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Behold geeks bearing gifts

John McDougall wonders whether truly open learning could be just a few keystrokes away

VIRTUAL Learning Environments (VLEs), which have been around in universities and colleges for some time, are just beginning to poke their virtual noses into schools. For pupils who can't or won't attend school, they have the same advantages as for students who can't get up to attend lectures. Not only do they offer learning materials online; they provide other features designed to replicate a bricks-and-mortar learning environment: chat areas, discussion forums, interactive whiteboards, some online assessment and feedback.

They can also provide access to a wider community than a single school.

They can build up "learner information profiles", which might be seen as a tool for Big Brother, but can also allow the VLE to become more responsive to the learner's needs: so, when learners log on, they can be presented with a tailored interface and schedule.

But can VLEs affect the main bulk of the school system? Before that can happen, they will have to achieve a critical mass of "learning objects", the collective term for lessons, whole courses and assessments stored in their "repositories". There are two approaches to building such a mass: one adopted by the commercial and one by the public sector. Granada's answer, for example, is to invite teachers to submit objects and then receive payment according to the extent to which they are used. The most interesting manifestation of the latter - and one with potentially far-reaching consequences - is the ITALES (Innovative Teaching and Learning Environments for Schools) project, co-ordinated by Learning and Teaching Scotland.

This huge undertaking involves several European partners and is costing more than three million euros. ITALES will exist entirely pro bono publico, and there are no plans to pay teachers to produce "objects". Rather, the inducement will be that they may be able to capture more effectively the imagination of their pupils. One partner, from the Expertise Centrum Digitale Media Department of the Limburgs Universitair Centrum in Belgium, is developing an intriguing authoring tool, ITALCO, which can present educational material in the form of an adventure game, including tests which themselves become part of the game. For teachers who have to seduce learners into learning, this is a most promising idea.

VLEs aim to be "open": learning objects can be built up from a whole range of software. So, in ITALES, the teacher will be able to produce materials in one of the authoring tools provided, or in a favourite authoring package (it is likely that popular third-party tools will be included in the ITALES repository). VLEs also aim to be "interoperable": able to work with any computer or operating system that can use a standard web browser.

In practice, interoperability is a minefield. For a learning object to be interoperable, it must conform to certain standards. One such set of standards is the "IMS global learning consortium" set. So there are IMS standards for "content packaging" (putting the objects together coherently), "metadata" (attaching tags to the objects so that they can be found), "learning design" (describing how the object might be used), "simple sequencing", "learner information profiles", "question and test interoperability." Now, hands up all those busy teachers who really want to know about such mysteries.

If a critical mass of learning objects is achieved, there remains the question of how VLEs and the rigid structure of the school day, especially the secondary school day, can co-exist. One point of view is that the school day is outdated, a relic of an industrial society, inimical to the development of real autonomy in the learner.

This argument is put forward vigorously by Dr A Aviram and others at the Centre for Futurism in Education at Ben Gurion University in Israel, which just happens to be one of the organisations which will evaluate ITALES.

We might broadly agree with their analysis, but politicians and the parents to whom they are answerable tend to play safe. The school day has withstood many frontal assaults in the past, partly because it suits so well the roles other than educators which society wishes to impose on teachers - the roles of jailers, policemen and baby-sitters.

owever, VLEs may eventually undermine the status quo in a more subtle way, becoming, in effect a Trojan Horse. Already, it is probably counter-productive for some pupils in some situations to attend classes.

As young people become ever more rebellious, at an ever earlier age, it is likely that, despite a plethora of initiatives, classrooms will become ever more difficult to manage. So it is possible that the graph of what is learned in many classrooms will sink inexorably downwards.

At the same time, as the sophistication and sensitivity of VLEs increases, the graph of what a young person can learn through them will rise and rise.

When it is undeniable that these two graphs have crossed over, there could be a sea-change, starting with demands from parents that their child should not attend some classes, because it's a waste of time.

What the school day will be like then is anyone's guess: a headteacher's nightmare, perhaps; but offering the possibility, one hopes, of nurturing a true joy and autonomy in learning, providing an escape from the sterile struggles which characterise so many of our beleaguered schools at present.

A Trojan Horse, after all, may be a perfect vehicle for progress.

John McDougall, having recently left teaching, now describes himself as a freelance pontificator. He gratefully acknowledges help from Gerard Queen, the ITALES project co-ordinator, and the ITALES consortium, but the views expressed here are his own.

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