If you Google "virtual learning environment" (VLE) you'll get 2.1 million hits. Obviously there's a lot going on with these systems. This is a developing area. Most universities and colleges have some form of online provision for managing student learning and many schools are now in the process of thinking about, evaluating, or procuring a VLE, or learning platform as they are becoming known. And the Government is understood to be about to make some pound;40 million investment available for this.
There is a lot of advice to be had from organisations such as technology agency Becta (www.becta.org.uk) and the Joint Information Systems Committee, (www.jisc.ac.uk). These software products are coming into their own partly because we all have networks, including connections to the web, that work and can be relied on. Not surprising then that the focus has moved from the network itself, and its reliability, to the services it carries.
In general, learning platforms are online places to store, organise and make available all the learning materials needed for a course of study.
These systems also provide an environment in which teachers and students can communicate via email or chat and work through learning materials together. They can support a traditional teacher-led model of instruction but are also powerful tools for peer group communication and learning. In fact, they are essential if the current concept of personalised learning is to become a reality.
When thinking about choosing a learning platform its best to start with what you want to achieve educationally before looking at the range of products available. As usual in computing, it's not enough to just know what a learning platform is - it's also defined by what it's not. For example, a managed learning environment (MLE) includes the learning platform and all the student administration systems of the school or college, such as the student record system. An MLE perspective adds a greater possibility for tracking student progress and developing an electronic portfolio approach to recording achievement.
Thinking MLE when you select your online learning environment means you will need to consider compatibility and integration with your existing administrative systems. The fact that all of these systems run across the network and the web means MLEs are sometimes referred to as networked learning environments (NLEs) - an important concept if your intention is to extend the school into the home, or college into the workplace.
The range of learning platforms on the market is enormous. Among commercial products, the market leaders are BlackBoard and WebCT. Both have products that are used extensively in higher and further education in the UK, US and across Europe. These two companies have recently announced that they plan to merge this year.
As well as these major players there are many other providers of systems or, in some cases, managed services to support online learners. These include: MyVLE, a product based on Microsoft Class Server and currently offering a 60-day free trial (see www.myvle.co.uk); RM's Kaleidos, based on its Community Connect 3 networking product; UniServity's Connected Learning Community; digitalbrain's Learning Manager; Netmedia's MyGrid4Learning; Assimilate from Ramesys; Granada Learning's Learnwise; Etech's Studywiz and the Fronter Virtual Learning Environment, which is marketed across Europe.
There's also an Open Source product, the Linux of VLEs, called Sakai, due to be launched as a product in January 2006. With such diversity, knowing what you want to achieve with a VLE is essential before you even start to look.
The promise of learning platforms is common to all phases of the education system, whether school, college or university. They provide additional support for the curriculum, enable personalisation for each learner, include tools for assessment and tracking, provide additional channels of communication, enable outreach, and provide extra help for learners. With these factors in common it makes sense to collaborate. Such collaboration is a common theme worldwide. Examples in the UK include the Washington Schools (Sunderland) project and the Doncaster Education City Project.
But the UK does not lead Europe in these developments. In Belgium there has been a systematic reorganisation of education provision that has led to the establishment of local educational associations (partnerships of schools and universities). The learning platform has been a key device for managing this reorganisation and supporting the partnerships.
The best example is Association Leuven, an association of schools (covering 36,000 students) working in partnership with the local university, KU Leuven. The University of Groningen in the Netherlands also hosts e-learning for the 21 schools (around 40,000 students) in its region. And in Denmark, UNI-C, a government-sponsored provider of IT services to Danish secondary and technical Schools, runs a single hosting operation, providing Blackboard to 15 schools, integrated with their student record systems.
As usual with technology, Europe follows where the US leads. There, the use of learning platforms in schools is becoming systematised, with headline projects in several large districts. Of the top 100 high schools in the US featured in Newsweek magazine, nine use Blackboard as their e-learning platform and 41 make some use of it. At a recent conference in the US, Michael Chasen, chief executive officer of Blackboard, claimed that the company's software is helping schools tackle their most important challenges, including engaging students (and parents), managing student progress and creating learning communities.
It's the last of these in particular that has the chance of really improving our education system. The greatest challenge we have is to join up the phases of education so that learners can navigate the system more easily.
City of Sunderland College has made a start on addressing this key issue by hosting a Blackboard installation for Washington (Tyne and Wear) schools.
The college has provided the technical infrastructure for Blackboard for five local secondary schools since 2002. The college maintains the server and undertakes "first-line" administration of the system. The schools populate the site with courses and content, and undertake the day-to-day management and administration of course sites.
Merv Stapleton is e-learning manager (curriculum) at the college. His role is to support teaching staff in developing the use of e-learning in general, and the use of Blackboard in particular, within the college. The college's e-learning team undertook initial training of school staff and pupils in using Blackboard, and that is now done within the schools by their own staff and pupils. Of the five schools with access to the system, two, Oxclose and Washington School, have made extensive use of Blackboard.
Helpline support is provided by the e-Learning Team at the college. In all, Merv estimates that this equates to about two days work per year, which is scheduled in to the e-learning team's overall workload. There are around 900 school pupils using the system at present, following 90 courses. It has helped students to maintain progress, particularly as a way of contacting teaching staff if they are away ill. Another impact is the reduction in printed material and a higher level of security of students' work. The system also facilitates flexible learning. From the college's point of view, many new students are already familiar with Blackboard, which means that they can get up to speed quickly if they move on to the college.
Learning platforms promise to provide a range of support mechanisms for learners, but the real hope is that they can unite our education system, improving progression for all learners to achieve their potential.
Les Watson is pro vice-chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University
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