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.
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. 🙂