Why a VLE is like a pizza

Earlier this week I was presenting at an event on behalf of the HE Academy, and one of the fellow presenters Santanu Vasant quoted that a VLE is a bit like a pizza, which I thought was an excellent analogy which I will build upon here:

pizzas_2011_001

Image of a pizza

Many educational establishments including schools, colleges and universities will have a VLE or Virtual Learning Environment (e.g. Moodle, Blakboard, Frog, Fronter etc) and these are used to a lesser or greater extent (sadly usually lesser) with a varying range of some just using it as a place to dump files others using it to its full potential.

So

  1. If we think of a blank course on the VLE itself as the pizza base – this is technically edible but not very tasty or useful on its own.
  2. To improve the pizza we will put some tomato puree and cheese on top and make this into a basic cheese and tomato pizza, a bit more tasty but not very exciting. The VLE analogy would be adding some basic content to the VLE – e.g. PowerPoint presentations, course notes, links to a few websites and assignment information. This is now edible and you could live on this, but not very exciting, challenging or demanding and not likely to make you lots of money if the only thing offered on the menu. This sadly is where most people get to.
  3. The next step is to add toppings to the pizza – and by having a different selection of toppings used in different quantities we can create an almost infinite combination of  pizza flavours, from hot and spicy, to meat feast, to cheese supreme or a seafood special. In VLE terms, all of the different activity types that are available (discussion forums, quizzes, wiki activities etc. each being a different topping).

So the skill of the tutor is to be more like a master pizza chef and knowing which toppings to use and how much of each to create the ‘perfect pizza’. Jalapeno peppers I think are a great pizza toping, but if that was the only topping on the pizza and there were lots of them it wouldn’t make for a pleasant meal – similarly with VLE use – activities like quizzes are great, but if that is the only activity used then students will start to disengage.

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How to locate images on Wikimedia and embed into Moodle or Blackboard

There are lots of people that work in education that sadly think that Wikipedia is the work of the devil, and think that it will undermine academia as we know it, and should be banned at all costs. There are others that think Wikipedia is a wonderful source of information, and there is no point of looking elsewhere for facts.

Regardless of your viewpoint on Wikipedia (which hopefully is somewhere between the 2 extremes above), one aspect of it that is very useful, is that there is lots of high quality media (mainly images, but also videos and audio) available on Wikimedia – that can be easily (and legally) embedded into a VLE like Moodle or Blackboard.

As organisations scramble to set up online courses, the reality is that most people won’t have the time or money to generate their own high quality media – and I don’t think we need to, seeing as there is so much media out there that we can easily and legally use – the key is the academic structuring of this information and the asking of challenging and stimulating questions around this available media and information. e.g. the image below identifying a muscle in the human body – I couldn’t draw this myself, and it would be a waste of my time trying to.
Musculi coli sternocleidomastoideus

The video below shows how easy it is to find an image on wikimedia and embed it into a VLE like Moodle or Blackboard

Why I don’t like ‘pet names’ for VLEs

Most educational organisations have a Virtual Learning Environment or VLE. If an FE college most likely Moodle, if a University probably either Blackboard or Moodle. If a school, it could one of many possibilities including Moodle, Frog, Fronter, and the list goes on.

Some organisations call their VLE by their proper name, e.g. they call it Moodle, or Blackboard of Frog etc., but other organisations decide to give their VLE what I call a ‘Pet name’ – things like LearnSpace, Myzone, LearningStuff, TheZone, Rex, Ginger, (OK maybe not the last 2), but basically an alternate name for the VLE. Now I don’t like this (in fact it is a pet hate of mine) for a couple of reasons.

Firstly when you do have an alternative name, invariably there will be confusion within the organisation as some people will call it one thing and others will at times call it the other, and if someone works at more than one organisation they will definitely get confused (and confuse other people) as they forget which name to use.

Secondly (and more importantly), when I work with staff I try to encourage people to try to find answers to problems themselves – e.g. ask Google the question and see what comes back. The problem with giving your VLE a pet name, is people will include that pet name in such a search (rather than the VLEs proper name) – and not suprisingly they don’t get much sense back. This is something that I have witnessed on many occassions, and frustratingly replacing the pet name with the real VLE name in the search criteria, has yielded the information they wanted. Another situation that I witnessed that saddened me, was a student was accessing the VLE and got stuck with something, so they used the inbuilt help tools within the VLE. However when they started reading the information because it used the VLE’s proper name rather than the pet one, they didn’t think it was referring to what they wanted so closed it down, even though the help function would have helped their query.

So if we want teaching staff and students to start taking responsibility for their own support, then can we please stop this obsession with calling our VLE by an irrelevant pet name, and call it what it is. Otherwise we are denying our users (both staff and students) the wonderful support mechanism that is the web and its many contributors.

Unless anyone can present a better argument for having these pet names….?

Frog – a learning platform that has impressed me

Today I went to visit the people at Frog who had contacted me after one of their staff had read an article on my blog which mentioned their product, and I have to confess that I am very impressed with the system. I went there thinking that Frog was a VLE, but looking at it (and in particular the new version which will be released in April) although it is an environment in which learning will take place, it isn’t based on the same model as other VLE systems, in that this is based more on social networking principles (a bit like facebook, but limited to people inside the institution), and is certainly not just a resource dumping ground. Some of the features that impressed me in particular are:-

  • It pulls timetable data out of the school MIS system to populate calendars in the system
  • It can be used by tutors to control internet access in a certain room in real time
  • It is possible for tutors to create their own learning resources, by dragging and dropping Frog blocks – a bit like adding widgets to Google Home Page
  • If someone produces a combination of blocks, for a certain purpose, they can package this up, and share with other Frog users so that they can use it
  • It looks very clean and similar to other web2.0 sites, rather than the often clunky appearance of other VLEs
  • It integrates many school systems into one place, embedding the tool into a teachers practice, rather than having it as a separate ‘bolt-on’ system
  • It has a parental access system – so schools can give parents access to certain information about their children
  • If a school wants to integrate with other systems, and the other systems are prepared to talk to the people at Frog, then they this can be sorted

Another area where I think that Frog will do well, is they have identified some of the problems that the new Diploma has thrown up, in terms of students from different organisations needing access to systems at other consortium providers, and have built this into their system, with things like a Moodle plug in, allowing people on Frog, to access an area on Moodle at another provider, this way of working I think will become very significant in the coming years. So all in, I was very impressed, and I think is a huge step forward for learning environments.

Frog - a learning platform that has impressed me

Frog