Sunday, November 22, 2009

Web 2.0 v VLEs

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:-'e's)

Not much more I can add to them


  1. I may have missed this when I looked at your example, but how do the students submit their work? We used EDU20 in our primary school and I feel that while VLE's are clearly double edged sword for middle school and older, I think primary pupils and their parents appreciate the security aspect. Don't get me wrong, I am not a big VLE supporter, but we have to keep in mind the fact that the needs of primary school pupils are very different from middle and high school students. I enjoyed your post!

  2. Thanks for your comments. Google sites does not allow the posting of work by students. However you can set up assignments in Edmodo which is a secure site ( see previous post ). What I like about web 2.0 is that you can use a blended solution, adding in applications as they are needed. For example I can set tests on the google site by embedding a link to a google form, I can set up a discussion by embedding a link to an Etherpad etc. And all for free - I wonder how much the school has paid for the VLE so far?

  3. Interesting post! This is an area that we're going to be looking at over the next year at our CLC (Birmingham East CLC Your comment about students losing access to their VLE after leaving school is an important one. I'm much in favour of using a blended approach like yours.

  4. An interesting anecdotal account of how VLEs can fail to deliver a tool that actually meets the needs of the organisation - although you also suggest that this needn't be the case with the example you have experienced that didn't impeed you.

    Along with Steve Wheeler, the rest of us will be revisiting the fate of the VLE on 16th Dec (see Steve's blogpost) and it would be interesting for the sake of the points I'll be making if you have established a legal agreement with google etc for keeping the account details (and personal information) of your students withing the EU and if so, how much did all those separate legal agreements cost your institution to establish? How does this expense compare with the costs of the VLE infrastructure? How much staff time has been needed learning the separate 3rd party tools and what did that time cost the institution? Where does support and training for these tools come from and how much time/cost does that involve? What advance notice do you get for any changes to these 3rd party services and what if any recourse do you have if those changes were to remove key functionality in the middle of your teaching - say, just before a significant assesment? What legal framework for liability is there if say a student were to sue the institution for impacting on their results through negligence? Do you have a framework with the institution which your union can support in case they deemed your choice to be 'unofficial' and passed on such liability to you individually (eg the school says 'we has nothing to do with this rogue who didn't follow the systems we have in place so we've sacked them and you should sue them individually not us')

    I do hope all these risks and usually very significant costs have been considered in your choices.

    I'm being deliberately provocative in this comment of course, but these are examples of the kind of issues which are often being naively overlooked by well meaning enthusiastic educators all the time who are abandoning the VLE rather than fighting internally to ensure their institutions are providing them tools fit for purpose. As a result, the VLE can wither on the vine as the life blood (the imputus from those who know what's possible) drains from it, replaced instead by an ill concieved if well intentioned mish mash of third party tools that leave gaping holes in terms of DPA, FOI, DDA, risk assesment, business continuity planning, quality assurance etc.

    I think it's important to realise that none of the issues you highligt with the VLE that have driven you to abandon it is insurmountable or philosophically at odds with a VLE. External access to the world? Yep, can be done. Shared access by collegues to courses to maintain them? Sure. Tools that are easy to use and fit for purpose? Why not?

    I wonder if the problems you have with the VLE are actually organisational issues where your IT department is not listening to and valuing the feedback from the VLE users (staff and students)? Do your senior managers know and appreciate the issues? Is there a clearly articulated set of business requirements defined for the VLE and all IT systems and are senior management ensuring the systems are being delivered to meet those needs? As an IT manager, it strikes me that if these issues were fixed, you'd have a VLE that would let you get on and do your job rather than having to spend a lot of your time being an IT department yourself inventing suitable tools from time taken researching them which might better be spent on preparing and delivering the actual teaching for your students.

    (please excuse any grammer or typos - written through the keyhole of an iPhone screen and keyboard) - @sputuk

  5. Hi Nick

    Thanks for taking the time to comment on my post in detail. I think it is really important to have an open and honest debate on this issue. My response has turned into a full post as my response became rather long – see next.