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e-Help Seminars - Ed Waller
e-help Seminar 24
Can you get the best out of a VLE?
Heerlen 10-11 March 2006

Guided Research of the Roman Empire

a) The School Context

As the development of the internet began, it also began the marginalisation of the School Text Book. One can imagine a time in the future when schools are 'free' from the requirement to provide books, when every student has a laptop with internet access for all. Although the idea of "settling down with a good book" will probably not vanish, the advantages of the internet over the textbook are probably obvious: updated, flexibility, low cost.

However, just as one wouldn't recommend leaving a class of 30 students to work through a textbook (and I might add "any more" here) one wouldn't leave a classroom full of students alone with the internet and expect that they will achieve the lesson objectives any time soon.

Even for the committed student who wanted to learn and progress, the internet, purely because of the size from which it derives its usefulness, would find it difficult to hit the right sites. As an example, imagine you asked a Year 7 (11 and 12 year olds) to carry out a research project on the Roman Empire. They beetle off to Google and type in "Roman Empire" the outcome? 15.6 million hits. There's more chance of winning the UK lottery than getting the best six sites from the search.

This is one of the reasons many teachers have developed their own websites with guides or links to the places that suit the needs of their students studying their curriculum. Many of these have become excellent resources not just for students at that teacherís school, but for all teachers and students.

While this remained true of a few teachers in some subject areas, it was simple enough to deal with. As the levels of ICT literacy among staff has grown, there has been an increase in the number of teacher websites, controlling, arguably, increasing amounts of their own destiny as they produced a transferable commodity.

At the same time a many schools around Europe and beyond have sought to improve their 'branding' and have produced their own websites. While this may have begun life as a marketing tool, ensuring people were aware of what the school offered and thus increasing the demand for places, the school website has grown. Regularly pages that once formed part of the teacher's own pages were supplanted by the corporate package, and moreover the corporate package was edited and updated by non-teachers. This has the potential to 'cut across' the teachers websites, perhaps making them less effective, as content associated with the school has seen to 'belong' to the school, and the content has lost its intimate connection to the teaching staff.

Equally the success of the few with websites and interactive work of their own is something management has seen and wanted to spread across the school, and VLEs are one means of 'encouraging' this spread of good practice.

Thus the decline in the growth of teacher sites has mirrored the growth of the school sites. If there is one difficulty with the school website it is that they do not offer much in the way of didactic content. My own department website has what are referred to as exam tips for GCSE, ways to make the most out of questions set by the AQA examining board, but beyond this it doesn't help a great deal. What is needed is another solution.

B ) The Student Context

Students have become increasingly ICT literate, albeit that they might not recognise their achievements in the same terms. I-pods have replaced walkmans; video/audio phones are replacing text/audio phones; Satellite broadcasting has changed the nature of television.

The nature of their engagement has significantly changed as a result, and the teaching of history (among other subjects) has changed with it, and generally for the better. The change in students has demanded a change in the approach of teachers who have had to create engagement rather than merely expecting or demanding it.

Again, we are in need of a solution.

c) The VLE solution.

I should note early in this section that VLE is A solution rather than THE solution. First of all it offers something that the Headteacher will be able to agree to as it can be designed in line with the corporate image website. Similarly it is something that can and would be seen generally as under the control of the school, and confer ownership of any resources or material. Increasingly schools are looking towards VLEs to provide a learning experience which is both controlled and effective.

VLE software is primarily a communication tool. It enables the school to pass information to the student and for the student to pass completed work etc back to the institution. It has an extensive if finite list of possible ways of executing such communication. This includes certain types of email, forums and task-specific assignments, which incorporates standard MS software types and usually one or more VLE-specific options.

In these ways it is similar to the teacher website, and adds means of monitoring the frequency of student work on an assignment. The task-specific assignments also include guidance on what is required, and through the 'internal' email system offers the opportunity for teachers to answer any queries that might arise.

The downside of VLEs is the same as any 'off the peg' solution: It comes as a package, although there are bolt-on extras to make it feel tailor-made. The natural corollary of this is that it limits the creativity of the teacher in producing material for the students. Any constraint is a constraint on thinking and execution. For the more advanced in ICT skills a VLE is likely to prove a disappointment.

The other major disadvantage of a VLE is in some ways also its strength in that it is a school-wide solution. Despite the forward march of ICT skills, many teachers skill levels are such that they would find a VLE intimidating. Those who fight shy of MS Excel and even MS Word, or those who rely solely on presentation software may simply fail to use a new system that requires them to learn a number of different ways to present information and assignments. The future may be different, and the increasing use of drop-down menus might increase the take-up rate in any given school. Certainly VLE providers will be less keen to develop advanced software applications within their package if this is likely to meet resistance among the users it is designed to help.

Equally there is an issue regarding students' ICT skills, however once they learn how to access the VLE, they tend to be happy to use it.

Once a VLE has been chosen, as with any new initiative, time is a key factor in how helpful it can be. Setting up a number of activities for all your classes for every week is simply beyond many teachers' available time. The advantage that once done it's there forever is a fallacy inasmuch as one might always wish to review or 'tweak' whatever was attempted last year.

So you can get the best from a VLE, but remember that its best may not be everything that you want and have aspects you won't use.

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