e-help Seminar 24 Can you get the best out of a VLE?
Heerlen 10-11 March 2006
Guided Research of the Roman
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 teacherís 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
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
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.