As easy as VLE

We ask some of the sector’s leading providers how virtual learning environments (VLEs) are opening doors to new teaching and learning models

We asked three of the sector’s experts what they thought of VLEs in UK schools and how we can use the evolving technology to enhance learning. 

Google Classroom
A new, free tool in the Google Apps for Education suite designed to improve student and teacher communications inside and outside of the classroom. It weaves together Google Docs, Drive and Gmail to help teachers create and collect assignments paperlessly. They can quickly see who has or hasn’t completed set work, and provide direct, real-time feedback to individual students. Teachers can also make announcements, ask questions and comment with students in real time.

Firefly is a learning platform, intranet and VLE, all in one. That means that teachers, students and parents spend less time remembering where they need to go to find or share a particular piece of information. Firefly is now trusted by over 250 schools in the UK and beyond.

Founded in 1997, Blackboard helps both students and institutions to achieve their learning and teaching goals. Schools face particular challenges in engaging and nurturing ‘digital native’ students, and involving parents, while continually improving the learning environment. Blackboard has partnered with schools across the globe to support new pedagogy and curricula, with tools and content that is familiar to millennials.

Q: In a nutshell, what are the benefits of VLEs in schools?

✥A: Liz Sproat, Head of Education, EMEA at Google
The benefits are really derived from how teachers use the tools provided to them. Many educators point to them as helping learners develop 21st-century skills by encouraging greater collaboration and communication. Providing just-in-time feedback to students is often cited as a core benefit to students’ learning. Being able to set up and manage assessments through a VLE is also seen as a tremendous asset in better personalisation and differentiation in the classroom. Tools such as Google Forms enable teachers to quickly assess students’ progress and make more accurate decisions about that student’s learning journey. These are just some of the many benefits that can be derived. 

✥A: Simon Hay, Partner, Firefly
We are often told by our schools that implementing Firefly has been transformational. That it has taken learning outside the four walls of the schools and the constraints of the timetable. Students are engaged in actually creating the resources that are part of their learning.

✥A: Matthew Small, MD, International, Blackboard
Learning goes far beyond the textbook and students can easily access a wealth of information made available by their teachers. Moreover, they are able to learn at their own pace. Also they learn to work with their peers on common projects, developing collaborating and problem-solving skills. Another advantage is that they can access information and material on the go through their own mobile devices. At the same time, teachers are able to prepare more engaging lectures, grade assignments and review outcomes in a few clicks, as well as analyse online student behaviour to identify issues and help pupils stay on track.

Q: Are there any drawbacks?

✥Liz Sproat: At the moment, due to the increasing trend to drive more efficient, cost-effective use of technology in the classroom many schools are really looking to cloud-based systems. For some VLEs built on legacy server-based technology this will no doubt be a challenge. Gaining widespread adoption in classrooms has always been a core challenge, VLEs that fail to provide adequate support to teachers or are difficult to use and led by technology may struggle to gain traction.

✥Simon Hay: There are some challenges, it needs to be lead well, being a whole student/school initiative, everyone needs to be involved and buy in to it and have clear goals in terms of teaching and learning. Staff who have experienced previous versions of VLEs need to be prepared to adapt a new mind set as things have moved on.

✥Matthew Small: There’s still a cultural resistance from some teachers towards VLEs. Educators have their own individual teaching styles, and changing teaching practices from the top down is difficult. What is needed is the realisation that technology is there to help educators teach more effectively and make their lives easier, and to support students during their learning paths. 

Q: Are there any common misconceptions about VLEs? And are schools still sceptical of
the benefits? 

✥Simon Hay: The term itself implies that technology is an alternative and there is a misconception that VLEs are outdated. Some people think they are difficult to implement and that it is a challenge to get teachers involved.

✥Matthew Small: A common misconception is the association of VLEs with distance learning. While VLEs enables distance learning, thus helping pupils who are unable to attend school, it delivers a greater level of interaction and content during ‘live’ classroom lessons too. VLEs also open doors to new teaching and learning models such as flipped classrooms – where students access lecture material ahead of lessons and use the ‘live time’ to solve problems, discuss and ask questions – and blended learning experiences.

Q: Does the UK lag behind in this area? 

✥Simon Hay: The UK were quite early adopters of the VLE with the government implementing VLEs in schools in the early 2000. However, these VLEs weren’t perfect and were not always rolled out in the most effective way which resulted in VLEs getting a negative reputation and meaning that many schools have yet to see the benefits.

✥Matthew Small: While British universities have widely adopted VLEs, schools are still lagging behind in the use of technologies, especially compared with US schools. However, the UK is among the leading countries in Europe in terms of education and there is an increasing interest in VLEs in particular among secondary schools.

Q: Has there been a rapid increase in UK schools using VLEs? Why is this? 

Liz Sproat: Government investment in technology up to 2010, resulted in the widespread adoption of a range of technologies in UK classrooms. The BECTA entity served a role in providing guidance and support to schools in their use of VLEs and technology and provided some useful statistics on the use of these technologies in the classroom. Since that point, specific digital policies have had a lower priority – despite that we still see a majority of schools are keen to use digital technologies in the classroom. A key element that has changed is a need for schools to really show the impact technology use can have on learning whilst at the same time delivering better cost efficiency as a result of budget challenges. 

For Google, the result is that many schools are attracted to our free productivity suite, Google Apps for Education and now Classroom, which provide essential communication, collaboration, content creation and now assignment features. In addition, many of our schools are seeing real impact on student engagement, motivation and learning outcomes which is really at the heart of what technology should provide.

✥Simon Hay: Yes, we have noticed an increase of VLE users. 1:1 iPad or BYOD roll-outs in schools have all contributed towards this increase, partly because they need a glue that keeps it all together. Additionally, the old breed of the VLEs has come and gone and learning platforms such as Firefly offer something much more centred around learning; they are also much more user friendly and making the most of mobile technology. The new VLEs also give opportunities to involved parents in the interaction between teachers and students.

✥Matthew Small: We are seeing an increased interest for VLE among UK schools, both public and private. First and foremost this is because schools now recognise the pedagogical value of an enhanced learning that includes online resources, multimedia documents, remote or differed access to lessons. This new approach increases student engagement in and out of the classroom, creates new opportunities for student collaboration and enhances the flow of communication with tutors, teachers, parents and peers. 

From a technical point of view, there has been a great effort in the last few years in designing more user-friendly and easy to use interfaces, centred on students’ needs. Also, with the wide adoption of managed hosting services, learning systems are now available in the cloud.  This drastically reduces cost for schools, enabling them to allocate resources to designing more efficient learning programmes without the burden of IT procurement and maintenance. 

Q: What’s the next step for VLEs? 

✥Liz Sproat: One of the key areas to watch will be the split between the monolithic VLE products that provide a full service VLE experience and the increasing trend of app developers augmenting other platforms. At the full service end of the market, we’re seeing some trends towards technology integrations in which student information system, content management systems and VLEs merge together.

At the same time, as the app development world grows ever more strongly, we’re seeing some amazing apps that provide new functionality that may or may not have once been part of a traditional VLE. Some great examples include: Hapara, Edmodo, Doctopus, and gScholar. All of these can be used alongside Google Apps for Education to enhance the experience. We’re also seeing an increasing trend, mentioned earlier, towards cloud-based technologies.

✥Simon Hay: Becoming more and more integrated in everyday learning through mobile devices. Continued development of parent engagement.

✥Matthew Small: To be successful, VLEs need to be centred on students and their learning needs. That’s why at Blackboard our product developers work closely with schools around the world to collect feedback and suggestions to incorporate in our solutions. VLEs are also becoming more immersive; students are able to create their own online profiles and interact with peers like they do on social networks. Older students can easily create their own portfolios, buy books related to courses, get in touch with business for internships and much more. This is already a reality and it is happening now.

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