In the last 10 years, education has benefited from a real e-revolution - most schools and universities now have a functioning Virtual Learning Environment (VLE), at the heart of their teaching and e-learning programmes – a virtual ‘shadow’, if you will. A VLE, or learning platform, is an online system that allows teachers to share educational materials with their pupils via the web. Examples include Moodle, WebCT and Blackboard. For a student to be able to access a ‘Virtual’ room as either a duplicate or extension of their physical classroom is a clear advantage for learners and teachers alike. Every educational establishment ought to integrate a VLE into their lessons and allow it to become second nature to learners and educators outside of the classroom. Here are some reasons why:
• Communication – opens up an infinite number of channels in the format of forums, discussion threads, polls, surveys – instant feedback either as a group or individually
• Producing work – students do not physically have to find their teacher to hand in work due to secure virtual ‘hand-in’ folders that have time windows
• Resource hub – teachers have infinite online storage space for ppts, docs, worksheets etc. that can either be secure or shared with students
• Dynamic home pages – teachers have the opportunity to create an exciting virtual space to represent their room/subject
• Links to outside sources – pathways to all other online learning spaces are linked via the VLE
• Embedded content – YouTube, BBC, newspapers can all be embedded as the dynamic feed of the homepage
• Podcasts & videos – both teacher- and student-produced podcasts and videos have a shared platform; again, either secure or shared
However, most establishments do not get the choice of a Virtual Learning Environment as the local education authority (LEA) are often contracted to a certain company – Fronter, Moodle, Frog, LP+, Kaleidos etc are the most common VLEs of choice.
Although the benefits of using a Virtual Learning Environment in schools are obvious, there are plenty of sticking points to consider. As the learners themselves are all ‘Digital Natives’, the educators tend to be starting from a disadvantage as their own IT skills tend to be lacking when compared to the current IT savvy youth of today. Making any VLE as dynamic or versatile as Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter is a tall order and virtually impossible for an IT specialist teacher, let alone a humble English teacher! This competition for students’ ‘screen-time’ is hardly a fair fight – one possible reason why nearly all VLEs are described by teachers as ‘clunky’, ‘too basic’ and ‘frustrating’. Students do not wax lyrical about them either – ‘outdated’, ‘boring’ and ‘a waste of time’ are the opinions of one class of Media students.
One of the negative issues about VLEs in general is the fact that, possibly due to the security of the school’s MIS data, users have to physically go and ‘log-in’ to their VLE – no ‘pinging’ of new posts, discussions, comments etc. to their mobile devices – and this is a major downside to most students and staff.
Embedding videos from the BBC, YouTube etc. is a default set-up for first time VLE room creators – this ensures that your visitor has a multi-sensory experience, rather than simply viewing titles of resources with attached links to folder after folder. The lure of the VLE becoming a ‘dumping ground’ for resources is sometimes hard to resist, as this way does indeed tick the box of enabling your students to access your course content. However, spending the time to create a room with an attractive ‘skin’ is well worth the effort – it’s easy to introduce first-time students to a VLE – the challenge is holding their ‘screen-time’ long enough for them to benefit from their visit. Interactive polls, links to videos and interesting images via prezis are far more effective than lines and lines of text that must be ploughed through by an already switched-off student.
VLE rooms can be created in absolutely any style, shape and format. Dynamism is a key factor when producing rooms in Fronter as maintaining the interest of the visitor makes or breaks their e-experience of the school VLE. With increasing usage of the internet, Virtual Learning Environments are indeed the future of all educational establishments.