Friday, 22 March 2013

Some thoughts on VLEs now they are teenagers

Before VLEs were developed, the Internet (and I use the term deliberately here as opposed to the World Wide Web which is something subtly different) was used in teaching only by those who had the technical skills and were innovators/pioneers in Internet technologies. Personal websites, TelNet groups, gopher etc. were the tools used to provide digital resources and communication.

CMS/VLEs where first being adopted in the UK around 2000 with a relatively wide variety of systems being available. An early review by ASTDs LearningCircuits (2001) listed over 50 systems (see this link for over 150 current CMS, LMS, LP & VLEs from C4LPT). The new VLEs offered a website specifically designed for teaching and learning with a single sign-on providing access to a variety of tools built into the system. The benefits were see by educational institutions so uptake was relatively rapid. The main benefits being:
  • Standardised interface and procedures for all staff and students
  • Organisational deployment and user account management
  • Integration of tools and user data
It is true that no one system can provide everything that all users want, have the best tools available or even be liked by all users. However, the 'integration benefit' seemed to be the most significant of all. Integration was the thing missing from the DIY approach of the pioneers. Teachers and institutions need the learner progress and achievement data and system interoperability provided by these VLEs.

The brief history above is by way of explaining why many institutions currently have a VLE and probably not the first VLE chosen. Discussions about "which is the best VLE?" start as soon as the system is deployed. Early in its use, changing your VLE causes only minor problems and many organisations did indeed change system after initial experience showed what were the important features. Once a system has been in use for a number of years the problems of change increase rapidly; content creation, user data, teacher and learner skills and familiarity do not easily (if at all) transfer to a new system. Despite the massive time and effort investment made to an organisation's chosen VLE, discussions around the theme of 'the grass is greener ...' surface regularly. The truth is that there is no 'best' VLE and the grass is always greener where it's well cared for!

Another truth is that VLEs do meet a number of needs, few (if any) institutions have decided that a VLE is not for them and simply abandoned the whole concept. The situation is a bit like one's relatives; you may not like them but you cannot get rid of them, you just have to learn to live with them and see their good side. All VLEs do roughly the same sort of job, they provide tools/facilities for teaching and learning:
  1. provide facilities for course/module management
  2. provide facilities for learner/group management
  3. present information and skill resources
  4. present instruction for learning activities
  5. provide tools for individual and group study/collaboration
  6. provide communication for learning and support
  7. offer opportunities for reflection and formative assessment
  8. provide tools for summative assessment and feedback
The rise of the Read/Write web (aka Web 2) around 2004 changed the nature of the digital world, over the last 5 or so years and there has been an increase in really useful 'software/application websites' often featuring self-publishing and networking opportunities. Unless an organisation fundamentally changes the way it goes about teaching and learning however, any popular VLE will provide the tools that are needed and VLE change becomes more about fad and fashion. The big questions are how can you know if there is a real need for change? What other VLE may be better? Is the potential improvement worth the disruption? Care is needed, a perceived improvement may not actually exist. A pig in a tuxedo looks glamorous but underneath it is still just a pig!

Having considered the nature of VLEs and issues around change, the rest of these notes cover the VLEs recently mentioned in the Learning Technology community.

The results of the 6th Annual (2012) Learning Tools Survey, as voted for by 582 learning professionals worldwide, and compiled by the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies can be found here Entries relating to VLEs are shown below.

Moodle is still the most popular VLE around and to consider the North Wales region, over 90% of secondary schools and colleges are using Moodle v2. The exceptions are using Kalidus and Joomla but are considering switching to Frog or Kite. Schools who have not so far engaged with VLEs, mostly Primary/Junior, will probably be trying out Learning Possibilities Hwb+ over the next couple of years.

The UK ILT Champions Network have, this academic year, commented on other platforms new to the community:
  • PedIT (Norwegian -
    Pedagogicaly flexible but mostly features a social constructivist approach.
  • Canvas (American -
    An LMS 'native to the cloud' which means upgrades etc happen seamlessly in the background. The Canvas API (Application Programming Interface) is openly published for ease of integration with third-party systems or for custom development and reporting.
  • BuddyPress Courseware (A Wordpress plugin -
    Although primarily a blogging tool, there are many plugins available to provide a range of educational tools. BuddyPress is similar to Edmodo in terms of providing learners and staff with the rich networking that other VLE's lack, but has the advantage of customisability.
Professional networks in other countries have recently pointed to the following as noteworthy:
  • Lore (American -
    The new startup is using a Facebook type platform and tailoring it for education. Along with more traditional VLE features, the social network structure allows teachers and learners to communicate, follow one another, and discuss class work and lectures.
  • Eliademy (Finnnish -
    Launched in Feb 2012, it is free and open source providing online classrooms that enable teachers to create, share and manage courses anytime, anywhere featuring a smart and friendly interface, fast and easy to use features. Free tech for school
  • its learning (Norwegian -
    A digital learning platform which allows educators to create, use and manage a wide variety of digital resources to support best practices such as: blended learning, flipping the classroom, personalized learning, professional learning communities, and other innovative digital learning environments.
In 2011 Google added an EDU category to its Apps Marketplace. Over 2 years later there are 70 education Apps available providing a variety of tools, from a variety of companies, that integrate with the standard Google Apps. Recently some Google users have been looking at the LMS Apps available; Engrade, CourseDirector, Docebo, Edubrite, OpenClass, Digication and ThinkWave. There are few tools that beat the standard apps for real-time collaboration and communication but the jury is still out on effectiveness of the LMS apps.

Thirteen years on, the Learning Technology landscape is very different to when modern VLEs were being designed. Application and networking websites abound but new LMS entrants appear every year. The VLE seems far from dead. Despite alternatives, the smart move is to embed, within the organisation, aspects of the established VLE that are key to the core business and management of the institution (see points 1-8 above). Then , encourage 'variation around the edges' where individual users are free to choose external tools/facilities that provide the aesthetics and enhanced functionality they want. This type of 'distributed VLE' seems to provide the best of all worlds.

(but I expect this topic to run and run)

Friday, 15 March 2013

Of Cubs and Men

I really wish I had a photograph of me aged 10 proudly showing my cub scout badges sewn neatly, by my mum, down the arm of my uniform.

I could tie knots, make Meccano models, give first aid and, I think, I was proficient at doing things with an 'A frame'.

What carefree days they were.

Many many years on, having put childish things aside, I have just created my own digital badges to represent different levels of skill in using the GoToMeeting software being introduced at work.

Primarily designed as eMail signature images for staff who have been trained as 'attendees' or 'presenters' the badges would help raise awareness of the new software.


But how will staff respond to the badges?
Do real men, or women, collect badges once they've grown older?