Elephant in the Room #1: Virtual Learning Environments or ‘Prisons in the Sky’

For the purposes of this blog I am going to make several distincitons and definitions: The Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) will be considered to the one of the 14 or so UK commercial offers of a skinned, one stop shop, Content Management System, offering a range of tools and a level of ‘security’ to appease the most zealous technophobe. An Online Learning Environment (OLE) will be considered to be a similar suite of tools gathered by an organisation to meet the needs of that organisation, but not necessarily sourced from the same supplier.

In the UK the VLE market in schools was stimulated by the UK Government document, Harnessing Technology (2005), which specified how technology should be used by the wider learning community, including schools, to harness technology for learning.

The points made within it can be summarised as follows:

  • Provide an integrated online information service for all citizens (Govenrment & Local Authority Websites – not really part of schools’ responsibilities)
  • Ensure integrated online personal support for children and learners (a personalised online learning space & online reporting)
  • Develop a collaborative approach to personalised learning activities (rich, shared content)
  • Provide a good quality ICT training and support package for practitioners(horses were taken to water, but they didn’t drink)
  • Provide a leadership and development package for organisational capability in ICT( SLICT, BSF & initial teacher education)
  • Build a common digital infrastructure to support transformation and reform (Regional Broadband)

Wordle: Harnessing Technology

A Wordle of the Harnessing technology document reveals the total absence of the words Virtual, Environment and Platform.

The notion that by 2010 all schools needed a VLE is just plain wrong.  What they need is the ability to provide the above services to a learner and their family.

What is a the function of a VLE as compared to an OLE?

I gathered some words used when discussing VLE implementation and use:



Limited access

Rights for guests (or visitors)




******This is the institutional language of a prison.******

Did you know that most of the readers of this blog are a risk to children?  Let me explain the logic: @ethinkingjnr is taught that strangers are dangerous and that the ‘interweb’ is a risky ,dangerous place where everyone is out to get him.  You are a stranger to him and on the ‘inter web’:  QED you are all a risk to him….its nonsense.  We are teaching children to fear the world. The VLE  is designed to pander to the worst paranoia of the weakest teachers.  They were designed for the lowest common denominator.  We have built prisons in the sky, to keep the world out control children’s thinking.

VLEs were designed from the ground up but the designers did not manage to design out the need for training.  The systems in general are not intuitive.  Though this is improving, they are becoming more flexible and dynamic. It also seems there is growing evidence of schools giving up on their VLEs (@chrisrat).  Some have even argued that the VLE is dead or even undead (@timbuckteeth)

The VLE has been sold to many schools who make good use of 90% of the functionality, many more  who use less than 50% and too many who use less than 10% (unsupported numbers).  The issue here is that a school can’t buy the bits they want to implement at first, they buy it all and pay for it all, despite to needing it all yet. In the world of VLE phased implementation exists, but phased purchase does not.

This does not address the moodle experience, the moodle experience can be more flexible and is apparently ‘free’ or cheap.  The issue here is that schools seem unable to evaluate the total cost of ownership of a moodle environment.  A day for a teacher costs £200 (6 hours work) so £33 an hour.  The cost of administrating any system must be added into any cost benefit analysis.

A new vocabulary?

I have been discussing this with my students and  they came up with a suggestion to do away with the VLE and develop an Online Learning Environment (OLE), A collection of tools developed by the school using A web page as a front door linking to a suite of tools meeting the Harnessing Technology Agenda.

Here are links to their blogs:




I’m not challenging the concept of online learning, nor the existence of a coherent online environment for children to access learning. What I am challenging is the term VLE and what it has come to represent.  It represents a time gone by, where knowledge was locked away deep in a silo.  It does not embrace the freedom and beauty of the social web.  It represents a prison in the sky.

If your VLE is better than that, then it isn’t a VLE, it’s an online environment, it’s a learning space or maybe its just a part of school – so give it a name…..so don’t say it is on the VLE, say it’s on ‘Malcolm’ or ‘Squiggle’.  If you are being effective, then it is despite the technology of VLE, not because of it.

The VLE has become an elephant in the room, a solution waiting for a problem.  The providers have encouraged schools to replicate their buildings in the cloud…not enabled them to embrace the most powerful.  The VLE is another example of the tail wagging the dog, the cart being placed before the horse; we placed technology ahead of pedagogy.

Someone recently protested against my stance via Twitter – they said their Moodle environment was intuitive and after only 30 mins training everyone was uploading content.  This sums up the problem; successful first steps are considered to be creating a file store online.  That rather misses the point.

Content is not what online learning is about.  Online learning is about conversation.

17 thoughts on “Elephant in the Room #1: Virtual Learning Environments or ‘Prisons in the Sky’

  1. You make some good points and in a way it illustrates why I have concerns about 21 century education. We have access to information like never before. Education should never be about walls. We need to teach children to read and be nunerate and equally vital is their ability to think critically; and you’ll never do that with walls.

    Oh, and as a post script my children’s school VLE is useless.!

  2. my problem in a secondary school entirely. i have a blog but i attach it to the school web page. this page is going to be replaced by a moodle later in the year. My blog is simply a collection of resources and lesson power points etc (e.g. it works because it is accessible CONTENT and the pupils use it well. But I struggle to increase online CONVERSATION. – let alone COLLABORATION between pupils and between pupils and myself. do you have any suggestions for any online tools which I could start using to improve on this?
    Thanks very much in advance (Also known as @dukkhaboy )

    • Hi – my answer to your collaboration/conversation problem is to lay down a challenge:

      Ask better questions, and pose more seductive problems.

      then ask the kids where they want to discuss it? Bookface? twitter? blog? edmodo?

      Involve them if you want them to be involved.

  3. A good post about means and constraint of the means. However, the terminology of your conclusion concerns me: learning is a conversation but it has to be about content which is meaningful and purposeful. Conversation about nothing (or anything) is idle chit- chat.

    Choosing that content for learning is curriculum-making. Therefore, content or knowledge is vital. Learning can be seen as the journey from experience (where they are) to knowledge, understanding, skills and values (where we want them to be). E-learning is a great means to that end, not an end in itself.

    • Interesting point, depending upon your definition of content: In my experience teachers understand this to be the same stuff they keep on their memory stick, not carefully crafted stimuli for discussion. I can post a link to an itunesu or ted.com video or a journal article and stimulate an effective learning discussion. I do not agree that content=curriculum in the way colleagues use the terms.

  4. Hi,
    I was in one of the colleges I work with on Friday and the lecturers were looking at a print-off of our students’ Moodle activity. They were disappointed that hardly any of the students had accessed the files they’d uploaded. In contrast, the discussion forums were being used almost every day of the week by the majority of the students. Without direction the forum is where they seem to have intuitively headed for, and by simply talking to each other they’ve established a culture of mutual support. It’s ironic, if not depressing, that whilst the students ‘get it’ the lecturers don’t.

    You’re absolutely spot on with this – it’s about people not tools

    • In my experience, it seems best to allow each tool to do what it is best at. Blogs, Facebook and Twitter enable helpful discussion and allow others from around the world to support, widening the sphere of influence upon students (I am in 18+ education)
      The VLE is a sensible place to house confidential discussion and share some content, though blogs are taking over.

      We aggregate the student blogs so that all be found in one place: blogs.plymuniprimary.com

  5. Great post, Pete. I agree with so much of what you have written. I will try not to repeat myself too much as I have said much on this already on my own blog (http://dughall.com/?p=85)

    I agree that there were many shortfalls and failings of the old BECTA/Harnessing Technology initiative. Without dwelling too much on those (you seem to have done a pretty good job), I would argue that there were some positives. Some schools were forced into considering using online learning environments where they might not have otherwise. Other schools ended up investigating and making the most of alternative cloud-based, ‘free’ options in the face of frankly awful commercial offerings.

    Now for some specific responses:

    There may be growing evidence of schools getting rid of VLEs, but on the other hand, there are a growing number of new/improved VLEs on the market. I believe this is in response to a more demand-driven market emerging as local authorities no longer make bulk procurements on behalf of all their schools (a model with some question marks over it!).

    As for buyers only using a small percentage of the software’s capability, not the strongest argument in my opinion. Think of some examples of software you have bought – how many of its features do you actually use? More than 50%? Of Microsoft Word for example)?

    Yes, it is possible to aggregate a bunch of tools and pick them off the shelf as and when we want to. Many can and many do. As I said at the LWF ‘VLE’s are Dead’ debate, some people have the skills , resilience and patience to build their own cars. For others, though, we want the car built for us and are happy to pay for that.

    What I wouldn’t want is something that is forced upon schools. Let schools investigate the options and choose what is best for them under the circumstances.

    I’ll say it again, a VLE is just a tool. It is its (mis)usage that is the problem here.

    • Hi Dughall,

      We agree entirely, the Harnessing Technlogy document was a significant piece of work pushing people in the right direction.

      I would suggest that the people who lacked the skills to build one, also lacked the skills to use one and shoul dhave left well alone – see the link to the blog by Chris that I added.

      I may only use 20% of Word, to my shame, is it ethical to sell software in such a way that one can only buy all or nothing? Hence my reference to phased purchase/implementation.

      VLE is a tool, mis-designed, mis-sold, mis-used and mis-understood. Let’s move on and call them Kevin.

      Nice to hear from you my friend.


  6. Again, some really good stuff in there but I’d like to pick up a few points in individual comments to try to discuss things in more details.

    1 – “a level of ‘security’ to appease the most zealous technophobe” : As someone who deals with security on VLEs and other systems (including systems not off the shelf) I find this mildly insulting. As a technophile I am more aware and keen to ensure that security is appropriate and usable that most general users. The above comment from you might be something a little off the cuff but makes a mockery of things like DPA, IP and eSafety. I am not trying to get into some of the FUD you hear from some vendors or Daily Fail readers but the realistic prospect that the use of any environment for learning, virtual / digital / analogue, still has to fit into the legal requirements which all schools have to follow. To be honest, I am not too bothered about the user training around ‘click this button and drag this file’ sessions but around decent quality training on why we need to think about why a VLE / LP / OLE still has to be part of the same set of rules we have in other parts of the school. Whilst the purely negative connotations of the online world is a terrible thing to force down the throats of learners (and I include staff in that group) this does not mean that the right to learn should be used as an excuse to bypass valid concerns / laws.

    • Hi Tony,

      Interesting persepctive. I too work with schools now and again and am always astonished by their inherent distrust of the wider world and desire to use ‘permissions’ to stop things happening rather than empower. Security is important. Not as important as wisdom, my concern with the high walls and defences of the proprietary VLE, is that it allows users to avoid any need to engage with or manage risk. You mention laws re VLE – i’m only aware of the statutory obligation on schools to keep them safe and educate them properly. Is there more specific Legal requirements that would preclude WordPress class blogs or the use of facebook in school (post 13)?

  7. Very interesting post Pete and of course you knew I would respond.
    To be honest I think the VLE debate is more dead than the VLE.
    If a school is spending £2,000 a year on a VLE and is using it well and getting £2,000 worth out of it then
    a) there is no problem and
    b) they have no need to explain their use of it

    Some schools do choose to use it as a filing cabinet – but that can work out cheaper than installing a server and/or paying for hosted server space so if that’s what they want it for and it is worth it for them (versus downloading it all again now which will take more teacher time than the uploading takes) then they should feel no shame in that. And yes there are free tools such as Google docs but how do we ensure all private info is kept private there including oodles of photos of the kids and child protection info and tracking and so on? (If you set up users individually you are already spending a lot of teacher time instead of having auto SIMs update giving usernames and passwords to anyone joining the school)

    For a school (such as mine have alwasy been) where we do use it well for filing but also use the collaboration well for staff and students and the children create “content” which for me includes forums and blogs then that is all fine too. I am not going to be calling that an Online instead of Virtual though and here is why:

    The very word virtual means that we are admitting this is not REAL life but a Virtual immitation of it. We are being quite up front by saying this is not a REAL learning environment but a virtual one. A place we can practice and share – but I also show them the outside REAL world too. We have YouTube accounts, school twitter, podcast channels and external blogs. All of these feed into and out of our VLE.

    The VLE for the school who wants it locked down is in essence a practice zone. And even if they never choose to step outside of that then it still can be value for money in what it does for the school if used well.
    I also believe a school has to show the REAL world of communication and collaboration but that does not make the VIRTUAL world defunct as a training zone and/or extra part of what a school does.

    It was through using the VLE well that the parents and governors were happy for me to go ahead with the rest of the virtual world. And while some may say we should ignore their fears and go for it I assume this is the Daily Mail’s dream as they are ready to pounce on any school who jumps straight into the online social media with no blocks and lands themselves in hot water. for me half a step forward is better than 4 steps backwards and sometimes the steps backwards are forced by others.

    I have much more of an issue with the idea of schools wasting money not what they spend it on.
    So if a school is paying £2,000 a year for a VLE and not using it then they need to be brought up short. Not because of the VLE – it’s not the VLE’s fault (it longs to be used well)
    but because any spending of public money, especially in relation to education/health etc needs to be questioned.

    How many schools are paying up to £4,000 a year for Espresso because 4 teachers use it? Or because all their teachers use it cos they cannot be bothered to type a video search into google or YouTube instead and actually watch the video first to check it’s safe?
    I have been horrified in schools to find that every time a class goes to the ICT suite they watch an Espresso video. Now who can tell me the Year 6 ICT objective which states “must be able to press play on a video pre-chosen by the teacher”

    Also question the schools who instead of paying for a VLE OR setting up free Google docs waste anything up to £5,000 a year on paper and ink printing copies of policies for EVERY member of the 100 strong staff EVERY time they change one line in it.

    VLEs are not dead. VLEs are ONE tool in an arsenal available to schools.
    If it is not needed then stop paying for it.
    If it is paying for itself than stop getting upset at it.
    And after you have written off the VLEs let’s look at every other rip off in primary schools – we could come up with a fair old list I reckon.

    And here for good measure is a run down of some of my VLE use

  8. If I had a pound for every time a teacher asked me if they could upload a worksheet to a blog my pension pot would be considerably larger. The distinction between VLE as content silo and online learning being about conversation and sharing is important. Too much emphasis was placed by VLE vendors on teachers creating content for students to consume, often using extraordinarily clunky tools in order to achieve “SCORM compliance”. I always thought this was some kind of self actualisation ritual at the very pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy. These activities were often “assessment checks” and weren’t collaborative in any way. Some good points raised in defence, but I meet school after school who state their disappointment in the promise of the institutional VLE and are now building their own OLE using blogs, G Docs, Edmodo and so on, often at a fraction of the cost with teachers using the bits that work for them.

  9. Pete, I agree with much of what you say, but would like to make the following points:
    a) I am often asked by schools what is the “next level” they should aspire to in tErms of ed tech. Occasionally, the most logical next step for them is to find a way of making stuff accessible to teachers and pupils 24/7. So having a VLE as an online repository seems to me to be an ok starting point, as long as it doesn’t become a finishing point.

    b) I am not convinced by your distinction between a VLE and an OLE. learning is what people do, surely, not an inherent property of an inanimate object?

    c) Interestingly, Christine Terrey, a headteacher, prefers the term “learning platform” because of its emphasis on learning.

  10. Pingback: VLE – stuff you need to know | The Grinch Manifesto

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