There is a fairly well-trodden path taken by most teachers as they grapple with learning environments.
In the first stage, a shared area is used to store resources and files that a teacher wants students to have access to. Many of these will be existing files, presentations, spreadsheets and the like. For those new to VLEs, this is a necessary step and in any event at least serves to introduce the concept of shared web-spaces.
A further stage relates to some sequencing of these resources, together with further descriptions and instructions. This starts to create a learning path and often results in something akin to an electronic scheme of work. Such sites can be made to look very inviting, illustrated with images and populated with web links, presentations, files and perhaps the odd video. They succeed in making resources available flexibly over the internet and stringing them together to create a study path. There are many examples of this on the internet.
But to my mind, a VLE could and should be doing much more than this. A VLE has the potential to help us better address some of the most fundamental limitations we experience in the classroom to do with differentiation, learning styles and pedagogy.
A colleague in Monmouthshire, Nick Collins, has some powerful ideas around this theme. Nick advocates the idea of using a VLE in a much more fluid way. In addition to sequencing content delivery in a traditional way, the VLE could be used to provide a framework for whole activities, either for individuals or in groups. These may be set up prior to a lesson, or even used ‘on the fly’, pointing learners to new activities as required. Nick uses the term ‘Digital Assistants’ (not to be confused with PDAs) because the idea is that these activities become an extension of the teacher in the classroom. They allow a teacher to respond with a wider repertoire of resources and activities than would normally be the case, or to quickly provide extension activities (say) to a group able to work under their own steam while providing closer support to others.
Nick identifies two requirements for this to work. Firstly, good access to the VLE in class which means notebooks or similar, space on the desk to put them and wireless access. Secondly, suitable resources and activities that can quickly be deployed.
On the second issue, Nick believes as do I, that these resources need to be engaging and quality assured, but also easily modified by teachers to suit their needs. The latter has been a problem in the past. Often, highly expensive animated resources cannot be edited and so teachers have little ‘ownership’. Nick is doing some very interesting work with Digital Workshops in Banbury, developing a version of Opus for VLEs. This would allow for the easy development of interactive material by (non-programming) teachers, which could then beshared, altered and re-purposed as required.
I am very taken with the ‘Digital Assistant’ notion. It begins to paint a tangible picture of how we could be using VLEs to do something much more than merely automate a scheme of work. I can see how, with suitable preparation and resources, we could make a step change in the level of flexibility we have to truly support learners as individuals.