Although the market is more developed than when I started looking at and learning about VLEs about 3 years ago it’s still very confusing. In the UK there are approximately 10 Becta approved learning platforms (note that’s learning platforms rather than VLEs). There’s also probably another 10 or so out there that I’ve looked at and probably many more I’ve never heard of. If you want to compare features and costs you need to invest a considerable amount of time phoning round or getting in demos as these things aren’t always clearly published.

The wonderful community at Edtechroundup are compiling a table of VLE features and costs and Andy Kemp has written an excellent summary of different systems he’s experienced.
Ivan Langton jumped into the debate with his blog post “Is Moodle the Volvo of VLEs” which has a pop at Moodle’s old fashioned and blocky design. This debate is great and important but I feel a couple of important points have been missed.

1. Most schools do not know what they want!

Some of us now have a bit of experience using VLEs but I doubt there are many of us who have seen a school with a fully integrated VLE (I reckon 2 more years and I’ll be close!)  Even those of us who know VLEs and who use VLEs probably haven’t used all the features or worked out how every subject can or should integrate them into lessons. For those schools who have less experience a table of features is likely to mean even less. Looking at features and costs can be misleading. Schools need to look at what they have and what they need. Here’s a few commonly mentioned features that I’ll try and put a contrary view on.
MIS Integration: What are you going to use it for? Does your MIS system need to know how a student has done in a VLE quiz? Do you need to see attendance records from your VLE? I decided not to worry about this as the cost wasn’t worth the benefits for us and we already have web access to the MIS without a VLE.

Single Sign On: How many systems do you use in school? Can you combine them all? If you get single sign on working how many other systems won’t work with it? I wanted single sign on but it wasn’t realistic to start with. We also have so many web systems staff and students use that 100% single sign on would be impossible. Right now I’m prepared to wait until a better system comes around that’s more comprehensive.

Creating User Accounts/Class Groups Automatically: This kind of falls into the above two categories. How will you create user accounts? Will they come from the MIS or from a single sign on system? We created manually in the end which took a technician a small amount of time to extract the data from the MIS.

Online Markbook: Is this essential? How many staff will use it?

Included Resources: Some commercial VLEs come with resources such as Brittanica (that I’ve heard great things about). Do you need these included resources? Would you prefer to spend the money on just the ones you want?

Curriculum Mapping: Some VLEs allow you to map or tag your resources to parts of the National Curriculum – are your staff going to want to do this?

Features and Tools: Eg Wikis, Forums, Blogs etc. Are there better online tools to do the job that staff are already using? Does a specific VLE offer an implementation that is so good that it stands out? Is this really what is going to be your deciding factor? Probably not!

In summary most staff will only use parts of a VLE. The expert staff who you may expect to use more may prefer to use other tools such as a blog on blogger, a google sites website or a wiki on wetpaint.

2. The Main Cost isn’t the hosting and technical expertise but the time for training and creation of content.

Many people comment that Moodle can be expensive in terms of setup. I believe this time for setup is the same for any VLE. For £500 a year my school has fully hosted, functional and supported Moodle installation from ECognition . We needed to create user accounts, courses and resources. This is the same for any VLE. Your commercial package may include setting up servers, single sign on and user accounts – but this will surely also need time from people in your school, such as you or your network manager. The real cost though is in creating materials, courses and training staff. It doesn’t matter what VLE you have, creating courses and resources takes time – teachers don’t have much time.

So why have I fallen for Moodle?
1. You can spend money on the bits you want to spend it on rather than on software licenses. It may be in house training and taking teachers off timetable. It may be getting external trainers in. It may be paying someone to integrate your moodle with your MIS. It may be buying laptops to use the VLE in school. It may be buying resources to add to the VLE and many more options.

2. You can start small and grow organically. If you spend £30,000 on a VLE there’s some real pressure to use it even when it isn’t the best solution to your problem. Forcing people to use a VLE can cause resentment both amongst pupils and staff. With a smaller investment in Moodle I am equally happy when staff use other web tools or our Google Apps  installation to do things how they want.

Bigger costs require bigger benefits and create bigger pressures

Flexibility breeds creativity.