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!):
- Core Projects and Technologies (UK) Ltd (TALMOS)
- Etech Group (Studywiz)
- Netmedia Education
- Pearson Education Ltd (Pearson Phoenix)
- Ramesys (Assimilate)
- RM Education plc (Kaleidos)
- Serco Learning Solutions (Skillspace)
- Viglen Ltd
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?
- Becta – Getting started with your learning platform: advice for schools
- CETIS – Centre for Educational Technology Interoperability Standards
- EffectiveICT.co.uk Forum – Moodle becoming schools’ choice of VLE
- The Guardian – Evaluating VLEs