Why did VLEs fail?

Ofsted reports that VLEs, which started coming into schools in 2000, are “still in the early stages of development”. You can say that again. Most teachers won’t touch them.

A couple more quotes:

We found that the exploitation of VLEs at curriculum level resembled more of a cottage industry than a national technological revolution.

…used as a dumping ground or storage place for rarely used files.

So what’s gone wrong? I’d identify three mistakes:

  • Poor software specification. The VLEs promoted by Becta were generally designed as distance learning platforms for universities. Schools do very little distance learning. It’s like trying to dig your garden with a JCB.
  • Failure to change systems. By trying to layer the VLE over the old system of teaching, all the old inefficiencies were retained. Hence, the VLE delivered no real benefit.
  • Failure to work through champions. In most secondary schools there is at least one true enthusiast for online learning. Time and again, I hear stories of that person being sidelined and ignored.

And here is what needs doing to fix it:

  • Use software designed for schools, not universities. School elearning software should solve problems such as too much marking, large classes, lack of 1:1 contact.
  • Change the timetable. Much more independent study time, supported by suitable software. Use the freed-up teacher time to make classes smaller, or introduce small (6-12) tutor groups.
  • Work through Champions. I know this works, because it is what we have done with Yacapaca. Usage is growing like wildfire because the early adopters love it, and tell everybody else about it.



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17 responses to “Why did VLEs fail?”

  1. Keep posting on this topic, Ian. After schools have collectively pumped a few more million into VLE’s somebody will realise there are better, cheaper and more appropriate tools available to teachers and students.

    The VLE’s often adopted by a single teacher who uses it as a glorified on-line repository of…. documents that are already available on-line!

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with your analysis. I work for the most part in the primary sector and the “Course delivery” model which most VLEs seem to be geared up to do fits even less than it does at secondary level. I will be very interested to see if I can find a much more suitable primary school based learning platform at this year’s Bett show.

  3. Working in a large secondary school I can witness these issues first hand.

    I also have to add that the reasons VLEs fail to make any real impact on learning or indeed just simply fail to realise their potential are:

    1) Lack of understanding from SLT. SLT (in my school at least) don’t grasp the potential radical change to learning a VLE can instigate.

    2) Ownership of the VLE is handed to technical staff. Again, in my experience, SLT pass the management / ownership of the VLE onto the tech staff – ICT Manager, ICT Technicians and ICT HoD. It appears to be a case of ‘it’s a piece of IT kit let the techs deal with it’.

    3) Lack of strategic planning. Any project without clear goals and targets will fail. I would wager that only a very small percentage of schools actually have a sound strategic plan for their VLE – development plans, stage control, success indicators, change management, exit strategy etc. How can a VLE be a success if SLT don’t have a route map to where the VLE should be in 3-5 years and beyond?

    4) Outright bullying by LA’s into accepting the LA’s choice of learning platform. Schools are continually beaten with the ‘finance stick’ into accepting solutions that may not be suitable for them. Time and again schools are told if they accept solution X they will get Y amount of funding but if the go it alone and adopt solution Z they’ll have to go it alone and miss out on any funding.

    There are several other points of concern but the above points, to my mind at least, are the most damning.

  4. How very interesting: Karl’s points above are extremely pertinent as we are one school that has succeeded with its VLE (Moodle) because we have had the complete opposite experience from above. Taken in his order:
    1) SLT were behind the move towards a VLE all the way – in fact, it was part of our bid to become a Specialist School, led by Assistant Head
    2)A deliberate decision was made NOT to involve uniquely ICT/techie people so that other depts did not feel it was just a ICT initiative.
    4) Very clearly on there was vision as to how the VLE would be set out and how to move forward – was in a meeting last night discussing where to be in two/four years’ time
    5) No pressure from LA – although Moodle is offered as part of a package by our regional broadband suppliers we looked around at all the other alternatives first with an independent mind before deciding Moodle would be the best.

  5. I am Head of MFL in a secondary school; our county has promoted the use of Moodle for the past 3 years, but I have not found it user-friendly. I am now using edmodo as our Department VLE and have just received another message from a year 10 boy about his test tomorrow, I have also received homework from a weak pupil, often absent. It’s doing exactly what I wanted from it, as a 2-way learning enhancement tool

  6. I am not too sure if the OFSTED Report should come as any great surprise.

    – The ‘deadline’ for adoption of a VLE / Learning Platform by schools was the end of 2008.

    – it’s not a ‘new’ technology/application but has been around for some time in further and higher education (but as contributors have already said, there’s not a great deal of good practice there that can be translated into the primary or secondary school classroom)

    – I have been to presentations where teachers (sponsored by their learning platform providor it should be said) have claimed that the VLE in their school has been ’embedded’ in use in 1 term/6 weeks. Embedded simply seemed to mean using the platform as an extension of the school network to store resources.

    – the original DfES Secondary and Primary Learning Platforms ‘Guides’ were hardly inspiring.

    – it takes time. My own school has been using a VLE since 2002 and in 2008 switched to one recommended by the Local Authority. As a school we have a 5 year development plan for the use of this platform and it is linked into system change in school. Why rush? As teachers we ‘mainly’ know what ‘works’ and what does not and should not be pressured into simply adopting any technology without assessing its best use for learning and teaching.

    Jim Fanning / Tideway School (www.learningplatforms.info)

  7. After leaving school five years ago, I designed a VLE for schools that was made available just as the BECTA list had been launched. It is fair to say that this was the main reason nobody wanted to hear about the product. Two years on, it is remarkable to see the issues and problems VLE’s have and have caused.

    The focus I feel, should be on user generated content that is collected in the class, in a constructive and managed way. This content, should be published, shared and used in an interactive and intuitive way. One of my theories, Project Zero, has just won a major BT award and after being launched two weeks ago has sold over 1000 licenses in the UK and generated a wealth of international interest. As the product was built using a massive test bed of teachers and schools, it champions teaching in the UK.

    I sympathize with the teaching staffs issues and hope the government help find a more suitable platform for you to work with.

    Keep up the good work…

    Nick Palfrey

  8. Trying to find / create content that could be successfully be used within our VLE has been a nightmare. We have found content creators that have been awkward to use or not able to run under the restrictive environment of our RM network, or supposed toold that just wouldn’t create content that could be used within the VLE.
    Any ‘bought’ content has been of poor quality – often just transposed Powerpoint presentations with no interactivity added or implemented.

  9. I have been asked to add resources to the VLE, when do I have time? And when I have in the past, I have been unable to find them later, and neither as the IT technicians who put them on! It is too confusing. Computers in school are frequently damaged or unavailable, and outside school kids are more interested in ‘my space’ and ‘u tube’ than virtual learning.

  10. I sympathise with the views expressed here. As an E-learning manager in an LA I can see why this has happened, and everyone in schools saw it coming! The most successful schools are those where the SMT has taken it on board and have been advised properly. However VLEs were being introduced at a time when broadband in schools could not cope – and now filtering at regional, LA and school level are barriers.
    What most schools are missing is that a VLE is not a storage area; they are designed as communication systems to allow schools to have access between teacher and learner at any time. Content is not really the issue; that will develop – we didn’t expect content on school networks the moment it was set up!. Once teachers are shown that communication (in the way our pupils use it in their personal lives) is the purpose of a VLE it will begin to take off as this is what makes it different from a network accessible from home or anywhere. A VLE is best thought of as a social learning site.
    If you can access your teacher; your student and your progress from anywhere then snow days (like today) and field trips or the learning of a language take on a different complexion.
    Don’t dismiss the Learning Platform; with BSF it is here to stay. But Heads need educating in how to use it best, and teachers need to be shown how it can benefit them and their charges.

  11. Many schools are encouraged towards Moodle on cost grounds. It is not user friendly for those not very computer confident. It is no good having a website that deals with the courses – but neglects the other huge aspects of a school! And having several websites to cover different aspects of school life means they will inevitably seem disjointed. Making a successful VLE is not difficult as long as the whole school prioritises it for a little while and the SMT is behind it. When there have been so many new initiatives, each of which requires staff time investment on a school and personal level, it is hardly surprising that staff hang back!
    From a cost point of view, we estimated that photocopying costs for letters home etc, even excluding staff time, were about £15 per pupil per year. Having all communications on the website for those who could access not only saved money, in many homes it meant parents got the note in a legible condition. Yes, you need to have paper copies available as well. Some schools use email – but email addresses change so often that getting parents to look on the website saves time and is more efficient. The cost saving allows a reasonable investment in a service (I used Uniservity in 2 schools and the fact they were robust and ever improving means I still rate them highly!)If the school network failed, all of my files and many of the crucial files for other departments are all safely backed up at a remote site courtesy of the system.
    Benefits we experienced included the fact the Head’s PA put all ‘vacancies’ on the site – and frequently we got very good candidates for posts because we looked so good from our VLE. The Exams secretary pout timetables on there (and this meant teachers, pupils and parents could access the information whenever they wanted and this reduced their phone calls to the school office and exam secretary. Our SEN students contributed (often but not exclusively by making suitable animations); gifted and talented contributed and eventually had their own sections tapping into their own interests; parents had a section – and the parents of SEN students particularly liked the additional information and form of contact.
    Emergency snow closures etc can all be put on the website, saving time. Prospective parents used the website, and their students were given a log in at their ‘taster day’ so they started to get familiar with the school in its virtual form.
    The courses need a little thought – but having said that, most resources already exist and just need copying and pasting or uploading. The blurb for Open Evening typically was a great text for the department’s home page and got them started. Links to year groups and the courses (again this info already existed often in the year curriculum booklets). Pastoral teams gave an alternative set of contacts by year. The library was also an ever growing section.
    A successful VLE won’t happen overnight; teachers have to be given time (eg I would suggest invest in 3 inset days across the year and allow teacher and department targets for that year to be VLE focussed and try to remove too many other new issues at the same time) Once it gets going, it just needs everyone doing a little bit – and quite often it is just a change of thought. Any new file you create for school is saved on your computer – and take an extra few seconds to save it on the VLE. The fact that everyone contributes a little means that the public part of the VLE truly reflects the school rather than one person’s view of it! Departments can enlist a student team to help and enrich their section. This has benefits all round including yet more views of the school.

  12. Maybe a good model for a VLE is a social networking site such as Facebook. It is user friendly and an excellent tool for communication. Communication of ideas and knowledge is at the core of a school’s role, use of technology in creating a VLE should surely mirror that. VLEs should above all become learning communities.

  13. I think that the VLE will only succeed if the initiative comes from the top down…my head said putting info/lesson plans on etc, is an admin task and most teachers seed it as just another layer added to their already budy schedule.
    I’m trying to use it for furums for the children to comment on work but, even though I’m jead of ICT, I don’t really see many benefits at this time.
    I’ve put loads of stuff up as resources for the children but we have had issues with getting on, lack of computers at home etc.
    If OFSTED really want it to take off there needs to be real purpose…

  14. Maybe it is not down to schools or even LA’s to provide a virtual learning environment! Teachers do not have time to re-write materials or even reply to individuals as one comment suggests.

    What is your most effective use of modern technology? I am constantly amazed at the breadth and quality of the resources (mostly free) already on the net. I think the freely evolved bank of resources out there meet our needs, surely our job is to help steer developing minds (young and old) to make good use of these.

    The world is a small place, you can “travel” around it in seconds if you pull your feet out of the mud.

  15. VLE’s are a solution looking for a problem. My daughter just came home from school after being lambasted by her teacher for handing her homework in on paper, as opposed to online.
    It just seems like a lot of extra work, and less say for parents (“yes, your child CAN spend all evening on the internet, because we, the experts say so…”)

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