Given the current focus in schools, colleges and other educational institutions on shifting resources online and the growing emphasis on sharing information digitally to streamline processes (perhaps freeing up some of that precious, precious time for teachers to actually go and and do some of that weird ‘teaching’ malarky they’re always on about), it never ceases to amaze me that, when I talk to fellow educators about their in-house VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments), the chatter is often about clunky, difficult to navigate, user-unfriendly (sometimes downright hostile) systems that seemingly do the opposite of what they were designed for.
Now, if I’m teaching, the very last thing I want to be doing is spending any extra time fiddling with a VLE to get it to behave. I don’t want to waste hours on end uploading and re-uploading and re-re-uploading resources because (for some reason only known to the system itself and Dave from IT who’s on long-term sick leave) it just didn’t take the first time. I don’t want my index finger to go numb as I click 48 different links to get to where I know that document is, only for it to be locked because a lesson pro forma is far, far too sensitive to be sharing with the people who actually use it. What I want is to spend my free periods drinking really bad coffee and planning really good lessons, not sat in front of a screen wondering if they would fire me if I just chucked the whole damn thing out of the staffroom window.
Because, as a teacher, time is just about the most precious commodity there is. We’re already well short of it, so if more is taken away by an unwieldy system, it’s taken away from somewhere else. That “somewhere else” might actually be important.
And that’s just us; if you want student buy-in, you best be sure that the product is damn-near flawless, otherwise you’re basically handing them an excuse to do absolutely nothing:
“Did you do your homework?”
“Sir, I couldn’t even find it on the system.”
“Likely story. Let’s just bring up the…oh. Oh OK. I’ll write it on a post-it not for you next time.”
Students won’t use something that doesn’t work. Heck, they won’t even use something that is vaguely difficult to work. And to be honest, I’m right there with them on this. Why should they? VLEs are supposed to augment the learning process, not act as yet another barrier to it. If a school wants to share information in this way than they need to get it right; not only for the sake of teachers’ sanity but also to increase the educational chances of those who are most important in the process.
At its best, a VLE system should be intuitive and reliable for both teachers and students. It should be specifically designed as bespoke to a particular educational organisation because (as is often so easily forgotten) no two places are the same. It will enable learning but be so efficient, that it’s almost invisible as it does so. And what they should never, never do is make a teacher or a student’s life any more difficult than it is already. They should work for us, not the other way around.
But enough with this negativity – in my next blog I’ll be harping on about the joys of using an EFFECTIVE Virtual Learning Environment and how it can benefit teachers (and not just in the ways you might expect). Thanks for reading.
Tom Starkey is an educator and consultant based in Leeds. He’s written for the Times Educational Supplement and Teach Secondary magazine. He tweets at @tstarkey1212 and writes at stackofmarking.wordpress.com.