The virtual future

Nicola Yeeles examines the virtual learning environments for the class of 2015

How could a virtual learning environment (VLE) help someone win Wimbledon?  It obviously wasn’t a question bothering Williams or Djokovic this summer, but tennis champions of the future are making use of such technology to help them learn in different locations. The private Sutton Tennis Academy in south-west London has produced 55 sports stars who’ve played at Wimbledon and uses Canvas, a cloud-based VLE used by over 1,000 organisations globally.

Jessica Weeks, director of student support, describes the benefits: “It allows our players to do their studying abroad. If a player is off touring for three months or more, or even just a few weeks, it allows the parents, us and any tutors to check in and support them. So if there are particular assignments they’re struggling with, we’re able to access Canvas and have a look.”

But the advantages aren’t limited to specialist schools, and they’re not just for pupils. Chief executive officer of learning solutions company WebAnywhere Sean Gilligan adds: “A VLE is not only for students. It could be used to deliver staff training so staff do not have to be present at the same time, and the training can be delivered gradually over days or weeks. Staff discover it as a way to share content and activities which can help them reduce their preparation and assessment time when creating or updating courses.”

In the UK further education sector, college-wide virtual learning environments are pretty ubiquitous, especially the open source platform Moodle. But schools have not been so quick to deploy such solutions. Gilligan says: “Although computers are now omnipresent, introducing a modern, inter-networked learning management system into the classroom is still relatively in its infancy.”

He goes on: “Many more schools have some exposure to a virtual learning environment, but using it effectively still seems to be a considerable challenge.’

But Dominic Norrish, the group director of technology at United Learning, a national group of over 50 schools, disagrees: “A VLE is always going to be an add-on to the software ecosystem that students and teachers live in. I think the business case for spending money on a VLE is increasingly hard to make, in the light of Google Classroom et al and especially when you consider that Google Apps for Education or Office 365 offer a complete ecosystem of email, calendaring, file storage, productivity and collaboration applications as well as workflow.”

So if schools aren’t using VLEs, what are they using?

The internet is bringing web-based but un-networked options into the classroom. Norrish says: “Google’s announcement that their Classroom workflow tool will shortly allow integration with schools’ management information systems is a much-needed step and will accelerate schools’ adoption of Google Apps for Education, I am sure.” Since last year, Google Classroom has expanded its offering and now includes more mobile apps than before and a range of other tools designed to make it more social and useful. These include:

● Classroom share button: teachers and students can share links, videos and images from other websites or products directly to Classroom
● Classroom API: allows administrators to provision and manage classes at scale, and developers to integrate applications
● Mobile notifications: over summer 2015, mobile notifications for iOS and Android apps have allowed students to see immediately see when they get a new assignment or grade or a comment from another student or teacher
● Stream controls for teachers: teachers can set permissions for their class including muting individual students where necessary, and viewing deleted items
● Export all grades: teachers can download the results for a whole class assignment at once, making it easier to export them to a marking book.

Schools need their software and hardware to be flexible and to respond to the changing needs of different cohorts of pupils, and a constantly evolving curriculum. Google are starting to integrate their products with popular US systems to allow schools to mix and match depending on their needs.

An example of this new feature in practice is Mindmeister, a mindmapping tool. CEO of the American company Michael Hollauf explains: “Organisations which have already integrated Google Apps in their workflow tend to look for connected tools which can help students to boost their creativity, the way they deliver their homework, structure their projects and eventually the way they learn.”

Through a single sign-on system users are automatically logged in when they open MindMeister from the Google universal navigation. They can import and export mind map files between Google Drive and MindMeister. Students also use the MindMeister add-on for Google Docs, added in 2014, which lets them turn bullet point lists into mind maps and automatically inserts them into their documents.

While Google have been working on their educational apps, Microsoft and Apple have also upped their game, with the former announcing its first proper education tool to layer onto Office 365 and the latter updating iTunesU to allow work to be assigned and marked.

But Norrish says: “The adoption rate of Google Apps for Education has been low in the UK, due to the depth with which Microsoft Office is embedded in school life and I’d be surprised if this changed that dramatically.”

Schools are increasingly looking to lessen the complexity with which they do things, and are likely to face real cuts in the coming years. The future then is a marketplace where schools can feel free to choose different products to fit into a digital portfolio rather than a fixed VLE. 

It’s inevitable that schools will increasingly need to show the Ofsted inspector their positive use of technology, and pupils’ digital literacy. Hollauf says: “Educating the next generation has to involve modern technology in a prominent way otherwise our pupils will get outperformed by other, more technology-driven, countries.” 

While getting students to use VLEs is often seen as a challenge, tech-savvy schools will increasingly be able to integrate their pupils’ skills with web apps for educational use. 

Pros and Cons of VLEs

Pros:

✔ Can offer a range of solutions and options depending on product
✔ Can be used for blended learning and staff development or courses where anytime anywhere access is an advantage
✔ A safe secure place that is specially for educational activity
✔ Pupils may not like interacting in front of the whole class
✔ Can be a quick and easy source of reference, for example, for a class to use for a specific assignment
✔ Staff and pupils can keep academic and personal lives separate
✔ Technical support is available
✔ Moodle is free and open source in Kenya, Chile and the UK

Cons:

✖ Encouraging use can be tough.  Usability, interaction and design may not feel as attractive to users so they may not use it; students and staff may feel it’s forced upon them rather than part of their world
✖ There may be other opportunities to teach and learn using the web that might be lost
✖ Pupils may filter their interaction on the VLE because they feel it will be assessed
✖ Some VLE platforms develop slowly compared to the social web
✖ A proprietary solution may require long-term investment and commitment
✖ It will take time to train staff and develop a culture of use

What do you think of the VLE? Have you been using it in your school? Email the editor with your views: rebecca.paddick@wildfirecomms.co.uk