• Dave Foord
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Why I stopped using a commerical VLE and made my own

In my last 2 blog posts, I have described my early forays into online learning, and using a VLE to support my face to face delivery.

In the second post I mentioned some of the problems that the VLE we were using at the time presented, and how these barriers were undermining the benefits that the VLE could bring, there was also a problem with the accessibility of the VLE, and with the the college that I was at having an RNIB college associated with it, making sure the VLE would work with things like screenreaders and magnification software was essential. So I decided to make my own! I sat down with the college webmaster and designed what we wanted, he did the clever stuff for me in Dreamweaver to create the pages, CSS files etc, and then I edited the pages using Microsoft Frontpage – which people will laugh at (and I was ridiculed by many ay the time) – but it was simple enough for a non web developer like me to use – and by creating a set of templates, all I had to do was copy and paste, then change the text and hyperlink to the desired files.

What we created did not have the functionality of a modern VLE – (e.g. tracking, assessment, integrated forums, etc) but at the time was a very effective way of making resources available to the learners. To this day it is still in my opinion the ‘best looking’ VLE that I have ever worked with – and I tested it extensively with a variety of visually impaired learners, and it did very well for them. The downside was it wasn’t as easy for the average tutor to upload – which is why we only used it for 2 years before changing to another system.

When I first started using a VLE there were only 3 commercial products available at the time. In the early 2000s the Government threw money at colleges to buy VLE systems, and as a result within a year there were over 100 systems that one could buy. Having built my own VLE and used it effectively for most of a year, the college principal told me I had to go and buy a commercial system – because we had been given money to do so. I spent many days visiting other colleges, going to presentations from companies like Blackboard and WebCT and each system that I saw had a fundamental problem – they hadn’t considered accessibility, and I wasn’t prepared to spend lots of money on something that was less accessible than what I (a PE teacher) and a web developer had put together effectively in our spare time.

So I told the principal that we didn’t want a commercial VLE, and suggested that he gave the money back to the Government. This didn’t go down very well, so I asked if we could use the money for anything else, which we were told no, so I contacted whichever government department or organisation was handling the money (to explain why I wasn’t going to buy a commercial VLE – which would have been breaking the law, by discriminating against disabled learners) and eventually we compromised that we could have half the money as long as it was invested in developing our in house system.

This decision to not invest in a commercial VLE was one of the best decisions that I made in my early career (not that I knew it at the time). Many colleges having jumped on the VLE bandwagon, didn’t pick the best product. Of the 100+ available, most didn’t last more than about a year, with a core of 10 main providers dominating the market, and many colleges ended up switching systems early on, others found the systems were just too complex for the tutors needs and abilities at the time, and many didn’t understand their potential so just used them as very expensive file dumps. The decision to not go commercial, meant the college could easily change what it was doing, and as a result the VLE use could evolve over the next few years. At the time that all this was happening, I started a debate on the ILT Champions mailing list about ‘do we really need a commercial VLE’ and what started off as me just asking a rhetorical question for the sake of discussion, turned into quite a profound thought process – and I am pleased that based on that discussion, at few other colleges also didn’t jump straight away into the commercial VLE quagmire.

Having started the debate about me not liking commercial VLEs, someone put me in touch with an Australian called Martin Dougiamas who was developing an open source system called ‘Moodle’. He gave me access to a sandbox area of his system and asked me to test it for him which I did. I gave him some feedback – and made a few suggestions, (and we spoke on the phone a few times) – the most important one being to consider accessibility, which Martin hadn’t thought of. Anyway things went very quiet on the Moodle front, until about 2 years later when it suddenly became widely available, and maverick teaching staff at various organisations who were frustrated with the limitations of whichever VLE they had, started to use Moodle instead. Over the next few years most FE organisations switched to Moodle, with many HE and Schools also doing the same.

It feels to me that many organisations took a similar journey (although later on and slightly slower) to myself as an individual with the VLE evolution and use. It will be interesting to see what the next few years bring – there have been many debates about ‘The VLE is dead’ but I cannot see that happening for many years yet. What is important is the way that it is used – and making use of the wonderful array of tools that a modern VLE has to interact with and engage learners, and not just use it as a file repository (which was where I started) – but sadly seems to be the norm for far to many education providers.
Moodle-logo

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My first experiences with a VLE

In my last post, I talked about ‘What got me started in online learning?‘ with my first foray (in the late 1990s) into this area of work being the use of a joint drive to share files with learners, so that they complete self directed tasks – either assignments or other activities.

Although OK at the time, the obvious drawback of this technique was that the learners had to be in the college to be able to access the resources – what I wanted was a mechanism to give them access outside of college – the idea of learning anytime and anywhere! I spoke to the then college webmaster @KirstieC, who put me in touch with @Lesleywprice  who was at the time responsible for the online courses that the college was running, and for that they were using a VLE called LearningSpace by Lotus (although I think we referred to it as an MLE back then). I quickly saw the potential of this way of working, and set up areas on there to support my face to face teaching (which not many people were doing back then).

At first I added things to the VLE in a very Ad-hoc fashion, so there was no continuity, things took ages to upload, and in hindsight the software can only be described as a complete dog to use. However I persevered, and in my next year of teaching, I was a little cleverer – rather than adding files ad-hoc, I created a ‘template’ for each week or topic that I taught – this was a simple table that contained a box for key things such as a presentation, notes, web links, tasks for the students to do, a challenging question, and joke of the week (which I have blogged about previously – https://davefoord.wordpress.com/2009/03/13/using-bad-jokes-to-get-learners-to-engage-with-a-vle/ ).

All I did was copy this template then add the files and hyperlink them to the relevant area. This wasn’t rocket science but it made my life easier as was quicker and made the learners lives easier as they knew where to look for things, and in many ways I use the idea of creating a template to this day with my VLE work.

What I was doing at this time, was definitely revolutionary, as wasn’t the norm by any means, but there were still many problems:

  • Learners had difficulty getting logged in – for some reason the software was a bit clunky and flakey and sometimes students could login, other times they couldn’t.
  • Learners would get confused with login details – when this was set up we didn’t have single sign on, so learners had a different username and password to their college login, which confused them no end and if they changed one they assumed it changed both.
  • I had to manage enrolments – The system was such that users had to be manually set up on the system, which meant sending details to a techy who was very good at spelling their names wrong and associating them with the wrong courses, and often taking 2 weeks to do this. This caused huge headaches at the start of term, and put many off before they had got going.

Although there were many problems, and in reality I expect very few learners actually accessed the resources when off-site – this period was an important area for me, in my understanding of VLE use, thinking about the purpose of why to use the VLE, and recognising the real factors that stopped the VLE from working.

In my next post in this series, I will detail the next stage of my journey which was to stop using the ‘purchased’ VLE and instead make my own, to overcome the problems listed above.

Return to Washington Square Park, Aug 2009 - 69

The idea of a learner being able to learn where ever and when ever was best for them as per the picture above, always appealed to me as a teacher.