VLEs ‘Virtuous’ Learning Environments?

This is me just thinking aloud really.

There are those who believe that the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) is dead, has been for some time or needs to be slain. This issue was debated to death (see what I did there?) in 2009 but I believe there is still some mileage in a bit more of a discussion.
The debate raised its head once more on the back end of a recent ukedchat discussion about the role of social media in schools with a series of tweets between Miles Berry and Pete Yeomans amongst others. The argument as I see it is between two broad camps:

  • Why would we want a VLE? We can be more nimble. We can do it all for free using a range of appropriate web 2.0 tools and resources. VLEs are used very badly anyway – at best a storage repository for Powerpoints and worksheets.
  • With a VLE, we have it all safely under one roof. We have a consistent system that we can rely upon and that we can all get to know.

So firstly, let it be said that in too many cases VLEs have been used very, very badly. If they are indeed being used as online storage at best then they deserve the condemnation they receive in many quarters. I would go further, if a VLE is mostly used to replicate 20th (or even 19th) century learning experiences (but online) then it is equally deserving of condemnation. But here’s my point, it is quite simple and has been said before: just because a tool is used in a particular (uninspired, old-fashioned or negative) way, is not the fault of the tool. If teachers only ever encouraged pupils to use computers to read documents, would we say the PC is dead? If an IWB is only ever used as a glorified computer display, is it the fault of the IWB? If we only use a smart phone as a calculator…? It is the use of the technology where the shortcoming lies, not the technology itself.

Good teachers should and do look at tools and resources and consider how they might best meet their students learning needs. Outstanding and exceptional teachers often look at tools and resources (particularly technologies) and consider how they might transform the learning experience. This transformation seems to be increasingly on the agenda of schools and organisations. So, let’s use the tools to do things differently, in ways that aren’t possible or are more difficult without the technology.

Here are some of the reasons I think a VLE is useful.

  • It keeps everything in one place. Why does this matter? Well it matters if you need to have lots of different logins to lots of different things. I know we can put links to lots of different things in one place and that single sign on can help but a VLE is the simplest solution to all of this.
  • A proprietary VLE doesn’t depend upon one person’s evangelism and expertise in the same way that a range of tools might do. Does your school depend upon one individual to run and organise e-learning through Google Apps, a blog, and/or a whole host of other stuff? What would you do if that person suddenly moved on? There are sometimes issues in schools where this is the case. Having a proprietary VLE would avoid issues of this kind. It is a safe and reliable single environment for staff and pupils to get used to. It is also reliably externally supported.
  • With a VLE, everything ‘belongs’ to the school and ‘lives’ within the school. As Miles Berry put it, having a VLE is like children learning to ride bikes in the relative safety of the playground.
  • Less confident staff often feel more secure with a single thing they need to get used to. video poker download
  • A VLE can be ‘branded’ to the school, maintains the school’s identity and is guaranteed advert-free. the best online casino for mac usa

On the down side, there is a cost to a VLE. You actually have to pay for the thing – not something that always goes down well in these days of austerity. Having said that, it isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes, when something costs you, you value it more and are more inclined to use it (spending a lot of money on expensive running shoes helped me find the motivation to get out there and run for example).

So, what about Google Apps for Education as your VLE? I think GApps is a VLE. Isn’t it? Is it dead? I don’t think so. What I also think is that GApps, like Moodle, can be great from a certain age upwards and that age is somewhere in KS2 (9-10 years old?) in my opinion. I think they are both a bit busy and grown up – certainly for infants or bottom end of KS2.

What would I like in a VLE? I want children to learn to be ‘literate’ and safe in their use of communication tools, the internet, social media etc. Yes, they can access some worksheets, hyperlinks or powerpoints if they must, but they should also communicate, collaborate and create in ways that emulate or reflect what is happening on the web right now. I also want to see ‘social’ features included such as ‘friending’, ‘walls’, status updates, comments and ratings etc etc. I want these features because these exist in the world in which they live and I want them to learn about their uses, advantages, pitfalls and all. I want pupils to make mistakes. I want to help them learn from those mistakes in the safety of a school environment – thus equipping them to be safe and literate once they have left our care. I want them to be doing this learning from the youngest possible age.

I am lucky that the majority of schools that I work with have a VLE with those features (DBPrimary). It is a VLE that suits infants and has those social features built in. It is used with 3 year olds as readily as it is with 11 year olds. The schools seem to like it enough to continue subscribing and those that are, are beginning to do things that move well beyond reproducing 20th Century learning online.

As I say, just me thinking aloud. You are welcome to think aloud in the comments.

PS: I just found my comment on Steve Wheeler’s blog from 2009 and realised I’ve been thinking this for a while! virtual blackjack machines for sale

**Update** Please pop over to Chris Ratcliffe’s blog to read his interesting post on the topic.

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24 thoughts on “VLEs ‘Virtuous’ Learning Environments?

  1. Hi Doug.

    Your post (and comments on Steve’s blog a while ago) strike a chord with me, and the same questions/issues/thoughts have been bugging me for a while. I recently tried to articulate this on my own blog (VLE, the discussion continues: http://www.dontwasteyourtime.co.uk/elearning/vle-the-discussion-continues/) which may help to support (in one or two instances) what you are saying here.

    The biggest single issue I think we have to overcome is who chooses the VLE tool/system? Is it the academics, the students, the IT and infrastructure team, or the accounts department? I don’t think any one of them is right for the job as all aspects must be considered before deciding on the tool, but eventually a decision must be, and is, made, but by who? I have a sneaky feeling that, at the end of the day, it is the financial burden that takes priority, as well as service level agreements, and other contractual elements, in order to protect the Institution in the short/long term.

    Looking forward to reading your further thoughts on VLEs, and I’m interested to see hear what is said at next week’s FOTE event in London.

    All the best, David

    • David,

      Many thanks for your response. How did I miss your comprehensive post and the wonderful comments?
      It is very interesting that we share so much common ground despite coming from different ends of the formal education spectrum.
      I completely agree about the importance of *who* the decision makers are and the increasingly important financial considerations. Perhaps in primary schools, there is a more learner-centric approach to these decisions – although I can’t be certain of this. I know that when, as a school, we were deciding which IWB manufacturer to invest in, we borrowed boards from a number of suppliers and asked the staff and, most importantly, the children which they preferred and why. This is never a bad policy in my opinion.

      Thanks again.


  2. Dughall,
    An interesting and provocative piece – but it’s a shame that we’re all still having to engage in these discussions, especially when there’s still such limited and patchy use of online learning environments.

    You write that you “want children to learn to be ‘literate’ and safe in their use of communication tools, the internet, social media etc.” and that “They should also communicate, collaborate and create in ways that emulate or reflect what is happening on the web right now.” I suppose that the key question is whether that happens in their classrooms at the moment, because if it does then the teachers will immediately see that an online environment can only enhance these affordances and activities.

    If these activities don’t happen in the classroom, then their teachers won’t understand what an online environment can do, other than store tasks and instructions for the class. It’s why there’s so much low-level use of IWBs and other tools for visual learning.

    As you say, good teachers consider how they might transform the learning experience – rather than so many teachers who simply focus on what they have to teach.

    Best wishes,

    • John,
      Thank you so much for your comment. Of course you are right in believing that we are unlikely to see transformational approaches in online learning where transformation is yet to happen in the physical environment.

      I wonder if it is really true that the same teachers who have classrooms in which communication, collaboration and creativity exist *will* immediately see how an online environment will serve to enhance. I think there are still those who, for whatever reason, don’t make what seems an obvious move to use online environments and tools. Having said that, I do believe the vast majority do as you suggest and constantly seek new tools and methods to improve their practice and maximise learning – technology or not!

      All the best,


    • John, I think you have hit on something fundamental when you say’ “when there’s still such limited and patchy use of online learning environments.”

      The nature off the networked technologies we surround ourselves with is that they are continually evolving, as soon as you declare there is a finished product called a VLE there will be teachers and students who, for better or worse, choose to, (often successfully and creatively) to work outside its temporal constraints. I have experience of this both at school and HE level.

      I think all the qualities that you and Dughall refer to can actually be best served directly by the Internet, rather than through emulation. It is up to us, as educators to make it happen safely.

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      • Thanks for your comment, Theo. You make some excellent points, particularly in respect to the constant evolving nature of our online world.

        “It is up to us, as educators to make it happen safely.”

        I agree! But in *easy*, manageable ways? That suit the majority of teachers and schools? That can be done with 4 year olds? How I wish all that were possible but I don’t believe we are there yet. There are still those that can and those that can’t or don’t. Isn’t a VLE a possible middle-ground between the two? At least until we get to a position where things integrate simply with SSO, UIs are intuitive and things tend to just *work*? Might a VLE be a stepping stone?

  3. Dughall-a very interesting read.
    I love the passion you show in wanting children to have access and be Web ‘literate’.

    I was thinking that a Wiki could also be used as a VLE (@janwebb21 used one in her school successfully) and also something like Edmodo (@simonhaughton uses this for his school) these two examples are very much along the lines of the ‘social’ learning side of the VLE.

    That’s the side which I feel schools have missed out on with their VLE-the global connectivity, co-operation and interaction. Most have been glorified noticeboards.

    Let’s hope future VLE’s become a SERVICE (Social,Educational,Reciprocal Interactive Virtual Connected Enviroments)

    Look forward with interest to your future posts.
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    • I really appreciate your comment, Julian and you make some excellent points. I agree with respect to Jan’s use of Wikis and Simon’s excellent work with Edmodo – that they are ensuring the importance of constructivism and collaboration and the (so important) social aspects of learning are being incorporated.

      To be honest, a Wiki (albeit with its discussion features etc) seems a little limited to be classed as a full-blown VLE (and I would actually argue the same with respect to blogging). Having said that, I wouldn’t dispute its importance as an element of children’s ‘literacy’ learning. I wouldn’t want to leave it out of young people’s curriculum. Similarly, blogging, email, etc. My point would be that a VLE *can* house all these features/tools under one roof (my preferred option). A VLE can also provide those features in ways that are infant friendly, but customisable to add complexity and/or a more mature interface.

      A similar argument applies to Edmodo. Fantastic for the online social learning side of things but it doesn’t do all the other things – other things that decent VLEs should be doing. Also, is it something suited to Foundation Stage as well as KS2?

      All the best,


  4. Hi Doug. I just thought I would add to your timeline about VLEs. My paper “Successful learning or failing premise? A situated evaluation of a virtual learning environment” was published in the ALT-C 2006 proceedings, referring to previous commentary regarding the future of the VLE by Scott Wilson and others in 2005 and 2002. Back then I was interested in the connection between the use of VLEs and retention of students. I questioned whether the policy makers were right to assume that e-learning can effect retention, achievement and motivation of learners in traditional face-to-face classes. There certainly was little if no evidence of it then. I went on to question the future role of VLEs.
    Nowadays I am just using them the best way I can with my students. You can find the paper here: http://www.alt.ac.uk/altc2006/altc2006_documents/research_proceedings_altc2006.pdf
    I enjoyed reading your post, and the contributions following.

    • Alison, winpalace casino instant play

      Many thanks for your comment and for bringing a very well-informed perspective.

      I very much enjoyed reading your paper and particularly liked this:

      “I like to think of the content as the end of party ‘goody bag’, whereas the real party is going on inside with the opportunities for communication, collaboration, and group to group networking.”

      That really resonates with my view. I never really held a particular allegiance to the view that ‘content is king’ – espoused by so many once upon a time.

      Amongst many other excellent points, you also identified how crucial user interface can be. This is so true. If a social network wasn’t easy to use and have intuitive navigation/features, it would be dead in the water. It defies belief that there still seem to be VLEs that are clunky, confusing, unintuitive, have poor interfaces and so on. Perhaps this is because there wasn’t a realistic market place situation back in the day when schools were told they had to have a VLE and there was an exclusive list of suppliers. There might not have been the same impetus for suppliers to get it right. I may be quite wrong with this – thinking aloud again.

      Thanks again.


  5. As one of those who contributed to debating this to death in 2009, I’m glad to see the discussion continue as I believe this point is actually related to much more fundamental issues in education – the skills of teachers to maximise learning opportunities by using tools available fully, management issues (eg who decides on investment, how are options assessed etc) and what challenges will be facing our citizens of the future and how can education best prepare them for this new unknown world?

    Your points pretty much resonate with the view I took for the Alt-c VLE is dead debate, but without the hype and hyperbole we deliberately fostered for that debate to stimulate the discussion and it’s good to see it presented in such a well rounded, considered way.

    The only thing I would add is that “users” should not be seen as solely to blame for not using tools well. A well designed tool should be so simple and intuitive to use that the barrier to adoption is minimal. I don’t believe this is the case with current VLEs (yet) and as I emphasised in the debate, I see it as the moral responsibility of those of us who can see what SHOULD be to campaign and strive to see the improvements needed.

    I believe people don’t recognise the influence they could have within their institutions and hence with VLE solution providers if only their efforts could be coordinated and directed.

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  6. Hi Nick, oh and thanks Doug for reading my paper and commenting so carefully. Nick I’ll take you up on your comment “A well designed tool should be so simple and intuitive to use that the barrier to adoption is minimal”. I don’t agree that users avoid using tools because they aren’t simple and intuitive. They need a good enough reason to stop using their existing strategies (tools), however difficult/easy they are to master. I simply don’t think the case is made for many of the affordances of a VLE beyond what they are trying to compete with, enhance or replace. KISS is a powerful draw for any teacher but they will also persist in learning how to use complex tools if they find a decent rationale – its opportunity cost I suppose.

    • Alison, Nick

      That is really funny. I read Nick’s comment and decided that I completely agreed with him about the need for simplicity and ease of use. I was going to respond to that effect. Then you replied again, Alison and I realise that it is you that are right about the ‘good enough reason’. It chimed so clearly with a personal experience of mine.

      I remember getting a mobile phone a number of years ago. I had no idea how I was going to get it to be an MP3 player but boy did I *want* it to. I badly needed it to! So, I struggled with some awful software (itunes) and fiddled about in Windows for hours to get things to work. I learned *how* to do stuff because I could really see the need. top 10 casino canada

      This doesn’t mean that we don’t need intuitive, friendly UIs – we do. However, we need educators to *need* VLEs and similar tools just as much if not more!

      What is scandalous is that schools/institutions have had to tolerate poor quality products just *because* someone said they had to. This was very damaging. There was not the same ‘market’ incentive for VLE providers to be nimble and responsive and produce and develop really good products. In many ways they were spoilt by being gifted a market. How much really good software came from the E-Learning Credits money? I rest my case… wsj virtual casino

      Perhaps a *proper* market might force us into an era of quality VLE products from which to choose.

      • I suggest the reason you agree with both is because both are true. It’s not mutually exclusive.

        People need a compelling reason to embrace change, but they will also resist change more if the alternative doesn’t seem attractive.

        So, we need tools that are better AND we need to create an imperative for change.

        I picture it as “why would people jump out of a window?” – well, if you provide crash mats (better tools) they might, if they fancy trying it anyhow, but if the building is also on fire…


      • Or a better analogy for the VLE for me: virtual roulette wheel download

        Will people move from one room to another?

        If there’s something really desirable in the other room (say a huge pile of cash), or if the 1st room is filling with poison then they might knock down a wall to get to the 2nd room.

        But I you put a door between the rooms, they might wander through just out of curiosity.

        I.e. I think the current barrier to adoption makes it very unattractive except for those determined or motivated strongly. We nee to build a door AND start a really cool party in the new room to encourage most people to pay attention to the possibility of changing rooms.

          • Lovely analogy. To move from room to room, tho’ you have to want to enter the building. Some staff still don’t know what is inside their VLE, and anyway are happy to stick with the buildings they are familiar with. Some VLE entrances (and the rooms within) are just so unwelcoming and badly designed that users want to move house pretty swiftly to something that better accommodates their needs or has been purpose built more recently.

            I so want to believe in the value of VLEs but know only one platform. I find it so user unfriendly and so time consuming to learn and use that I have no faith we can make it work in my lifetime! Ours is a repository for documents with just one department (ICT) using other aspects of it.
            Am I wrong to think of a VLE as both a toolbox and the tools within said box?
            I can and do unscrew lots of things with a knife, and I will hammer using the end of a screwdriver, if necessary. Yet I really appreciate the difference in the experience when I use the right tools for the job.

            For me Edmodo (at high school level), Kidblog, Google Docs (inc forms) and Blogger, are just some of the tools out there that beat what is on offer from within our VLE hands down.

            Am I missing something?

          • Thank you for your comment, Chris and for developing the analogy so expertly.

            Your mixed-economy solution sounds very much as if it is fit for purpose for your school’s needs right now. Do your colleagues also use Edmodo, Google, blogs etc?

            Why do you continue to invest in the VLE when it appears so unsuitable (that is if you are investing rather than using a ‘free’ VLE/Moodle? Have you explored any alternative commercial offerings?

            Sorry, lots of questions. To answer you, I think yes – a VLE is both a toolbox and the tools within it (in a sum-of-the-parts kind of way). And no – you don’t seem to be missing something. Unless, there is a perfect secondary VLE out there. Anyone?

  7. I’m so glad my post resurrected your thinking Dughall! The title was to get some help in understand what VLEs are & what their purpose is. Thanks to the comments on my post & this post of yours I now know. I can certainly see they have a place in our schools. I just want children to have access to a wider audience for their work.

    For anyone who did not see the post that got Dughall thinking again it is here http://www.theheadsoffice.co.uk/please-explain-vles/

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