As I have been working through this series I had contact from SharePoint MVP Alex Pearce who I have worked with for over three years. He works directly in education on Local Authority wide projects and has recently been writing about VLEs, Learning Gateway and Learning Platforms. As I was writing a series on SharePoint in Education he kindly offered to add his own thoughts based on his experience.
Alex Pearce writes his own blog which can be found here
Guest post by SharePoint MVP Alex Pearce
In recent months I have had numerous discussions about what the differences are between a Virtual Learning Environment, a Learning Gateway and a Learning Platform. Other conversations I have had is ‘what should I name my environment?’ So what is the difference?
A Virtual Learning Environment is a teaching tool that can assist you in your lessons from assigning a piece of work to it being a whole topic or course.
With past experience I have used SharePoint Learning Kit as a single file delivery tool. Of course like any other VLEs, SharePoint Learning Kit can assign the documents to the Learner at the selected time and also auto mark the SCORM file quiz you have created. As an addition to SharePoint Learning Kit, there is the SLK Course Builder that lets you assign a whole set of documents over time.
A great example of this was a school I saw using Moodle. Due to the lack of demand they couldn’t get a full class of students for Religious Studies, so they created a course in Moodle where they assigned the work throughout the year. Unfortunately they still had to have 4 lessons throughout the year after school as the exam board required a discussion/debate as part of the curriculum. The great news for the school was that all the students passed the GCSE with an A* to C. The school also decided through consultation with students that they would do all this work after school so it would allow the students to do an additional GCSE if they choose to. This also meant they had another 30 students take the Religious Studies GCSE.
So a Virtual Learning Environment is a teaching tool for your lessons and courses.
Learning Gateway is a framework and management tool for your school. There are no right and wrong ways of creating your Learning Gateway but the idea is to publish all the computer based data through a single portal.
As you can see from the diagram above there are some fundamental elements of a Learning Gateway. The main point from this is that everything is published through a single portal and even though these elements are separate in the image above, they can connect and migrate between each of them.
A Learning Gateway doesn’t have to have a single VLE, it can have multiple solutions. You should have the right products for the right lesson or course you want to deliver to your students. Is there one VLE out there that can do everything for every teacher in their school?
The gradebook feature of your VLE is essential to ensure your parents can access the right data about the progress of their pupils. This can be presented in your VLE along with the parent handbook/policies, recent school newsletters, parent calendar and other information that changes frequently for the parents. They have their own username and password and collect the information that is provided from the school MIS database such as their childs timetable, attendance. This is what the portal layer of the Learning Gateway will present. The gradebook should also allow teaching staff and senior leaders to monitor the progress of students in a simple and easy way.
A Learning Gateway is a document management solution for your school, your policies and management documents but also your curriculum resource that your students can log onto to access.
While working at Great Barr School we implemented a Governors portal which allowed them to have access to a secure email server that they could email sensitive information to each other within a secure environment. During a conversation with the Chair of the Governors he said that they spent the first 2 hours reading documents about students before getting down to business. Having implemented this into the school for these key stake holders, they were able to read a document and make point about them in their collaboration meeting so their meetings became more productive and less time consuming.
A Learning Gateway incorporates all your internal services within your school into a single portal for all your stakeholders.
A Learning Platform is where you take a Learning Gateway to the next step. In the image above we show all the internal services at the schools. A Learning Platform incorporates all the external services as well. These services can come from your Local Authority, the local government or other cloud based solutions. What we want to achieve is a single place of all content, with a single sign on and a centralised search so the end user can find the learning resources they need for that lesson.
We also have a centralised taxonomy so all the schools in that Learning Platform tags their resources with the same term it allows collaboration between schools, staff and students. This is where the search comes into play even more to allow more resources available to the teacher and student.
For an effective Learning Platform a Country wide taxonomy is required so external services from government agencies such as the Department of Education and Partnership for schools have their resources tagged with the same tags as the learning resources within a school. This could be taken into a worldwide education taxonomy allowing international schools to search resources in other country and then adding the different languages for the same work can benefit students who don’t speak English as a their main language.
The image below is taken from a presentation I have given a few times about Learning Platforms. It shows how external services can be integrated into a single user experience that is not just for the schools but potentially for the whole school district. Under pinning all of these is the taxonomy and search.
A fully integrated Learning Platform can only be achieved when all parties have their services available in the Learning Platform in the same standard as all the others.
One key element to a Learning Platform that pulls in many services is the Identity Management Solutions also known as IdM. When a user navigates from the portal layer into the city library website the user should be given an experience that suites their need such as books that are relevant to their age. Many of these systems will require a user to authenticate but this is where the IdM and single sign on solutions plays in and allows students to move seamlessly between websites giving them learning resources they actually need.
Another key element is the MIS (the school Management Information System) as many schools will need to import/export information with the Learning Platform as well as present information to the learner, teacher, school and the local authority. A standard of exporting data is required (such as SIF http://www.sifinfo.org) to allow data about the learner to move to and from but also including grades they have achieved in the VLE so they can be used to generate reports and pass these to other agencies. With the correct trend analysis of these grades a user can start to learn individually with the Learning Platform auto assigning work to the learner based on their skill across all subjects, giving the best, individual learning program to a student.
So what is a Learning Platform? A Learning Platform incorporates all internal services and external services a school can use into a single portal allowing the user to search from one location and find the most relevant learning resource they need at that time.
Over the last two days we have been looking at the ideas behind VLEs and MLEs with the following posts if you want to catch up.
Post 1 What is a VLE?
This leads us to the idea of a Learning Platform- what is it? I have a third diagram to illustrate what a Learning Platform is which has be generously provided by my good friend Alex Pearce.
Looking at the diagram you can see that a Learning Platform contains a VLE and you may think it is actually no different from an MLE. All the interoperability of an MLE is in evidence here with the various databases connecting up but a Learning Platform moves beyond and MLE in three ways.
Surfacing of information
The real beauty of a Learning Platform which I think many people have missed is the ability to surface vast amounts of data from disparate sources. Again you may think this is simply what an MLE will do but the crucial difference is the end user experience where they view and use all data within the Learning Platform. Whereas many educationalists saw the Learning Platform as being a feature rich resource it is simply a platform on which to create feature rich functionality. The key here is the potential for integration and as one end user once described, ‘a one stop shop for everything I need to do’.
Metadata and Taxonomy
Another key distinction for a Learning Platform can be seen in the green and blue wrappers around the diagram. The real power of a Learning Platform is the ability to collect, sort, index and aggregate data. Although people get hung up about what metadata is it can simply be described as the contextual information about your SharePoint content which can inform us about the subject, audience, author and intent of the data. In an educational context this is one of the most underused features of a Learning Platform but the ability to create metadata and integrate multiple sources of external data becomes a killer feature when you can….
One of the biggest challenges within an institution is the fine line between being data rich and having data overload. The final wrapper in a Learning Platform is the ability to search all of your content whether native to SharePoint or from an external database. Once your SharePoint content is tagged with metadata this of course becomes even more powerful and indexing within documents allows for a very powerful search experience.
In the first 4 posts of this series so far we have covered what a VLE is, what common features it has (see here and here) and reasons why educational institutions should consider implementation.
Following on from this I wanted to look at the differences between a VLE and what we call an MLE or Managed Learning Environment. Perhaps the best way to start looking at the differences is to look at the diagram below.
Image taken from the Excellence Gateway here
A Managed Learning Environment moves beyond thinking about a learning system to thinking about the operation of the whole educational institution. The primary focus is on the development of interoperability between all systems so that the institution is fully connected online. Whereas an MLE will have a VLE it is not the whole part of the environment. At the same time one of the key elements of the MLE will be to connect the VLE with other aspects of the institutions online environment such as the MIS (Management Information System).
From both the institutional, tutor and learner perspective an MLE is an important development for a number of reasons. The institution has a quick and easy grasp of number of learners on roll and can integrate supplementary information on drop out rates comparing them with the nature of the learners and other associated information. The tutor can monitor the progress of the learners through the learning modules and at the same time supplement this with wider information about the learner from different sources. Finally an MLE helps to create a learner centred environment where the learner has quick and easy access to all the information they need to support their study.
As a result the main advantages of implementing an MLE are:
- Streamlining of learning resources for students and staff.
- Instant Access to a rich range of data through one interface which can be accessed remotely.
- Greater capacity for data exchange between individual silos within an organisation.
- This in turn can massively reduce the administration burden.
- Reduction in costs and efficiencies through streamlined processes and interoperability.
- Potential to attract a different client base through new methodologies and distance learning.
- De Montfort University demonstrated that an MLE can lead to lower drop out rates.
Posts so far in this series
Post 1 What is a VLE?
Having covered the main features of a VLE this leaves us with the question- why should an educational institution consider implementing a VLE? If you are seeking executive approval to implement a VLE there are 6 key arguments you can make:
Please not the first 2 arguments relate largely to further and higher education
It makes sense to start with money as this is most likely to get attention from an executive sponsor, especially in the challenging financial context. On the one side there will be an IT investment which may be considerable but this will be small in comparison with the impact on your most expensive resources which are tutors and buildings. Once a VLE is implemented it is possible to run elements of you course at distance and with students working both independently and collaboratively online. Many colleges already run e learning days when students work at home and the reduction in the cost of staffing and use of buildings will be considerable.
Following on from the positive impact on cost is the potential for greater flexibility with resources. This does not always have to be in terms of reduction in teaching staff and buildings. It is also possible to increase the number of learners in the institution and the pressure on university places is one example of where a VLE could be beneficial. The ability to increase course provision and at the same time maintain the physical resource will allow educational institutions to more efficiently use resources to their maximum effect.
Can educational institutions really justify learners coming on to campus for 1 or two lessons? This was very much my experience in the 90s where I was splitting a dozen lectures and seminars over an entire week. With the use of a VLE institutions can rationalise attendance at lectures and seminars so that learners are best using their time. This need not be a reduction in teaching time but simply allocating specific days for specific students to attend on site. The VLE can then provide a vital communication tool to keep learners connected with other learners and tutors. In a school setting a VLE becomes almost essential in a vocational setting. Continually moving learners around different educational sites is highly inefficient and the ability for learners to receive some or all of the learning at their base is a valuable resource.
Alongside the financial arguments there are also 3 educational arguments for a VLE
Access to resources
The ability to study anytime and anywhere is a significant benefit gained through the adoption of a VLE. All physical resources are scarce but by providing learning materials online students can access the same resource as frequently and flexibly as they like. All learners work best in differing environments and at different times so by allowing greater access to learning resources the likely impact is improved outcomes.
As well as giving greater access to resource the nature of resources within a VLE is likely to have an impact on learning. Access to online learning is often more of a kinesthetic experience with the learner navigating through the resources which involves them feeling more engaged in the learning. As well as this if a VLE contains both communication tools, rich media and simulations the learner is likely to feel more involved and stimulated to learn. A VLE will undoubtedly incorporate a greater range of learning styles and need not replace other essential face to face learning.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for implementing a VLE is the changing nature of learners. As I have often commented the learners I first taught 10 years ago needed to be shown how to use word. Those I was teaching 5 years ago needed to be taught how to use Movie Maker. Those I teach now need to be taught…. nothing! Although this is an exaggeration it is undoubtedly the case that we are now seeing the emergence of digital natives in our schools and educational institutions. In this context it is not so much a case of why have a VLE as can you really run a course without some online learning elements for today’s digital learners?
So far in this series on e-learning and the us of terms VLE, MLE and Learning Platform we have covered:
Post 1 What is a VLE?
What other features does a VLE contain which support or manage the learning process?
4 Collaboration tools
VLEs can act as effective collaboration tools in both their use of communication tools mentioned earlier but also in the collaborative use of documents. Tutors can share and move documents and resources within learning modules to stimulate collaboration amongst students. Students can also work collaboratively in groups, sharing project documents and resources within shared areas. In the latest version of SharePoint 2010 document collaboration is taken a step further with web apps. These allow students to simultaneously work on office documents, accessing them through the cloud with no need for Office software on their computers.
5 Assessment tools
This feature is perhaps the one which is most commonly associated with what we think of as a VLE. Typically you will expect a range of both formative and summative assessment to be possible with a standard VLE. Tutors should be able to create packages which are SCORM compliant using authoring tools (more on this next week) and automatically send these to learners individually or within groups. The learning resource will often contain learning units which can include quizzes and tests. Self tests will allow students to measure their own progress whilst quizzes can provide feedback for both the learner and the tutor on areas where understanding is not fully embedded.
To complete the common features of a VLE you would expect some form of analytics package. This allows tutors and course administrators to examine information on when learners access the courses and how frequently they have used the resources. In some cases it will also allow a granular analysis of which parts of the course have been most and least used which can support reflection on the effectiveness of different learning resources. A number of VLEs also provide analytical feedback on student assessment so that progress can be monitored throughout the course.
Coming up on Tuesday 26th July
Post 4 Why should educational institutions consider implementing a VLE?
Post 5 What is an MLE?
Post 6 Why should educational institutions consider implementing an MLE?
Having established what a VLE or Virtual Learning Environment is it makes sense to look at what the core features are which support or enable learning. I have broken these down into 6 areas which are shown in the diagram from the last post.
6 Features of a VLE which support or enable learning
- Controlled Access and Organisation
- Information Dissemination
- Communication Tools
Controlled Access and Organisation
One of the core components of VLEs is the ability to manage and control access to learning within the system. This at its most basic form allows the ability to structure courses and modules of learning so that they can easily and efficiently be delivered and accessed by learners. Going beyond this organisation of learning is the organisation of classes and groups. This allows resources to be directed at specific groups of learners whether it be a whole cohort or individual class. Finally a VLE should allow individual learners a space to organise their own learning materials and ideally this should be customisable.
Once you have a secure environment which allows the organisation of both the learners and learning modules it should then be possible to share learning materials using your VLE. At the most basic level this can take the form of course materials including notes, handouts and background reading. Beyond this good VLEs will allow the integration of rich media such as video and podcasts. As well as this the ability to create and embed fully interactive content such as simulations will exist within some VLEs.
At the core of a VLE should be the ability to communicate and this should be communication which is tutor to student and student-student. This can of course be on a 1-1 level or within whole groups or subsections of groups. One aspect of communication will surround the course materials or learning modules and allows learners to build on existing knowledge and potentially develop new ideas. Most VLEs enable this through the use of discussion forums and chat rooms. Another aspect of communication supports the course delivery and organisation. This is where online calenders and timetables display key milestones and events within the course (e.g. submission deadlines).