Monday, November 23, 2009

Web 2.0 v VLEs part 2

This post is a continuation of my previous post on Web 2.0 and VLES prompted by a detailed comment posted by Nick Sharratt.

First a couple of caveats – the views expressed here are purely my own views and not those of the school that I work at – we still have a VLE and it is the official platform for delivering resources and submitting work online. My blog is deliberately anecdotal – I am a classroom teacher and my blog records what is happening in my teaching practice.

As someone who was until 5 years ago a project manager for a major retail bank I have had plenty of experience of the requirements of the data protection act and also of dealing with ‘business critical’ systems. The eighth principal of the data protection act, for instance, is not a blanket ban on holding personal data outside the EU, rather a requirement that countries outside the EU have adequate protection for individual’s personal data ( it being assumed that those within the EU already do so – not sure with RIPA this is actually the case in the UK anymore ). Thus when I was working for the bank I was part of a team moving data processing to sites in India.  Banks took the approach of making acceptance of overseas data processing a requirement of opening an account. This is also the case with regards to Web 2.0 applications where the terms and conditions ( which I know everyone reads in detail ) will contain a clause to cover the service provider. The argument with students under the age of 18 is whether they are in the position to give informed consent to this.

The approach that we have taken is that students give only the most limited personal data to web 2.0 application providers. Many of the applications we use do not require any sign-up ( and hence any transfer of personal data ) e.g. Etherpad, Solvr. Others require name and email address – for which we insist on students using their school email address e.g. iGoogle, Bubbl-us, Mind Meister. For reasons of e-safety students are not allowed to add identifiable personal data to any of the sites we use.

Use of web 2.0 is limited to disposable documents. If the document needs to be kept it is downloaded and stored locally. This also applies to the submission of coursework. Where work has been submitted e.g. on Edmodo it has been draft versions for feedback and refinement. Final versions have to be printed off as exam boards still require hard copies. There is therefore no reliance on these tools for business critical processes. This contrasts with the use of VLEs to submit work. Had I been relying on our VLE when it was taken down without warning over Easter all of my coursework would have been inaccessible at a critical assessment time. Furthermore our VLE provider attempted to end our contract earlier this term. Again this would have resulted in my losing coursework and resources. Yes it is possible that a web 2.0 site is taken offline but from my experience so far it is far less likely that google will cease to do business than that my VLE provider will pull the plug.

In my previous role I was often in the position of rolling out new systems and liaising with users re development requirements. Had I treated people with the indifference that has been shown by our VLE provider I would have been sacked. You cannot develop a system with a take it or leave attitude towards the user. My experience so far has been that VLE development has been driven by what the provider wants to develop rather than what the user needs, a situation which would not be tolerated in a business environment. I would say that in my experience of researching alternative VLEs the Frog VLE has proved the exception to this – from all reports they appear to be very responsive to their users needs.

Your point re a lot of the issues being management issues is correct. However these issues have not been resolved in six years – longer than many of our students have been at the school – this is not acceptable.

However my main objection to VLEs is this gated community attitude to online access. We need to prepare students for life outside school. The minute students leave school they lose access to the VLE and all the associated tools. Web 2.0 tools are for life, not just for schooltime. 

With regards to the amount of time required to get to grips with the Web 2,0 applications either the application is intuitive to use or I don't bother - I just move onto another application - I am not tied financially or contractually to trying to make something work. Hence two years ago I did not use google sites because it was not easy to use - now it has been developed further I am using it with relish. Yes I may be naive and rogue but I poured my energy and enthusiasm into the VLE for 2 years with very little to show for it. Now I feel I am finally getting somewhere and a making a real difference to my students learning.


  1. Excellent, and great to see how carefully you have considered the various aspects. The main reason I raised those points are because many people talking of the alternatives to VLEs seem to ignore them or at least don't mention them - which I think could be dangerous if it encouraged others who are not aware of the issues to wander into the mine field blindfolded.

    It appears your particular VLE provider and product are particularly sub-standard, and I completely agree that such shoddy service delivery wouldn't last in industry. However, I don't see that as a fundamental issue with VLEs, but with the management of IT projects in the public sector. My main concern would be that that would persist even if the VLE were abandoned. In my experiece, most educators are not 'tech savy' (or not interested in being) and would still need help, guidance, support and a framework providing using 3rd party tools. If the fundamental problems of organisation and project mangement are not addressed, then most staff would end up still given tools that don't really meet their needs, break when needed etc.

    I completely understand the frustration and sense of purpose/freedom from being shackled with the wrong tools and then deciding to walk out of the open door of the prison - but is that door really as easy for others to follow you through? With your background of assesing services and making informed considered choices, it's barely a thought needed - but what about someone with little IT background? To them, that door is 6 inches of solid steel locked with unpickable locks. Who's going to open that door for them?

    You could - but it's not your job, it's your IT dept/support staffs job-the same who've delivered an ailing VLE for years. Do you see those staff enjoying the 'freedom' quite as much? I'm sceptical.

    The other point i'd reitterate is that there is nothing fundamental that requires a VLE to be an (entirely) walled garden. I'll be arguing at the #vleundead event on Dec 16th that a functioning VLE _has_ to be open and extensible. It has to allow life time access (or as near as practical), it should fully support students own choices of 3rd party tools for their PLE, while allowing educators to work seemless with a single well supported, well maintained reliable framework. That could be an amalgum of 3rd party tools (google apps etc) integrated with the institutional information systems, or a bespoke set of in house tools, if done well; if the organizational and operational issues are addressed; it really wouldn't matter, it would 'just work'.

  2. Thank you for a challenging and engaging debate - makes me think things through properly.

    I have to say I have been shocked by the lack of project management within schools re systems development - we seem to have no user requirements or terms of reference for our VLE development - is it any wonder than we do not get the system we need?

    Re other staff - I am currently delivering staff training after school and as part of a provision which sees all staff with one hour a fortnight scheduled for e-learning training and development. This might be developing resources on a google site - it might equally be conditional formatting on a spreadsheet or setting up a word template. Nobody expects to be able to drive without being shown how - why do we expect teachers to be able to utilise ICT effectively without helping them to develop their skills and confidence?

    I am also going through the AST application process and hope to be able to spend more time helping colleagues to find their way through that open door. I've come across very anti VLE in these posts. What I would actually like is for that blended solution to include a VLE for submission of work and reporting to parents and as a gateway to web 2.0 applications. My experiences so far have pushed me into a corner that may have led me to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Time will tell.