In 2004, I embarked on an experiment at St Ives, a girls' prep school in Haslemere where I'm deputy head and look after maths and ICT.
Having read about the impact of virtual learning environments in higher education, I wanted to see whether discussion forums, collaborative workspaces and online assessment might have a similar impact in a primary school.
Although the project received the head's blessing, we didn't have a budget.
This wasn't a problem, as the open-source learning environment, Moodle, provided all the tools I wanted to try. Importantly, Moodle also mirrors my social, learner-centred approach to teaching.
The vision for the learning environment at St Ives was simple - to use Moodle and the internet to make the best aspects of our classroom practice available to pupils when they work at home. For the pilot study, I ran Moodle to support Year 5 and 6 maths.
The main use we made of it was for the daily online maths homework. Just as in class, where my pupils were used to (almost) immediate feedback on their work, Moodle made this possible for them at home too, with the server marking each exercise as it was attempted. The computer made homework more game-like, and it became a place for learning, rather than simply reinforcement.
For maths, computerised marking is fairly straightforward, but Moodle also makes other assessment tools available, such as online and offline assignments, and "workshops", in which pupils review their peers' work against a given framework.
We also provided discussion forums, so that those who struggled with homework questions had a place to ask for help. The forums helped build the identity of the class as a learning community, and I didn't have to provide all the support myself.
Moodle also provides online messaging for those who'd rather raise their concerns privately, and a real-time chat tool, which we've used for revision before entrance exams. Moodle is, I think, about building learning communities, rather than just delivering courses.
In class, we use a wide range of resources, so I've used Moodle to make many of them available. They include interactive and web-based copies of our textbooks, provided free through Plymouth University's excellent maths enhancement programme. I also post copies of computer-based activities, links to a maths dictionary, puzzles from maths resources website NRICH, and even radio programmes.
Moodle also enables my classes to work collaboratively at home. There's a built-in wiki tool, so a group can work together on a mini website. My pupils used this for research homework, so that over the course of the weekend they put together a shared fact file about a bit of the subject, each contributing something and then refining the work of their peers. This has a great social impact, as they came to trust their classmates with their work, and learn as much from one another as other sources.
Other benefits include improvements in pupils' ICT skills as well as in their maths - and this goes beyond typing. A number of children have taken an interest in the development and testing process itself, and have been thrilled when their suggestions for new features affect the next release, giving them an even stronger sense of ownership of the learning environment.
Moodle also has huge potential for knowledge management, with assessment data, lesson plans, resources and pupils' work together in one place. It's easy for database developers to integrate with Moodle, and will be easier still if a UK version of the US Schools Interoperability Framework arrives.
The pilot year went incredibly well. Feedback from the pupils and their parents was very positive; the discussion forums had been used really well; there was a significant improvement in attitudes and approaches over the course of the year, with a move towards the more learner-centred, social model of learning that I was hoping to see; and our SATs results for maths were our best ever, with 81 per cent getting level five or better.
We've added more courses to the learning environment, including a virtual staffroom running alongside the virtual classrooms, and I've provided a course for our "old girls" who were upset about losing Moodle as they went back to paper-based homework at senior school.
On the downside, there have been days when putting together quizzes and content was a chore. As publishers release more online content this will be less onerous.
There's also a need to address the "digital divide". We have provided after-school access to computers through our homework club, but it's essential that everyone in a class has the chance to benefit from the learning environment.
Overall, I think virtual learning environments such as Moodle have a huge amount to offer primary schools, particularly where a culture of learning and making things together still flourishes. Online communities co-created by teachers and learners, seem far more appropriate in primary education than a one-dimensional "learning platform" that presents individualised sequences of resources for learners to work through at their own pace.
Don't be taken in by those who tell you Moodle is difficult to set up - it isn't. There are instructions on Moodle's documentation site, docs.moodle.org, but it's really just three steps: copy the scripts from moodle.org on to your webserver, set up a database, and point a browser at the install script.
There are "point and click" packages for Windows, which will do almost all this for you. Having someone host Moodle makes things easier still; I'd recommend the official moodle.com partners, and some local authorities are now providing hosting.
There's also free hosting for communities on moodleforge.org.uk if you just want to use Moodle's communication and collaboration tools for non-commercial, education related projects.
Not only the place to find the Moodle scripts, this is also somewhere to try Moodle's features for yourself, either in the "features demo" course or through the brilliant user community
Site showcasing commercial Moodle partners. These are the recognised experts on Moodle hosting, training and support
Support network and resources for those interested in using Linux and other open-source software in UK schools
Free Moodle for UK educators, hosted by The Cutter Project.
* www.becta.org.ukpage_documentsresearchVLE_report.pdf 2003 summary of academic research on VLEs
* www.eun.orgetbvlevle_eun_feb_2003.pdf Overview from European Schoolnet of the position throughout Europe
Plymouth University's maths enhancement programme resources.
Open-source in action