School business managers and bursars can play a key role in ensuring their schools establish efficient and effective visual learning environments

Virtual learning environments (VLEs) have become one of the hot educational topics among both senior leadership teams and at partnership meetings between groups of schools. The government’s direction that all schools should have an operating VLE embedded in their working practices and those of students has certainly concentrated the minds of many school leaders. School business managers may have been part of debates over the respective merits of different VLE platforms, and many colleagues will understandably have been asked to investigate their suitability in the context of cost. School business managers will, however, recognise it is not only the outlay that determines a purchase but the balance between this and the sustainable effectiveness of the resource.

There is no doubt that, as with all things, you do, in fact, get what you pay for. If a school is committing large sums of money to building a VLE, the SBM will want to be secure in the knowledge that it aids all in the organisation. SBMs may be particularly interested, for example, in how a VLE can be properly integrated into the school’s administration systems to aid their colleagues, in addition to the many benefits being advocated for student use. This is just one of many ways in which business managers have a crucial role to play in implementing a VLE in their school, which we will deal with in two articles on this topic. This first article introduces VLEs and describes the process a school needs to go through to establish a VLE.

What is a VLE?
The BECTA website explains that there is some confusion about the definition of virtual learning environments. However, BECTA suggests that VLEs are a combination of some or all of the following features:

  • communication tools such as email, bulletin boards and chat rooms
  • collaboration tools such as online forums, intranets, electronic diaries and calendars
  • tools to create online content and courses
  • online assessment and marking
  • integration with school management information systems
  • controlled access to curriculum resources
  • student access to content and communications beyond the school.

While the government is keen for the introduction of a VLE to have a significant impact on students’ learning experience, it is the whole-school impact on raising standards that most school business managers will oversee. From student access to curriculum resources to more effective ways to oversee the administrative procedures of the school, the school business manager will only be able to assess the true cost effectiveness of a VLE when its impact is felt by all school stakeholders and it becomes an effective tool for day-to-day communication and information management.

A VLE in practice
The first step is to understand just what a useful tool the VLE will be. Most members of the school will be likely to log on to the VLE as one of the first things they do when they arrive at school. In the case of administrative staff, it might be for collecting messages, reminders of the tasks for the day or updating records. In the case of a teacher/tutor it might be to register students’ attendance, load resources for the first lesson or to share school notices with students at the start of their day. For a student it might be to access their personal learning plan, sign up for an extra-curricular activity or take part in a tutor time student survey.

Throughout the day, use of the VLE will depend very much on an individual’s role, but one thing is certain, the VLE provides an umbrella for all the school’s activities and needs to be designed with that in mind. A VLE that is designed only with web style access to linked internet sites or subject resources for students will remain a relatively limited resource.

Practical implementation
So how does a business manager play a key role in establishing a VLE that will serve both these functions?

  • smooth and cost effective organisation of school administration
  • creative, engaging and relevant access to IT-based learning for students, that teachers and learning support staff will feel confident about using.

Develop a distinctive vision
Firstly you need to work with the senior leadership team to identify a vision of how the VLE will impact upon all aspects of school life. Be sure to not just browse other school’s VLE sites as research for your own; they are likely simply to reveal the public access to a limited range of student resources, the school calendar and news that celebrates the school’s achievements as publicity. What won’t be obvious are the tools that make financial procedures consistent and well organised, assessment reporting and recording easy to manage and communicate to parents, auditing school resources effective, or liaising with outside agencies straightforward. Instead, try to visit other schools that are ahead of you in the design process and are able to describe the successes and pitfalls of their own system.

Agree a budget
The next step is working with the senior leadership team to determine the correct level of financing for the project and then redrawing other cost centres to permit this extra commitment.

Staffing issues
Generally in schools the support staff are line-managed by the school business manager. In this instance the SBM must work with the senior leader who strategically manages ICT to ensure the correct support staff are tasked with building the VLE. This could mean other members of support staff have to offer assistance to ensure normal systems are still being fulfilled during this time. If your school does not have this capacity or expertise you may need to subcontract the VLE building to outside agencies. A growing number of schools market their own VLEs for other schools to adopt and this, too, is quick, but not necessarily the most personalised or inexpensive solution. If this route is followed, the SBM should work closely with the ICT strategic leader so the project management is as efficient as possible.

The key members of the support staff in establishing the VLE are the web designer or network manager, who will build the foundations of the VLE, and secondly the learning resource assistants who will populate the VLE with materials which can then be used.

Web designer/network manager

A VLE has the potential to revolutionise the delivery and support of teaching and learning at a school. If a school makes the decision to build the VLE in-house, developing these aspects will be a major commitment for the web designer or comparable colleague. If this process is sub-contracted the SBM must work with the ICT strategic leader to write a clear design brief.

There are schools eager to share the benefits of their systems and sell you their learning platforms, but your school may feel strongly about creating a VLE that is as distinctive as the school is. The compromise is to benefit from the templates made available from ‘off the peg’ platforms while creating distinctive skins for key pages of the VLE. One way to do this is to employ a web designer or graphic designer who, for a worthwhile outlay, will make the appearance of home pages eye-catching and enticing for the student, parent or staff audience.

If a school is building its own VLE, it needs to be populated with interactive IT resources created from teachers’ materials. School leaders may not wish a lot of teacher time to be given to this activity as it can draw teachers away from their core function of teaching and learning. A solution adopted by the Shirelands Language College in the West Midlands has been to build a team of web designers who take teachers’ lesson storyboards and turn them into interactive resources. Teachers are paid for their ideas, IT specialists make them workable and other schools pay to subscribe to the VLE.

Groups of schools across a partnership could build their own IT team and encourage individual schools to develop resources according to their specialist school designations, thereby fulfilling the partner-school requirement within their specialist school bid. There could be a long-term vision that, in addition to interactive units, whole schemes of work are available on the VLE so each school is not reinventing the wheel. Some schools may be motivated by profit in providing these resources, whereas for other schools the driving force could be the spirit of school partnership.

The web designer could also work with academic staff to develop resources to help parents, such as those offering advice on how they can support their child’s learning and how to understand assessment for learning reports. This could include subject specific guidance on what skills and knowledge are required to reach a certain level or grade. Composed in suitably accessible language, the same information can be used by students to improve their attainment.

Learning resource assistants

Workforce remodelling saw the appointment in many schools of learning resource assistants (LRAs). Originally these colleagues were often used to create displays around schools and were tasked with specific time in individual departments in secondary schools for administrative assistance or resource preparation. At the time of the introduction of the National Strategies much of their time was spent producing handy resources for the delivery of starters or creating differentiated resources for the delivery of more personalised lessons. Creating resources for uploading onto the VLE seems a natural extension of this work. Storyboards of teachers’ lessons, like those mentioned above, differentiated materials, including extension tasks or research materials, or simply writing frames and assignment support materials could all become the responsibility of the LRA to regularly upload on to the student pages of the VLE in specific department or year libraries or areas.

Forward-looking schools have even developed small teams of LRAs who they give dedicated IT training to in suitable software programs in order for them to turn paper resources into more imaginative interactive VLE resources for students’ independent learning or engagement. Having LRAs dedicated to this task means that the resources are well organised, clearly signposted, duplication is avoided and it is easy to audit the quality and quantity of resources in different subject areas. It also ensures that students benefit from having relevant resources available which are planned by their teachers, but teacher time, or expensive web designer time, has not had to be used in presenting resources to the high standard that students will have come to expect from their own web browsing.

Using these same skills you might want to deploy LRA time to make assessment for learning information available to students and their parents online. The information will already exist in departments where staff have produced target setting materials for sharing with students and you may have noticed displays in classrooms that share assessment objectives and level and grade descriptors with students in accessible ways. Using the LRA to communicate this information in a screen friendly format will be a very productive and cost effective way to engage parents in their child’s learning and to create a supportive dialogue between school and home with minimum financial outlay.

Paul Ainsworth is the deputy head at Belvoir High School and Josephine Smith is the deputy head at Long Field High School

Both writers are involved in building VLEs in partnership with a range of schools