bottom line is that if you don't seem to be able to do what seems to you to be useful and logical, don't give up. It's just a question of getting your head round the logic and perception of usefulness of the programmers who created the VLE.

3. I've always found VLEs to be very useful when talking to publishers about the use of copyrighted materials. The fact that you can control who accesses copyrighted materials, and restrict access to your own organisation (if we ignore hackers) seems to reassure many copyright-owners. With VLE-use, as with all other aspects of ICT-based educational materials, my strong advice is to get permission from copyright owners before you use copyrighted materials … and be absolutely certain to gain permission to use pictures - those copyright owners tend to be much more aware of how they want their materials used and not used than owners of printed or text-based materials. (Did you know, for example, that you'll never get permission to use any Calvin and Hobbes cartoons in schools, even if you print them on paper? The author is very sensitive about how his creations are used … which is why there isn't any merchandise for Calvin and Hobbes).

4. Separate the administrative aspects of VLE use and development from the IT-based aspects, and let specialists in each area into your development works as a teacher. It's very common for the VLE to be the domain of the IT department … which is fine for some aspects of their use … but when it comes to creating users, it's a real pain, since IT technicians tend not to have administrative skills, so they create systems for the creation and deletion of users which are very hard to put into practice in the real world. You have to have a trade-off between accessibility and security, otherwise there's no point acquiring a VLE in the first place (i.e. it doesn't matter what features a VLE has if no-one can actually get into it). It's a great idea to have a 'lurker' ID, which you can give to casual visitors.

Many VLEs have quite sophisticated features for giving users access to particular materials for specified periods of time. This is exactly the kind of feature which appeals to IT technicians … but make sure that it's the professional administrators who have the final say. Let's say you've got a system whereby a teacher specifies the first and last days of a course so that the materials can be put on to the VLE. The trick is to leave yourself plenty of margin, for those pupils who were ill, moved house or school, etc, etc. You can be certain that there'll always be someone who missed the exam, and it can be a real pain re-activating a course after it's been automatically deleted at a certain cut-off date. Make sure that the IT department check basic stuff, like the date and time settings on their server. (We've been being cut-off 5 minutes early by our video conference bridge for two whole years … and we just discovered that their server clock has been running 10 minutes fast!).

Hope this is useful …

#3 Ed Waller

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Posted 14 March 2006 - 09:08 PM

I think David's post is overly pessimistic and negative. Yes there are commercially-driven VLEs. Probably most infamous of these is the MS Learning Gateway, which offers demonstrations and requests information on financial management solutions. However, there are some developed around teaching and learning environments, even if they began life as commercial entities.

The admin of the system I currently use, although I would not particularly recommend the system, has been fairly straightforward, undertaken by admin staff and system management staff, and largely copied from our student database (running a VLE on your own would seem madness, I would agree). It has been up to individual teachers to upload teaching materials, including documents that fulfil similar functions to webquests, et al, thus avoiding many copyright issues.

Increasingly it seems that (in England at least) that there will be less of an opt-in or opt-out approach to choice regarding VLEs in favour of a 'which one do you want?' approach. At a meeting today one of the local authority subject specialists suggested it will be a requirement by 2008. As with many of these ideas the people with the money to push their version (Bill?) will normally find people willing to accept that familiarity equals reputation and reliability among the relatively powerful but IT illiterate administrators and local government officials. They will then be in a position to charge phenomenal amounts (£10k pa) for the privilege of using their software. Whether this software will be as good as cheaper and free alternatives one can only speculate.

For a significant proportion of newer teachers, a school VLE might force the creation of ICT learning modules. Conceivably this could lead to further interest in and (desire for the?) development of their own website among a wider group than in the current climate.

#4 John Simkin

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Posted 15 March 2006 - 08:18 AM

3. I've always found VLEs to be very useful when talking to publishers about the use of copyrighted materials. The fact that you can control who accesses copyrighted materials, and restrict access to your own organisation (if we ignore hackers) seems to reassure many copyright-owners. With VLE-use, as with all other aspects of ICT-based educational materials, my strong advice is to get permission from copyright owners before you use copyrighted materials … and be absolutely certain to gain permission to use pictures - those copyright owners tend to be much more aware of how they want their materials used and not used than owners of printed or text-based materials. (Did you know, for example, that you'll never get permission to use any Calvin and Hobbes cartoons in schools, even if you print them on paper? The author is very sensitive about how his creations are used … which is why there isn't any merchandise for Calvin and Hobbes).


The people who own the copyright to Anne Frank’s diary also refuse permission for her work to appear on the web.

I have found a great deal of my material on school websites. They usually claim that they did it without permission because it was restricted to students in the school (intranet, etc.) and it got put on the web by accident.

For example, I discovered that Bedford School had been illegally downloading my whole website every night to their intranet (they wanted the latest version). The headmaster appeared surprised when I told him this was illegal. His defence was that major corporations would not produce software to carry out illegal acts. Bedford School has a history of carrying out illegal acts. That includes trying to bring down this Forum and being member of a price fixing cartel.

#5 Anders MacGregor-Thunell

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Posted 15 March 2006 - 08:57 AM

I would like to bring up another aspect which we discussed in Heerlen - the time factor for the individual teacher. We discussed the general development of teachers using more time for obligatoric meetings, administration, more actual lessons... at the same time as most of them are ICT illiterate. The possibilities of creating your own material, starting up your own project and learn new ways of approaching the actual learning process are less today. The teachers has less time, they are often quite stressed and they are therefore reluctant to do a "big leap" like starting their own website, creating new material and activities, learning more about different approaches etc... Some of them just tries to survive the schoolday, schoolweek, the semester - up to the next vacation...
Ed tried in a calm way to remind us all about this. He then placed VLE as a step that might not be to big to take for the individual teacher. This might not be overwhelming at the same time as the teacher might gain some ICT literacy which makes him/her go further within this field. It was also good to repeat the fact that most students are not ICT literate. I did very much appreciate this since I see this development every day at my own school. Individuals and groups can be hostile to changes for many reasons but today the time factor has become more of an issue then it used to be. Maybe the VLE as presented by Ed would show an alternative that would be smoother for several teachers. At the same time I see E-HELP as another alternative that I think will show - on an individual basis - the way to make schools more ICT literate. I still believe that it's potential is very big! :)

#6 David Richardson

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Posted 15 March 2006 - 09:31 AM

I think David's post is overly pessimistic and negative.


I'm sorry if it came across that way. In my experience (both as a user and aide to designers of various VLEs), the experience of straying into the 'Administration' area of the VLE is quite terrifying for most teachers. It doesn't need to be this way, but I think that it's best for an inexperienced teacher to hear that it isn't them being stupid - it's the VLE being badly designed.

The aim of my point 2 was more to try to isolate what the actual functions of a VLE are, so that the inexperienced teacher can ask the IT technician what their particular VLE calls each of those functions and how it works.

I'm not totally negative towards VLEs - you've got to start somewhere - but the results are most often 'type 1' courses (which we call 'bok på burk' - or book in a box - in Swedish).

#7 Ed Waller

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Posted 19 March 2006 - 10:20 PM

I'd like to thanks Anders for his comments above, and add that I 'concede' the points made by David, although I don't we're competing in the way that "concede" might suggest. The thought of spending time in the "Administrator" interface has me running for the nearest padded cell.

It is horribly true that VLEs tend to be limited in their potential, and guess that for some a "book in a box" is actually quite advanced thinking. Whilst this means they are relatively easy for the average person to use, for the keen ICT literate teacher (and I'm sure there's an opening for a 'glitterati' style word to be used to define) it will always seem second or even third best.

Probably the attraction of a VLE, as Anders reminds us, is that you can add something to a functional learning aid in an incremental fashion, and to work in collaboration with ones colleagues. It's less true that a website can have a really small beginning (e.g. one topic or one task) and grow in time, there is (or appears to be anyway) a 'critical mass' to make it better than what already exists. In that way it can be seen as training tool that raises general skill levels.

The E-Help clientele of three-five years' time will in all likelihood be people who have come to see its benefits from the mix of hopes, ambitions and frustrations that a VLE or two has generated.

#8 David Richardson

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Posted 20 March 2006 - 11:44 AM

I too don't see that Ed and I are at opposite poles in a discussion - we're just working in different contexts. One of the problems I've seen manifest itself time and again in Sweden is that the introduction of a VLE (almost exclusively by IT technicians) is often the *only* development in ICT-based learning in a particular organisation. Teachers sometimes have (or make) the time to change the way they work to take advantage of the particular features of their VLE, but most often the whole experience is such a pain that it turns them away from ICT-based learning altogether.

Technology should be like a cat (to quote a leading Canadian e-learning expert) - beautiful, comfortable and able to achieve amazing things with little apparent effort (!). OK, I'm a cat person myself! If your VLE is like this, then you're ahead of the game.

When teachers have been able to get their VLEs to work, they've almost always spent lots of time discussing teaching and learning - call it 'pedagogics', if you like - *before* they've turned their attention to the technology.

An organisation which used to be called 'Statens Skola för Vuxna i Härnösand' was one of the pioneering organisations in this. They went through several commercially-available VLEs, and even commissioned one of Sweden's leading computer consultancy firms to create one for them (guess what a waste of money that was!), but they kept on getting nowhere. In the end, it was one of their teachers of Spanish who broke the logjam. She was a very traditional teacher, for whom typewriters were the limit of her interest in technology. She happened to share an office with an English teacher who had a very gentle approach to technology (not me, by the way), and together they created a wonderful resource for the learning of Spanish (only available internally, unfortunately).

The main interface is a tree, covered with leaves, where different branches, twigs, knotholes, etc, take you to different parts of the course. Each time you log on, something different happens (such as a squirrel dashing out and dropping a nut which turns into the latest news).

They did this with their 'web warrior' organisation, which is, in effect, a parallel organisation of IT pedagogues, who work together with, but not in the same sub-organisation as, the IT technicians responsible for operation and maintenance of the system. The web warriors are programmers, graphic designers and animators who are available to talk to teachers and to guide their vague thoughts into achievable IT projects.

It costs money, of course, but not as much as you'd think. What actually happens is that the organisation spends its money much more efficiently, since the projects that they invest in have a very good track record of turning into viable ICT-based courses (some of which bring in lots of external funds).

The really interesting thing for me was the speed with which teachers started using ICT in their courses, once they'd got a 'metaphor' which worked for them. As long as the technology looked like the catalog tree in Windows, it just put them off, to such an extent that they found it impossible to even understand what was there. As soon as they had a handle to grasp, they started making the VLE really work.

Nowadays they're called the Swedish Agency for Flexible Learning (http://www.cfl.se). You'll get a rough idea of what they do by clicking the In English link, but, unfortunately, most of the good stuff is only in Swedish. 'Kursnavet', for example, is a brilliant tool for sharing IT-based course materials … but you have to be able to understand Swedish in order to be able to use it.

#9 John Simkin

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Posted 13 October 2008 - 11:30 AM

c) The VLE solution.

I should note early in this section that VLE is A solution rather than THE solution. First of all it offers something that the Headteacher will be able to agree to as it can be designed in line with the corporate image website. Similarly it is something that can and would be seen generally as under the control of the school, and confer ownership of any resources or material. Increasingly schools are looking towards VLEs to provide a learning experience which is both controlled and effective.

VLE software is primarily a communication tool. It enables the school to pass information to the student and for the student to pass completed work etc back to the institution. It has an extensive if finite list of possible ways of executing such communication. This includes certain types of email, forums and task-specific assignments, which incorporates standard MS software types and usually one or more VLE-specific options.

In these ways it is similar to the teacher website, and adds means of monitoring the frequency of student work on an assignment. The task-specific assignments also include guidance on what is required, and through the 'internal' email system offers the opportunity for teachers to answer any queries that might arise.

The downside of VLEs is the same as any 'off the peg' solution: It comes as a package, although there are bolt-on extras to make it feel tailor-made. The natural corollary of this is that it limits the creativity of the teacher in producing material for the students. Any constraint is a constraint on thinking and execution. For the more advanced in ICT skills a VLE is likely to prove a disappointment.


Unlike the late 1990s, it seems that now very few teachers are creating their own websites. Is this because they are now uploading their material via VLEs? If so, are they making this material available to people outside the school? I was hoping that with the development of the web teachers would publish local history studies online. However, this does not seem to have happened.

#10 Terry Haydn

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Posted 18 October 2008 - 04:57 PM

We have a VLE for our PGCE students; 3 years ago it was very underused - both by tutors and students, but now it is proving to be increasingly useful, and nearly all our students make regular use of it. One of the main uses is for students to share resources and ideas with each other. This might seem a prosaic use, and is not 'high-tech' or complex, but it makes one of the points I tried to make in my e-help seminar - one of the biggest advantages of using ICT in history teaching is that it helps teachers to quickly build up powerful 'collections' of high quality resources; what Ben Walsh has called 'building learning packages'. For me, this is by far the most important benefit of ICT for teachers.

#11 Mike Tribe

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Posted 18 October 2008 - 05:58 PM

At least part of the reason is that access to a VLE (like Moodle, for example) is so easy. You don't need any "prior knowledge" to be up and going. I was asked to "pilot" the school's Moodle site along with a couple of other teachers so we could see what the best features were and spot any obvious glitches in the system. Within a day or two, I had Moodle pages up and running for each of the classes I taught. I was able to use it to put up a course outline, class expectations, and a month's worth of homework assignments. As I got more used to the system, I could also publish worksheets, ExamView quizzes, and have students submit assignments to me directly through Moodle. I have found that the most powerful tool is the forum which I use to allow students to discuss essay assignments as a pre-writing activity. They also us it extensively for exam revision. There is also a "QuickMail" function which enables me to email students (either all of them, a group, or an individual) with just a couple of clicks. These functions, along with the peer-editing function on the turnitin.com plagiarism website have helped me really get to grips with writing skills in my classes.

I know none of this is impressive to people who can knock up a website with all sorts of bells and whistles at the drop of a hat, but for hard-pressed teachers with time or skills, it does give all sorts of possibilities. Having spoken to all sorts of IT-gurus, I think I'm convinced that I need to move on from Moodle and am thinking of trying to teach myself DreamWeaver if I can persuade the school to buy it, but I certainly don't regret my experiences with Moodle which have, I think, made me a more effective teacher.

#12 John Simkin

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Posted 29 December 2008 - 03:47 PM

You can see a video of this presentation here:






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