How can a virtual learning environment (VLE) in your school be used to raise pupil attainment, while complementing other school initiatives? Deputy heads Paul Ainsworth and Josephine Amith have some suggestions

There was once a time when using technology in a school was a laudable aim but prohibitively costly. In time it became a reality for schools to have whole teaching rooms kitted out with expensive hardware that enabled pupils to access the curriculum in more adventurous and high-tech ways.

Access to the internet, pupil-friendly software and desktop publishing facilities became the jewel in the crown of many schools: prospective parents were always shown these computer suites by proud senior managers on open evenings and tours of the school. Then came the advent of interactive whiteboards, enabling schools to claim even wider IT access for every pupil, and training and investment was directed at classroom technology which changed the way many teachers resourced and led their lessons.

Now schools are moving beyond the idea that hardware is what is worth advertising to parents. Instead, senior managers are investing their strategic planning in the more creative and efficient use of technology. Technology such as fingerprint recognition software to speed up lunchtime dining hall queues. Or plasma screens in reception areas to keep a constant stream of notices available to staff and pupils and hand-held devices to make learning mobile for students who spend their learning time at different sites as they follow more vocational courses.

However, in many schools most strategic planning is focused on using technology that is already available to create virtual learning environments or VLEs. The government plan that all schools should provide access to a VLE by September 2008 has certainly exercised the minds of many school leaders.

Avoiding confusion

It has been common for headteachers to get bogged down in choosing the platform the VLE will operate on, leading to many confused conversations on the merits of products such as ‘Sharepoint’ or ‘Fronter’. School leaders really need to concentrate on how they want to use their VLE and thereby how important the VLE will be in their school development priorities. Once these have been decided, in effect a design brief will have been created. Only then is it for those with the in-depth technical knowledge to communicate the pros and cons of the different operating platforms.

The VLE concept is simple, as the best ideas in education often are. The procedures of teaching and learning are made more efficient, paperless and readily available to all the stakeholders that need access to them whenever and wherever they need.

A VLE is largely an extension of what your school might previously have called its intranet. Managed by the school it is an online area that school stakeholders can access by using a login name and password. These login details allow pupils, teachers, parents and other stakeholders access to relevant sections of the VLE,  providing a rich source of all kinds of information –  from data to learning resources to weblinks to surveys. In fact, any paper resource can be easily accessed and used. The biggest possibilities, however, probably lie in the interactive nature of the information. Many of which are outlined below.

Raising pupil attainment

For pupils, the availability of high-quality learning materials in and out of the classroom and accessible from home are a key factor is raising attainment. They enable pupils to work at an independent pace, differentiate their learning and allow for different learning styles. Auditory learners, for example, will benefit from downloading podcasts, absent pupils can access resources online and teachers can capture and upload notes taken during the lesson for revision or consolidation of learning.

Homework tasks can not only be posted for pupils (and their parents) to access, but pupils are able to respond electronically to tasks, submitting them for assessment online too. Extra help with tasks such as additional prompts, writing frames, weblinks or ‘ask a teacher’ chatrooms can support pupils. Indeed, differentiation is one of the key strengths of pupil areas of a VLE.

Gifted and talented pupils can be stretched with extension tasks or more demanding research tasks. They can access materials provided for more advanced or older pupils, making preparation for single-level tests, early accreditation courses or extension work a reality. Just as staff training has become a blend of face-to-face learning and online units, pupils too can be challenged to extend their learning beyond that available inside the conventional classroom via the VLE.

Of course, a VLE could provide access to as many high-quality resources as it liked but this would simply be replacing paper with a screen. If the VLE is to raise pupil attainment, it has to support the good mechanisms all schools have introduced to help pupils understand how they are able to continuously improve their learning.

As well as internal target setting and monitoring procedures, commercial testing and diagnostic materials are available online. Marked by the computer and giving feedback to pupil and teacher, these resources can be channelled by the VLE and used throughout the school. Assessment for learning can become consistent across departments and year groups, with pages that record pupil progress and give clear guidance on how to improve. Levels and grades can be recorded alongside pupils’ end of key stage targets. Pupils then access grade descriptors in pupil-friendly language so they can identify what they need to do to improve.

Supporting pastoral structures

As well as academic support, the VLE can assist all your school’s pastoral structures. Indeed, the increasingly blurred boundaries between pastoral stability and academic success confirmed by the Every Child Matters agenda are supported by the VLE.

In addition to viewing data such as personal reward points/commendations/incident records, pupils can access information and guidance that they might not feel so comfortable actively seeking in school from an adult. Guidance on bullying, health issues or relationship concerns can all be accessed and local professionals will surely be glad to give these sections of the VLE their backing and support.

Likewise careers advice can be made available for post-14, post-16 and post-19 students and pupils would be glad to have one place where they know they can find options materials.

You might wonder whether simply making this information available electronically will make it more attractive to pupils, significantly to those who are most disaffected. Some schools whose VLEs are already quite established found that a special secure chatroom area for school pupils only proved a popular hook. Despite the obvious concerns by staff over security and cyber-bullying there are several good examples of schools where this facility has proved popular for pupil communication and discussion of academic progress.

Sharing teaching resources

If a VLE can raise attainment through the provision of independent and interactive learning opportunities then it can also raise attainment through more easily shared teaching resources too. Electronic training materials, such as online units for leading teacher training, teaching tips and recommended activities, can be stored in areas of the VLE available to staff, replacing paper resources such as teaching and learning newsletters. Materials used or recommended at Inset sessions can be made available.

Indeed, having a CPD area on the VLE will raise the profile of a school’s commitment to the professional development of its staff. It will provide them with a user-friendly way of developing their skills in a range of learning styles, directing staff to links on development opportunities such as the range of National College of School Leadership (NCSL) programmes. CPD issues raised in performance management meetings can be followed up by staff participation with activities on the VLE.

The VLE should also make easier the demands on staff to provide and interpret regular data on their classes in a format that can then be manipulated by data managers for the SEF and reports to parents and governors. The VLE provides a computerised mark book that makes sharing data easy, consistent and efficient. Pupils too can benefit from the swift and easy transfer of data between teachers, who can set targets and monitor progress of all their pupils more easily.

One of the worries for teachers is the time it will take for them to transfer their paper resources into an interactive IT resource. Indeed, if teachers spend too long on this activity it can draw them away from their core function of teaching and learning. The more forward-thinking schools such as Shirelands Technology College in the West Midlands have invested resources and built 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 that each school is not reinventing the wheel.

The live mark book
A major development for teachers could be the use of a live mark book. It can be frustrating for teachers to conscientiously use assessment for learning when marking books or folders and find pupils at best look at the comment once – very rarely do they consider how their work has changed over a term.

If teachers placed this information on a live mark book on the VLE this would have numerous benefits. Firstly, the assessments are not lost. Secondly, this can be linked to school tracking systems increasing consistency. However, most exciting of all could be the opportunity to eliminate annual reports as parents could view these assessments over the course of the year, giving more detailed information more often. This also reduces workload for teachers, truly an opportunity to focus on teaching and assessment.

One task often done inconsistently by form tutors is the passing on of information to pupils. Rather than photocopied bulletins in registers, this could be placed on the VLE, possibly as a PowerPoint presentation that the teacher could play, while simultaneously taking the register. This e-bulletin could have music or film clips to enhance pupil interest.

One school used a web camera and a room put aside as a recording studio to transmit weekly assemblies to the whole school via the VLE, creating a sense of school community without the logistical challenge of assembling over 1,000 pupils in one school space.

Communication with parents
One of the biggest obstacles cited by parents, in terms of their role as partners in the education process, is communication between themselves and the school. Even today, the default form of information transfer between the two parties is paper; whether through pupil planner, report card, letter or reporting. VLEs offer the opportunity to revolutionise this process, making communication cheap, effective, immediate and professional. The days of letters collecting in the bottom of bags could be over.

There are already some schools placing a variety of information on their VLE: one example being data that is already regularly collected on the management information system which is then made available for password access by parents. This could easily include attendance information and records of both rewards and sanctions, with data on commendations, incidents, homework not done, detentions, isolations and exclusions given.

When Jim Knight, schools minister, announced in January this year that by 2010 all secondary schools should offer parents electronic reports on their child’s attendance, behaviour and progress, the government’s commitment to VLEs and the role they might play in this information transfer was clear.

For parents wanting to support their child’s learning, it is the live electronic mark book reporting pupil progress alongside assessment for learning criteria that seems a most efficient and – for parents – informative use of VLE systems. Continuity and consistency of reporting as pupils move groups and therefore teachers, in subjects that teach in a rotation, is hard to achieve. A consistent, up-to-date electronic reporting system on the VLE can make monitoring a child’s progress much more reliable for parents.

Records including the grade or level of an assignment, its nearness to the next grade above and then targets or practical hints on how the pupil can bridge this gap will provide parents with a much clearer picture of how to support their child.

Creating continuous reporting rather than the annual report avoids the time lag, sometimes up to two months, between the time when a classroom teacher writes a report and it finding its way to parents after being checked, collated and sent home. An additional benefit is that parents would receive information on their child’s under-performance or difficulties more promptly.

Home help
One of the most regular enquiries heard at parents’ evening is ‘What can we do at home to help?’ Currently, many parents might have similar concerns when they read annual reports or scan the comments in marked exercise books. By recording information on the VLE, directing pupils on how they can improve their levels or grades, parents can access that same information. A well-designed VLE could even provide links from the live mark book straight to the precise information related to the assessment.

Far from simply providing academic advice, your school VLE could also contain a wide variety of pastoral support information for parents. This could include health-related information, such as what to do about head lice, advice if your child is self-harming etc. The information could range from careers advice to the dangers of cyber-bullying, thereby fulfilling one aspect of the extended schools core offer; parental support and guidance.

A second strand of the extended services initiative is a one-stop shop link to outside agencies. Rather than your school trying to keep a wide range of advice current, it could be more effective to provide title pages on varying issues with links to organisations and websites which can offer specialist support.

There could also be links to providers of low-cost high-quality childcare in the area, thus meeting a third element of extended schools. One last innovative aid could be online forums or chat rooms for parents who could benefit from the opportunity anonymously to ask other parents for advice on issues they face.

This provision would have to be managed as sensitively as pupil chat rooms. However, it could have tremendous potential, especially for parents that find visiting school logistically difficult or want to seek advice without their child’s knowledge of them talking to their teacher – a sensitive issue for the teenager who wants independence not ‘interference’.

It is accepted that not all parents will have access to the internet, but it is a fact that an increasing number do. Some organisations suggest this constant and readily available surveillance of their child’s day-to-day progress simply fuels the so called ‘helicopter’ parents who hover over their child’s every move and intercept at the slightest opportunity.

What is more true, however, is that the current systems of reporting to parents are rather onerous paper mountains, giving a rather generalising overview of progress that is superseded by the time reports have gone out to parents.

Revolutionising education
There is no doubt that developing an effective and personalised VLE is a time-consuming task that requires strategic thinking and well-planned use of resources. As with all initiatives you do get what you are prepared to pay for. Establishing a VLE is no short-term option and must be planned strategically to suit the needs of as many stakeholders as possible.

The implementation of a well thought out VLE does, however, have the potential to revolutionise education in many schools. It is for that reason that we should not be scared by the government’s commitment for schools to provide a VLE by September 2008 but instead be excited by the challenge to use technology to make planning, teaching, assessment and reporting efficient and meaningful for pupils, parents and teachers alike.