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.

Starting things up again, like a new VLE, takes time. More time than even a pessimist like me expected! So here’s a little summary of what we’ve done over the last few weeks and what we plan to do. I’m not sure this will be exciting reading but it may be of use to other people doing something similar and of course I’d love to hear any ideas of things we’re doing wrong or could be doing better. When I say we – I’m talking about Julie one of our network technicians (who got the short straw of helping with the VLE 🙂 and myself.

Before half term we backed up all the useful courses from our old Rickypedia moodle some with user IDs some without. I’m a bit of a hoarder so probably took too much but I wanted some examples to show staff when they are creating new courses and resources.

Over half term I got the domains www.rickypedia.org and www.rickyschool.com pointing to the right places.  (Our new empty Moodle and our new google apps for education sites).

This past week has been about getting accounts and usernames sorted. We weren’t able to sort out any automatic authentication so have been creating spreadsheets with details for user accounts. We’re about 3 sign ons away from single sign on at school (we have different usernames for staff e-mail, network and MIS online portal). Luckily for us we were able to pull a list staff usernames and passwords from one of the existing systems. Although the VLE and google usernames won’t be synched with the existing system staff won’t have to learn a new set of usernames and passwords. If you don’t know anything about Moodle roles and are running a Moodle you need to! They basically set the permissions for areas of the site or the site as a whole and define what each user can see or do. We’ve set all staff as sitewide non-editing teachers. This means by default all teachers can see inside all courses. There’s a blog post here from Our Lady’s Catholic High School in Preston. It explains why you shouldn’t edit system roles. I am ignoring this advice for now as I want teachers to be able to see and explore how other staff are using the VLE and I hope the benefits will overcome any problems with privacy.

Another small thing we have done is to restore the courses backed up from the old VLE – these have started life in an archive category but may find themselves in new places soon.

To do next week:

1. We have already started adding areas for each subject. Each member of staff will be manually assigned the role of course creator in their subject area. This means they will be able to create and edit courses in their own subject area.

2. Creating student accounts. We will be giving students the same username as they have for the school network but will have to give them new passwords initially. Working out passwords that will be usable by students but not easily guessable by other students is something we hope we have sorted out.

3. Starting to play with the look and feel of the site. I’ve previously written about how customised profile fields can make a VLE more personal and social. Our theme and graphics also need updating.

4. Creating a 6th form group of experts. 6th form VLE club is starting this week. I’m hoping these students will in time take on a number of roles. Helping work out a VLE AUP (acceptable use policy) that is relevant and simple to understand. Helping to create content to help younger students stay safe online and to help students search and use information effectively. Helping to create graphics and themes for the site. Helping to run and moderate student areas of the site. And I hope soon, helping to train teachers to use the VLE. That’s a lot and we’ll see on Monday who turns up and what we get done.

Wish us luck and please share your comments or advice.