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The VLE debate, my thoughts

There has been much debate of late about whether Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), particularly in their British state sponsored variations are dead.  For some of the thoughts check out Lindsay Jordan, James Clay, Matt Lingard and Steve Wheeler.

One week today I finally start my new job as Director of E-Learning at a high school in Manchester.  One of my key priorities is to run the school’s VLE.  My current understanding is that they played with their own Moodle a few years ago which was then replaced with Trafford LA’s Fronter based system.  I’ve not heard a good word said about Fronter whenever I have come across it, and have had poor experiences of it myself whilst using the NCSL’s VLE.  As with most of the UK, this VLE is the only one fully supported by the LA, and it is heavily subsidised for at least a few years.

I am yet to be impressed by any of the commercially available, BECTA approved VLE solutions.  The only one I have heard numerous positive remarks about is Frog, but I’ve yet to see it in action myself.  I agree with a number of comments made in the discussions linked above, particularly that these commercial systems appear ‘clunky’ at best.  That there is almost always a better solution for each part of the system available on-line and often for free.

So many tools! (CC Attribution by Felipe Ibáñez Guzmán)

I am convinced that there is a place for a central hub of web-based communications for a school.  I don’t think I will get far in school if I give staff a list of links to Google Apps, Wikispaces, Edmodo, WordPress et al and tell them that ‘there’s your VLE, off you go’.  It would overload the best of them.  Whilst some of us have set up our own Personal Learning Networks consisting of tools for collaboration and discussion, most staff haven’t, and pupils will get mightily confused managing work across dozens of online tools.  Could a commercial, business centric Intranet be the solution, tailored for use in school?

So what is the way forward?  I’m not sure.  My gut instinct is to run a small self-hosted Moodle as a traditional VLE base with links out to other great tools for collaboration such as Google Apps, Mahara, or some WordPress installs.  But I’m a geek, and perhaps a simpler solution would be better. So my first task will be to speak to staff and management at school and find out exactly what they want their VLE to achieve, and more to the point what they want to achieve with it.  That will give us a base to look at the various options available and select the best solution for our school.

In the mean time, my classes are going to be Guinea-pigs on a number of options.  I will be signing the school up for a Google Apps for Education account immediately and looking to get it used little by little across the school, there is so much you can do with it that it seems daft not to.  I have already set up the classes on Edmodo and I’m really excited to see what possibilities exist there.  Edmodo seems to tick the boxes of an out of class homework/communication hub brilliantly, and as they are looking at allowing you to host your own soon, this could become part of a VLE.  It’s also FUN.  It’s fun to use, immediate, satisfying, well designed.  And we can’t overlook that.  We’re competing against Facebook and Youtube for the attention of our pupils as soon as the connect to the Web.  Clunky just won’t cut it anymore!

It’s going to be a busy and exciting year, I hope that this time next year our school will be using a tailor-made VLE that is enabling our teaching and learning to continue beyond outstanding. 🙂

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  1. We haven’t even got ours up and running yet, (the school has gone for FROG) and we’re having training next term. If they are already dead then that leaves us in a very silly position!

    1. I couldn’t agree more Adam. I don’t think the Government/BECTA’s blind pushing of VLEs hasn’t been as effective as it could be. I fear many schools and Local Authorities will find themselves in contracts with very expensive VLEs that are far from the best solution for their needs.
      I hope Frog works well for your school and will be fascinated to hear how it goes 🙂

  2. Hi Dan. I’m teaching ICT and maths in a small special school in North Yorkshire. The local authority are signed up to Fronter, so I’ll be trying to make a go of it over the course of the coming term. Not sure what to expect, but feel that it will fail to match the flexibility and depth of tools available on the web. My only other experience of a VLP so far is Moodle, which did seem to offer something – it certainly encouraged greater interaction with students and sharing of resources amongst teachers.

    It will be interesting to see how things go.

    Good luck in your new post.


    1. Paul, let me know how Fronter goes. It’s still a big option on the table as it’ll be free for 2 more years and i’m sure that will have a big impact on decision making.

  3. Mr S, I have a Coventry Primary School ICT role. What is latest on your experiences with your VLE? Ours uses MoodleDo, not good. Have you a data list on what every LEA in the UK uses? If not I’ll make one. Last…what do you know about Google making it’s own VLE dedicated to children? Good Luck, Mike

    1. Interested to hear your complaints about MoodleDo, this is a managed (and paid for) Moodle install?? No idea on which LEAs are subscribed to which VLEs, a list would potentially be useful. Not heard anything about a Google specific VLE, although you can tick a lot of the boxes with Google Apps.

      Our VLE adventure is thoroughly stalled right now, we are waiting on news of our school turning into an Academy, until this decision is made there will be little development. I am still keen to develop our own Moodle but am having to bide my time.

  4. I’m a KS 2 teacher in a primary school on the edge of Norwich, where our LEA has decided to cease the funded Netmedia platform we have been using. It had its problems so now we have all been left to do our own research.
    DB Learning are asking for £2,000 for a years subscription and this is too much at the moment for us. Norfolk LEA are saying they are rolling out Google VLE and it is currently being piloted in a number of local schools. Had a quick look at FROG and this could also be expensive. A good percentage of my Year 5 pupils shockingly use Facebook freely and weren’t interested in the chat facility Netmedia had on offer.
    Are there any good tips for Primary VLE-ists literally starting with a blank canvas?

    1. Hi, Apologies for the delay in replying.

      Since I have written this we have gone for Realsmart Cloud (http://smartassess.com/) as our VLE. But I doubt that this fits within your budget either.

      I would recommend looking at using a combination of Google Apps as you discussed for communication and collaboration needs combined with excellent and also free Edmodo (http://www.edmodo.com/). This offers a much more Facebook-esque environment that will apeal to pupils more than the big budget old fashioned solutions that are out there.

  5. Hi just a note to check out CourseDirector when comparing Google Apps LMS systems. We’ve gone for tight Google Apps integration so for example courses are created about Google Sites.

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