To VLE or not to VLE? It is questionable…

I go into primary schools quite often, about two per week on average, and the thing I have noticed this term – much more than last year is that a lot of schools are giving up their VLEs.

I would say that in the 10-12 schools I have been in since September, about half of that number started this academic year without a VLE. Not the greatest sample size in the world, but then if you know me at all you’ll know that one swallow always makes a summer!

The reasons that the Head teachers I spoke to for getting rid of their VLE ranged from – “we never used it”, “to it cost us too much money”. One Head, and I won’t say at which school, gleefully told me that she and the Deputy Head had cancelled all of the online subscriptions the school had (Espresso, Education City etc.), plus the VLE and not told any of the teachers…they had a bet to see how long it would be until the teachers noticed the services had gone – and by the middle of October, no teacher had noticed a thing.

Now there are a few things you can take from that anecdote, and a few concerns! But one thing I took from it was that you only get out of a VLE what you put in – and if the management of the school aren’t supportive or active in pushing the VLE then there is little wonder that the teachers didn’t use it.

One thing that does seem striking is that the government policy which dictated that every pupil should have access to a personalised online learning space by spring of 2008 made schools and LAs look at VLEs, and buy into them, but unless well trained and supported they weren’t used. Or, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Time for another anecdote? I think so… Another quite stark example of the way this policy was implemented was in a primary school I know very well. One of the members of staff who left about 12-months ago in her exit interview asked why the school hadn’t invested in a VLE – the shocking answer was that they had, in 2005, they just hadn’t gotten around to telling anyone yet. This is a very large school, who for five years had been telling anyone who would listen they were running a deficit budget, but had spent five years spending money on a service no-one knew they had and consequently never used.

Don’t take from this that I am anti-VLE, much the same as my thoughts around interactive whiteboards, in the right hands they can be incredibly effective tool which allows teachers and pupils to prosper, but when you’re not trained on something properly, or don’t have the technical know-how to do it yourself, it is a waste of time and money – both of which are in tremendous short supply in schools at the moment.

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39 thoughts on “To VLE or not to VLE? It is questionable…

  1. Hi Chris,

    You’re on the money here when suggesting leadership team support is vital. My leadership team have an entire performance management target devoted to the VLE and mobile learning to encourage staff to develop their skills with these.

    It’s also helpful if you’ve got a younger or tech savvy staff (which I’m lucky to have a good chunk of).

    Another key is being given the opportunity to communicate with students (assemblies), parents (email/letters

    • This sounds ideal! Much better than the lack of support that so many schools have for VLEs. Pupil/Parental engagement is v important too – you can see the same behaviour around school blogs that involve parents, the quality is often much higher.

  2. Whoops. Using my mobile so accidentally pressed publish. Anyway…

    Letters, and information evenings (I speak every year at the Year 9 info evening), and continually communicating with staff – I send out a monthly newsletter giving them ideas to use and acting as a reminder that it exists.

    My staff, now, are quite aware of the positives of using a VLE and are becoming aware of that sort of things can be done on it. It’s at http://www.rickypedia.org FYI.

    Drew (@mrthomson)

  3. I like your post and its very thought-provoking. However, I have to say that if I was in an SLT position in school I might think twice about forking out for a VLE when it costs so much in time of budget cuts.

    Additionally and maybe more importantly, nearly all the functions of a VLE can now be gained for free using Web 2.0 technology. I blogged last year on this, although I have been meaning to update since: http://kenradical.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/how-to-make-your-own-vle-for-free/

    • Ken,

      If you have someone with the right skills and commitment to get it off the ground then you could go for moodle so you don’t have to worry about costs other than hosting (and perhaps paying someone to design a nice theme).

      The Web 2.0 argument is ok, but getting as many staff using enough of those tools is in my experience much more difficult than saying: look here’s a VLE with everything standardised and in a central place where you can put stuff up and do things that students can easily access.

      Personally I think VLE and Web 2.0 work together, not separately.

  4. Very interesting post, and I agree – a VLE gives you what you want it to give you, and much of its functions can be obtained for free (if you are willing to put in the setup work).
    Back when our LA sent myself and the HT on its preferred VLE solution “training day” we saw what it offered us, and had much of that already in place via a school website / blog.
    As a result we opted to save ourselves paying a 4 figure sum each year, and instead looked at adding additional free resources to our blog.
    Four years on, all staff are using our homemade solution, the kids each have a space that they use, and parents love it.
    It doesn’t matter whether you pay £££’s or nothing. It’s how it’s used (and how easy it is to use).

  5. An interesting observation and post, Chris. I have no doubt that there are many pressures upon schools particularly financial ones which could lead them to question the cost of a VLE.
    I do wonder though, if those schools giving up their VLE were ones not making much use of ICT generally? Or even the opposite, those giving up their VLE were also those who were making effective use of ICT and questioned the continued cost and ‘use’ of their VLE?

  6. A good blog post which highlights some of the serious issues about ICT procurement – during the boom period of funding inspired by the e-learning credits there were too many companies happy to sell ‘ICT solutions’ with insufficient support and expectations of the school. It was just too easy for companies to make a quick buck from information poor and cash rich schools whilst too many Senior Management Teams either accepted advice from their LAs or the ICT enthusiast on the staff without thinking about what was best for their children.

    Now it is not just those two factors which have undermined the success of VLEs but they are significant – tie this into this stories (apocryphal or not) from teachers about VLEs not being fit for purpose.

    I do think that in some schools it would be more honest if they just didn’t invest in ICT as the leadership don’t have a vision of what they want to achieve with it. Buying a VLE is a waste in most of those schools as it is a divisive, optional extra and so the kids go through a rollercoaster of ICT experience.

    • I entirely agree. I think there has to be a lot of shared liability for this. I also wonder how much targets are to blame. Targets change behaviour, sometimes in the way they are intended and often not. This law of unintended consequences is most often highlighted with the NHS, but also with VLEs. Having a target that says that every school needs a VLE by a certain date, says nothing about the usage, benefits etc.

  7. I like your post and raises some interesting concerns about leadership. Those services that were switched off should have been part of a wider whole school improvement strategy – not seen as ‘toys’ for teachers to play with. It is as much an indictment of leadership as it is of the teachers.

    I wrote this sometime ago on a similar, related them, http://simfin.wordpress.com/more/notthetools/

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  9. Excellent post, Chris. This is a subject in which I am particularly interested. My recent thoughts are here: http://dughall.com/?p=85

    Training, support and drive from SLT are some of the most important factors but this is by no means the exclusive preserve of the VLE. As you say, IWBs have similar arguments surrounding them. These things are just tools – it’s not their fault they are not used or not used well.

    In a strange way, I am relieved that some schools are dispensing with VLEs. I want schools to be efficient and that means not spending money on things they won’t or don’t use. However, Doug’s comment sums up a worry that I have – that there are schools out there that are thinking they don’t need to invest in or use technology.

  10. The VLE debate seems to run and run and I agree with the points that many of you have made. I was a VLE consultant (well, mainly a trainer to be honest) for two years and I would say 95% of the people I trained were there because they thought they had to be.
    I always said that they should use other (free) apps as well and that they should think what is right for their school but most of the teachers that came were sent by their head or school because ‘we have to have a VLE, so we might as well have the county one’.
    It was such a shame when you saw teachers plugging away at making content when you know that there wasn’t a leadership focus behind it, unless your senior team are on board, it’s a very hard thing to convince people to use. Now I visit schools and they tell me they aren’t using it and wonder why they were ‘told’ to attend training.

    It is a huge shame and this is in an LA where Becta held us up as an example for our VLE procurement, training and uptake! I’d hate to think what was happening in other parts of the country.

    That said, there are some great examples of learning taking place through the county VLE but if more schools pull out, will the county continue to support it? If not, what happens to those schools?

    I think I’ve rambled but like you all said, it’s up to school leaders to decide what services/systems they have in their school and whether to support them or not. Let’s not calculate how much was spent on these VLEs though, it would be a bit depressing!

  11. I am a new ICT coordinator at my primary school and the school have dropped their current VLE leaving the children with nothing so I am determined to bring one back that works and has ease of use and enthusiasm with it.
    I know the training and encouragement to other teachers will have to come from me and I am ready for this but I believe it is also key to have child led content. Without this will they learn about modern communication and technology?

  12. Not sure why there is all the debate around the cost of VLE’s. Why not create your own completely tailored to your students wishes (and maybe some of the staff wishes). Do it all for a capital outlay of less than £10 per year (not including staff costs, although I’m not sure of the cost of peanuts), speed up your workflow, improve your student support, involve parents – in short build a community of common interest. If you think this is ‘pie in the sky’ I have built two in the last 6 months and I only know 3 HTML commands.

    Which means, for me anyway, that the overarching issue is not so much whether you have a VLE – but in whose interest do you have the VLE? Govt req – i.e. Ofsted of School Community Participation???????

  13. Great post, Chris which reflects much of what is going on in the real world. I have only ever seen one good use of a VLE and that was in my son’s old school. The teachers were, as many imply on here, told they had to put work and information on there, by the Head and it was really well used. As a parent I loved the fact we could see what was going on in the classroom and it really encouraged my son to continue learning outside the classroom. This was also a vle that had been internally built, so as Simon suggests, was easy for everyone to use and not an off-the-shelf (v expensive) version.
    However, not all schools have such technical expertise and as a parent I still want to know what’s going…there are other options though – blogging, as you suggest in reply to Drew, being one that is quick, easy & can be free to set up and, judging by the many excellent examples we’ve all seen, encourages pupil and parental participation. It can also be driven by the pupils and class teachers rather than the enforced top-down approach, which allows for a more positive experience all round.

  14. Nice post Chris. I have been blowing hot and cold over use of VLE’s for a few years now. I think they have a place but not one that is dictated by SLT in schools. In fact my school doesn’t have a structured approach to our use of Moodle, yet expects it to develop and flourish, weird. Within my curriculum team there have been pockets of adoption of the use of the VLE which have proved fruitful for learning, this can then provide a model for others- if wanted. I think blogging and sensible web access of Web 2.0 tools is likely to supersede VLE’s for me, but if it’s working for you and your pupils as a tool then keep using it. For me agile, adaptable use of VLE’s and the web is the future, not clumsy, dictated models of collegiate adoption, as in my experience this does not work.

  15. Chris and other colleagues, I did some research on Learning Platforms for a chapter in a book (involcving one or two of the people who have commented here, in fact, and the conclusion I came to was that the factors necessary to successfully implement LPs in a school are as follows:

    * Ownership, ie involving teachers, pupils and others in choosing the system to be used

    * Leadership commitment

    * Leadership style

    * Integration of the real and the virtual

    * Support (not just technical)

    * Experimentation and sharing

    * Expert teachers

    As you can see, some of these echo what people have said in the comments, and what you said in you very interesting post.

    • Thank you for this Terry! I think the same factors could probably be used against the purchase of any resource (not just digital, or technical). We saw the same thing with eLearning Credits – software sitting in resource cupboards unopened for years after initial purchase – bought because it could be, not because it was needed.
      Another example would be a completely non-digital resource. I always ask our consultants to offer free staff training when they purchase one of our reading series (especially the ones where an explanation is needed) – that way the benefits are explained first hand to all staff, not just the Literacy Coordinator or Head Teacher. If often means that teachers spend more time using the resources, and get better results!

    • Hi Terry,
      I did a Masters dissertation on successful implementation of VLE’s in Primary Schools in 2007, and I also came up with similar findings then. Many of these factors are indicative of managing change and can be applied to most new initiatives in schools, so why schools did not follow (and still don’t) such methods when adopting VLE’s is something I struggle to understand. I agree with previous posts about the impact of government targets in the poor implementation and management of VLE’s. I was also told by my current school to ‘get a VLE before September 2010’, with no vision as to why and what for, beyond the fact that we ‘had’ to.

  16. I agree I’m a bit hot and cold on VLEs too. I find that I get inspired when I receive training from others in the school who use the VLE and think about all the ways I may be able to use it. However, I believe teachers don’t just need support on how to use it, but also need to be given dedicated ongoing planning time with the support available to them to make use of the VLE properly. If this happened monthly for at least a year I think the VLE in each school would be more effective.

  17. I’ve been following this debate off and on since the post and I’m now moved to comment. I was one of the people that Ian Addison had to train, sent unwillingly on his course as the 2nd most IT literate member of staff and as DH, able to administrate and train other staff. Within hours, I was hooked on the potential of a VLE. By the end of the first year, I couldn’t teach without it.
    Yes, other staff took a long time to convince. Yes, it was as untidy as the staff room coffee table within days. And yes, it really did consume hours of my life. But to have so many rich resources in one area, still there the following year, which parents could access to see what we were up to all day in school, was a powerful tool. The children loved it, it promoted investigative learning in a way little else did, and children found resources at home for me to add to each unit of work. It allowed collaborative working . . . I could go on.
    So I’m a convert. The only really significant drawbacks were persuading others of its value and the time taken initially to get my head round it. So thanks for the post, Chris. And thanks for the compulsory training, Ian, which yielded one convert!

  18. I must admit to being in two minds about VLE/MLEs – I can see the benefits, I love the tool sets (mostly), I love the idea of communication and collaboration, sharing and exchanging etc. etc. but the reality on the ground is slightly different. Personally, I find the one I use to be time consuming, fiddly and often counter intuitive. What takes 10 minutes using other tools and apps can take in excess of an hour on the VLE. Perhaps this is because I don’t use it enough to become really savvy and it is a vicious circle but shouldn’t the idea be to make things quicker and more efficient? Why should I spend additional time struggling if I can do it via other means?

    Also, what about children and young people with SEND – how accessible are the majority of VLEs?Feedback from colleagues working in special schools is not very complimentary. Quite a few of our pupils with MLD/SLD actually found it quite hard logging on independently because of the strong and secure password required. I could go on but life is short…..

    Sambal

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  20. I found myself nodding in agreement with much of what’s been written above, and that doesn’t happen very often, so good on you Chris for fanning the flames of a debate that stubbornly refuses to go away.

    If I can expand a little on Chris’s sample, I’ve been into twenty or so primaries since September, and around eighty in the last year. My conclusion – despite the fact that I earn my living pushing one view of this issue – is that it doesn’t much matter which kind of learning environment a school goes for: it’s whether that environment gains widespread cultural acceptance in the school that really counts:

    – Can you make the thing an important part of the everyday workflow of teachers?

    – Can you democratise the expertise so that non-technical users do not feel intimidated?

    – Can you combine the informational and pedagogic aspects of a platform so it becomes the natural place to go to find out what’s happening and to create content and tell others what you’re up to?

    – Can it consolidate the school’s communication channels so that school-to-staff, school-to-parents, teacher-to-pupil and other comms channels all work in a simple, similar and seamless manner?

    If the answer to those is yes, then it’s working, and whether it’s Moodle, Google Apps, the blog/website approach of @xannov or one of the commercial products (much as it grates to say that), then the school is doing OK.

    Unfortunately, that is the exception rather than the rule in primaries. Most schools have not enjoyed anything like the excellent training provided by @ainaddison and his LA when he was there. Most schools designate one poor soul to be the VLE Coordinator, which all too often means that they are spending their evenings and weekends building resources for their colleagues. They become the expert in a tool which shouldn’t require expert knowledge. The Apple strapline for the iPad TV ads was ‘you already know how to use it’. Google has more than 12 million Apps for Ed users, almost with no Help Desk. Simplicity is the key to cultural embedding, and that’s how we will get teachers modelling the use of online tools and services in a way that might actually be useful for pupils, rather than spending quite so much time teaching them how to use MS Office.

    Even then, it’s no good having this happening in the classroom without an overarching strategic view which in my view should be aimed at making the technology invisible across the school. Once we stop obsessing about hardware devices and OS choices, we can get on with using the appropriate tools, as and when needed, to support better teaching and learning.

    Personally, I really like the self-directed PLE approach of @teachernz and others, and I would also rather spend money on books and trips to the seaside than pay software licences, but that’s a debate for another day…

  21. Leadership buy in was flagged up by the BECTA study as the main determining factor in the success in VLEs years ago, wasn’t it? As it is with any transformative endeavor in a school.

    The problem is often that leaders perceive telling you to use the VLE as buy in, rather than actively engaging with the tool themselves.

    We currently use the LA topsliced flavour, but are looking at an alternative for the future…like many of the offerings on the market, ours isn’t fit for purpose.

    On the flipside, we can’t bury our heads in the sand and use the collective failure of some VLEs as an excuse not to provide students with an engaging mechanism for extending learning outside the school walls.

  22. A very interesting post – I agree that ‘buy in’ is important at Management level, but of equal importance is that whoever is elected to develop and manage the VLE does exactly that and has enough power to drive through changes.

    So many schools expected the purchase of a VLE to be a magic bullet and to just ‘fix’ certain problems they had in respect to communication and student engagement and it simply doesn’t work like that.

    A well-implemented, continually re-appraised and growing VLE can be of massive benefit to the school as a whole – I don’t see much mention in the comments of parental engagement, streamlined administration and more open communication channels here – is that because these are non-issues, or because for some, the scope of their VLE is quite narrow?

    As with all technology, it’s the implementation and adoption that matters – we could have gone Moodle or collected together a selection of Web 2.0 tools but based on the testing we did, I am incredibly glad we didn’t. That said, we still would have tried hard to make it work – if you have a team that passionately believes in the success of the VLE then it’s entirely possible to make it happen.

    I think the nail was hit on the head early on, the ridiculous ‘everyone must have a VLE’ dictat was incredibly unhelpful and, as often happens, resulted in a lot of wasted time and money.

    Great blog, I shall subscribe!

  23. Hi Chris,
    Just thought I would add my comments into the mix. I work at Frog and I completely agree with what you’re saying in your blog post.
    We always encourage our schools to make sure they get the most out of any investment they make and actually have someone in the school to drive the learning platform and make sure it is a success.

    Frog recently launched its school improvement team that actually supports schools with Frog throughout their journey.

    Hope this helps – you can find out more information about the work we are doing at http://www.frogtrade.com/index.phtml?d=2387822

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  26. Hi Chris,

    Inspired much by your post. We have VLE kicked off years back in my country. We are so annoyed by the program not only the VLE itself but it is also being tendered to a private company by our government. I can’t see this company has any track record in education industry at all. Since this company is just venturing into telecommunication business, and they have installed their 4G radio towers in all school compound as part of the VLE program. I wonder what on earth the VLE has relations with 4G connectivity??? Much suspicious that they are trying to manipulate this program as a platform to extend their 4G services coverage for commercial purpose. Isnt it they are trying to fool the taxpayer with such a huge investment?

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