What is a VLE?

There’s been a lot of talk in the media about VLEs and how schools will soon be required to have them. It’s easy for parents (and teachers for that matter) to get a little confused. :-s

So… what is a VLE? Easy! Wikipedia has the answer:

A virtual learning environment (VLE) is a software system designed to support teaching and learning in an educational setting, as distinct from a Managed Learning Environment (MLE) where the focus is on management. A VLE will normally work over the Internet and provide a collection of tools such as those for assessment (particularly of types that can be marked automatically, such as multiple choice), communication, uploading of content, return of students work, peer assessment, administration of student groups, collecting and organising student grades, questionnaires, tracking tools, and similar. New features in these systems include wikis, blogs and RSS.

While originally created for distance education, VLEs are now most often used to supplement the face-2-face classroom, commonly known as Blended Learning.

End of blog post? Not quite. 😉

Becta (“the Government’s lead agency for Information and Communications Technology… in education, covering the United Kingdom”) has specified certain requirements for VLEs, which must be implemented in schools by the beginning of the new 2008/9 academic year. I was going to list them here, but the requirements are quite large in number. You can see the functional specifications for VLEs (also sometimes called ‘learning platforms’) on the Becta website here.

There are 10 ‘approved Learning Platform Services Framework’ suppliers (name of product in brackets – unless same as name of company!):

Sadly, Moodle, the open-source Content Management System (CMS) doesn’t make it onto the list, although, pleasingly, Fronter is based on open technology with the source code available to clients. 🙂

There are other VLEs available – for example Doncaster, where I teach, has gone for FrogTeacher from 2008/9 onwards. Despite the bizarre name, I was quite impressed with it when I had a play with it at the BETT show earlier this year.

***I had criticized TALMOS in this section, but they contacted my school to ask me remove my ‘potentially commercially damaging’ comments. It’s a shame to be effectively silenced through legal threats when all I did was compare their offering unfavourably against another…*** 🙁

The QIA Excellence Gateway has a useful diagram for gaining an overview of the functionality of a VLE:

The problem I have with all this is twofold:

  • The focus doesn’t seem to be on learning. It seems to be upon assessment and streamlining communication between educational institutions and external agencies. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but to call it a ‘learning environment’ or ‘learning platform’ is something of a misnomer.
  • The majority of ‘approved’ VLE suppliers aren’t education-specific. Therefore, however much they may protest that they’ve built their VLE solution from the ‘ground-up’, it’s likely to be heavily influenced by the world of business. As I’ve argued elsewhere and (metaphorically) until I’m hoarse, schools and businesses are not, and should not be, alike. They have different needs and methods of operation.

To my mind, and you’ll have to read the aforementioned Becta functional specification for VLEs to really see what I mean, everything that should be ‘mandatory’ for a VLE seems to be merely ‘recommended’. Instead, it’s those things such as communication, record-keeping and assessment that are mandatory and core to the specifications. What does this mean in practice? The potentially transformative Web 2.0 tools (blogs, wikis, VOIP tools, RSS feeds, etc.) mentioned as ‘recommended’ in the specification take second place and will either not be included at all or take second place to the other features. I really hope that pressure from teachers, parents and students means that all VLE suppliers are forced to enable these tools in a meaningful way.

The Doncaster approach, where schools are (in effect) given free access to a chosen VLE solution, could be useful. This potentially creates a district-wide intranet similar to the GLOW network in Scotland. Whilst the latter is likely to be the result of a lot more joined-up thinking, the former could lead to a situation of more collaborative teaching and learning. I can’t help but think, however, that having a well-thought-out and useful government-funded national intranet is a much better way of going about things than perpetuating a marketplace in education for companies more interested in profit than personalisation of learning. As Martin Weller (Professor of Educational Technology at the Open University) pointed out last year, VLEs are already out of date – the way forward is loosely-coupled, not central-and-monolithic… :-p

I’d be interested to hear YOUR thoughts on VLEs, whether or not you live in the UK. Has your institution got a VLE? Are you happy with it?

Further reading:

22 Comments

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  1. Terry Williams

    May 18, 2008 — 10:37 pm

    Interesting post. I went full out for Moodle last year to assist my Geography students but found the whole thing far too inflexible and cluncky for both them and me. I've ditched Moodle and now simply use a WordPress blog – I find it far more effective and instant!

  2. The majority of ‘approved’ VLE suppliers aren’t education-specific. Therefore, however much they may protest that they’ve built their VLE solution from the ‘ground-up’, it’s likely to be heavily influenced by the world of business.
    That's interesting. Many of those are unfamiliar to me, as I'm working in Higher Education. Here, the main providers (in the UK at any rate) are Blackboard & WebCT (now part of BB), with Moodle to a lesser extent.
    While I have a number of gripes about WebCT Vista – the fact that it wasn't built for Education isn't one of them.
    Given the fact that something over 60% of HE Institutions in the UK use Blackboard or WebCT, I'm surprised that neither is even mentioned by BECTA.

    Does this mean that they don't have the features that BECTA requires, or that the don't implement them well enough?

  3. Speaking purely from a primary school persepctive, my feeling is that the “mandatory” parts of a VLE are highly unlikely to interest teachers overmuch. I can’t realy see Y1/2/3 logging on to a VLE to do an assessment activity at home. Of much greater interest is access to tools such as blogs and wikis where students can collaborate and reflect. The VLEs that have tried to do a “primary school friendly” theme have simply fallen into the old “make the font bigger” trap!

  4. Hi Doug,

    It’s worth remembering that Becta’s list isn’t about “products”, it’s about the capability to provide a “service” (which includes things like financial stability). It’s only intended for LA’s which are going through large procurements as it saves them having to go through a complete pre-qualification process (under EU rules).

    So you could ask any of the providers to give you a Moodle solution if you wanted. It is a pity that there isn’t a Moodle specialist provider (or any other Open Source provider) on the list, but, in general, they’re just not geared up to lead on those big tenders.

  5. LOVE the cartoon, it says so much!

  6. I had criticized TALMOS in this section…….

    This is appalling – I know nothing of this product but will happily publicise their inappropriate response to your comments. It looks like they simply “don’t get” what web 2.0 is all about, probably a poor indictment for any technology vendor (and I spent a lump of my life working in that environment).

  7. Doug,

    That is ridiculous that they have contacted the school. If they REALLY wanted to improve their offering, they could have asked for your help. It just shows how terrible their product is AND how they value the views of their customers/end users.

  8. Doug – really daft of TALMOS to take this action. I've blogged about it and contacted them.

  9. Thanks for the support, guys. It disappoints me greatly that TALMOS are more interested in silencing those who have found their product wanting rather than on getting user feedback. They didn't even try to contact me directly. :-(

  10. Not sure Doug how they have the right or ability to do this? I'm confused. Do you blog from school or is your blog somewhow related to your school? I do not agree at all with this action and I am curious about how it could actually happen.

  11. I agree with your comments that VLEs are already out of date. Working within the primary sector we were 'given' the VLE solution by our LEA. They and consequently we went with Fronter. Without wanting to sound 'commercially damaging' everything was so slow and time consuming it became redundant as a tool compared to the flexible web 2.0 tools that we've started using instead.

  12. Doug,

    I'd be interested in hearing what your school's response was. Did they just accept this demand without comment? Did they argue? Did they talk to you?

  13. Doug,

    I'm concerned, too, about what's happened here – any chance of an update?

  14. TALMOS is a name that should be made famous–as an example of a company that practices intimidation and censorship of the very worst kind. If this kind of abhorrent practice is allowed to go unchallenged, your experience is unlikely to remain an isolated incident for long. Unless TALMOS backtracks and apologizes here, I sincerely hope that this sad strategy will backfire badly.

    –Paul

  15. @Will, Bud, Paul: Basically, a member of the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) called me in for a quiet word. They showed me the email and said what TALMOS had asked to happen (me to remove the post and EdTechRoundup podcast). I did wonder how they found out where I work seeing as I never mention it online.

    I have a good working relationship with the member of the SLT who talked to me. They said that the school couldn't force me to remove the post, but I could see that to avoid bringing up issues to do with Web 2.0 and Acceptable Use Policies before I'm in my new position, it was best to modify the post. Hence what you see above.

    I think that the fact that it shows I've had to retract my comments, coupled with the response from the edublogosphere, speaks volumes… :-)

  16. Presume that they are now sending similar letter to Apple threatening legal action if the ETR podcast is not taken off iTunes? No? Why ever not?
    I'm off to google for reviews of TALMOS products to see if they have silenced the whole of the web.

  17. I'd forgotten what you'd written – but was able to locate it via Google's cache. I have to say they seem to be very sensitive … it wasn't particularly bad really!

    It will be interesting to see, though, what impact this has on searching for Talmos … I've just searched Google.co.uk – and didn't find a reference to this post … yet. Wonder what will happen in the next few days?

    See the email I'm just about to send you.

  18. What an amazingly stupid decision by Talmos to demand that their commercial product only gets favourable reviews! The company* that produces this piece of software is based in India, where such anti-competitive practices may be lawful, but may I assure them that they are not lawful in the E.U.

    *CORE Projects & Technologies Ltd.

  19. A representative from TALMOS contacted me 3 times yesterday and told me repeatedly that they were merely attempting to start a dialogue. Although I feel that they have back-tracked quite a lot, I’m willing to let the matter rest now.

    I leave it up to readers of this post and comments as to whether you decide the makers of TALMOS are a company with which you want to do business. Do read other websites which have opinions on the products first, of course. 😉

  20. dont think i get it .. :

  21. “but to call it a ‘learning environment’ or ‘learning platform’ is something of a misnomer.”
    I’ve thought this myself. At least in industry which have been using them for a lot longer they are more honest and call them “Learner Management Systems”. There are a great many things VLE/LMSes can do but they inevitably become a centralising force that standardises learning and comes to be used as an administrative record keeping tool. The VLE is an artefact of Institutional Learning i.e. Learning as it happens in large institutions.

    Great references in this link for my own D Ed :)

    – Eamon

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