Thursday, May 28, 2009

Does Ofsted really understand VLEs?

Belated reflections on the Ofsted VLE Report

Folly in the evening by Adrian Midgley - used under Creative Commons license.

About a month ago I spent an evening trying to get into the FlashMeeting of EdTechRoundup - but for some reason it wouldn't let me in, which was a little bit galling - however it did prompt me to bash out a brief blog post on the Ofsted report Virtual learning environments: an evaluation of their development in a sample of educational settings, which I've been more than a little tardy in reflecting on. (Editor’s note: it’s only taken a month after this was started to finish. Read on.) This was the document referenced in the ETRU meeting wiki page for the meeting in question, and was published in January of this year. Essentially it says that there is little effective use of VLEs in primary schools and some moderately successful use in secondary schools – the report also covered FE but that’s outside of my remit here.

The report makes several good, if fairly obvious points, including:

  • VLEs should be developed to enhance learning and not just a storage or communication facility (which I've heard described lately as a WHORE);
  • senior management roles should be included in any VLE strategies which are put in place;
  • the impact of the VLE on learners’ outcomes should be regularly assessed;

You can read the report yourself to explore the background to these comments – there’s no point in expanding on them here and indeed they are common sense to anyone who’s looked seriously at the implementation of VLEs for more than about a month or so.

However, what has made me raise my metaphorical eyebrows has been the experiences of a number of our schools in Ofsted’s approach and interest in the VLE (or lack of) during inspections. Chalfonts Community College, the Royal Latin School and Buckingham Primary School have all been inspected over the past couple of years and – critically to this discussion – all are using their VLEs to support learning effectively in different ways. Just as there is no defined method for “successfully” using ICT to support learning, there’s no one guaranteed way to enhance learning through using a VLE – it’s up to individual schools to cut their cloth to fit their school environment, community (staff, students & parents) and the other characteristics which make every school unique. You can read the reports for Chalfonts, the Royal Latin and BPS on the Ofsted site, but the interesting thing for me is that none of the reports mention the VLE (open any of the PDF files, press Ctrl-F and enter VLE, virtual, or platform and “No search results (are) found”) - despite it being core to much of the learning that’s going on in the schools.

Er, what’s a VLE?

Paul (who blogs at planetpda.net) who was responsible for much of the development of the VLE at BPS, now works part-time at the Royal Latin with a special focus on ICT as well as transition – and is uniquely placed to see how a VLE might work in both environments. His experience of how Ofsted react to the existence of a VLE may not be indicative of all inspectors but it’s worrying – especially in the light those elements of Ofsted’s own report on VLEs which refer to schools. Is it simply that Ofsted aren’t expecting schools to use VLEs - so they don’t ask about them? The report visited six primary schools and described the use of VLEs as “very limited”. There’s no doubt that in those schools the use was limited, but does that become the measure of how all schools should be inspected? To visit a school like BPS where the VLE is used widely across the whole curriculum and ignore it, or simply not be aware of it, makes me wonder what’s happening – it really would require a deliberate decision not to address it (because it’s not seen as ‘real learning’? because Ofsted visitors don’t feel comfortable with it?) or simply not be aware that it was there. Well, let’s eliminate the second of those possibilities– I know that that many staff who spoke with the Ofsted team throughout the inspection mentioned the VLE and that it wasn’t until nearly the end when the Lead finally asked “What’s a VLE?” to a teacher who had mentioned it (again). So why was it ignored?

Switch to the end of 2007 and Chalfonts Community College has an inspection. Greg at the school prepares a dossier on how using the VLE has engaged with disaffected students, broadened access to the curriculum for all students – all of the things you’d expect even a half-decent implementation of a VLE to do. Evidence from site logs of the commitment of students to working outside of school, assignments and work done online, you name it. What does the inspector want? “Give me a paragraph on how it’s affected attainment”. As you can imagine, the significant provision that the school makes (and made at the time) was not mentioned in the report.

The irony of this all is that both Chalfonts & BPS are featured in Becta’s Learning Platforms in Action DVD as examplars of how to use VLEs/Learning Platforms efficiently. Now, I know during the filming of those videos that students, staff and parents were instructed to use the term “Learning Platform” rather than “VLE” to fit in with the focus on the former – but however you put it and whichever term you use, these tools can be fundamental to enabling effective learning and all sorts of other “good things” which would characterise a good school. Reading paragraph 5 of the Ofsted VLE survey it appears that “a sample of 34 school inspection reports, published between September 2005 and December 2007, that had references to VLEs” was the basis for some of the background to the report. It’s not immediately clear if “only 34 reports” from that period mentioned VLEs or if these 34 were merely representative of a much larger number which mentioned them but weren’t included. Given the way Ofsted reports appear to ignore online learning even in schools which have carefully and thoughtfully used it to enhance, I think I tend towards the former.

What does Ofsted really think?

Solomon's Temple, Buxton by Frankie Roberto - used under Creative Commons license.

So what is Ofsted’s genuine opinion on this? Is it worth schools’ while to invest time and effort in developing their use of VLEs if they are fairly sure that Ofsted will ignore them during an inspection? Does the average Ofsted inspector realise that schools have been obliged to support learning online for a couple of years now (from the E-Strategy)? Is there a general awareness that schools have been mandated to work in this area, and that it's closely related to the personalisation agenda? Should I search Ofsted reports for the word "personalisation"?

As Paul says, until aspects of online learning appear in the SEF then it would appear that Ofsted won’t be bothered. The SEF is the main document referred to when an inspection is planned and inspectors (we are told) study it before an inspection. That, or when some inspectors are employed who have recently been involved in schools, either in a leadership or Local Authority role and have seen what good online provision to support learning looks like. When I worked in Hertfordshire about seven years ago, we used to joke that if you gave a CD-ROM to an inspector they wouldn’t know what to do with it. Nowadays, the equivalent appears to be a username and password to your school’s VLE – at least one of the schools mentioned above offered this to the Ofsted team and it wasn’t touched.

I’d be really interested to hear any comments on Ofsted’s approach to any online learning provision you’ve made in your school – were they interested or ignorant? Did they seem familiar with what you offered might mean to learning? Did you mention online learning in your SEF, and was this referred to by the inspectors? Alternatively, if you didn’t or don't offer much in the way of online provision, did it bother them? Would online learning's inclusion in the SEF change your senior leaders' or governors' point of view?