What is a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment?)

A VLE, or learning platform, is an online system that allows teachers and trainers to share educational materials and communicate with their learners via the web. Usually with built in tools to create engaging learning content. We all know that, but if you have one, is its use fit for purpose?

There has always been a need to make learning resources more engaging and available on-line, but there is even more reason to look at ways of making material accessible to learners as they demand it (24/7) through an appropriate learning platform. It’s just good practice. Add to that the impending requirement for Learning Providers to make a significant percentage of courses available on-line (FELTAG), it has become even more urgent for the independent sector especially, to look for suitable options and for colleges, in my opinion, to ensure that their VLE is being used in the way it has been designed, not as somewhere to ‘store’ scanned paper with internet access ‘blocked’ without considering the outcome for learner experience. Might as well hand the paper to the learner or put it in the post. No winners there then, so what to do?

During a memorable review of how technology was being used in a large FE college, a curriculum manager stated that their VLE: “is used by most of the staff as a suppository”. Embarrassed, she corrected that of course having meant to say a ‘repository’, which sadly is not untypical of how a college VLE is usually used, but that’s the responsibility of the institution, not a failing of the platform. Either way we sympathised with the faux pas.

moodleThe most commonly used examples of a VLE include Moodle and Blackboard. Moodle is free to download, but doesn’t take into account the substantial cost of hosting and managing the platform effectively. In the case of Universities and Colleges, that invariably involves an IT department and a dedicated spokesperson to ‘get it right’ as most do. How staff use it is another subject all together. But in the case of the WBL sector, very few have the spare infrastructure or personnel to take on such a system and designing content takes a different set of skills entirely and that takes time. Time is a cost that few can afford, but must be factored in or frankly, don’t start.

There are a few excellent exceptions in how VLEs are being used in FE Colleges also a smattering of independent providers. As an example I know of a large independent learning provider that thoroughly researched the options and despite having a suitable IT infrastructure and skill set, chose to run with Moodle hosted by a Moodle specialist partner. This left the key personnel to manage the system and train staff to create ‘dynamic’ content to upload onto it. This was followed by a staff development programme which including how to use the platform effectively. Not just a ‘suppository’. Implementation still took time but the organisation was delivering good quality resources online, much sooner than they would have otherwise.

At the other end of the scale, two members of training staff at a small learning provider, delivering classes outside of the training centre were anxious to have a VLE but didn’t have a budget. They had access to a dedicated server and were shown how to create a small but absolutely fit for purpose Moodle site. We pointed out the built in tools and over a few weeks they transformed some of their own resources, produced more and uploaded it as digital content onto the platform. It took them relatively little time (a lot of enthusiasm) and their learners were accessing enriched leaning materials in a matter of weeks. The organisation has since allowed staff to become more engaged in further development.

Finally, as is the way with technology, other options are available and ‘It’s Learning’ is another example of a well-designed, user friendly VLE, with a wealth of built in features which according to some of my learning provider friends that tried all of the others first, met their requirements fully. My much missed former colleague Scott Anderton, when he headed up IT at a large college, liked the system so much he replaced the very well established Moodle for ‘Its Learning’. He famously said that “the 700 staff that had been using Moodle for 5 years were not well pleased about it.”

phone-210972_1280But whilst this is not about ‘pleasing’ staff, if implemented properly, it gives them the means to stretch their pedagogic imagination, in reaching the learners on a platform that meets their learning requirements as it should be in the second decade of the 21st century.

With my consultant’s hat on, I will always propose a strategy which identifies the objectives, researches the options, and makes a business case for implementation to deliver, in whatever time it takes. But time is the enemy and as another former colleague said “if you are staying as you are, you are actually going backwards, you just haven’t noticed.

Read more: Tell me more about VLE
When is an IT strategy, not an IT strategy?
Days of Staff Development, are they effective?

Colin Gallacher
Learning Technology Consultant


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