Virtual learning environments allow students to expand their learning beyond the classroom walls. They enable learning to take place anytime and anywhere, thus empowering learners to take ownership of their own learning experiences.
Traditionally, VLEs have been used to facilitate distance education as an alternative to classroom-delivered courses with the aid of computers and mobile devices in the home. Increasingly, however, they’re not just being used for distance learning, but also as a way for schools to provide blended learning within classrooms – that is, linking them in with standard classroom lessons, but in a way that gives students additional access to courses or curriculums they may not have been able to access otherwise.
Choose your use
VLEs can be used in a variety of different ways. One popular application is to help identify and support intervention strategies, which might involve parents using a VLE at home to support their children, or teachers in classroom settings using one to identify where particular intervention strategies may be required and implementing them. They can be used to provide catch-up support for new students who may have recently entered the school, or to provide extension activities for students working at a faster pace.
Another use for VLEs is to assist those students who are unable to work in traditional classrooms due to a particular set of challenges. It may be that they physically can’t access the classroom, or that the classroom environment, for one reason or another, isn’t able to support their needs.
When choosing which VLE to use, it’s important to think carefully about what your specific needs are. Some programmes will simply provide curriculum content via online means. Others will also provide access to a dedicated qualified teaching professional who can communicate with the students directly via emails, text messages or through online lessons.
The inclusion of live lessons can be a big differentiator between one VLE solution and the next, and how they’re implemented can vary a great deal. It may be that students can call up lessons that are pre-recorded, or even dial into livestreamed lessons and webinars taking place at scheduled times.
Of course, one of the most important considerations of all will be how the VLE can support your curriculum. Some systems will provide content focused on core subjects only, but it may be that your school is looking for a straightforward and cost effective way of expanding its curriculum provision into other areas. Modern languages, for example, or the arts – subjects where you might currently have a shortage of relevant teaching knowledge and expertise.
A key feature of many VLEs are their inclusion of built-in assessment tools. When introducing a new programme of learning delivered via a VLE, this will let you gauge where students currently are and how appropriate the learning content will be. Will it be necessary for your students to start the course from the beginning, or do they already understand a lot of the material that will be covered?
Given the range of different systems available, the first step is to outline what your goals are. Identify your specific needs, prepare a list of questions for providers and see which solutions appear to be the best fit for your setting and budget. Systems that feature live lessons tend to command a premium, and may vary in cost depending on how many students will require access to them. Something to consider is whether you’re looking to use those live lessons and remote teaching professionals as part of a one-to-one programme – perhaps for a pupil with SEND – or to support the teaching of 30 pupils within a classroom settings.
You can also expect VLEs that incorporate adaptive technology to cost more. Rather than simply presenting students with an existing course of learning to work through, these systems will be capable of generating individual learning plans based on a pupil’s specific needs, having identified what those are via built-in assessment tools. Other possible features to look out for include progress monitoring and reporting functions, and translation tools that can be used to support students with EAL.
To introduce a VLE is to embark on a long term project, so you’ll want to get things right from the start. It’s important to access the material and test the means of delivery for a prolonged trial period of at least a month so that you can be sure it’s right for you.
Involve teachers during the trial period, familiarise them with how it works and then hold a debriefing once the trial has ended. Reflect on what worked for you and what didn’t – more often than not, the trial period will raise numerous questions about the system that you’ll probably want to take up with the provider.
Once you’ve settled on a particular system, an implementation strategy meeting should be planned with the provider. Use this to develop a plan for the upcoming academic year regarding how the system should be best configured and rolled out in accordance with your needs. Make sure that you agree a series of key touchpoints, where you and the provider will exchange information on how the implementation is progressing, what’s working well and whether anything needs to change.
A time frame should also be agreed for staff and pupil training. Will this be carried out on site? Is it going to be delivered remotely via webinar? Will the school require any additional training materials? Consider appointing VLE ‘champions’ within the school to help with your training efforts – teaching staff who understand both the capabilities of the system and the concerns and perspectives of their colleagues. Bear in mind, however, that teachers move on – ensure that there’s more than one VLE champion among your staff so that this expertise doesn’t go when they do.
Reach out to parents
Finally, communicate your aims and goal for the VLE to parents. Many of the schools I’ve previously worked with hosted a dedicated parents’ evening, where they presented their reasons for introducing the system. It’s important to stress that far from being a way of replacing traditional teaching – as some parents might see it – a VLE is there to support students as much as possible, and potentially help personalise their learning.
Communicating that message to parents effectively and getting them on board early on is key, because depending on the system you choose and how it’s implemented, those parents may well be interacting with it themselves. At the very least, if you’re expecting their children to access the programme from home, a significant proportion of parents will want to see for themselves what it does and how it works. If parents have confidence in the system you’re planning to introduce, it’s more likely that the implementation will be a smooth and successful one.
• Distribute details of the plan and outcomes you’ve agreed with your provider to all staff who’ll be using the system
• Your provider should issue you with manuals, best practice guides and other resources; make sure that staff know where these are kept and how to access them
• Check that the bandwidth of your school network has sufficient capacity to support the VLE applications you have in mind and number of users likely to be accessing them at the same time
• Clarify what’s included within the initial set up cost – what does the standard feature set consist of? Is there a particular feature you need that will incur an additional expense?