Whether you are procuring your own learning platform, assessing the one you have or judging one provided for you the following check list will help form your judgement.
Open Source or commercial product
Most products on the market are commercial tools you buy a license for, sometimes called ‘proprietary software’ and these should bring the product quality and service reliability a service contract should bring (alas quality and reliability aren’t always there). Conversely there are a small number of Open Source Learning Platforms. Open Source software essentially means anyone can see and edit the coding behind the product, this renders them commercially impotent as the code can be shared and adapted by anyone. These tools are free to download from the internet. This might make them sound like Heath-Robinson esoteric tools for fanatics, far from it- the most commonly used VLE in the world; Moodle, is just this.
Open Source software might be free to download, it’s not free to use, you might need technical staff to run the system, you might have to pay for training you will have other technical costs (see below) but its massive uptake can be put down to a few key issues.
key issues for the popularity of Open Source learning tools:
1. The tools are great, they aren’t popular because of expensive marketing, if they are well known it's because they are good and then a global army of developers who can access the programme coding set about adding new features and making them even better so:
2. Open Source Tools are constantly evolving and getting better as users share improvements with each other. There is a global support community helping each other out, users don’t have to wait for annual releases hoping some weaknesses have been addressed, they improve month by month.
3. Being non-commercial the product can never disappear if a company goes bust or gets bought out by a competitor
4. Being non-commercial there’s no contractual tie in, if you decide it’s not the right tool for you just drop it, you aren’t stuck trying to make a poor tool work as you are stuck paying for it for years to come or as new technologies and pedagogies become available you can adapt- VLEs are we know them are a very temporary part of the educational landscape.
On the other hand there’s a lot to be said for a good commercial tool:
1. Set up of the tool should be done for you, or done with you during the:
2. Training, should come as part of the package
3. There should be a help-line to help you when you get stuck
4. There’s a contractual requirement to provide a product of certain quality and a service of certain quality
Home or Away- where is the system hosted
Whether you opt for a commercial tool or an open source tool there is another big issue; where is the system hosted? It might be on the servers in the school system or off-site such as with the local authority as part of a regional strategy or on the property of the commercial provider or a sub contracted firm who host data systems.
This issue shouldn’t matter, and in the future it won’t but for now internet band width is the issue. If your system is hosted on the school site the users in the school day will have super fast access to the system, screens will load quickly and the system should be satisfying to use, and this is an important consideration as this is when you will have the largest number of ‘concurrent users’ but when users are working out of school- which is the whole point of VLEs giving access to ‘anytime anywhere’ learning they are at the mercy of the school’s web connectivity- how quickly can the school’s internet connection send data out to the internet, but users will be spread over a longer time period between 4pm and midnight and all day at weekends and holidays with lower numbers of concurrent users are any one time.
English schools connected to National Grid for Learning should not have a problem here, and internet speeds are only going to improve in the future.
If the system is hosted off the school site the situation is reversed somewhat.
During the day potentially a 1000 or more users are all accessing the system through the school’s single internet connection and this could be slow. When students are out of school they are all using their own separate internet services and they could be having a faster user experience.
Now, this all depends on how fast the service provider is able to send data to the internet and some of them are today really quite small enterprises and they may not be investing enough in their own connectivity, and small enterprises have nasty habits of going bust in tough times; there's certainly some maturation of the VLE market needed as innovative start ups catch on or fail.
So which is best? Well obviously there are strong arguments for both hosting at home and away so here’s another issue to consider:
When a VLE is hosted in school the school can exert more control over the service. The big issue is when the system needs to be closed down for ‘essential maintenance’. Some commercial suppliers will do this, killing your service, at a time that suits them which can be very inconvenient when lesson plans go to the way finding the whole system has gone. Other suppliers think they are being helpful by killing the system for maintenance on a Sunday, but this is busy day for homework so that’s no help- ‘the system was down’ is the 21st century version of the homework excuse that the dog ate it.
Schools who host their own systems can exert a bit more control, they can take down part of the system for maintenance (such as installing updates) but leave other parts running and warn people in advance or best of all do this when the students don’t need the system such as between the end of the school day and students arriving home. The 3.30-4pm slot is the technician’s favourite time of day.
Service level provision
One area where a commercial tool hosted off site could beat all other systems is in terms of the level of service provision. The idea of ‘anytime anywhere learning’ means schools should expect 24-7-365 service provision. It might not be healthy for students to work very late at night, but that can be managed by the school- at least with VLEs the teacher can see what time the student was working which isn’t possible with paper so teaching can be better- there is now the option of counselling the student who clearly is burning the midnight oil or is a last minute merchant with assignments as the VLE gives all this away. Don’t forget though students may be in different time zones when on holiday or visiting family on a Leave of Absence and might still want access to their learning during our night.
But do check carefully what the provider is offering, should the system fall over in evenings and weekends how quickly will they fix it, promises of fast fixes normally only apply to core office hours, and again some of the small players just can’t provide 24-7-365 service. Many won’t even attempt to fix a failed system until the next working day which could be bad news if a system fails on a Friday night.
Now, these companies may say, in their defence, that a school can’t provide such service but a school who looks creatively at their technical staff conditions of working could provide a better than core office hours support. Systems don’t fall over all the time and are often very simple to fix, sometimes remotely, a system of overtime payments available to claim for a technician who happens to be free is better than nothing without making their job unreasonable by effectively putting them on call at all times.
Technical teams on a rota can take turns claiming the over time job or passing it on to the next in the rota should they not be available or not interested. Families of schools in an area using the same system could federate over out of hours technical support.
After you’ve made your choices over these big issues there are lots of small issues that can make some VLEs much better than others. Try to tick as many of these boxes as you can with your VLE:
• A range of communication tools including
o Chat room
o Instant message service
o Discussion forums
• Students can save their work easily- ideally straight from the application they are working in using ‘save as’ rather than save on one place them upload to the VLE to give them external access, they don’t bother and end up carrying all their files on a small USB stick which inevitable gets lost, stolen or broken with all their exam course work on it.
• Students have realistically large file storage space, in these multimedia times this should be measured in giga bites not mega bites.
• The system can access the school’s legacy content- ie all the curriculum resources the teachers had before the new system was procured. Some system will allow all this to be transferred across, other require each individual file to be uploaded one at a time, which for 1000s of files is completely unreasonable, busy teachers don’t do this and continue to use the legacy system not adopting the new system.
• The VLE has a large ‘tool box’ of learning activities the teachers can use to deliver learning including
• Simple file upload to hand in work done in another application such as a Microsoft Office document or something more diverse such as a MP3 sound file, a video or a file from a specific piece of software use in the curriculum such as a PhotoShop image or CorelDraw file.
• Simple type in directly free text and click submit answer to teacher (with full work processing editing tools)
• More advanced question modules such as multiple choice, order sorting, tables to fill in, action buttons to click such as clicking on the rights answer or terms like True/ False Yes/No etc
• Ability for students to input work not just with the mouse and keyboard- such as orally speaking answers via the computer’s microphone or by video such as via the computer’s web cam- this not only compliments various subjects such as languages and music is also supports different learning styles or Special Educational Needs.
• Ability to mark the answers automatically and give instant feedback to students and send the assessment data on to the teacher
• Ability to host full range of media as teaching resources including quite long sound and video files such as hosting digital copies of a department’s video collection or scans of old photos and old documents
Add these feature some last big but hard to test things until you’ve used the system and you’ll have the blue print for a state of the art system
• Is it easy to design pages that look good, have good accessibility and are easy to edit
• Is the tool intuitive to use, if a keen but non technical classroom teacher can’t pick up the basics with a few minutes training alarm bells should be ringing
• Do learners find the system easy, satisfying and rewarding to use and does it ultimately raise achievement, alas that’s one you won’t know until you’ve used it. Ask them, they are experts in web technologies and can spot a stinker better than you!
Why do VLEs fail?
You can see from the lists and information above that some VLEs are likely to not work as well as they could before a school even starts to use them but putting that aside the main reason why a VLE fails to take off in a school and have any impact is failure at implementation, and the blame for this falls at the foot of the school leader.
Normally VLEs don’t take off if they aren’t a school development priority driven by the Head Teacher and backed up by great strategy, this may require workforce reform, certainly at least one post to lead the work, probably another in the fullness of time to run the web tools, uploading content, working on more technical issues like editting video prgramming interactive features- a non teacher's role and definitely for the teachers there needs to be a range of incentives to help staff take a leap to a new pedagogy, such as annual curriculum innovator bursaries.
This strategic leadership is often more important that the tool itself, but combine great leadership and great technology and school improvement follows on. Don’t forget to constantly review the e-learning strategy, look for its impact and share the good practice in pockets in the school and develop the key practitioners so the bug spreads.