The 4 stage model for use of a VLE

A major part of my work at the moment, is working with and around VLEs, either by creating content and activities, or providing training to teachers or learning technologists in the effective use of the VLE. As part of my work in this area, I have identified that there are different steps to go through for the effective use of a VLE, which I have simplified into the following diagram, and which (I think) has huge significance strategically for organisations that are trying to get teachers in particular to make better (or at least more) use of the VLE.
Set of steps, which are labelled from bottom to top as; Managing, Designing, Building, RepurposingThe 4 steps are:

1: Managing

Many of the clients that I work for, hire me to design and create the various activities that form the backbone of a course on a VLE. The teachers then become skilled at managing these activities – e.g. pointing the students to quizzes at the appropriate times, moderating and encouraging forum based activities, providing constructive feedback for formative assessment activities etc. These teachers in the main are not involved in the design process, and certainly not the building/creating process.

2: Designing

Once a teacher has worked with and managed activities that has been created by someone else, they start to understand how such activities work, what the important ingredients are, and why and when the activities are used. They can then start to design new activities – this may be sketching out the ideas or concepts on paper, it may be creating source information in Word, PowerPoint or Excel – the information then goes to a learning technologist who turns their ideas and content into the actual activity.

3: Building

The third step is the actual building or creating of the activities, i.e. using the VLE tools to actually create the books, quizzes, assignments, forums etc. from this content.

4: Repurposing

Once someone has become proficient at building activities, they can then start to repurpose existing content, and hand in hand with this, build content in a way that makes it easy to repurpose in the future (either by them or someone else).


Some organisations have a centralised learning technology team, which is great, as they can help teachers gradually work their way up through the steps. When a teacher is new to this area of work, the learning technology team can do the building for them, allowing the teacher to concentrate on managing and designing. Then as the teacher becomes more proficient, they may start to do some or all of the building, and later repurposing.

However, there are many organisations out there that don’t have such a support mechanism, or the team is too small to be able to effectively meet all the building and repurposing needs of the organisation, and this then forces steps 3 and 4 onto the teaching staff, often without them having worked through steps 1 and 2.

I don’t have a magical answer to this problem, as money is tight, and organisations cannot just create large support teams out of nowhere, but if we think about this 4 step model, and identify the necessity for teaching staff to work their way up it, it is possible to rethink a little about how we do things. I have worked with some organisations recently where I have been asked to come in and run training, where I have had a few hours to try and get teachers jumping straight into step 3, and without any central support for the staff once I leave at the end of the day. This is always going to be tough for those staff. What would be really good is, if there is a mechanism where staff can manage some existing content first, then design some basic activities which someone else creates for them, and then they receive the training in how to build/create content etc.

Within FE and HE at the moment, there are huge pushes to get people using learning technology more (and in many cases the VLE)  – and what is very noticeable is the very different approaches that organisations offer in the way of support, and more significantly the different levels of understanding from the decision makers in these organisations.

Evolution not Revolution of Education

I was recently introduced to this excellent video clip on YouTube which brilliantly portrays a very simple education message that seems to be being missed over and over again. The message being:

Individual technologies will not revolutionise education, however high quality, enthusiastic teachers who can use the technologies appropriately will help education evolve.

Enjoy the video…

Technology over the years, has allowed education to evolve and to adapt to the benefits that the technology brings, however it doesn’t and won’t ever replace the role of a good teacher. As mentioned in the video, every time a new technology comes along, those people responsible for promoting it (e.g. the people selling the technology), often fall into the trap of claiming that this new technology will ‘revolutionise’ education – and sadly many senior managers have been duped into believing this – and believing that putting their hands in their pockets and (often unstrategically) throwing money will solve all their ills.

It is often said that, and I will say again here, that technology in the hands of a poor (or no) teacher will make the education experience worse. Technology in the hands of a good teacher may make the experience better. The key here being the quality of the teacher. In investment terms we need to invest more in the staff using the tools, rather than the tools themselves – if we do this then education can naturally evolve.

Within Further Education in the UK, I am seeing a very varied response from organisations to the challenges that FELTAG brings – many are going to throw tokenistic amounts of money into trying to buy a solution – others are simply asking the already overworked teachers to do even more work in their own time to solve the problem, and then a few are realising that FELTAG is all about and requires high levels of senior manager joined up thinking and strategic leadership. If we look at the use of technology as evolution rather than revolution, that alone make the problem and challenge much simpler to comprehend and act upon – and is a good starting foundation for this area of work.

FELTAG – Natural selection within FE?

FELTAG is an acronym for the Further Education Learning Technology Action Group – a group that was formed at the request of Matthew Hancock, the minister responsible for Further Education. The group was formed to advise Government on what needs to happen in FE to ensure that FE is making effective use of learning technology, and properly equipping learners for the demands of the current digital World.

Many would argue that FE has been doing a great job with regards learning technology, but the sad reality of the situation is that FE has had millions of pounds invested in it for this area of work since 2000, and in 2011 when Becta carried out it’s last annual survey, they deemed that only about 30% of Colleges were using learning technology effectively, and I would argue that the 30% using learning technology effectively probably got there as a result of very keen individuals taking the initiative and driving things from the bottom up, rather than as a result of the millions of pounds of tax payer money spent top down.

Many FE providers think they are doing great things with technology, but many are just using technology to do the same things as before without radically changing the teaching and learning process (e.g. writing on an Interactive whiteboard isn’t significantly different to writing on a blackboard with chalk; Putting a series of word based questions on the VLE for students to access at home isn’t significantly different to printing the word document out and taking it home in a folder).

In the last 10 or so years many colleges were engaging in a huge re-building programme as Government invested in colleges for the future – part of the rebuild process was the total teaching floor space had to be 10% less than before to take into account the fact that in the future more learning would take place online so colleges of the future would need less classrooms.

One of the headline grabbing recommendations is that all centrally funded FE courses will have to have 10% online delivery in order for the course to receive any funding, and financial incentives for courses to be up to 50% delivered online. It hasn’t been clarified by Government exactly what they mean by 10% (e.g. time, learning outcomes, weighting of units?) nor how will this be measured or enforced – but the 10% online element is now part of the language of FE planning.

Is forcing providers to have 10% online delivery the right step forward? Ideologically I would prefer it if people engaged in ‘blended’ learning because they saw the quality benefits that it brings, rather than because there is a financial gun held to their heads, however we have spent the last 14 years trying to encourage people to move in this direction, with only very limited success, so it probably is time for the funders to be financially more persuasive. Over the last few years I have worked with various providers including colleges, Work Based Learning (WBL), HE and charities wanting to increase and improve their blended provision, and one thing that I have suggested to them is rather than try and change a whole organisation in one go is to work with one area first and get it right there, then work with a few more areas, then work with the rest. This gives the organisation time to learn, time for the support mechanisms to establish, and if you make mistakes (which you will) you can learn from them, rather than affecting the whole organisation negatively. One problem with the FELTAG recommendations is this model is not an option, as the changes need to happen more quickly, so organisations will have to tackle whole areas at the same time.

One of the underlying principles of the FELTAG recommendations, is this is not about saving money – instead it is about raising quality of provision. In reality it will cost providers more money (certainly initially) which is not an easy pill for some to swallow. I have worked with various providers where the management are seeing the 10% online element as a simple way of reducing costs, by asking teachers to make 10% of their teaching online, and then expecting them to do an extra 10% of teaching (and marking) in its place. I am trying to reinforce the fact that to make this work, we have to get out of that mindset. All that would happen with this model, is low quality provision, overworked teachers (causing the good ones to leave) and low student satisfaction, that would in turn reduce intake in future years. To make this work there needs to be strong and clear strategic leadership from senior management, proper and managed investment to make this work, and teachers need to be an active part of the process, not just the whipping boys (and girls) at the bottom of the pile being dumped on from above. If organisations can get this right, then the rewards could be very fruitful, If a provider can create a high quality product – this will attract higher numbers of students, which will then bring an efficiency in numbers which is where there will be a cost saving element in the future for those that do get this right.

My predictions for the future in Further Education, as a result of FELTAG are:

  • Charles DarwinLots of providers will get this wrong, and will either fold or get taken over/merged with another provider.
  • Providers will start to be more specialised in the areas that they deliver – and will drop their weaker areas.
  • There will be an increase in the number of learners (I think we will see more short courses, and part-time study, and less full time provision).

I therefore see this as a form of natural selection – the stronger courses at the stronger providers will thrive and pick up students previously covered by other providers, and weaker courses and weaker organisations will naturally fall away, which in general I think will be a good thing.

I think that WBL and Adult Community Education (ACL) are likely to be concerned by all this. Many don’t have the same infrastructures and investments that colleges and Sixth form colleges have, which is likely to be a disadvantage to them, however there are many WBL and ACL providers who are doing good things, and they could really thrive in this environment, especially if a large FE college for example were to fold. It will be interesting to see if there is an expectation of the prison service to provide an element of online learning, logistically they cannot as the internet is banned in prisons, but not doing this would even further disadvantage the young people being detained and reducing their chance of employment on release, thus increasing their chances of re-offending. And finally specialist colleges – online learning is totally inappropriate for many disabled students, but may be very appropriate for other disabled students. This could be very good for some disabled learners who have found mainstream education difficult (for whatever reason) – if there are courses with say 50% online, this may open doors for them, as they can study at their own pace, with their own adapted equipment, with the ability to take regular breaks etc.

From a personal perspective, this is an exciting time – the fact that I have been so heavily involved working on large successful blended learning programmes in FE, means that I should be in high demand in the coming months and years (I have already noticed a huge increase in bookings in the last few months as a result of this). I feel a little sorry for the teachers and the students at providers that don’t get this right, I just hope that the good teachers move to the good providers, and students vote with their feet where necessary.

I hope that providers have the sense to seek outside help early in the process, rather than waiting until it is too late.

Going back to the title of this post – I do see this as a form of Darwinian natural selection (survival of the fittest) – in a way that we haven’t seen before – and the saying “..It is not the strongest, or fastest species that survive, but the ones that are most capable of adapting to changes in their environment that thrive…”

Why the Microsoft Surface Tablet will be a major player in education

In my years as a teacher and then as a freelance consultant/trainer I have been very much at the forefront of the use of technology in education, and I have always been excited by the potential that effective use of technology can bring to education, but nothing has been as exciting as the potential that tablet devices brings to learning, and in particular Apple’s iPad – which has been designed beautifully, and is really easy to use, so when I run staff development in this area, I don’t spend most of the time talking about which buttons to press – instead I can focus most of my efforts into the pedagogic considerations of the training, and that is a very liberating feeling.

For the last few months I have been working with a company called ‘The Tablet Academy‘ (formerly The iPad Academy) and I have been going into schools and running iPad training – but now that the company has changed its name, they are also offering support and training for Android and Microsoft devices, and as such I have been experimenting with the basic Microsoft Surface RT device – and even though it has received some negative press, I think it (and its successors) are going to make a huge impact on education.

Microsoft Surface (black)

A Surface Tablet


If you compare an iPad alongside the Surface, then the iPad is going to win in almost all areas – it is built better, there are more apps, the battery seems to last longer, it is more intuitive etc. however  if we compared a new iPad to an iPad 1 (which is the best way of thinking of the Surface) then the gap between the 2 was huge, so we have to take that into consideration as well. The Surface has some key considerations which the iPad lacks and that is the purpose of this blog post:

  • Many schools and educational organisations, have IT support systems which have been built around the Microsoft model (rightly or wrongly), so for them adopting Apple’s iPad hasn’t been an option. The Surface will just slot into their existing mechanism – and that makes it a possibility for lots of organisations who have so far closed the door on tablet technology.
  • Where the iPad works really well is when there is a 1:1 deployment, and each learner has their own device, they then set it up with their email account, their cloud storage (e.g. dropbox or similar) and apps that work for them and their subjects. What some organisations have done is buy a bank of iPads to use in class, but these aren’t individually owned so you cannot set up these individual services – and it then becomes harder for learners to save and export work they have created. With the Surface, this is designed around the notion of having a Microsoft account (Skydrive) and everything is based on that – so if you pick up a device, you log into your Skydrive once – and this connects to all your services. At the end of the session you logout once and the device is ready for the next person.  This to me is one of the Surface’s main points regarding its strategic use within education, and if I was going to set up a bank of devices for a classroom, I would go Microsoft over iPad.
  • I let my kids use both my iPad and the Surface to see how they got on. I expected that they would hate the Surface (having used the iPad for much longer) but they didn’t – in some respects they preferred it. As my 9 year old quoted – “The Tablet is really clever, because you can use it with the keyboard and it is just like a computer, then when you take the keyboard off it turns into an iPad*”. As a device for my kids to do their homework, it is so much easier to use than the standard computer, as it fires up quickly, we can use it in any room in the house, it easily connects to our printers, and it has what the kids need for most of their work which is the internet, and access to office tools such as Word and PowerPoint.
  • Personally I hate flash, and always have done, and it is a technology that is well past its best before date – but there is a huge quantity of legacy material produced in flash especially within education. It is well known that the iPad doesn’t support flash, and Android doesn’t really (although there are work arounds for both). For the moment Microsoft does flash no problem. Many schools have entire maths and science departments based around the use of flash based resources, and if these schools have gone down an iPad route – they are finding this tough.
  • The cost of the Surface is significantly less than the iPad or Android equivalents. Over the summer of 2013, the surface could be bought for £133 + VAT, which is a much easier number to work with when buying potentially tens, hundreds or thousands of these devices.
  • Although the Surface may not have the wonderfully creative apps that the iPad has, it does have Microsoft Office – which gives us Word, Excel, PowerPoint, (and OneNote) – which are still the main tools used by many educators and students. Although I love my iPad, and I use a mac as well as a PC, and a mixture of Office, Open Office and iWork – when I want to do serious office based work, I still revert back to the PC as I find the Office suite works better for me than the others.
  • The surface is only going to get better. If we look at how the iPad has evolved in a few generations, then in a few years time the Microsoft devices should be much closer in performance. The iPad seems to have reached its own plateau – whereas Microsoft is only just starting.

I think the arrival of the Surface tablet is a very positive thing for education – there are now 3 viable options for education (iPad, Android and Microsoft) and choice has to be good – people can choose what is best for their situation, and the competition should keep all 3 providers on their toes, and prices competitive.


*Obviously the Surface doesn’t actually turn into an iPad – but these were the exact words of a 9 year old, and their perception on technology.

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

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.

 

There is no such thing as ‘virtual learning’

This morning a respected twitter colleague Craig Taylor, tweeted that he felt the need to write a blog post on this topic – which being something that I agree with passionately thought I would do the same, so we can then compare posts.

Since people have used computers, the term virtual is often used to identify something that isn’t physically touchable. e.g. Email is an example of virtual mail, in that you cannot physically touch it the same way that you can with a letter dropping through the letterbox of your front door.

Cerebral lobes

We then have the term VLE or Virtual Learning Environment, which some people misread as being an environment where ‘virtual learning’ takes place, and the term ‘virtual learning’ then gets misused by some to define learning supported by technology. The problem is there is no such thing as virtual learning. Learning is a complex mechanism that takes places in the brain and is a process of connections being made between neurons in a way that connects prior knowledge (from memory) to new information to create new knowledge and understanding (apologies to any psychologists or similar for the gross over simplification here), so learning is learning – it doesn’t matter how or where that learning takes place; whether it is in a classroom, a workplace, in front of a computer, watching TV or reading a book – learning is learning.

Some people think that when we learn via online technologies (e.g. via a VLE) the learning process is different – the actual mechanism of learning (the formation of connections between neurons) is exactly the same – what changes is the environment in which this takes place and the mediums used to help the learning to take place.

So going back to the idea of a VLE – I mentioned earlier that it is not an environment in which Virtual learning takes place, instead it is a virtual environment (e.g. you cannot touch the walls, seats, tables) in which learning takes places. Maybe the acronym would have been better if it was a Virtual Environment for Learning or VEL – but VLE seems to have established, and personally I am not too bothered about the semantics of whether it should be a VLE, MLE, LMS, CMS etc. what I am interested in, is that people use these tools effectively and efficiently to enhance the business that we are in, and that is as facilitators of the process of learning.