Although the idea of having Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) has been steadily growing in popularity over the last few years, the actual use of VLEs in many educational institutions, especially primary schools, has not really taken off. Ofsted blames a black of enthusiasm and peer support from teachers and learners for the lack of development on VLE initiatives, but there may be a wider issue to contend with, especially when it comes to how few primary schools have adopted VLEs as part of their everyday management.
VLEs are designed to allow learners and staff to access a wide variety of learning materials through specially designed computer systems. Resources commonly found on VLEs, especially in university and college environments, include notes and handouts, practice tests or exams, PowerPoint presentations, video clips and links to useful websites.
Ofsted’s report on VLEs found that they were still a relatively new concept which represented only a very small (and in many cases non-existent) aspect of learning. Colleges and universities were found to be making the most use of VLEs, while primary schools were lagging furthest behind.
The main problem in primary schools is the lack of a so-called “technology champion” – normally a key staff member who gets to grips with the idea, sees the benefits and works to help colleagues do the same in order to get whatever it is adopted in the school.
Most VLEs are designed for use by secondary or higher education institutes, with large amounts of storage, complex timetabling systems and a relatively streamlined appearance. This makes “off the shelf” VLE solutions eminently unsuitable for primary schools. Aside from the fact that most VLEs are priced out of the range of the average primary school due to the extensive features and storage (essential for secondary and higher education, but unwanted price padding for primary), their interfaces and functionality are fundamentally unusable by 4-11-year-olds. What use is a VLE which the pupils cannot access?
A primary school teacher does not want to add VLE updates to his or her already extensive workload. Who wants to enter a big list of marks twice? The mark of a proper primary school VLE is that it should simplify the job of the teacher while being easily accessible to pupils and parents. Big buttons, colourful graphics and easy-to-understand instructions are needed for younger students. Simple and easy administration which reduces workload rather than increasing it is needed for teachers and school admin staff.
Consider a primary school teacher, Miss Thompson, with a class of thirty pupils. Each time she wants to set homework for them, even a simple task like practicing spelling, Miss Thompson has to photocopy thirty task sheets, pin them into thirty homework books, and then later trudge through twenty-nine or twenty-eight returns books to see who has failed to return their work.
Most VLEs will then also require poor Miss Thompson to log in and do electronically the same thing she just did by hand in order to keep the admin system up to date. Her workload has been increased, if not doubled, by the new technology, so she is quite justified in not being a big fan of it! What’s worse is that none of her pupils or their parents bother looking at the VLE because it is far too complicated and looks like it was designed for a university, what with all the greyed-out buttons marked “timetable” and “practice exams.”
Now let’s compare Miss Thompson’s experience with a different VLE, which is not an adapted or trimmed down version of something originally made for secondary education or universities and colleges. This is a primary school VLE, designed and built carefully from the ground up to meet the needs of primary school pupils, teachers and parents.
Instead of wasting her time and school money on photocopying piles of homework (much of which will amazingly be “lost” during the complex expedition from the classroom door to the pupil’s home), Miss Thompson can send the document to her entire class with only a couple of clicks. At home, the children are happy to log onto a system which has big, colourful buttons, themed class images and a simple interface which a modern six year-old (and even his or her slightly less modern parents) can understand easily. As each pupil completes the homework assignment it is recorded in the VLE so Miss Thompson saves another half hour of sorting through paperwork. Even better, school department heads and administrators are able to look through class performance to see where issues may be arising and nip them in the bud. Little Susie hasn’t done her homework for a whole week? Time to check up with the parents before she starts to fall behind.
Suddenly a VLE seems like a sensible idea, and even a desirable asset for a primary school. Freeing teachers up from the time-consuming admin and paper shuffling in favour of letting them (gasp) focus on their teaching? Maybe it is time to start a trend after all.