Once implemented, VLEs can be used as an integrated tool to improve students' progress and school administration. School business managers and bursars are key to this development, in terms of sustaining the VLE
In our previous article we described what a virtual learning environment (VLE) is, and then considered the process which a school may go through in establishing a VLE. We can all identify occasions in schools when large sums of money have been spent on purchasing IT systems, yet, over time, they have become forgotten. A VLE has the potential to revolutionise the work of schools, but this will only happen if the system becomes a central part of the school’s systems. In this article we look at the school business manager’s role in sustaining the system and consider how the SBM must work with their support staff so that the system is fully used.
For the VLE to become central to all the stakeholders in a school it must be used by everyone. In many schools there are two networks, with the administration network being separate from the one which can be accessed by the majority of teachers and students. This has had the result that the IT system has never been seen as vital to all members of the school. This has certainly been true with respect to data systems, where the management information system has been on a different network. As a result, the MIS platform may have been vital to the work of the administration team and school leaders, but other stakeholders in the school have not been able to use it and, as a result, have created their own fragmented systems.
School leaders have been very resistant to the concept of a single network, due to concerns over security and access. The implementation of a VLE might necessitate the school adopting a single flat network, with a series of permission levels, to prevent different stakeholders accessing inappropriate or irrelevant material. This could have a range of benefits, but maybe the most important is purely the symbolism of removing this separation between different school employees, suggesting that all roles contribute to the students’ education.
Impact on support staff
We will now move on to looking at how the building of the VLE will affect the work process of certain support staff in more detail. This is vital because the more the VLE is used by all support staff, the quicker that consistent systems will be created across a school.
The majority of schools still produce paper based annual written reports for all their students. This is often one of the most laborious tasks for the administration team in secondary schools, where an entire week may be spent sorting all the paperwork and chasing up the inevitable errors and oversights.
One of the most innovative opportunities within the VLE for students, teachers and parents, therefore, could be the use of continuous online reporting, otherwise known as a live mark book. In addition to the frustration for administration staff, the same level of annoyance can be present for teachers, who conscientiously use assessment for learning principles when marking books or folders, and find students at best look at the comment once, very rarely considering how their work has progressed over a term.
Teachers placing this information on a live mark book, on the VLE, would have numerous benefits. Most exciting could be the opportunity to eliminate annual written reports, as parents could view all assessments over the course of the year, giving more detailed information more often. This would also reduce workload for both teachers and administration staff, truly an opportunity to focus on teaching and assessment.
A far more mundane benefit could be placing all the school’s letters to parents on the VLE. This would save considerable time for reprographics assistants, who spend hours sorting letters for student registers. ParentMail is one commercial system that does this for schools. There could be a system which would notify the school if the letters had not been opened by individual parents. Perhaps this could even be built into a text message alert to remind parents to look at the letters. There would be no need for collecting in paper replies, which go missing on far too many occasions, as, instead, parents could reply to letters online.
Some schools are now using their VLE to make internal reprographic services more cost effective. Staff send the documents they need duplicating via the VLE as an electronic attachment, completing their request for printing requirements and a deadline. This service tends to produce less wastage and is particularly efficient at split site or partnership schools where staff may need particular resources in a particular location that they are not based at full time.
Where schools have already implemented VLEs, one of the immediate actions has been to include data systems. An example could be sharing attendance records for students with parents. One school used egg timer symbols for this purpose, one showed individual students’ attendance and another showed the average for that student’s year group. A similar system was also used to share information on credits (the school’s reward currency) and also the number of behavioural incidents the child had accumulated. This information was imported straight from the management information system into the VLE, so it was not another task for the data manager to complete, though they do have the responsibility of monitoring the system.
A similar system could be developed to improve attainment tracking. As was suggested, an online mark book could be established. The assessments within this could be linked to the school tracking system, which should increase consistency. The automation of this process would also reduce the time spent by the data manager on routine administration. Instead, the data manager could be using that time to analyse the results and provide summaries for teachers, especially those with leadership posts, to help the school improve standards.
Extended schools coordinator
A whole article could be written on how a VLE could support the extended schools provision of your school. However, of particular interest to the school business manager (SBM) is how the VLE can support community access to the school’s resources.
The VLE can enable this process in a number of ways, with added benefits of reducing administration time and increasing income. Lessons need to be learned from other providers of bookable space. The VLE could, for example, clearly communicate the facilities that are available for booking – clearly spelling out what the hall could be used for.
Issues to consider when advertising your school buildings for community use
A more sophisticated VLE could include an up-to-date calendar to show which rooms are already booked. There could be an online booking form so that organisations could make a draft booking out of office hours. There would obviously need to be a disclaimer that the school reserves the right to refuse a booking. However, it is obvious that having this level of information on the VLE would ensure a more accurate and efficient system, and would also increase profits for the school.
Anything the VLE can do to facilitate a reduction in monies being brought into school by students will be welcomed by many members of the school community, but especially by finance officers and other staff who are burdened with cash collection.
Some schools have already introduced a ParentPay system, where parents can use their debit cards to pay for school trips and place funds in children’s cashless catering accounts. The VLE can bring together the paying system and the letters of communication into one seamless system. The VLE could even provide printouts for parents on what their children have bought at lunchtime or break time.
A similar system could be introduced to allow sponsorship monies to be paid online. Some schools already use the www.justgiving.com website to allow relatives of children to provide sponsorship using debit or credit cards, but this website does charge for the service. Schools may choose to develop their own systems so that people can sponsor individual students for events, with all the money going to the good cause.
Another example where a well used VLE could aid school fundraising is through the www.easyfundraising.org.uk site. This is a website which allows people to make purchases through a wide range of providers, such as Amazon, eBay or Next. A percentage of the purchase is then donated to the school. If this link was on the VLE, and parents and children were regularly using the VLE, they may be more inclined to access online stores via this link, and hence more money would be raised for the school.
While the design and implementation of a VLE places most obvious demands on the IT expertise in the school, the SBM’s role is just as crucial, both during its inception and in order to maintain it as a sustainable and growing resource. There is no doubt that the VLE will provide the key means of communication between partner schools, school and home and will, as is the government’s wish, drive improvements in standards among students of all ages and abilities, as the demands on young people as independent learners become greater. As a key member of the school management team, your role is to enable this to happen in as cost effective a way as possible, while looking for ways to ensure current staff are able to sustain a service that represents the rest of the school’s work in the best possible way. By identifying early on how a VLE might make the work of the support staff you line manage more efficient, you not only contribute to a resource that is a part of future student success but also makes the machine, that is a school’s administration and financial management, more efficient and productive.
Do you have a VLE you’re proud of?
Paul Ainsworth is the deputy head at Belvoir High School. 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.