Tag: United Kingdom

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:

(Almost) everything you need to know about the 14-19 changes

Brevity is a virtue. It’s all very well having a way with words, but they need to be read, understood and inwardly-digested to make an impact. Our Head was sufficiently impressed with SecEd‘s guide to the changes in GCSEs and wider 14 to 19 reforms to have it photocopied and issued to staff. I’m going to pare it down to the absolute minimum in what follows… 😀

Key Facts:

  • New qualification – the diploma – starting to be taught this September.
  • Functional skills to be come an essential element of Maths, English & ICT (students not able to achieve above a ‘C’ grade without passing this element)
  • Number of units at ‘A’ Level being reduced from 6 to 4 – more open-ended questions and a new A* grade.
  • Coursework will effectively cease in its current form. Being replaced by ‘controlled assessment’ that can be taken at discretion of teachers.

Timeline of changes:

(click for larger version)

Diplomas:

The first five diplomas on offer will be:

  • Creative and Media
  • Construction and the Built Environment
  • Engineering
  • Information Technology
  • Society, Health & Development

These will be offered at Level 1 (Foundation), Level 2 (Higher) and Level 3 (Advanced). Expectation that diplomas will be available in 17 subjects by 2011 and to all students by 2013. Students will have 600 guided learning hours for Level 1 diplomas and 800 hours for Level 2. Intention is that they will be taken alongside the statutory National Curriculum.

  • Level 1 diploma = 5 GCSEs (D-G)
  • Level 2 diploma = 7 GCSEs (A*-C)

Level 3 diploma comparable to 3 ‘A’ Levels – 1,080 guided learning hours.

Functional Skills:

The first teaching of functional skills as part of English, Maths & ICT courses will take place in 2010. Pilots have been going on since 2007.

  • English: explaining information (speech & writing), understanding instructions, analysing presentation of information (& assessing its usefulness). May involve an oral presentation/contribution to discussions.
  • Maths: capability to solve problems, development of analytical and reasoning skills, and ability to identify errors and inconsistencies.
  • ICT: students expected to feel confident in finding, selecting and collecting information. Need to be able to apply it ‘safely’ to learning.

Controlled Assessment:

There are two different stages to the new controlled assessments:

  1. Research and data collection (can take place under limited levels of supervision “to encourage out-of-classroom learning”)
  2. Production of final piece of work (under formal supervision)

Flexible Assessment:

Move from ‘linear assessment’ (exams at end of two years) to ‘unitised qualifications’ (exams as you go along, with retakes). However, QCA rules state that 40% of assessment must happen at the end of the course and only one re-sit of each assessment is allowed.

More information:

(image credit: standing there riding arrows by zen @ flickr)

Is a degree enough?

There are some very intelligent people in the world without any qualifications. There are also some people who, shall we say, we wouldn’t want on our Trivial Pursuit team or to be assigned with for a team-building exercise. That being said, there has, historically, been a correlation between ‘intelligence’ (whatever that is) and level of education. I fear that may no longer be the case… :s

This is not a post bemoaning degrees in surfing or golf. No, I’m more concerned with the rather 19th-century idea of degrees being ‘of a standard’ and that these can universally be broken down into 1st class, 2:1, 2:2, etc. If this were the case, then the necessity of having met such a standard should be a necessary and sufficient condition for entry onto a postgraduate teacher training course such as the PGCE in the UK. I don’t think anyone would argue against the fact that some degrees are easier, some harder, and some provide skills more and some less relevant to teaching.

In that case, why should a degree plus a short-course, vocational postgraduate qualification be enough? Surely there should be a requirement, more than merely an expectation, that teachers work towards at least a Masters level postgraduate qualification in education? Or, if compulsion is not a feasible option, why not at least explicitly recognise further qualifications with pay rises? I believe this is common practice in most places in the US, and whilst there are many things about their system I don’t think we should import, this is one I would welcome with open arms.

“That’s easy for you to say,” I hear you cry, “you’re doing an Ed.D!” This is true. But how did I come to be doing this qualification? By choosing my PGCE carefully so that it was the first year of an MA; by continuing to a level where I could switch to the Ed.D. course, and then continuing my studies. Apparently, I’m the first person to do this at the University of Durham. I can’t see why it shouldn’t be a heavily-suggested (and rewarded) path for the majority of teachers.

OK, so theory doesn’t always lead to amazing practice – I know that. But surely such a scheme couldn’t be a bad thing? Look at Finland, a place where the top graduates end up in the teaching profession. Where does it come in international rankings? Oh yes, pretty much top every time… :p

What do YOU think? What would you change about the current system?

(Image credit: Out to Lunch with Audio R8 by Gregor Rohrig @ Flickr)

The Map Is Not The Territory: the changing face of the edublogosphere

World mapI started reading educational blogs in late 2004/early 2005. Back then, there were only a few educators blogging – the likes of Will Richardson, Vicki Davis, Wesley Fryer. Oh, and the inimitable Stephen Downes. There was (and still is) a dearth of UK-based educational bloggers.

One thing they had in common, however, was a revolutionary message: that education must adapt to the 21st century or suffer the consequences. There were fantastic conversations to follow across these blogs. This is one of the reasons I started teaching.mrbelshaw.co.uk in late 2005 – to become part of this ‘conversation’. 🙂

Now, in early 2008, things have changed. Whilst it’s great that there’s more educators than ever blogging, tweeting, etc. the focus has shifted. Those that were formerly in the classroom and relating the changing world and tools available to everyday educational experience are no longer in those positions; educators who have no desire to transform education are blogging. The edublogosphere has changed from being about ‘the conversation’ to being part of ‘the network’. It all smacks a little too much of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and, to be honest, viral marketing of Web 2.0 apps.

Newcastle

At the end of the day, the map is not the territory. My wife, for example, memorized the map of Newcastle-upon-Tyne when we got married and she moved up there. In many respects she could navigate herself around the city better than I could – someone who had lived close-by for 15 years or more. She could name the most popular places for pizza, show visitors the major attractions. But she didn’t know the city in the way a local would. She knew the what, but not the why.

The same goes, to a great extent, with the edublogosphere. Three years ago educators were looking to using new technologies to move towards a new model of education. Nowadays it seems to be all about bragging how you’ve used (web) application X before anyone else has. The edublogosphere seems to be overrun by educators who know the what but not the why. They’re impressed by those who can ‘leverage the power of the network’. This means, in practice, seeing how many people following you on Twitter respond to a shout out for information/hello’s whilst you move out of the classroom and into a consultancy role.

I guess from the above you can tell I’m not in favour of the new direction the edublogosphere’s headed. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still people keeping it real and not jumping on the latest bandwagon. But they’re becoming increasingly hard to find. Technology and the teaching methods that gave a vibrancy to the early edublogosphere have been distorted in order to be shoehorned into a corporate vision of schools I, for one, find repugnant.

So how should we fix it? Well I’m not saying that I’m not also to blame. I know that I am. These days I use technology to make my life easier rather than to push boundaries. Perhaps we need a commitment to collaboratively develop new pedagogies rather than remark on how ‘cool’ it would be to use any given tool? I can’t believe that it’s 2008 and we’re still using a method of education more than a little reminiscent of the Industrial Revolution… 🙁

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