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Do fish know that it's water?

Are you aware of your learning environment? Or is it just the network you are using? George Cole reports on an intriguing development for indiviudal education

Would you like a virtual learning environment (VLE) or a managed learning environment (MLE)? A learning platform or a digital portal? Do we even recognise the computer networks we use? Like fish don't notice it's water?

Well brace yourself for a range of networking products that aim to transform the way teaching and learning are organised in schools and beyond.

They come under a variety of names and are available in a variety of guises, but all can be described under the generic term "learning environments". So what is a learning environment and why are companies such as RM, Microsoft, Granada Learning and Digital Brain busily promoting such products at this year's BETT show?

Over the years, networks, the internet and digital content have found their way into thousands of schools. Almost every school now has an internet connection. Many resources are now accessed on school intranets or internal networks, as well as from the internet. Email is commonly used for communication. Learning environments use these elements to create a system that aims to make learning more flexible and teaching more effective. In a typical learning environment, a student will log on to his or her personal page, which will include a learning programme, resources and communication tools like email and chat. The teacher's page will provide features such as a resource bank for lesson planning and a student monitoring system.

Unfortunately, there seem to be more definitions of learning environments than there are days of the week, but all learning environments are based around web browser technology, which means they can be accessed from almost any computer, any time and any where. The result is that learning can be easily extended into the home or community. A learning environment will typically include digital content or resources, a curriculum map for course planning, teaching tools, collaboration tools (such as email and chat) as well as tracking, assessment and reporting systems. Such a system is known as a virtual learning environment or VLE. If you combine a VLE with the school's management information system (such as SIMs or CMIS) data can be passed between them, and you now have a managed learning environment or MLE.

At BETT, the learning environment systems on show will include RM's Kaleidos, Microsoft's Class Server and Learning Gateway, Granada Learning's Learnwise, Connetix's VLE, Netmedia Education's Interactive MyGrid4Learning, Ramesys' Assimilate, Capita's Learning Platform, Intranet Managers' The Managed Learning Environment, Digital Brain and Schoolmaster.

"There is some confusion over what each of these products offers," admits Alan Teece, director of online learning at Granada Learning, "but there is a move towards a self-certification system that will help teachers know exactly what they're getting for their money." David Wimpress, Netmedia's chief executive suggests schools should: "Focus on the key issues - how robust is the system? How open is it - can I use third-party software for example? Can teachers use it in the classroom and, crucially, does it make a difference to teaching and learning?"

The main thing is that schools will want to know why they should consider using a learning environment. Steve Smith, business development manager at Ramesys, says: "There are two distinct elements to a learning environment.

There's a better continuity for the learning experience and personalised learning, and it encourages teachers to collaborate, to share good practice and resources." He adds that teacher workload is a major problem in schools and this is partly due to how most teachers operate. "Teachers are autonomous and while this is often a good thing, it does mean they spend a lot of time on planning and preparation and that often means re-inventing the wheel. A learning environment encourages teachers to share resources with their colleagues."

Myf Powell, education designer at RM, agrees. "With a teaching and learning environment, schools can organise a lot of their content so that it's easy to re-use the following year. Specialist teachers can create schemes of work and educational resources and share these with non-specialist teachers. They can support less experienced teachers."

Learning environments involve piecing together many different components - from content to computers to networks - and so interoperability is a major issue. For example, content has to be tagged or labelled, so it can be stored and retrieved by the learning environment system. Databases also need to have common identifiers so users can access the correct data.

Imagine a hi-fi system where you could only connect a Sony CD player to a Sony amplifier and only play Sony music discs.

The situation isn't quite that extreme in the learning environments world, but we are not (yet) at the stage where schools can mix and match elements from different suppliers. Work is at hand to improve the situation. Both RM and Granada Learning for example, are working with groups of software publishers and developers to ensure that their content is compatible with vendors' learning environments.

But a bigger issue is pedagogy - how can schools incorporate learning environments into their teaching and learning? "Schools don't want a paradigm shift," says Powell, "they don't want a situation where overnight a class of 30 pupils are given their own individualised learning plans."

She suggests a step-by-step approach, whereby a learning environment is first used for whole-class teaching, before the other possibilities are explored. Powell also recommends that schools run a small pilot before rolling it out to the whole school.

Stephen Heppell, director of Uiltralab, the education research centre at Anglia Polytechnic University, has concerns about learning environments.

"My biggest worry is that by presenting learning in a pre-packaged way, it's seen as an easy option by teachers. Most of the exciting stuff happens when kids are doing experimental things on a computer. ICT could become straight-jacketed."

But Powell says: "Teachers have long had the pre-packaged text book. It's about proper training and support. When content is prepared for teachers and educational resources are already created for them, they can focus on the higher-order teaching skills."

Schools need to do their homework before opting for a learning environment, says David Wimpress: "Study the market and the players and check what their credentials are. Find out who's using it and get a rigorous assessment from them."


Capita Education Stand H34 Tel: 01234 832020

Connetix W80 Tel: 020 7648 4835

Digital Brain H61 Tel: 0870 777 655

Intranet Managers SW151 Tel: 01494 463311

Learnwise E40 Tel: 020 8996 3333

Microsoft D34 Netmedia Education E11 Tel: 0121 544 4115

Ramesys Z50 Tel: 0115 971 2000

RM D50E50 Tel: 08709 086969 (Primary) 08709 086868 (Secondary)


Schoolmaster C70 Tel: 020 7384 6960

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