VLEs slow to take off

There’s a saying I’ve heard repeatedly made at conferences around NZ in recent years; “It’s not the technology, it’s the pedagogy“. Problem is, when it comes to support for ICT at a system level we still see a lot of emphasis on making the technology available based on the assumption that the professionals working in the field will have the pedagogical nouse to constructively adopt and implement it. Learning Management Systems (also known as Virtual Learning Environments) are a good example it seems.

A recent report from Ofsted in the UK based on a study of of virtual learning environments (VLEs) reveals that schools and colleges have not made great progress with the introduction or use of them. The study found that in many schools and colleges such systems were still on a “cottage industry” scale, although where they were more developed, particularly in colleges, such services were able to “enthuse” students.

The fact is, like any innovation, it all boils down to the enthusiasm of the early adopters. Even in our regular schools/classrooms what we see occuring in classrooms is dependent to a very high degree on the teacher. Referring to where the Ofstead researchers saw good use of VLEs their report quotes:

The best VLEs depended on an enthusiastic teacher, trainer or manager to develop materials and encourage their use amongst learners and staff. A good grasp of information technology was not critical to a good VLE; they flourished where skilled and confident teachers and tutors treated the VLE as an extension of their normal work.

Intersting also that only three of the institutions surveyed had a VLE strategy – a clear sign of the ‘early adopter’ syndrome. The report comments that the benefits to learners [of VLEs] are so far “not yet obvious”, and that “despite expectations”, the arrival of these online support services for learners was “still in the early stages of development”.

An important thing for me is to understand what is meant by the expectations referred to above? The only reference to a declared expectation I could find in the report was reference to “…an expectation from the Government that increased use of technology should enhance learning.

From my experience there’s no one set of expectations, and, in fact, the differences in expectation often lead to the confusions about what exactly we expect from something like at LMS/VLE, and the fact that these are most likely defined by the particlar context of the individual. This perhaps explains why the nomenclature itself is problematic, as referred to in the footnote on page 8 of the report:

VLEs might also be called a learning management system (LMS), course management system (CMS), learning content management system (LCMS), managed learning environment (MLE), learning support system (LSS), online learning centre (OLC) or learning platform (LP).

In New Zealand the Ministry of Education has convened a reference group to begin looking at establishing some guidelines and practical solutions for what they are terming a Managed Learning Environment (MLE). (But don’t go looking for too much information on this yet –  a search of the Ministry’s website returns a nil response for anything to do with Managed Learning Environments, and the only return I got for MLE was an interesting powerpoint dealing with property issues and reference to a Modern Learning Environment).

Already there are emerging tensions between and among many of the participants, with some focusing on expectations of an MLE as a means of sharing and distributing content, while others look to an MLE to enable student driven learning, providing an environment to foster creativity and contribution. At an institutional level expectations and use varies from the provision of online courses to a convenient form of school webiste or extranet.

Of course, these points of view are not mutually exclusive, and the tensions themselves will utlimately make the working group productive (assuming appropriate facilitation). The point I’d like to make, however, is that until these expectations are fully exposed and well understood, then it is unlikely that we’ll see a useful form of VLE/LMS/MLE emerge, and when it does, it is unlikely to be in the form of a specific product or application.

In it’s coverage of the report the Guardian newspaper included the following comment which illustrates how different expectations are manifest in the way VLEs are implemented:

Christine Gilbert, chief inspector, said some schools and colleges were using VLEs as “dumping grounds or storage places for rarely-used files, rather than for material that enhanced the face-to-face learning done inside the classroom”.

She said: “The best VLEs allowed learners to reinforce their routine work, or catch up on missed lessons. In those best cases, the material offered was fun and helpful. In the least effective examples, documents had been dumped on the system and forgotten.” In some cases, she said material posted was unhelpful.

The report is also featured on Teacher’s TV and the 2min40sec video report there is worth viewing, if for no other reason than to observe the examples of classroom learning environments that are used to illustrate where the VLEs are being used – personally I found this difficult to reconcile in terms of the comments by Gilbert above 🙂

Ah well – I guess we’re still embarking on the journey. What I’d hope we’ll see though is an equivalent amount of energy, effort and expense put into understanding the pedagogical value and opporutnities of a VLE/LMS/MLE as we are seeing go into the development (and sales) of products, systems and applications.

17 thoughts on “VLEs slow to take off

  1. Agree with you on this one Derek. It’s not what system is used, but how it used that is important. Most VLE use has little pedagogical thought behind it at the moment.

  2. Great post Derek. I agree sound pedagogy and a vision for each schools use of their VLE is paramount.
    Unfortunately I’ve seen many schools invest in a VLE and then transfer traditional methods to this platform to justify its existence. The cart before the horse!
    As you say, we are on the ‘journey’, I found the videoclip really valuable and agree whole heartedly with the need for teachers to share good practice re VLE use. A successful platform for sharing will be essential to NZ’s growth in this area.
    Was any student voice collected in this research re impact of VLE’s?
    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thank you Derek for sharing this blog post with us. I believe there is value in offering students a VLE to support their learning. Not to act as a substitute for attending face-to-face classes but as an additional form of reinforcing content and a “safety net” to help students who have missed work due to sports exchanges, illness or those who are disorganised and have lost their class material. I also believe parents value the easy access to relevant and up-to-date class material as a means of supporting their son/daughters’ learning at home.

    While often the initial practice for teachers is to make available such things as class notes, worked examples and lab write-ups (static learning resources), with experience and confidence teachers will hopefully develop and provide more dynamic and interactive opportunities such as forums, polls, self-marking quizzes etc. I believe this is best encouraged by providing “just in time” professional development when staff are ready and not in the early days of the VLE introduction.

    I’ve talked to colleagues from a range of schools and the general consensus is the VLE in their schools has not been adopted by many teachers. Most commonly a few teachers have grabbed the opportunity and embraced it whole-heartedly while the remaining staff have ignored it. What I think the government should consider is the AMOUNT OF TIME it takes to create a VLE. The amount of non-contact time a teacher has during their day is thought to be better spent on the day-to-day tasks required to be an effective teacher face-to-face and leaves little time to provide a “replica” of their work and additional interactive tasks which students may or may not use to reinforce their learning on the schools VLE.

    While there are many reasons VLE’s are not adopted as readily the “officials” may like, I believe TIME is a major factor! Particularly when NZQA are increasing the amount of internally assessed NCEA achievement standards which requires teachers to: 1) Write/modify the assessment task, 2) Mark the assessments, 3) Internally moderate the assessment. I would much rather invest my time preparing, developing and enhancing a VLE for my students than spending that time conducting the internal assessment.

    Perhaps those of us who have embraced the VLE concept and developed engaging tasks which foster creativity could be provided with an external assessor to carry-out the NZQA internal assessments to help ease the work-load burden placed on the 21st-century teacher these days.

    You mentioned above the New Zealand Ministry of Education has convened a reference group, I heard the list of people who made up this group read VERY quickly at ULearn08′ but have not managed to locate this group or any of their work. The only name I remembered was Kelvin Maine, Katikati school, whom I wrote to but seemed he was dealing with more of the hardware side of the matter. Could you please pass on any further material from this group you get/find, I am very interested to read their guidelines and practical solutions. I thought (ideally) there would be an element of consultation with NZ teachers who are using a VLE or perhaps a forum where people could contribute but it seems this is not the case.

    Melanie Gibb
    C/- Tauranga Boys’ College

  4. It comes down to the chicken and the egg. Some teachers will not use the LMS/VLE if they do not see the pedagogical value in it, but at the same time, they need to use the tool to appreciate how it can support learning. I have also note that students themselves have to be taught how to work in a learning environment supported by a VLE/LMS. They are so used to a teacher being in front of them and telling them what to do, that many become lost when faced with a more responsible and independent working environment. Also, too many teachers use the LMS as a file repository and then expect things to change. The question is “What does the pedagogy look like? Are there exemplars for teachers to access? What about students who do not have access to a computer?”

  5. @ Darren – thanks for your support
    @ Rochelle – no students were involved in the study from what I read – would make a good follow-up study eh?
    @ Mel – thanks for a very full response. I agree that time is a big issue for getting started with a VLE, however, from 15 years of experience using a VLE for online teaching and learning, I’d have to say that it actually saves time, considerable amounts of time, particularly where assessment is concerned (although the NZQA requirements may not acknowledge the methods I use). This, of course, is directly related to the issue of professional development and the change in pedagogical practice that follows, so I take your point, there needs to be due regard for this in teacher workload as they are being asked to adopt the use of VLEs. Regarding the MoE working group, I suggest you contact Paul Seilar at the MoE directly as he’s the person convening things.
    @ Conor – we’re on the same page (again) – a VLE cannot fix broken pedagogy, and, from my experience, tends to amplify poor pedagogical practice. A transmissive-style teacher in a face to face classroom will continue to be a transmissive-style teacher online, the thing that tends to change is the response of the students who tend to be less forgiving in the online environment 🙂

  6. An interesting post, Derek. While the Ministry does have a group considering the VLE domain the public aspects of this work is not on the corporate website but in a Google Group. Expect to see something on TKI and/or the Ministry’s site when there is sufficient content. Input appreciated from anybody with a heart for education. Join us at http://groups.google.co.nz/group/mle-reference-group?hl=en

    Our focus is on component integration (not to belittle the importance of aspects the report/you/other readers have mentioned), the area of expertise for our team. Others (in schools, agencies, education organisations) can augment (or indeed direct) our work to ensure it serves educational needs. An early activity has been the selection of a small number of LMS vendors to start working with and the results of this process should be to schools as the year starts. Like you, we do not see that the MLE will be a specific product or application, rather an integration or community of modules, applications and services interacting to give the user customised experience that meets their needs.

    I also appreciate the benefit in hearing competing ideas (e.g. that the main purpose of the VLE is for sharing and distributing content c.f. to enable student driven learning, providing an environment to foster creativity and contribution and recognise that this does not have to be an either/or. All the discussion in the MLE reference group (online and in person) and in the LMS evaluation panel has drawn out and illuminated differences such as these. The more people join in the better this process should work

  7. thanks for this Paul – I’m sure there may be some of those who have read this who will be interested in joining the discussion group. I guess a key thing the Ofsted report raises for me is the importance of the “big picture” in all of this, and the need for someone/group to be driving the range of activities from the perspective of an overall vision. I completely concur with the observation that there’s no “either/or” in this debate – but a case of reconciling different needs/views. Really appreciate the invitation here for others to contribute to this debate through the google group.

  8. Derek,

    It’s OK shouting about the headlines, but most of us in the UK who have had any involvement in VLEs would say that the Becta report is a very poor example and does nothing for the OfSTED inspectors involved.

    The research, if you read carefully, only involved a small handful of schools and colleges, spread across the whole range of educational provisions. The report fails on many counts. Obviously the sample was far too small to have any statistical significance. Results were not measurable against any set of criteria. Case Studies were limited to the work of two FE colleges and in those two cases I could not discern where the ‘good practice’ was evident.

    My own research, a year previously, identified a significant lack of real leadership by Becta in helping stakeholders (including classroom teachers, parents and pupils) to understand anything of the impact of VLEs on Teaching & Learning strategies. One of my chief complaints is that, over the years, Becta has repeatedly avoided defining what a Learning Platform, LMS or VLE has in common or what their differences are. Becta’s repeated confusion of terms has helped nobody. Their excuse I was told was that ‘suppliers had already defined their own individual terminologies and that it was to late to change their definitions’.

    Yes, there are many schools and colleges that have not got their act together, but the report does not reflect the good practice that is going on. Remote access through the VLEs, the Home Access programme, real-time reporting, Assessment tools and formative assessments using e-Portfolios are all going ahead but without any real direction from ‘above’. I can only assume that Becta had some hidden agenda in publishing such an unsatisfactory report in order to spur on grass-roots or rather ‘chalk-face’ collaboration to come up with a list of definitions of what good VLE practice is all about!

    For more on my interest in VLEs and e-Portfolios, please see:

    P: http://www.raytolley1.xfolioworld.com
    B: http://www.efoliointheuk.blogspot.com/
    W: http://www.maximise-ict.co.uk/eFolio-01.htm

  9. A very constructed response Derek.

    I would argue that the reason for any delay in exploiting the potential of learning platforms is not content or teacher time but assessment. The minority of schools leading the way in the UK have supported their teachers well and rethought both their curriculum and pedagogy with significant effect. However they will tell you that they hit the buffers when it comes to external examinations. The UK examination system has largely failed to adapt to the opportunities that a range of technologies including learning platforms offer. Until there is a requirement to use ICT for both formative activities and summative assessment, progress will be slow.

    External examiners do accept electronic files as evidence but that often involves CDs or USB sticks, hardly leading edge. Coursework has been criticised as open to abuse with parents helping students and one leading politician has stated that all coursework will be ended if he had control. ICT lends itself well to charting process activities and can readily be audited.

    The challenge is complex but will not be resolved until 21st pedagogy is supported by the progressive use of ICT and appropriate assessment methods. At the moment we are trying to power a hand cart with a hydrogen fuel cell.

    The reformed New Zealand curriculum is at least setting the right challenges. I only hope the UK follows soon.

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