One of the most dramatic changes to the virtual learning environment (VLE) market has been a shift from a top-down government push to schools having the freedom to make their own choices about learning platforms.
A key issue with VLEs a few years ago was that many were too complex and training was only focused on the early adopters and “techie” teachers.
Introducing a new learning platform is a big project for schools and requires a certain degree of culture change – failing to engage the majority of staff means that the potential for the VLEs to make a real difference to teaching and learning is limited.
Put off by the complexity, teachers often used early VLEs as file repositories to store existing documents. This wasn’t the most effective use – especially now that shared networks such as Dropbox and Google Drive provide free or inexpensive ways of sharing files.
Another problem schools faced when using earlier VLE models was uncertainty about whether they were going to work properly. Although the software had met a checklist of features stipulated by Becta, it was impossible to know how easy to use the product was going to be until it was installed.
Schools often complained that the platforms were unreliable and would crash. Others complained at the large amount of training required to use the system.
With increased independence over ICT procurement, schools have become shrewder when evaluating VLEs. This has been positive for the market and many providers have improved the software to meet the needs of a modern school.
Early platforms did not integrate well with other school systems – the VLEs were designed to act as a jack of all trades and some even offered an email service, despite Microsoft and Google options being far superior.
Rather than trying to replicate generic commercial systems, schools want VLEs to offer that educational value-added. Today it is essential that VLEs integrate with a school’s MIS system and other applications such as Google Docs.
It means pre-populated school data can be accessed, reducing the administration burden of duplicating this information into a learning platform.
Schools now expect a VLE to manage very education-specific workloads and this is why integration is essential. Teachers want to be able to access their timetables or lesson plans and set and receive work at anytime.
This anytime access has been influenced by the proliferation of mobile technologies. More and more, teachers and pupils are accessing information from tablets and SmartPhones, so the VLE market has had to adapt to respond to this trend.
Indeed, it is quite an exciting time for VLEs because people have much quicker access to computers. A few years ago, if teachers wanted to use a learning platform in class, they would have had to book a computer room and teach the entire lesson from that room. Now, with more schools either providing access to devices or implementing Bring Your Own Device schemes, it is possible to access the VLE anywhere, any time.
Rather than just playing games or looking at videos on devices, students can access their VLE to add homework, check results, read past papers and complete extensions tasks.
Daniel Graham, associate deputy headteacher at Preston Manor School in north London, explained: “Our school believes in a blended learning approach, so our VLE allows us to offer learning opportunities beyond the classroom and the bricks and mortar of the physical school. It helps us motivate and support pupils with additional activities such as videos, extension tasks, and past papers.
“Using the VLE has been particularly useful in engaging pupils with maths and sciences. Uploading videos and resources from the BBC, My Maths, YouTube and Channel 4 Clipbank and many other sources, including ‘home-made’ ones, has helped capture pupils’ imagination and encourage them to access learning at home to deepen understanding.”
With greater independence in purchasing decisions, it is important schools do careful research to find the VLE that is right for them.
Check that the VLE fully integrates with the MIS system and other applications such as Outlook and Google Docs. This means the VLE can provide quick and easy access to a host of school data and ensures it functions as a tool that enhances education-specific activities such as setting homework and organising class seating plans etc.
Technology is moving incredibly fast, so it is important that a provider is not offering a system that will be out-of-date in 12 months. Look into how often they develop new products and if the VLE is designed for use on mobile devices.
Is it easy to use? Most VLE providers will offer free demonstrations so schools can trial the software. Ease of use is vital. Teachers and pupils of all IT abilities need to be able to easily navigate the platform, to communicate and share work, without requiring days and days of training.
To get real benefit, schools should also check what service and support a provider offers, not just in terms of the strategic roll-out, but also ongoing technical support and advice.
Joseph Mathewson is the founding partner of Firefly.