Virtual learning enviroments (VLEs) can support delivery of the extended schools core offer, explain deputy heads Paul Ainsworth and Josephine Smith
Eighteen months ago the Ofsted evaluation of extended schools suggested that extended services were helping to enhance self-confidence, improve relationships, raise aspirations and produce better attitudes to learning among pupils. Just last month Christine Gilbert, Her Majesty’s chief inspector for education, children’s services and skills, reinforced this:
‘It’s encouraging to see that extended schools... are making good progress overall in the range of services they offer for children, young people and their families.’
Those of us currently involved in the setting up or development of school virtual learning environments (VLEs) will recognise the rhetoric. The same language could just as easily apply to schools’ use of new technologies to promote learning and good relationships between school and home. VLEs are able to offer pupils ways of working that allow them to grow into independent and secure learners who can access support at the time it is needed, in the place that best suits them. Indeed, a well-designed VLE must be one of the most powerful and productive tools available for schools to extend their services beyond the classroom and empower parents to play a key role in their child’s education.
VLEs are computer-based environments that support the delivery of web-based learning and facilitate online interaction between students and teachers (http://foi.becta.org.uk/display.cfm?resID=15963 is a helpful site about virtual and managed learning environments, including what they are, types of VLEs, where they are used, the advantages and related issues). They can help teaching and support staff manage and deliver a variety of daily tasks, including general class administration and organisation; lesson planning; assessment, monitoring and reporting of pupil progress; setting and submitting of online activities; and pastoral and academic online support. Both in and out of school, VLEs are able to support pupils’ learning: their interactive possibilities cater for pupils with a range of learning styles and families with a range of circumstances. Children with special needs, pupils off school through illness, or working families needing after-school care are all key beneficiaries. It is in these areas that a VLE is an increasingly valuable tool in a school’s extended provision. One only has to acknowledge the ways that pupils increasingly communicate with each other out of school via msn messaging, chatroom services and internet sites such as Bebo and Myspace to realise that it is foolish for schools to underestimate the powerful learning tool that access to a specifically designed VLE might be.
So how can a VLE support the core offer of extended schools?
The most obvious use of the VLE is for study support, allowing pupils to consolidate what they have learned in the classroom by accessing resources that will enable them to make independent progress or work alongside other adults or peers outside of the class. Whether this access takes place on a computer at the pupil’s home, in the school library or at an after-school club, anywhere that has internet access provides a place for pupils to connect to a range of IT resources that will support their studies.
The availability of high-quality learning materials out of the classroom and accessible from different locations enables pupils to work at an independent pace, differentiates their learning and allows for different learning styles. Auditory learners for example will benefit from downloading podcasts, self-motivated pupils can access resources to develop their understanding or investigate more challenging ideas and less able learners can be helped to understand key concepts with the help of interactive presentations and specially targeted software.
Many out-of-school clubs already provide internet access for pupils’ browsing or game playing. Pupils waiting to be collected by parents or who choose to stay after school willingly may, however, wish to extend their learning with IT access they deem more relevant because it is their personal teachers who have uploaded materials that connect with or develop class learning that has gone on earlier in the day. After-school club leaders too will feel comfortable supporting pupils with learning that they know is specifically targeted. Knowing that the VLE will offer clear, pupil-friendly tasks and safe and appropriate material is more reassuring than seeing pupils browsing the internet more randomly.
School clubs offering specific academic study support can also make full use of the VLE without needing high levels of subject specialist staffing. A learning resource centre full of pupils working on different tasks, whether it be research for an art project, completion of coursework assignments or use of revision software can be easily supervised by support staff. The VLE becomes a helpful reference point too, with pupils able to see galleries of other students’ good work as well as getting advice on how to complete a task well at the precise time when the pupil themselves feels that advice is needed.
Some VLEs offer secure chatroom facilities in order to support learning, sometimes in the form of homework clinics with teachers responding to pupil queries or peer chatrooms with pupils supporting each other. Some schools have been surprised by the popularity of such facilities; pupils who would be reluctant to seek advice or to be seen giving it in school for fear of being judged unfavourably by their socially critical peers are encouraged by the anonymity of a VLE chatroom. Of course there are issues of cyberbullying but the users of a VLE can be carefully monitored because they only gain access through a personal logon supplied by the school which is then able to monitor chatroom use in and out of school.
Parental support and guidance
The second element of extended schools is support and guidance for parents. There is a tendency to automatically link this to parenting classes for those whose children are the most vulnerable and disaffected pupils. However, it can be more helpful to see this support as a mechanism for developing the partnership role between the school and the parent to ensure the child reaches their full potential.
Parents need to be kept informed of their child’s learning to develop this partnership. Even today in the 21st century the default form of information transfer between the two parties is paper; whether through pupil planner, report card, letter or reporting. A VLE offers the opportunity to revolutionise this process, which could make communication cheap, effective and professional.
There are already some schools placing a variety of data on their VLE. A starting point for this process is the data that is already regularly collected on the management information system which can then be sucked into the VLE for password access by parents. This could easily include attendance information and records of both rewards, be it credits and house points, or sanctions with data on incidents, homework not done, detentions, isolations and exclusions.
There is also the potential to make the annual written report obsolete via a live mark book. This would have assessment for learning criteria recorded, including the grade or level of the work, the closeness to the grade above and then targets or hints on how the pupil can bridge this gap. Rather than having to wait for annual written report, parents would be able to observe their pupil’s ongoing performance.
One of the most regular comments heard at parents’ evening is ‘How do I help my child?’ Parents probably have similar thoughts when they read assessment for learning-style reports or if they are proactive enough to read their child’s books or folders. The information on the VLE for pupils on how they can improve their levels or grades can be used by parents for the same purpose. A sophisticated VLE could even provide links from the live mark book straight to the precise information related to the assessment.
The study support resources on a VLE might be most appreciated by pupils during the more pressured times of exam revision. For example, www.samlearning.com provides schools with exam preparation and revision resources from Key Stage 1 through to Key Stage 4 that would be easy to signpost through the school VLE. Frustrated parents, who are told regularly by their children that they have no homework months away from important exams, find the links helpful and after-school study sessions in the school computer rooms or resource centre could easily be secured by a subscription to this service and supervision by volunteers or support staff. Similar websites could be used to offer parents and pupils guidance on revision techniques and independent study and both the parent and pupil portals can be used to signpost this out-of-class support.
The VLE could also contain a wide variety of support information. This could include health-related information such as what to do about head lice, advice on what to do if your child is self-harming. The information could range from careers advice to the dangers of cyber bullying.
One last innovative aid for parents could be online forums or chatrooms for parents. Parents could have the opportunity to anonymously ask other parents for advice on issues they face as parents. This concept would have to be managed as sensitively as pupil chatrooms but could have tremendous potential.
One of the major misunderstandings about extended schools provision is the childcare element. Too many people are still under the misapprehension that schools will be obliged to offer before- and after-school care for their pupils. This is a commitment which would be economically unviable for many small schools, especially primaries. This link was even made in recent stories on the BBC website concerning the proposed closure of many small rural primary schools. The National Association for Small Schools argued the government’s plans to introduce services such as after-school clubs and childcare for 10 hours a day spell the closure of village schools.
It is important to remember that the extended schools provision guidance considers access to low cost high-quality childcare rather than having to provide child care. It is here that a well-planned VLE could be very valuable.
The VLE could provide links to nursery providers in the locality. The school is not necessarily recommending these providers but it is instead signposting those available.
In rural communities one of the difficulties is that the nurseries are often not in the village. The result is that parents enrol their children at schools near nurseries often in neighbouring towns. This can be a considerable threat to small primary schools who due to their size cannot offer their own nurseries. The VLE could therefore have contact details of child minders who work in the village where is the school is located. This could also have the advantage of encouraging people to become child minders due to the ready-made advertising opportunity. A school might consider developing the number of child minders in the area as part of their plans to sustain their numbers on roll. They could also seek to provide information for childminders, for example on forthcoming courses in the area such as updating their first aid qualifications. There could even be a section of the chatroom for the child minders or prospective child minders which could be useful for peer support. Much of the generic information available for parents could be useful for child minders too.
The fourth strand of the extended services initiative is to provide swift and easy referral to specialist support services sometimes thought of as a one-stop link to outside agencies.
This is one area where a well thought out VLE really comes into its own. The difficulty for schools is trying to keep all the information current and that is before considering how the information can be transferred to those who need it.
A mistake that schools might make is to try and provide all the information and advice on a range of issues on its own. Instead a better solution is to develop links on the VLE to groups or charities who specialise in providing such information. These groups will keep their advice current on a whole host of topics in a way that would be impossible for a school to do. From a legal perspective the school might be advised to include a disclaimer so that it is understood this is not necessarily the school’s definitive advice.
As well as information providers there can be links to local services such as social services, medical services and mental heath services so that people using the VLE can communicate more easily with these groups without having to search through internet sites or the telephone directory.
The final advantage of using a VLE to facilitate this provision is the anonymity it provides. People who seek advice on sensitive issues will be much more likely to access it on the VLE rather than by telephoning the school.
The final element of extended schools provision is providing access to the school’s resources for the local community. It could be argued that just by creating a VLE which the local community can access, the school is making its most valuable resource available, its curriculum.
There is an expectation, however, that this element of extended schools is about the local community being able to use the school’s buildings out of school hours so that these expensive resources are not left unused for significant periods of the year.
The VLE can enable this process in a number of ways, with the added benefits of reducing administration time and increasing income. We need to learn lessons from other providers of bookable space. The first thing is to clearly advertise which facilities are available for booking. For example, clearly spell out what the hall could be used for. Could it be used for local organisations’ meetings or AGMs? What about social functions such as discos or weddings or are there sports facilities such as a badminton court? What regular times can the facilities be booked for? What are the rates for booking? Do they change for different uses or for different times of the day or year? 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. Again, there would need to be a disclaimer that the school reserves the right to refuse a booking. However, it is obvious that having this kind of information on the VLE would ensure a more accurate and efficient system which by its very nature would also increase profits for the school.
It is accepted that not all parents will have access to a broadband internet connection but it is true that an increasing number do. The issue of how schools can aid wider internet access for children and their families outside school could form an article on its own. Schools are considering all kinds of solutions such as enabling wireless internet in local areas, providing thin client technology in pupils’ homes and taking laptops into local pubs. However, if this idea is linked with the fifth element of extended schools, which is providing access to resources for the local community, schools could consider providing a Virtual Learning Centre Hub which the local community can drop in and use. In a similar way to that provided by local libraries or councils.
Secondly, much of the information would be generic across a group of schools in a geographical area such as a secondary school and its feeder primaries or a partnership of secondary schools. Therefore, to save costs, a group of schools could pool their extended schools income and use this to establish an extended school’s VLE. This could even provide the catalyst for a group of schools to develop a joint VLE which would be very exciting from many perspectives such as sharing resources including teaching ones, easy transfer of pupil information during transition and of course from the economic perspective of enabling a better product for the same sum of money.
By working in partnership and establishing a well-designed, carefully targeted VLE many of the more challenging obstacles of the extended schools offer are addressed. Seen in this light both the government’s expectation that all schools should have introduced a VLE by March 2008 and have it embedded as an intrinsic part of the school’s programme for raising standards by 2010 should be seen as more manageable for schools. If the direct result is a more comprehensive extended schools offer then the initiative is doubly worthwhile and quickly relevant and accessible to the young people whose education and personal development it serves.
Paul Ainsworth is deputy head at Belvoir High School, Leicestershire and Josephine Smith is deputy head at Long Fields High School, Leicestershire