Introduction

Ever since Seymour Papert and his peers began to extol the virtues of ICT in education, pro-ICT practitioners have been urging an ICT revolution in schools. Have we finally reached that point with the introduction of Learning Platforms? In September 2010 my secondary school will begin to use one such platform called Kaleidos. As an ICT teacher I am particularly interested in the potentials that technology offers with regards to improving teacher’s pedagogy and improving the facility for pupils to become more independent learners. However I am mindful of research which has found that innovations in education often fail – in 70% of cases as compared with 47% in the public sector and 30% in business. (Bolman & Deal, 1999; Borins, 2001). This study will therefore attempt to investigate the issues arising from the introduction of a Learning Platform within a secondary school setting with a view to being more aware of solutions to the issues when they do arise.

Description

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A Learning Platform (LP) is “a generic term to describe a system of information and communication technologies that is used to deliver and support leaning” (Becta, 2005a). This term is used both to describe a Managed Learning Environment (MLE), which encompass all systems that support the management of learners and learning resources, and also Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) which are the subset of MLEs, and provide a vehicle for the delivery of learning resources and services to learner. (JISC, 2002). A VLE typically provides a collection of tools such as those for assessment, communication, uploading of content, return of students work, peer assessment, administration of student groups, collecting and organizing student grades, questionnaires, tracking tools, and similar. Some VLES also provide Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and RSS feeds. A diagram of a MLE and VLE, as described by JISC (2002) can be seen in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. MLE and VLE sub-system (JISC 2002)

Background

VLES began to be deployed within the FE from the beginning of the new millennium, mainly due to the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s need for suitable software for its E-University, which was to provide electronic distance learning for students sector as a means of facilitating distance learning. By 2004, Becta had noted that benefits in well established settings included: improved motivation and engagement, flexibility of access, learning gains in ICT, in writing, understanding and presentation, enhanced communication and interaction, and the adoption of new approaches to learning, and were seen as desirable for the school sector (Becta, 2004). A further impetus to push VLES into the school environment came in 2005 with the Department for Education and Skills publication of its e-strategy, Harnessing Technology (DfES 2005). This acknowledged that technology had the potential to enable critical change in schools, including the way that they are operated and managed as well as facilitating the interaction of learners and their parents, and set the expectation that:

1. by spring 2008 every pupil should have access to a personalized online learning space with the potential to support an e-portfolio

2. by 2010 every school should have an integrated learning management systems (also known as a learning platform)

At this point it is important to stress that this is not a critique of this specific brand, rather of the concept of a VLE itself, concurring with Weller (2007, p. 5) that:

There is need to move beyond thinking about the VLE simply in terms of the particular package that an institution has adopted, and viewing it as a significant educational technology that will shape much of the teaching and learning process in the coming years

Review of VLES to date.

There are high stakes to making the software work. A successful implementation of a learning platform can enable teacher to benefit from easier access to learning resources, tracking of student work, support for personalised learning and communication tools to support both work with pupils and collaboration with colleagues. VLE’s enable sharing of planning and resources in the ability to create adapt and re-use resources. They give some scope for others in the school workforce to efficiently and effectively support the work of teachers. They offer considerable administrative benefits to the school, for example they allow parents to check-up on their children, simplifies submission of work and marking/feedback, integrates will online register to increase transparency across the school. Such a diverse range of tools has led Heppell (2007, p. 9) to make the following remark:

Learning is breaking out of the narrow boxes that it was trapped in during the 20th century; teachers’ professionalism, reflection and ingenuity are leading learning to places that genuinely excite this new generation of connected young school students – and their teachers too. VLEs are helping to make sure that their learning is not confined to a particular building, or restricted to any single location or moment.

Is there any evidence of this actually happening? As VLES are new technology there is limited research into their impact in schools. The most comprehensive report to date was conducted by Ofsted (2009). This reported the findings of the effect by 2008 of introducing VLE’s into a range of educational settings. The findings were mixed, although arguably not particularly valid, due to the limited number of establishments visited either remotely or directly, with only 6 coming from secondary school settings. One of the findings was that in a sample of 34 school inspection reports that had had references to VLES, over half almost half stated positive comments about the initiative, with best VLE’s having strong support from senior managers, allowing learners to reinforce their routine work, or catch up on missed lessons. It found that in the best cases the material offered was fun and helpful and was being used well by learners. It concluded that the most common factor in an effective VLE was the enthusiasm of the subject teacher, who didn’t necessarily need to have any prior competence in ICT.

However, it also found that, despite expectations, the use of VLEs across schools and colleges has been slow to take off. Almost half of the establishments reported that they were not significantly helping learning. The most damning verdict from the report was that

the exploitation of VLE’s at curriculum level resembled more of a cottage industry than a national technological revolution. In most cases, at subject level, the VLE remained a small aspect of learning, supported by enthusiastic staff and learners (Ofsted 2010, p. 4)

Although this is partly due to the fact they were still being developed, there appears to be a fundamental issues that need to be addressed. The main problem stems from the fact that VLE’s are technologically and pedagogically high maintenance developments. It is not surprising therefore that most concerns were based around this. For example a key issue was regarding the unquantified cost of teaching staff time to develop material for use on the intranet. As Becta (2007) had noted previously, “teachers are not content developers”. The report went on to state that in the least effective examples, documents had been dumped on the system and forgotten. This then becomes a kind of “shovelware”, the term speaking for itself. These findings are arguably unsurprising when research has found that a single hour of online instruction can take up to 300 hours to develop. (Kapp, 2003). The Ofsted report further found that none of the schools were found to provide resources across all of the subjects. yet had not analysed how much tutorial time staff spent on VLE material development. There was also no real quality assurance of the resources that had been uploaded,

These disappointing figures point to a number of issues. One of the key points to a successful VLE implementation was highlighted to be the teacher’s enthusiasm. So what are the barriers to this? It is often argued that new technologies are often adopted first by teenagers and children who may have more flexible mindsets. Adults, on the other hand, often approach new technologies with a mindset of distance, unfamiliarity and possibly trepidation, with the fear that they will be hard to learn. Prensky (2001) calls this division between many teens and adults one of “digital nativity”. – teenagers are considered “digital natives”, where as adults are “digital immigrants” .Those who have little or no knowledge of technical tools usually tend to disregard ICT as a possible help in their profession (Demetriadis et al., 2003) In the past the lack of widespread acceptance and adoption of instructional design and technology has generated interest in looking at models of innovation adoption for possible answers (Burkman, 1987; Geoghagen, 1994).

Surry (1997) suggests that this is valuable for three reasons. Firstly to help understand why technologies are or are not adopted. Secondly, because the field is “inherently an innovation-based discipline” (Surry, 1997, online). Finally, Surry suggests that a better understanding could lead to wider or more effective adoption through the development of a prescriptive, systematic model of adoption. . One of which was set out by Rogers (2003) who holds that the adoption of an innovation is not a single step but a process that individual adopters go through (See Figure 1). In this model, the decision to adopt or reject an innovation is not made until the third step. If the decision is to adopt, then the process continues with an Implementation stage, the actual use of the innovation and a confirmation stage which might be seen as an evaluation stage with the adopter deciding whether to continue using the innovation.

Figure 1: Rogers’ Innovation-Decision Process (Adapted from Rogers, 2003, p.170)

These stages are progressive, and are stepping stones to the next level of progression. Rogers shows that in this process users start to drop off on the implementation step. The reasons for a successful implementation were highlighted by (Ely, 1999).

1. Dissatisfaction with the status quo

2. Knowledge and skills exist.

3. Availability of resources.

4. Availability of time.

5. Rewards and/or incentives exist.

6. Participation.

7. Commitment.

8. Leadership.

There are two issues that are in this list which have been cited by the Ofsted (2009) report, that of availability of time, and staff participation. However, Becta appear have not taken into account this or their own findings in their guidance. In Bectas Guide (2010, p. 3) “Getting started with your learning platform”, a key step is to “Put aside time and budget to train your staff”, yet there is no mention of assigning time for the most significant section which is the development of the resources themselves. Furthermore, Bectas learning platform advice document draws from Hooper and Reibers (1995) 5 step model of integrating ICT into ones ICT practice, rather than models needed to successfully implement an innovative product. One of the most significant omissions is the advice on addressing the issue of time to prepare resources which was to be the main barrier identified in the 2009 report. In fact “how will I get there” has not yet been completed for any of the advice sections. One is reminded of the Maddux et al,

Fads are a serious problem in education…. Innovations become fads partly because there is a tendency for teachers and policyâmakers to ignore research.

MotivMaddux ; Cummings, 2004, p511

My school and issues

The school in this study has 1500 children including 6th form. Computers are used throughout the school in most subjects – the school has 4 discreet ICT rooms around the school as well as “pods” of computers in subject areas. The network uses a staff and shared area in which pupils can access various subject folders. Most only have read access to these, and retrieve the documents to their own area. A coursework server is used to store GCSE coursework. The school has some components of a Learning Platform in place – A School Information Management System is used to store staff and student records, however this is only accessible from three machines. There is an electronic catalogue to the school library. The school has an intranet which staff and students are able to access remotely. Problems with this system are various: there is a very basic interface, and has an unreliable connection from home due to problems with security certificates. Parents are unable to access their child’s marks, registers still need to be taken manually, different applications are in different locations, for example to access the intranet, email and internet remotely one needs to use different addresses.

Because of these issues most children rely on a memory stick to transfer work to and from home. For those staff that use the system more heavily than others, this has been frustrating, and many eagerly anticipated the launch of the new Learning Platform which was assumed would solve many of these issues. With such a fundamental shift, there is a clear need for a centralized process for implementation, supported by robust infrastructure and policies to support the innovators. This theory is supported by Collis and Moonen (2001), and Somekh (1998). Further it would be expected that the new infrastructure would entail some kind of roadmap to sustain this new system. Rogers (1995) and Somekh (1998) are among several authors who identify that innovations can be subverted and dissipate if there is no longer term plan for the sustainability and support of the innovation beyond its initial implementation Indeed, the Ofsted (2009) reports suggests:

“Specific VLE strategies should identify senior management responsibilities and ensure that VLE’s are designed to enhance learning and are not just a storage or communication facility.”.

It is questionable in this case whether this is actually being done, although it is still very early days. We are currently at step one of the guidance issued by Becta (2010) which it calls “awareness”. Training is being given using distributed model, in which “Kaleidos champions” – a member of each department required to attend attended full training – have been given the responsibility to assimilate the tutorials to other members of the department during faculty meetings. Some pupils have been given access to the software; for example, a group of year 7 students were given 3 hours as part of an exploration day to demonstrate to the children their learning space. Staff have begun to be issued with logins. My initial view of the software was mixed. I could see the need for an integrated environment, however because the content is s hosted on RMs servers in Oxford, there was an annoying delay each time a page was updated. The interface felt clunky, and some settings took several steps to change, however one would expect these issues will be ironed out over time. In a recent a staff meetings, staff voiced concerns with the time needed to create and upload the resources, and whether there would be extra time given to allow for this.

One solution was noted by Becta (2009) in which lessons were reduced from 90 minutes to 75, with 15 minutes allowed for resource development. However in my own school there are no such plans, the response being that staff had to prepare resources anyway and were expected to do this in their PPA time. Other concerns were that staff did not have a model of good practise using this software. The difficulty for leadership team is that this software is such a new concept that they too do not seem to know what would constitute a good model. All that could be provided was a “demo” login; however this was by no means an example of how it should be done. Staffs were assured that the old system would be phased out gradually, using a parallel system for a while; however timings for this were not given. From this meeting it was obvious that the Leadership team had concentrated their efforts on explaining to the Kaleidos champions how to use the software, and no consideration had been given to the most important issues of timing for resources, quality assurance and support. Educational institutions frequently implement change.

However, Bell et al (2004) notes that where this is successful there are key factors underpinning that success. Crucially, change is unlikely to be effective unless all stakeholders are involved in driving it through. In particular, it is essential to provide a comprehensive staff development and support structure, which goes beyond a simple ‘driving lesson’ approach (Collis ; Moonen, 2001; Kirkpatrick, 2001). McNaught et al (2002, p. 232) goes on to explain that whenever there is time of rapid change, staff development should be ‘flexible, appropriate and adaptable. It should make sense to staff, be linked to practice, and be appropriately timed’. Although most of the staff are keen to explore the use of VLES to enhance their practice, it is understandable that many feel reluctant to invest excessive time and effort in a platform which may be short lived. For the majority of staff to engage with these applications, appropriate support mechanisms need to be in place, rather than the “one size fits all” attitude.

Possible solutions

It would seem the obvious solution to resources would be to buy these in from developers or share. However there are huge implications on cost and time to make these resources personalised for ones own particular students. One possible solution of resources could be in the way of implementing “Learning Objects”. These can represent tiny “chunks” of knowledge, or they can be whole courses, and can based on an electronic text, a simulation, a Web site, a .gif graphic image, a QuickTime movie, a Java applet or any other resource that can be used in learning. (McGreal, 2004) Learning objects are tagged with “meta data” and stored in a repository which is accessible others. These are still early concepts however, and one issue is identified by Arthur (2008) as the 1% rule of thumb which suggests that “if you get a group of 100 people online then one will create content, 10 will “interact” with it (commenting or offering improvements) and the other 89 will just view it”. Furthermore, the assurance of quality standards, either for content or metadata, when dealing with user generated content in a repository is an issue.

Another issue with this kind of VLE is that, by being commercially led, they are arguably likely to be slow to respond to the needs of the particular institution or change in itself. By their nature of being “closed source” they are less able to implement emerging educational technologies such as virtual worlds, wireless technology and the ever increasing array of mobile devices. Open source VLE’s are more adaptable, for example one such type, Moodle, has incorporated the open source multi user virtual environment called Second life to create a new virtual world learning environment product called Snoodle.

Yet another problem with VLEs is that students are akin to being in a ‘gated community’ controlled by the institution. Having an enclosed space within which students interact online and limits the learning context. Because the software is enclosed, Web 2.0 tools available freely on the internet which encourage finding/ publishing / discussing/ promoting, such as Twitter are not always able to be incorporated. Kaliedos does provide access to RSS feeds and a blog, yet this is not able to be seen externally from the users learning space. Shielding students from having to explore and evaluate these tools in the context of their education (and then workplace) not only misses an important opportunity to become literate in such information sources but it is also unlikely to engender self reliance, exploration and creativity. It is critical to the enjoyment of students that we encourage the creative development of solutions to specific learning needs, allowing the learning need to shape the learning environment and not vice versa.

Added to this , when pupils leave school they lose access to the VLE and all the associated tools, and will not necessarily have had experience of tools that they will be able to continue using outside the school. Furthermore, technology is moving into the arena of cloud computing, where the web and the browser become the primary vehicles for applications in which users are able to use applications collaboratively over the internet. In 2010 The Open University began to use one such cloud environment called “Google apps for education” to host email, contacts, instant messaging and presence, calendar, document creation, storage and sharing, and websites. Many of these apps allow for mobile access.

Another option is the concept of a Personal Learning Environments (PLE). Unlike VLE’s, which take a course-centric view of learning, a PLE is learner centred, designed to enable students to gain a greater control over their own learning. Rather than integrating different services into a centralized system, the idea is to provide the learner with a myriad of services and hand over control to her to select and use the services the way the pupil deems fit. The disadvantage of this that pupils would likely find it confusing to manage work across dozens of online tools. It also cannot be assumed that that learners at secondary school level are able to utilise the online tools and services available on the web to facilitate their learning, as from my experience most learners do not know how to use the web effectively and limit their activity to Facebook updates and the like. The concept that the majority of learners are adept at using Web 2.0 tools and service and are able to apply these skills to learning is a questionable.

It seems that the solution then lays in finding a middle ground between institutional control and the learner’s ‘personal web’. There needs to be a structure which fits the institution’s way of working, within a framework of tools the learners can use, or not, at their own discretion, which also allows students to separate the informal social environment from the formal learning environment. This combination of personalized services, both institutional and external would reflect individual learning preferences and collaborative work, and track the learning of the student. However this is unlikely to be realistic in the near future. On a positive note, one of the benefits of a school VLE is that pupils are able to operate in a relatively secure and safe environment, which provides a useful one-stop portal for learners and instructors. This may encourage children to feel confident in using these sorts of tools, and then begin to venture outside of the VLE. A VLE can therefore be seen as a springboard to encouraging the learner to build a better, more flexible and personalised solution for them.

Conclusions

In this report I have attempted to analyze the benefits and drawbacks of a VLE. Because this is such new technology it is difficult to give a balanced and accurate analysis, particularly as my school is in such an early stage of its implementation. There will always be issues with new technology and only time will tell as to how successful a VLE will become with regards to facilitating teaching and learning. Of course technology has many tools that can be harnessed to facilitate teaching and learning, and it is important to understand the barriers which could affect this from happening. But this is not a panacea, and technology is just a “tool”. Pupils and teachers will always be in a “human” relationship with each other of some sorts, even it is virtually, and I would argue that even the best VLE, in the service of ineffective teaching will do nothing to improve the learning experience of the students. In fact if relied on too heavily it could perpetuate and even amplify poor teaching. On the other hand, an effective teacher can enhance their practise and the learning experience of the student by using new technology that has been well implemented, and it is this challenge that now needs to be over come. Either way, it is important for educators to remember that learning begins with the teacher, not the technology.

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