I’m a teacher, so I tend to write about things from a teacher’s point of view, but apparently there’s another group of people in school that are supposedly of some import. You know the ones – those little ones who tend to talk a lot and generally get in the way.
When it comes down to it, everything that happens in a school should be for the benefit of the children, otherwise there isn’t really any point is there? That goes the same for any educational technology that’s introduced – if it doesn’t help the kids then there shouldn’t be a place for it.
So how does a good VLE go about doing that? How can it be of maximum benefit for the students using it? If you spend enough time with kids you start to learn a few things about them. One of these things is that they can be brutally, almost heinously honest. Anything from the book you are teaching to the colour of your shirt that day is fair game for a critique. This doesn’t come from a place of cruelty either (well, not always) it’s just that there hasn’t been enough time and experience for them to build up certain filters that might stop them saying something that has a full-grown adult wanting to crawl under his desk and cry for a bit because they’ve made an intentionally cutting remark about ‘the state of you, sir’. On the other hand, it does mean that they make extremely good product reviewers. When I asked a select few of them what makes a good VLE system (and after I’d explained the acronym) definite themes emerged.
The big thing that came out of this was that a VLE has to absolutely, positively, without a shadow of a doubt to be easy to use. Or else (and here came one of those honestly-bombs) they just won’t use it. A bespoke VLE has to compete with an extremely high standard of intuitive user interface from commercial apps outside the world of education. These apps streamline the process (whether it be to message someone, play a quick game of online pool or send a photo) to such an extent that it is done almost without thought.) There were complaints from the students of VLEs being ‘slow’ but, digging further into it, it was just that there had been a lack of thought (or in the worst cases – effort) put into the way that they might be used. For these students, the best VLEs were ones where the creators had taken time to consider the user experience; and not with just some generic ‘user’ in mind – but with an understanding of how a child or young adult might view and utilise the system during a typical school day. It had to be logical, smooth and inviting, navigation and labelling had to be obvious and there had to be immediate benefits for using the tools that had been included.
These things can be put in place but it takes an understanding of the way schools and other educational institutions work and also (perhaps more importantly) how the people inside those institutions work. Being honest about this process is extremely important – and if you want a good model for that, well, you’ve only got to talk to the kids (but do be prepared to spend some under-desk rocking time afterwards – and make sure that you iron that shirt).
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.