Making effective use of VLEs

I’ve been enjoying hosting a hotseat within a Master’s programme at Middlesex University in the UK – one of three I am doing for them. It’s something I can at least do from home while the earthquake has limited my access to my work environment.

The topic for the current hotseat is “making effective use of VLEs” (substitute LMS for VLE and it’s pretty much the same thing). There are an increasing number of UK schools making use of a VLE to support teaching and learning activities, and I was invited to facilitate some discussion in this course about what makes for effective use of a VLE – beyond simply using it at a place to share content and resources.

What follows is a excerpt from the material I put up for discussion – I can’t share the actual discussion that has ensued, but I can say it has stirred up considerable online discussion, with examples provided of VLE use at all levels from early years to senior secondary. Of particular interest to me in all of the responses is the assumption that the use of a VLE/LMS is not or can not be as good as a face-to-face experience.


Some basic questions we need to think about when considering how we can make effective use of VLEs are:

  • What is a VLE and how can it be used?
  • What are the potential benefits and pitfalls of using a VLE?
  • is there a particular pedagogical approach that is necessary to make effective use of a VLE?

In the past 10 years we have seen a rapid adoption of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) in higher education and in the schooling sector. Both teachers and the institutions they work in are increasingly turning to VLEs in order to optimize the time spent teaching and provide a service for students who use the Internet as the main tool for finding information and resources. The term Learning Platform or VLE describes a broad range of ICT systems used to deliver and support learning. At the heart of any learning platform is the concept of a personalized online learning space for the student. This space should offer teachers and learners access to stored work, e-learning resources, opportunities for communication and facility to track progress. However up till now there has not been a strong track record in integrating VLEs effectively into teaching and learning programmes.

According to a JISC’s Introduction to managed learning environments, the term ‘virtual learning environment’ refers to the components in which learners and tutors participate in online interactions of various kinds, including online learning. Thus, a virtual learning environment can be any electronic space where learning can take place or where interactions occur.

The term VLE has been used synonymously with a Learning Management System (LMS), a software
application for the administration, documentation, tracking, and reporting of training programs, classroom and online events, e-learning programs, and training content. The Wikipedia entry of the history of the VLE shows how the evolution of a VLE includes LMS development.

Despite the reasonably large scale uptake, the perceived benefits of a VLE have not yet been widely realised – as confirmed by an OFSTED report published two years ago. In that report 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

Where effective use of VLEs were observed the reviewers reported:

“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.”

So what are the conditions required for effective use of VLEs?

In my experience from working with schools in the UK and in NZ  I see many instances where a VLE/LMS (like many other technologies) has been introduced, training given on the essentials of how to upload material onto it, then it has been left to languish through lack of use (or abuse).

On the other hand there are, of course, examples of where excellent use has been made of a VLE/LMS, where it has become a part of the learning hub of the school, acting as the clearing house for course content, participation in projects, communication with parents etc.

So what makes the difference? There are two key considerations in my view. The first lies not in the choice of the technology for a VLE, but in the underlying understandings and applications of pedagogical thinking.

1 – The Pedagogical Imperative

We can (and have) spend countless hours debating the merits of various VLE platforms, but in the end it comes down to how they are used, rather than what use can potentially be made of them. Certainly, once one  becomes more familiar with what can be done in an online environment one’s expectations are raised, and so one becomes more discriminating in terms of the particular platform, although that in itself is then problematic because you quickly realise that there is on single ‘ideal’ platform.

In the US, like the UK and other places, a VLE is a central platform for the developments occurring in blended-learning environments, in which students learn online in an adult-supervised environment at least part of the time. A recent report on the rise of blended learning in K-12 schools in the US focuses on this issue:

The growth of online learning in brick-and-mortar
schools carries with it a bigger opportunity that has not existed in the past with education technology, which has been treated as an add-on to the current education system and conventional classroom structure.
Online learning has the potential to be a disruptive force that will transform the factory-like, monolithic structure that has dominated America’s schools into a new model that is student-centric, highly personalized for each learner, and more productive, as it delivers dramatically better results at the same or lower cost.

Policymakers and education leaders must adopt the right policies for this to happen. There is a significant risk that the existing education system will co-opt online learning as it blends it into its current flawed model—and, just as is the case now, too few students will receive an excellent education.

Here’s the challenge – how do we ensure that we aren’t simply adopting the use of a VLE to enable our online learning, blending it into a currently flawed model. By flawed model, I include some of the pedagogical practices that exist in our face to face classrooms. For example, a lot of what occurs in our schools remains a hangover from the “transfer of knowledge” days, where the emphasis was on the ‘delivery’ of content, rather than active engagement with it.

This is where things can go awry. VLEs had their origins as vessels for content storage and delivery. This is what suited the mostly university level users at the time. Since then we have come a long way in terms of what the technology itself can provide, but still we fail to fully leverage this in the way we use it.

In essence, our teaching and learning in a VLE environment has to be active. Passive learning is an oxymoron anyway! A quick browse through the US report referenced above reveals some specific references to the sorts of things that can make learning in a VLE (or blended environment) more participatory, more active, and more engaging for students.

2 – The Online Lives of Students

The second consideration here is to ask ourselves, “is a VLE still the best way to go?” Is it still appropriate for learners who are increasingly living their lives online, creating their own ‘personal learning environments’ (PLEs), with places to store files, communicate with friends, build collections of photos or music, maintain blogs and journals etc. Can it be relevant?

A few years ago I did some work (with Sandy Britain) for the NZ Ministry of Education on the development of a set of guidelines for schools on what the MoE then was calling an “Online Learning Environment”, or OLE. (Substitute VLE for OLE and you’ll get the picture). In this document I have attempted to outline the changing nature of a learner’s experience in the online environment (their Personal Learning Environment or PLE), and contrast that with the more formal, institution-controlled approach of a VLE.

I also created a table that illustrates some of the key shifts in the form of a continuum, identifying the various areas that we need to be considering in our efforts to effectively engage with students online.

Although these documents were written a while ago, and for a different context, the essential thinking has not changed – indeed, I believe we are seeing more of what was predicted in these documents becoming a reality right now.

Background Readings

The following readings may provide some background to our discussion:

  • The Rise of Blended Learning – blog post commenting on a recent US-based report on the impact of blended learning in K-12 schools in the US.
  • OLE-PLE relationship (pdf download) – a document I prepared some years ago to inform some policy work that was in its early stages of development in New Zealand. (If you substitute OLE for VLE when you read it you’ll understand).
  • Expanding pedagogical scope – a chart I created around the same time to help illustrate some of the shifts that are occurring in our system.
  • Designing an Online Environment for Learning – a blog post of mine from 2010 (again, substitute VLE for LMS in this case) – note also the nature of the responses to this post.

Some questions

So – there are two key issues to be considered when thinking about how to make effective use of a VLE/LMS:

  1. The pedagogical practices and approaches that will lead to the effective use of VLEs (and what to avoid)
  2. The growing dilemma of an institution-based VLE as an outmoded concept in an increasingly learner-driven online world.

Some questions that could be useful to prompt discussion in staff rooms and PD sessions to promote discourse about these issues might be:

  • what examples of effective use of a VLE/LMS have you seen or experienced?
  • how does this illustrate an active learning approach?
  • what references or resources can you point us to that would help others in creating a more collaborative and participatory experience for learners within a VLE?
  • are VLEs outdated? If not, why not? If so, what will replace them – if anything? What are the alternatives?
  • what other shifts ought we be concerned about that might impact on the effective use of VLEs?

3 thoughts on “Making effective use of VLEs

  1. hi Derek – coincidentally we have just embarked on a review of our LMS/VLE at AUT (currently Blackboard). I will add this post to our growing list of literature to review. many thanks Stanley

  2. A Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is a system for delivering learning materials to students via the web. Now everything is made easier for the students as most lectures, assessments and other information related to the academic curriculum are made available 24/7 online. Providing access to these material both on and off-campus helps students who find it difficult to come to campus due to various reasons with their academic work.
    One of the many benefits of the internet!

Leave a Reply