Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Does a VLE need content to be useful?

I'm sat, near what might be the only available power socket in the room, at the back of the hall of the Naace strategic conference. On Monday, while in the office tying up loose email ends and making sure that things were shipshape while I'm not in the county for a few days (somehow, I don't think my absence will affect things that much), I picked up a piece of mail - one of many identical pieces of mail addressed to every member of our ICT team. It was from Birchfield Interactive and was a four page A4 brochure with a bold claim on the front. You can flick through it yourself below:

Now that's a bold claim and one I'm not sure I agree with - not just about Birchfield but for everyone. Whatever I say isn't necessarily about Birchfield's content which, as the positive quotes in the brochure say, might well be quite good.
However, the salient question is is a VLE without bought content a waste of time? The campaign in question implies that a VLE without content is like a car without fuel which must mean something similar.
As previously mentioned I think Birchfield's content is OK - we've got some samples of their content and will open it up in a shared Moodle area for our schools to look at when the main BucksGfL site is updated to Moodle 1.8 so that schools can have a go with something that works in their VLE before purchasing it.
Something that Ewan McIntosh alluded to last night was that it's the users that make a VLE work. You can throw all the content you want at it, but without users it would be like... well, a fully fuelled car without a driver I guess. Is the teacher the driver in this analogy? I think not, but then neither are the learners. Besides, bearing in mind that VLEs and Learning Platforms exist in a world where existing pedagogy doesn't always cater for them, aren't teachers learners as well? Some of the best work we've seen within our Moodles in Buckinghamshire hasn't come from great swathes of pre-produced content but from interactions (particularly in forums) between learners and other learners (with teachers in there as well) - reflecting on their own work - some of which comes from curriculum requirements and some of which doesn't. Much of it reflects on and responds to freely available content available online. Of course, good quality content could stimulate this as well, but on its own, does it make a difference? It's a different world from something like RM's Kaleidos which comes with "ready mapped" curriculum content - so does this make any real difference? At last week's Becta Symposium on Effective Use of Learning Platforms the point was made that effective VLEs aren't content driven - instead it's a whole raft of other things which make them effective. So why is content being marketed to schools like this? Is it because schools are worried that what they do themselves isn't good or compelling enough? Are we about to see a push of content at schools as the end of eLCs nears - while it be useable, or even useful to them? Will it be shrink-wrapped and difficult to use, or in bite sized chunks, a la Ode or the way some people think it should be?


  1. I just have to agree with you!

  2. Hi Ian,

    I was supporting schools who had bought into a well-known VLE from a content provider a few years ago. The same message was going around then. Yet the thing that really excited me - and which I tried to emphasise in the workshops - was the communication tools. It was the forums, chat rooms, assignment drop boxes etc that were really going to change the way teachers & learners interact. Not bundles of content.

  3. Excellent post Ian. I like Birchfield and use many of their packages, but I do wish companies would stop making claims like they have. As you know I have invested time and effort in my VLE (a Moodle as it happens) and firmly believe that BOUGHT content is the icing on the cake rather than the sponge and filling inside (grr for starting a food analogy that gets more silly the more I extend it). As is evident from the BETT Show too many companies now see marketing VLE content as a way to make a quick buck, whereas in many cases teachers and students have the werewithall to make just as good content and activities themselves.

  4. A few years ago I saw VLE's as a content delivery system which could be used to quiz your students and I was happy with that.

    How can we be stuck with that model though when we are in a Web 2.0 world. Good classrooms are interactive and the learners learn through working with each other. Learning is an active process and so learning via a VLE should be active. Content takes along time to create and I can undertstand why people would wish to buy rather than create. But your students should be creating content through blogging, wikis, forums, shared photo and document libraries.

    I had training this week on the Borough's preferred platform. I asked the question "What is there on the platform for students to do". There were blogs and wikis but then the response was "Well, we have a content team to design things like that". Well if I was a teacher and needed something for the students to do using a VLE for next week or even next month, a content team will not be quick enough. There is plenty of activities in Moodle to keep me going without having to rely on content all the time.

    I have really come around to the Social Constructivist way. Sitting on a computer using content is not social and will only benefit a small group of people.

  5. From what Steve says, this doesn't sound like a company that will be around for long - we NEED their content team to survive, do we?

    Also, there's plenty you can do in a car without fuel, a lot of it great fun, but a fully fueled car with no-one to drive it (or have a conversation in it or...) is a fairly sad affair. It certainly isn't going anywhere.