I've tried a couple of titles for this post. It sounds rather confrontational which isn't what I want but in the end it summed up the post. I was originally just going to talk about google sites and the breakthrough they have proved to be for me this year. But I kept coming back to the reasons I have ended up using google sites and thought that was the more interesting story.
Right from when I first started teaching, getting on for 5 years ago now ( where does the time go ), I was very keen to use a VLE to deliver my resources, set assignments and utilise functions such as discussion boards and quizzes. If I'm honest it appealed to the geek in me. This was the shiny new future and that was what I wanted to use.
My first experience of a VLE was very positive. I was on placement at City Academy, Bristol, a wonderful place and very inspiring - yes this was why I wanted to be a teacher. They were using a VLE called Angel which I found very intuitive to use. As a student teacher I was able to post resources and do all those things that I'd read about. I was also helped greatly by Chris Macintosh who showed me the possibilities and opportunities of the VLE and provided me with endless inspiration.
So I went to my second placement as a convert - VLEs were the one true religion - anything else was heresy. Only I wasn't allowed to post to the VLE as a student and most of the experienced teachers were less than enthusiastic about our platform ( which will remain nameless for professional reasons ). I was puzzled - why would anyone not want to use a VLE? Anyway I ended up staying at the school as an NQT and was fully committed to getting stuck into developing all my resources on the VLE.
Reality started to bite fairly early - class lists were not transferred from SIMs until over a month after the start of the Autumn term. I was only able to see my own classes so when a colleague was off I couldn't post resources for her class ( this became more of an issue when I became the KS3 co-ordinator - how was I supposed to post resources for all the KS3 classes? ). The interface for building resources was very clunky, it was built on blocks of text and there was no way of inserting images. A year in and suddenly you could insert images and the resources started to look a little better. I threw myself into producing resources a new course preparing year 9 students for Diplomas. The year group was split into 9 groups and 3 learning strands so there were two other teachers teaching my strand. The VLE seemed the best way to share resources and initially it worked well. I made sure I had all 9 groups on my profile so I could post work for the current 3 groups and start to prepare resources for the next 3. Then we swapped to the next groups and all the resources disappeared. The VLE could not cope with groups changing and it took quite a while to retrieve submitted work and resources.
Numerous other problems ensued but I continued to battle away. The final straw came at Easter when the system was taken down for the whole of the school holiday without warning. I was furious as I had a large amount of work to complete in time for the start of term. When the system was finally restored all my existing resources had been corrupted - all images distorted and line spacing all over the place. I couldn't even repair the resources as the rich text editor had disappeared. When I complained the company were totally indifferent and even suggested that I had training issues. They lost me then and I haven't used the VLE with my classes since.
But I still needed something to deliver resources and communicate with my students. I found Edmodo ( see previous post ) which gave me the communication tools but not the means to deliver the resources. I had looked at google sites a couple of years ago but it seemed complicated to use - and to find! This summer I had to start writing course material for BTEC Level 3 ICT and thought I'd have another look at google sites. The application has changed out of all recognition and was now exactly the tool that I had wanted the VLE to be. I could embed presentations and videos. I could link in a calendar and use all the gadgets from iGoogle. In less than 3 days I had a complete unit online and this time included gaining an understanding what the unit content entailed. Here is the end result ( unit 1 ):-
Bouyed up by this success I have transferred all my resources to google sites. The rest of the department has followed suite and we are now working together to get all department resources online. This week I even used the sites to add pages to support cover lessons.
Our VLE has just been relaunched and I'm sure it is much better than when I was struggling with it a year or so ago. However I now find that I am ideologically opposed to the concept of VLEs in general. The idea of a 'gated community' has never appealed, whether it be rich people or old people and the idea of having an enclosed space within which students interact online does not make sense to me. When they leave school they lose access to the VLE and all the associated tools. Surely it is better to give them experience of tools that they will be able to continue using outside the school gates - social bookmarking, collaborative tools such as Etherpad, Edmodo, Bubbl-us etc, google sites to create their own websites and hopefully, if I can get it unblocked, Blogger or some other blogging tool to enable them communicate with a wider audience. The only remaining advantage I see for a VLE is the reporting to parents - but this is not something that we are using anyway at the moment.
If it was just that a VLE is a neutral entity that you can either choose to use or not I would not feel so strongly about the subject. The problem is that it is not neutral - it takes up enormous resources in terms of money and time that could be better used elsewhere. It also colours people's perception of e-learning so that they equate e-learning with this cumbersome, clunky application that does not meet their needs. I am doing a lot of staff training at the moment and am having to 'rehabilitate' the term e-learning after 6 years of the school struggling with a failing VLE. Such a waste of potential and enthusiasm.
Steve Wheeler has written a couple of excellent posts about VLEs:-
Not much more I can add to them