What is a VLE?

You see some funny things in staff rooms...

Download a podcast explaining what a virtual learning environment does, and how a VLE adds value over a blog or static Web page for supporting students between lessons. This podcast represents part of my attempt to ‘pitch’ the use of a virtual learning environment to colleagues who may not have seen or used one before. I’m trying to make clear the extra value that a VLE such as Moodle can provide over the simple class blog.

I’m trying to set up a series of stepping stones in online support, teachers can start with a class blog and try that for a term or a year. If they like the results – if the cost benefit ratio is good for the teacher and the target group – then Moodle might be next; or it might turn out that the class blog is ‘good enough’ and represents the optimum support for that target group. The relationship between a class blog and a VLE ‘course’ for that group needs exploring to prevent confusing students (and teachers).

The podcast lasts just over 4 minutes. It was recorded on the WS-200S digital voice recorder using an external dynamic microphone, and, yes, I do live near a scrambling and go-cart track.

I had to edit the recording. When my tongue decided to get tangled I just repeated the paragraph after a few seconds and used the delete function in Audacity to remove the fluffed paragraph. Leaving a few seconds made it easier to locate the offending passage visually on the Audacity timeline. The track was exported as an MP3 at a data rate of 48 Kb/sec, I found that exporting at 32 Kb/sec gave a slight clanger feel to the recording.

The script will appear ‘below the fold’ later. The image is totally gratuitous – just struck me as an odd thing to see – and it is here mainly to amuse David.

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h3. The Script

I find a script necessary, but I am hoping to move away from tight word for word scripting towards bullet points. Putting the script here increases the search visibility of the material, and, of course, makes the text available to any deaf viewers.

Virtual Learning Environments

A virtual learning environment is a system for supporting students over the Web. Suppose that you could place a scheme of work for a unit on the Web; each week could contain links to resources. Links could lead to your own handouts, powerpoint presentations and spreadsheets but could also point to carefully chosen external Web pages. Add a form for students to send messages to you have a comprehensive system for supporting learning between lessons.

A virtual learning environment can provide all of these facilities and much more. Virtual learning environments are designed to be easy to use for teachers and students, and they offer privacy through the use of accounts with a user name and a password.

The scheme of work metaphor is a useful way of organising a course within a virtual learning environment; a typical arrangement is to represent each week of the course by a box or section on the main page. Within each section there can be a link to a simple statement of the objectives for that week; next would be the links to resources and external Web sites. Finally, there needs to be some kind of test or activity for the student to engage with that reflects the objectives. Some objectives that involve knowledge or skills can be assessed automatically with instant feedback to the student – multiple choice tests and gapped handouts spring to mind. These assessments are more work to set up but can pay dividends in the long term. Learning outcomes that require students to make judgements and evaluate arguments will usually need free-form writing for assessment. Virtual learning environments have facilities for students to upload files that can then be reviewed by tutors. Short pieces of writing can sometimes be typed directly into a mini-word processor on the Web page itself.

By now you will have realised one of the main advantages of a virtual learning environment; tracking student progress. Most virtual learning environments include a grade book function that allows you to record a grade or score against each assessment item. Students can see their own scores when they log-in, and the scores for automatically marked assessments are transferred to the grade book as the student completes each assessment.

In my view a virtual learning environment can provide students with access to course materials and carefully chosen Web resources in one place and through a navigation metaphor that is familiar to tutors and to students – the scheme of work.

At this point I hope you are thinking “OK so how do I start”€ but I imagine you are also saying “how much work is this going to be”€.

The best way to get started is simply to take the scheme of work for a unit or a module that you have taught a number of times. For each week of the scheme, collect any files, handouts, powerpoints that you already have – you might want to organise these files into folders for each week. Suitable Web sites can save you time; you should save each Web address together with a sentence describing the Web site and what students should be using the site for, this information can be recorded easily in a Word file.

Your next move is to find who is responsible for the virtual learning environment in your college and ask about setting up a course. They will probably be very glad to see you.

The amount of work required to set up a course on a virtual learning environment depends on how ambitious you want to be. I would suggest starting small, just add the scheme of work as a framework and add one or two Web links for files for each week. If you have time over the summer, you could probably get a 30 week course set up and populated within a working day; if you have your resources organised. The important thing to remember is that you can always add to the framework once the course starts. Feedback from learners will be positive and increase your motivation.

I personally think that a virtual learning environment provides a useful value added over a blog or Web page; tracking and privacy being just two aspects.

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