Good, bad and downright ugly ways to introduce VLEs into schools

I hear many stories of how Digital Brain, Fronter, MS Class Server etc have been introduced into schools by the LEA or RBC, then after some initial training, left to rot.

Why is this? A lot of thought, and money, has gone into making these systems suitable for school use. Surely they can’t be that useless?

Dig a bit further, and we find the stories fall into two groups:

  1. “I’ve been told this thing is great but I’ve not seen any real evidence. I’m too busy/not inclined to explore it so I ignore it, other than to resent the expense.”
  2. “I’ve been championing elearning within the school for years but in my opinion system X, Y or Z is much better-suited to my needs. I resent both the expense and the fact that my hard work has gone unrecognised.”

These stories were in my mind when I was reading An Adoption Strategy for Social Software in the Enterprise by Suw Chapman yesterday. She’s using blogs and wikis as examples, and her ‘enterprise’ looks more like a corporation than a school or LEA, but the lessons are the same.

If you don’t feel like reading the article, she’s essentially saying that imposing technology from above is a hiding to nowhere. Rather, you start by working with the existing enthusiasts (who are often quite low level in the organisation) and work outwards.

In my examples above, person (2) is the enthusiast. Being present in the school, he or she will eventually win round person (1), but only after having first personally committed to the new system. Gaining that commitment doesn’t happen overnight. You have to demonstrate consistently that they system will deliver results and that the support will be there (and typically that it will be there late into the evening).

It’s difficult for traditional VLEs to do that, because they are bought and paid for, typically, by LEAs or RBCs. The decision is made by a committee who will never actually have to teach with the chosen system, and who are applying highly abstracted criteria.

To sell to them, the VLE vendors must field expensive sales forces. Once they have those guys on salary, they must chase the high-value RBC/LEA sales in order to pay them. It’s a vicious circle that leads to bad outcomes.

I am more persuaded than ever that our approach with Yacapaca of “sell to the teachers first” may be slower, but will produce a better result in the end. The early adopters become enthusiasts, and enthusiasts become champions. Usage spreads organically within the school. It’s true we don’t make much money, but 15 years of selling books has convinced me that giving solid value is both right livelihood and better business in the long run.


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3 responses to “Good, bad and downright ugly ways to introduce VLEs into schools”

  1. I read your comments with interest. I have been working with ClassServer (as a pilot subject and school) over the past two years. Last academic year we got it up and running in January and used it extensively with our own ICT teaching groups (in KS3, 4 and 5 – that is all groups used it for some activities). The main problem is that there is almost no content avaiable. We did download a few resources via the Internet. My colleague and I created our own (around 300 over the year) for a variety of types of interaction with students. I think it has enormous potential. The editor itself is very, very basic and doesn’t benefit from the sophisticated formatting features of modern software such as using styles and other much more basic tools, even the question choices are limited and there is no multiple mark question. It is possible to format using a wed editor such as front page (but this is a fairly technical exercise for any other teacher) and once you have used the editor you cannot use the editor within ClassServer any more. Working with pupil information, is as you know, another issue. While it will look at active directory to identify pupil usernames the process of identifying classes and managing groups is another system to maintain. Some of the organisations we spoke to who are using this have employed a technical person to specialist in production of resources. Having said this our Science department have been able to purchase Absorb Physics and Chemistry resouces (from the authors of Crocodile clips) and these do provide a range of quality learning resources. Although we were working with Microsoft on this project, it was very difficult to talk to anyone who was involved with the software itself – and/or had actually created/managed their own resources. We also had difficult knowing what would happen to the pupil data at the end of the academic year when the pupils moved year groups. We have come to the conclusion that any new initiative will only be successful if, as you say, it is aimed directly at being of constructive use to teachers and that we need to provide them with resources and training which, in the first instance, make it straightforward to implement. Another example of this type of ICT initiative is the use Interactive Whiteboards. In our school, a whole school purchase of resources such as Boardworks presentations gave a set of ‘quality’ cross curricular resources for staff to use with their teaching groups. It is also an example of good practice in design and layout, as well as content. After this many staff became interested in adapting and creating. Our own education authority are awaiting the BECTA guidance on VLE/MLEs and are hoping that this will provide good advice for standard expectations for these. We upgraded CLS to version 4 in August. There were problems with this, and the reality was that we couldn’t use for the first part of the first term. I am afraid to say that with pressure of work and so on it has been difficult to expand its use this year. However, reading your article has made me more determined to do this now. Last year I used it very successful to support revision in KS4 and 5, and I will organise this again now. At a recent meeting of the secondary heads of ICT in Wokingham we did acknowledge that if we did not have the benefit of this type of experience, and other schools are working with other VLEs too, that we would not be in a position to make an informed choice as this type of environment becomes a standard expectation for all schools. It is going to be very important to us.

  2. I absolutely agree with the suggestion that introduction of a system such as a VLE is best suited to evolving from the ‘ground up’. I have been to numerous presentations by LEAs, providers, advisors et, and yet I still have to see anything that actually suits us as an institution. And to be fair, how can a sales rep for a software company be expected to know exactly what the requirements in any particular school are, given the unique complexities of such elements as curriculums, staffing, existing systems, and of course the personalities involved in any given school? We have been building up a system for ourselves for about 18 months now, based on Microsft Sharepoint Portal and Class Server. I’m sure it doesn’t tick all the boxes that people like Moodle, Fronter, Ramesys and Research Machines might suggest it should, but it belongs to us, is built around our own needs, is growing with us and will continue to do so. It works within our existing frameworks and is being gradually adopted by staff as they realise how it could benefit them and their students. It is largely designed on the back of suggestions/demands from students, staff and parents, and so there is an element of ownership by everyone. For these reasons alone, I am very optimistic that it will do us proud.

  3. Yes Ian – VLEs can quickly become white elephants if not properly maintained. Which is one of the reasons I am most perturbed by the Government’s money-push to RBCs where the PROVISION of a VLE or learning platform, is seen as the be-all-and-end-all instead of the start, with schools not really being aware or prepared for what having their own VLE acrtually means.

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