Schoolzone blog: White Elephant - the BETT unmissable

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22 Jan 2015

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Visiting BETT yesterday, I discovered a fantastic offering on a great many stands - stands which someone (several someones) had put an awful lot of time, energy and money into creating. The offering was "new", "exciting", "revolutionary", "different from all the other things that might, on the face of it, look quite a lot like this, but which in fact are in every way inferior to our offering"*.

White Elephant (for that's its name) is a superb way to share resources via the internet, store files at school, but which can also be accessed from home, keep students and parents informed about homework and allow students access to curriculum software. All things which schools can perfectly easily do for free with the many, many tools available (eg Google), but which are so much more reliable when you've paid through the nose (trunk?) for them and which come wrapped in an incomprehensible package that needs training just to get into and which is like a weight around around your neck for the rest of your life at school.

Have I made the point? In case not, it's that VLEs are, if not a thing of the past, certainly not anything to get excited about anymore.

Here's a potted history of the VLE to date: the previous government made a very big thing of them, providing a lot of money (sorry, too painful to look up how much), with its agency Becta spending more money on advising schools about purchasing, forcing a framework on us, worrying about interoperability and integration with MIS and ... oh, I can't be bothered with any more, it's all very dull.

The point being, schools spent a lot on VLEs and went through a lot of angst to get them in place, but now (if not then) they are largely white elephants, since the main attraction of them was to provide home access to curriculum software which is now largely cloud-based anyway. Single sign on was an advantage which in now largely redundant because computers remember passwords - etc.

So now, schools are left with over-engineered systems which they are reluctant to give up on, because they cost so much to put in place, even though most of the features are just annoying and/or could be done better for less cost or are free. VLEs have mostly been "upgraded" to work on mobile devices and to include social media, rather than having been designed for them, so feel like old tech.

VLEs were a technology-led innovation, not a teacher-led one. Compare them with IWBs or tablet PCs: whenever we talk to teachers about IT, they speak very enthusiastically about the latter, but rarely, very rarely about VLEs. Generally, every school has an enthusiast for the VLE, who keeps it going, and everyone else grumbles about how annoying it is.

At the height of the VLE initiative, schoolzone ran annual surveys, asking schools how they used them. The last of these was in 2010 - at that time, only 13% of primary schools and 25% of schools who had VLEs, said that parents and pupils accessed them from home. Teachers were divided about whether VLEs had any positive impact on learning. So we decided to a quick literature study to see if there had been any improvement...

Read, Coles, Frey & Littlefield, 2013 showed that VLE use was broadly limited to use as a work repository, a facility for setting homework and sharing sites with the students with very few staff utilising the collaborative learning tools. This was exactly the same as our findings between 2007 and 2010.

Probably though, we could find a dozen reports arguing either for or against the use and usefulness of VLEs, but the proof of the pudding is in the purchasing. This seems to have levelled off with access now (2014) standing at 68% of secondary and 55% of primary schools, though it's rather difficult to be sure because the industry measures don't really pay them much attention any more.

Like the rest of us.


*These aren't literal quotes, you understand




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