Virtually There: Learning Platform Evaluation, VLE evaluation

virtuallythereIf you are working in a school in the UK then you’ll almost certainly be aware of the need for every child to have access to an online space or learning platform. However, the sheer weight of information available about the various options open to you is staggering. Some schools are well along the road to having a decent VLE (virtual learning environment) solution, but there are many more who either have not yet bitten the bullet or who are completely mystified as to what a VLE is and why it is necessary.

Working with the Yorkshire and Humber Grid for Learning Foundation (YHGfL), Cleveratom have conducted a research project exploring the extent to which VLEs have begun to be implemented and, more importantly, what the learning journey was for the schools involved and the impact on the people in those schools. The book was accompanied by a DVD which we also created and was launched at Castleford’s ‘XS!TE’ on Wednesday 23rd May. We were delighted to have Stephen Heppell for the day to lead the proceedings and bring his unique insight into learning and global trends in education.

Whilst this book is a landmark moment for Cleveratom, it is also a massively important publication for lots of other folk. It is true to say that we have been involved in establishing, researching, exploring and disseminating information about learning platforms for many years now, including our time at Ultralab. We understand a lot about why schools should have them, the benefits they bring and the ways in which implementing them can be accomplished beneficially. There is no one size fits all solution here, and each school needs to understand the processes involved and know what it is that they are aiming to achieve by setting one up.

We can help with all of that.

If you’d like a copy of the publication, contact the YHGfL team in Scunthorpe and they will send you one for £15. It is money well spent, I think. If you’d like to talk to an independent impartial company about VLEs first, get in touch with me. We will take you through the quagmire of information and lead you to a carefully thought out decision for which software to use.

Images from the YHGfL launch day can be found here. More information about the entire day and the research can be found on Matthew Eaves’ Blog.

Ultraversity Graduation Cohort 1

For three years I have been tutoring on the online degree at Anglia Ruskin University, affectionately referred to as ‘Ultraversity‘. It is a BA (Hons) Learning Technology Research and is done entirely online, using your work place setting as the basis of your study. In effect, you learn to undertake action research, focussing on your work and learning how to be better at what you do.

It’s a tough slog to get through, as all worth while degrees are. It’s innovative, and now being imitated by others… which can be considered the best kind of flattery I suppose.

The cohort of students who have just completed the three years are the first to go through en masse – there were six pioneers last year, but this year we had 140 and we completely dominated the graduation ceremony. The cathedral in Chelmsford was packed for our event, with many friends and family there to support the graduates. It was an emotional day.

One of the best parts for me was the speech by Revd. Simon Barrington-Ward, who made mention of UCANA – bless, no one had briefed him about the fact that David Tidmarsh closed down UCANA soon after arriving at Anglia Ruskin. What a shame, as it was UCANA who helped us validate the Ultraversity degree in the first place. Three years later and Tidmarsh seems hell bent on dismantling Ultralab as well… someone really ought to tell him to wake up and smell the coffee… it is Ultralab who are driving forward new research into such things, and it is the University who are falling back on old routines and traditions which may well entrench them firmly at the bottom of the league tables for learning, IMO.

Still, let’s not take anything away from the graduates – they have never met before today and there were a lot of people going around looking discretely at each others’ chests! With some food and drink as well, it turned into a very good humoured affair. Pity the university are not able to see what they have got, really!

So, what began as Professor Stephen Heppell’s idea came of age on Friday 24th November 2006. It will be interesting to see where the idea goes from here. One thing seems certain… at Anglia Ruskin it won’t flourish to the extent that it should, despite some very high quality people working hard to take it forward (good luck, team!). The leadership of the university don’t seem to value e-learning, which in 2006 is a fairly serious failing, I’d say!

Nevermind. 140 graduates after three brilliant years are now at a life changing point. I wish them all health and happiness and the very best of good fortune – they all deserve it.

Virtual learning Environment, Moodle, Using Moodle, WebCT

One of the projects I am involved in is working with the University’s Faculty of Science and Technology to create a blended or online foundation degree. Much of what we do with this is going to be informed by the BA Learning Technology Research degree we are developing in the Ultraversity project, but of particular interest to me is the use of an alternative VLE to the university flavour.

Currently, Anglia Ruskin use WebCT for this kind of online delivery. Many departments across the faculties use the software, and the university has invested heavily in it. However, there are some key issues surrounding it and how it is used/perceived and these have meant I have had to find an alternative to WebCT.

Having looked at many, and indeed spent the best part of a day with the computing department team who are to use the VLE, we settled on Moodle. A year or so ago Moodle wasn’t really the right kind of environment – it lacked certain features and made it difficult to see how it could be used. However, a year or so on and the open source community have done wonders – Moodle is now at v1.5 with 1.6 due out soon. It is a very different beast these days and actually offers a great deal more than most. Particular interest is in the integration with other VLEs, but I note WebCT isn’t on the list of those (yet!).

A key concern for us is how we would deal with the registration of students and integrate this with the University’s registration procedures… and this is going to form the basis of the research we are going to undertake. Additional elements of that research will be to investigate the way Moodle encourages a social constructivist approach to learning rather than the more didactic or top-down approach which WebCT seems to offer. I think that the days of filling ’empty vessels’ with knowledge are long gone – but I see little to persuade me that WebCT is moving on from that. I have had a brief look at ‘Vista’ (we are currently using ‘Campus’ edition) and this does seem to offer more, but I can’t get away from the notion that the WebCT approach does not move people towards the more powerful learning opportunities available.

What is going to be interesting is to see how Moodle does this. I know that it will be a bit of a struggle to get people to universally abandon any ingrained teaching methodologies, or to move inherently away from simply putting content and resources on line without offering dialogue too. My early impressions of Moodle are that it *can* operate in this way, but the emphasis is overwhelmingly on *not* doing so!

With luck, the research findings will be used by the university in any evaluation of their online learning provision. There are far too many bottlenecks in the way the administrative tools of WebCT are centralised and moved out of the reach of individuals in the faculties -probably for very good reasons – but what we need now is for the university to take a very much more open minded approach to online learning environments, and consider for a moment whether an open source solution which is in good stages of development can offer anything more than their investment (thousands of pounds worth) in WebCT.