Just a few short years ago, school leaders were told that a Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) – or learning management tool – was the groundbreaking and innovative tool that would bring online learning to life and offer a new dimension to the classroom. And many headteachers duly believed the hype and bought into it. But tech moves fast, so a few years down the line, it is worth asking whether evolution in ed tech has left the VLE behind.
The original concept of a VLE was to support learning in a modern way. It aimed to do two things: to enable children to access their learning online, wherever they might be and to make teachers’ lives easier. Teachers could easily upload learning materials, students could all view and/or complete them online and it was a simple way for parents to get more involved in the learning process.
The reality of the VLE, however, has often been less than intoxicating. The problem with a VLE is that it never quite works in the way that is envisaged. Sure, there are case studies of schools that have done wonderful work, but these are the exceptions. Teachers have, in practice, found using VLEs to be very time-consuming and, in some cases, the experience actually appears to be that of work duplication; putting work online for the sake of it. This, in turn, results in a lack of enthusiasm, which, of course, then leads to a lack of use.
The VLE experience can prove less than engaging for pupils, too. The systems in place require a learner to think more about which button to click than their learning. And they place the student in a silo, apart from the rest of the internet. VLEs provide schools with a secure, closed, cloud-based learning environments. Pupils use passwords to log in and locate their learning materials. But this is incredibly limiting.
Think about it in these terms. Teachers are increasingly using online networks of people to further their own learning. They engage in professional discussion, either via Twitter, through reading teacher blogs or through involvement in networks at national teaching and learning events such as TeachMeets and Pedagoo, or teaching conferences such as Northern Rocks.
In contrast to the closed, insular nature of the VLE, this kind of learning is very open. It uses personal tools that you have chosen and is tailored to your personal needs.
As a result of this difference, social media-based learning has more impact and twice the effectiveness of a VLE, removing the boundaries and making the possible outcomes virtually limitless.
Ask any child how they learn to do things they are interested in outside of school and most of them will say YouTube. Why is it, then, that so many schools still favour a closed system that does not allow for this kind of learning tool?
As adults, we learn on our mobile devices, through books on our Kindles or free courses on iTunes U. Shouldn’t we be thinking about giving such opportunities to our young people? Why should learning in educational scenarios be so very different to how learning actually happens in real life?
Locking down resources by means of a VLE is old hat and hasn’t provided the right impact. It makes far more sense to start embracing modern ways of engaging learners.
PLEs (Personal learning environments) are where we should be. This is where each child has their own personalised device so that their learning experience is exactly that: personal. Additionally, if well facilitated and supported, children can make choices about how they present their learning and when they work on it outside of school too. Using tools such as iTunes U (just one free tool you can use to facilitate this kind of learning) to access the learning content and submit work in multitudes of ways can personalise the educational experience for pupils.
Of course, if your school is using a VLE and using it consistently well, then stick at it, for the time being. Be mindful though – VLEs can be expensive behemoths that do not always bring the impact they promise. It’s time to think differently; it’s time to escape from the closed environment and find a more open, personalised and versatile way.
Mark Anderson is a teacher, former assistant headteacher and consultant @ICTEvangelist