BECTA's vision Learning Platforms: utopian, sinister or just misguided?

The ever-informative Ian Usher from Bucks LEA points me to BECTA‘s view of learning platforms (aka VLEs, MLEs or LMSs), and in particular their Learning Platform Matrix.

I’d not come across these matrices before. They are designed to help you understand where your school is at on a scale of readiness for various initiatives. I don’t run a school, but I nonetheless found them to be extremely revealing of BECTA’s criteria – more so in fact than their formal documentation.

In addition to Learning Platforms, I also spent an hour or so on the Assessment for Learning Matrix. If anything, this was even more revealing of BECTA’s criteria around online learning.

Monolithic

Ian’s complaint against BECTA is that they don’t take his preferred VLE, Moodle, seriously. They see it, he complains, as “boys playing in garden sheds”. Ouch. Reading the matrices, I can see why that would be:

Level 4: The MIS is incorporated into the learning environment so that all users can access data as needed for formative and summative assessment.

Level 4: The use of a personal smart card provides pupils with access to a range of facilities and builds a personal data profile within the MIS. Parents can access the data related to their child(ren) online at any time. Data for governors and the Local Authority can be generated into reports.

There is plenty more in the same vein. BECTA clearly imagine a single monolithic piece of software that basically runs the school. A sort of SAP for education.

Moodle, an open source project, is about as far from SAP as you can get. It was, after all, built up from classroom teachers’ needs, rather than down from Tony Blair’s vision.

Which brings us neatly to the question of where I stand on the matter. Frankly, I’m disappointed in BECTA. Their vision might work in an authoritarian, centralised school system, but British schools just aren’t like that. Decision-making here is highly devolved. Different teachers, different departments will choose different teaching tools. Any attempt to enforce a single solution across a school, or God help us, an LEA, will be meet with subterfuge if not downright sabotage.

And it’s not necessary. A standard already exists that will allow many niche services (both pedagogical and administrative) to share data successfully. It’s called
SIF, the Schools Interoperability Framework.

SIF is no easy option; it is complex and technically challenging. It is, however, the correct option. It retains the undoubted management benefits of elearning whilst returning to teachers the freedom to choose the teaching resources that suit them best.

So, if your school is deciding on a learning platform/VLE at the moment (it probably is), you have a choice:

  • accept whatever is handed down to you and hope you can teach with it
  • campaign for insistence on SIF support, because this keeps your future options open as you become more familiar with the new tools and find out for yourself what they can/can’t do in practise.

Disclaimer: just for once I’m not banging by own drum here. Yacapaca isn’t a learning platform/VLE and has no ambition to become one. It’s a formative assessment system, nothing more. We’d love to make it SIF-compliant but frankly it’s not worth the investment until SIF takes off in the UK.

2 thoughts on “BECTA's vision Learning Platforms: utopian, sinister or just misguided?

  1. However – and it is a big however – you are free as invidiual departments / faculties to build up your own VLEs and resources. This always has to be the best way. If and when a school is forced to use a specific system, you can always just include a hyperlink to your existing work and you’re done.

    I’m absolutely certain that this is the best way ahead. Clearly there is an enormous amount of money on offer for the big companies offering a complete VLE solution. Yet unless a school is involved from the very beginning, sharing, developing and pushing their own resources, their own organisation, their own structure, it will be destined to fail.

    Moodle has great potential because it can be used, as you say, from the ground up. There is most certainly a market for a companies to develop materials to integrate student data management systems with Moodle. Thus, the best option for many of these companies would actually be to get on board with Moodle – develop ways of integrating their materials – and then be part of a really useful development.

    The worst thing about all this is that it seems to be lining up the big players – SIMS / Capita, RM etc. etc. – to just bring out some additional options and trick schools into purchasing them as they are the ‘only solutions that are recommended by Becta’.

    If Moodle is so bad, Becta should add it to their lists and see how it stacks up against the others. That has to be what each school should do. Integration has to be the key here – getting things to work with each other.

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  2. I am not about to recommend or criticise any particular VLE option here, but I agree with Ian’s view on imposing an LEA wide solution on schools. There is nothing wrong with researching solutions for schools, and recommending solutions for schools, but experience always shows that buidling from the ground up i.e. allowing schools to develop in the best way that suits them, pays dividends. With a reasonable degree of interoperability I entirely agree that LEAs should eventually be able to stitch together a host of different VLE solutions found in their schools, thus allowing each school to play to its strengths and share good practice with its neighbours rather than mould its activities into a handed down solution.

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