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Choosing online learning environments

Online Learning Environments (OLEs) provide a range of tools that work together to create a student-centric learning experience. The tools support an exchange of information between a learner, their teachers, their peers, and their parents/whānau through digital media. Those tools provide a valuable enhancement to learning when they are integrated into learning programmes based on educational theory and practice. They often have a "classroom" where:

  • assignments can be set and submitted
  • a range of resources can be provided and exchanged
  • online discussions and collaborative work can be facilitated.

New Zealand schools have been using Learning Management Systems (LMS) such as Moodle, Ultranet, Schoology, and Knowledgenet for some time. Many of these kinds of Online Learning Environments (sometimes known as Virtual Learning Environments) continue to be developed and used in schools. More recently schools are using Microsoft‘s Office 365 and Google’s G Suite as their OLE.

Building a rationale for change

To build the trust of the whole school community, it is important that the school leadership is able to share and articulate why an online environment is necessary in the first place, and then why they have chosen one over another. The whole school community has to be committed to the goal to make it work. 

Using the Strategic thinking roadmap  will help you to implement a strategic direction that ensures technologies such as your OLE are integrated into a school-wide drive for effective teaching and learning. 

The choice of environment should flow on from your vision for your learners. Consider first, “what are we trying to achieve for our learners?”, and the environment then becomes an agent of change. It prompts teachers to examine how the technology can support learning and leads to a shift in thinking about their practice. Have a look at Google Apps  to see how learning has been transformed using online environments. 

The online environment should provide flexible approaches to learning and teaching to meet the varied needs of learners in your school. It should enable teachers to design learning programmes which allow students to pick their own pathway, select activities which meet their learning needs whilst also challenging them to push their own boundaries. Having multiple means of representation, action, and expression leads to greater engagement with learning.

Once you have clear ideas about how you’d like the environment to support learning, you can examine the aspects of the online environment and decide which is most appropriate for the needs of your school community.

 

Online learning word cloud

Considerations for choice of OLE

Whether you are starting from scratch or looking to change, make your review of the environments you are considering specific; prioritise the aspects that you have highlighted as being essential to start off with and then broaden your scope using the considerations listed below. Endeavour to be objective – it’s not about your own opinions or leanings towards the environment, but about how well it works for people to achieve the desired pedagogical outcomes. If you already have an LMS or some sort of online environment that you are using to support learning, it is important to take time to do some research and to review and critique what is happening with your existing environment before you make decisions about changing it. What are the aspects that work well for students and teachers, what doesn’t work well, what would you like it to do now and in the future? Then compare other possible environments using the same criteria. 

It is advisable to gather information from external sources by talking to other schools, joining online discussions and reading a range of reviews. 

Hands-on trialling with students and staff is essential to find out how an environment works for you in your context. The trial can form part of a teacher’s inquiry process which will provide you with valuable evidence and data as you move forwards to make your decisions and roll out to the rest of the school. 

Overall, to ensure widespread adoption of the OLE, the key two factors to ascertain are: 

  • ease of use
  • usefulness

Specific features and functions to consider 

Access

The OLE should provide easy access to tools to aid learning and teaching for all – students, teachers, their whānau and the wider community. It needs to be engaging, adaptable, connective, and easy to access on any device at any time. 

Technical

Consider:

  • The ease of the environment to implement and on-going maintenance required.
  • How well the environment operates and integrates alongside other systems such as your SMS and other software or services you use such as support for single sign on.
  • The ease of access to and use of data.
  • The security of data within the environment.
Environment capabilities

Consider: 

  • The ease of use for learners, school staff, whānau, and so on.
  • The range and suitability of software, functionality or content available.
  • Performance across devices.
  • The ease of collaboration.
  • The speed to log-in and use.
  • Compatibility with touch interfaces on devices for writing, drawing and annotating.
  • How the environment supports all learners? For example, read/write functionality, text to speech.
Communities of Learning and transitions between schools 

Consider what other schools and Communities of Learning in your area use. Transitioning between schools can be a stressful time for students and a time when engagement in learning declines. While there are many suggested reasons for this dip, one element is a change in the learning environment. Continuity of a familiar environment may help children adapt more easily and focus on learning rather than coping with new and unfamiliar systems. 

As more and more students have learning portfolios which track their learning and progress, you need to consider how the evidence of their learning follows them as they transition between schools. Schools use a wide variety of e-portfolios such as blogs and websites so it is important to examine how the different environments integrate them. 

Support and costs 

As well as initial installation costs, it is important to consider ongoing technical support which may be required from the OLE provider or technical support companies. Costs associated with ongoing professional development for all staff to develop their capabilities cannot be underestimated or undervalued. How can you maximise the expertise you already have in school to provide ongoing support for teachers and develop sustainability? 

School administration 

Online environments can work across the whole school and it is important to address the needs of administrative staff too. How will your choice of environment impact on the work of the finance department, office staff, care taking staff, and so on? All staff need to be included in discussions and in ongoing training and support. 

Is it possible to run two environments? 

Some schools run two or more similar online learning environments in parallel. This requires careful thought and management from both a technical and pedagogical point of view to run them successfully. It is important to be clear what the benefits of running two environments are. Consider how a dual system will benefit your learners and support their learning. Do the different environments provide different tools for learning which provide greater choice for learners? 

Conversely, what are the risks involved in running two environments? Adults who are comfortable with a product may find it challenging to move away from it and will need support to switch between environments. While students can be quite adept at selecting and using the right tool for the right purpose and easily switch between environments, too much variety can lead to confusion. This could be a barrier to learning. 

Privacy and storage of documents 

The issue of privacy and security of documents especially those of a sensitive nature is part of the bigger picture of school management of data. The concerns raised about the security of cloud servers and how data might be shared is, and will be, an ongoing debate. One benefit of cloud storage is that it cannot be destroyed by local failure or accident. 

The Privacy Act doesn’t provide specifically for schools but states that organisations are responsible for ensuring that personally identifying information is protected “by such security safeguards as it is reasonable in the circumstances to take.” Principle 5 in the publication “Privacy in Schools: a guide to the Privacy Act for principals, teachers, and boards of trustees” states that “Schools have an obligation to take care of the personal information they hold. There needs to be reasonable measures in place to avoid loss of information or unauthorised access or use.” 

Considering how key data is backed up either in another cloud-based solution or an onsite server is highly recommended. 

OLE checklist

OLE Checklist.docx (OCX, 9.46 kB)

Professional learning

The choice of OLE can significantly influence practice, so if the environment is easy to use, barriers are removed and people move more quickly to looking at how it enhances learning. It becomes "invisible" as a tool because it is just another tool in your kete of teaching resources. 

If you are introducing an environment that will act as an enabler for more effective learning, it is essential that you consider how your teachers learn how to make the best use of it. The tools which are part of the environment will only enhance learning if they are used in a way which is “participatory, engaging, co-creative and collaborative”. So teachers need time to design learning programmes that are intuitive and based on the needs of the student and their learning. 

Three areas to consider when planning a professional learning programme  

  1. The nuts and bolts of how the environment works, for example, filing, uploading material, designing documents, sharing folders, understanding the email system, calendars. All staff and students need to feel comfortable and confident using the tools in the environment so time needs to be given to learning and practising.
  2. Pedagogy – integrating the technology into effective learning programmes based on educational theory and practice. Making the shift in thinking to change practice is not easy but it is important to support teachers as they explore how to work together for the benefit of student learning outcomes using the OLE. The teaching as inquiry framework offers a valuable approach to exploring effective practice using an online environment; it can be applied to all learning contexts so teachers can work from a position of strength.
  3. Time to assimilate new ideas is important so a measured timetable of Professional Learning which is responsive and respectful to support staff as they shift their thinking and practice is essential. Professional Learning Groups are useful so teachers don’t feel isolated; they can work together to support each other as they build their skills, problem solve, and share ideas and resources. It is important that staff are able to focus on developing their practice in the context of students’ needs.

Readings

Making effective use of VLEs

A blog post by Derek Wenmoth commenting on Virtual Learning Environments.

e-Learning community discussions

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