Tom Starkey – Kids| Webanywhere Blog

Published: March 10, 2016

See also, parts one and two of this series.

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

Can your VLE help solve recruitment issues?

Published: March 8, 2016

It’s no secret that there’s a recruitment crisis in education at the moment. Fewer new teachers are joining, and those already here and leaving in ever-greater numbers. A recent survey found that 90% of headteachers were struggling to fill vacancies in their schools. Naturally, fewer teachers means the potential for less learning by students – no matter how dedicated or skilled those remaining are, they’re competing with high workloads and difficult conditions.
The Association of School and College Leaders have argued that the solution here lies in flexible working for teachers, and, in a manner of speaking, we’d be inclined to agree. What this situation shows, we think, is where a blended learning strategy can really come into its own. By utilising elearning, educators and their students can learn to do more with fewer (physical) resources.
A VLE, with its self-marking quizzes, learning analytics and endless customisation options, can prove invaluable in automating much of the drudgery and admin problems that so-plague the teaching profession. This leaves the teachers themselves free to improve their lesson plans and provide better tuition to their charges.
Additionally, with the heavy focus on one-to-one teaching – something which can’t be achieved with diminishing staff numbers – a VLE with integrated social platforms can prove a real boon. Give every pupil the option to engage directly with their teachers, and in turn give the teachers the option to give quick, easy and detailed personalised feedback.
Too often a VLE is seen as a “needless luxury”, something which takes time away from more pressing matters. We think this is missing out on a lot of the positives. While it’s true that getting used to a VLE can take some time, with a few advocates and the right attitude we know that one can work in any environment, joining up learning and facilitating ever-greater growth.

Tom Starkey – Joys | Webanywhere Blog

Published: March 3, 2016

If a clunky VLE (see part one of this series) can cause no end of heartache to a teacher desperately just trying to get on with it (and consequently lead them to thoughts of abandoning all technology to draw slideshows on Shakespeare using a stick out on the muddy playing field), then one that works, and works well, is an absolute joy to behold. It can speed up and improve learning, increase communication and understanding, and act as a link between home and school (as well as a multitude of other things besides).

Also, on a purely selfish level, it can make a teacher’s life a heck of a lot easier.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I care about that other stuff as well – learning, kids, all that palaver, but I’m not above asking ‘what’s in it for me?’. If a system can streamline some of the things I do and make the day go by that little bit more easily, then I’m going to jump right on board with a ticket in hand. For me it doesn’t have to be ‘pedagogically transformative’ or ‘paradigm shifting’ (in fact, when I hear those terms, it often makes me die a little inside) but if it can augment my practice, then that often frees up time for some of the finer things in life. Finer things such as giving me some thinking space to come up with a way to get an idea across, or letting me create a resource that’ll be really useful, or giving me enough time to sit and have a second cup of coffee.

(The coffee thing is probably the most important quite frankly).

Because a good VLE system not only does the things it’s supposed to do reliably and with a minimum of fuss, it also acts as an enabler in relation to other aspects of the job.

Easy organisation and access of resources means you don’t have to chase a kid down to make sure they got the worksheet they conveniently ‘misplaced’ 4 times.

If you’re not chasing a kid down then you’re free to do other things.

Integrated organisational tools for the students allow them to take the impetus when it comes to the management of their learning, and not always look to you for guidance with the minutiae. If they’re doing it for themselves then they’re leaving you to crack on.

Tracking and progress tools lets you identify at which point a student is exceeding expectation or flags up when they might be struggling, without having to go through endless records to try and find that info.

If you’re not struggling with records then you’re doing something more useful (which is just about anything else apart from struggling with records).

A good VLE frees a teacher to concentrate on perhaps some of the more essential things that go on in schools; planning, relationship building, the drinking of coffee. It can shift focus from repetitive, mundane tasks to actual learning and, in the best cases, go further – it can help a teacher minimise unnecessary workload and get them out of the gates on an evening that much sooner. OK, so that’s not about the kids or the learning, but nevertheless it’s a very exciting prospect all things considered.

In my last post in the series next week, I’ll shift the focus away from wonderful teachers and place it on the students (who can be a little bit wonderful too, when they’re trying really hard).

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

Tom Starkey – Clunk | Webanywhere Blog

Published: February 25, 2016

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