What is a VLE (Virtual Learning Environment)? – 2021 Guide

teacher working on laptop

What is a VLE?

A VLE is a platform used in education to give access to educational content online. This can be via computers or mobile devices (tablets or phones or even games consoles). Most VLEs are set up by a specific educational institution. For example, a school, college, or university. The institution will then make choices specific to the needs of their learners and staff. Some VLEs are created to be accessed by any learners, even if the learner is not affiliated to a “real life” educational establishment. This type of VLE is a means to deliver online courses to anyone who wants to buy them, or to offer them for free in some cases.

What does VLE stand for?

VLE stands for Virtual Learning Environment. This is where you replicate your school or college’s learning environment. This would be in a cloud-based solution online. ‘Virtual’ refers to the online nature of the platform. This makes it accessible via the internet from anywhere. The ‘Learning’ element is the involvement of education institutions or educators to create the content. The ‘Environment’ is the platform itself. Usually this would be tailored to the school or college in some way, although the main settings may be part of a generic set up. VLEs are primarily used for educational purposes.

What is a VLE used for?

A VLE combines a number of elements such as content management; curriculum and assessment; learner engagement; administration of learner information; communication tools; collaboration tools; and real-time (live) teaching elements. The tools and elements available will depend on the platform chosen. Some bigger institutions may build their own VLE from scratch, adding in those tools which they need the most. Others may choose to buy into a commercially available option. This needs researching to check they have the tools for the institution’s needs. VLEs tend to be started with a small range of tools, then grow in usage and functionality. This is in line with the confidence and engagement of the learners and staff.

What does a VLE need to be effective?

This will depend on the school or college’s needs. A VLE is usually tailored to the needs of the students first. In some cases the staff needs may take initial precedence. This may be to enable inter-departmental communication, for example.

What is each element of a VLE used for?

No two VLEs are exactly the same but here are some examples of how each tool or element of a VLE might be used:

Content Management: At the most basic use this works a bit like the folders of a computer. Course materials, PDFs, videos, sound files, slideshows, presentations, and any number of other media can be added. There may be information laid out in specific paths or on ‘pages’ much like a website. The main aim is to give access to the educational materials to the right groups of people. Some areas/pages/folders may be accessible only to staff, or to students on specific courses. The VLE can be thought of as the aggregator of information from many sources. It helps to make this easily accessible and organised.

Curriculum and assessment: Lesson plans, assessment and progress information, and curriculum statements may all be added to the VLE. This enables staff and/or students to access them easily, as well as to use them to personalise the learning experience for individuals or groups of students.

Learner engagement: the VLE is for engaging learners in their studies when not in the classroom. This can be either at home or on study periods. Tools such as quizzes and multimedia resources encourage learners to revisit course content. Teachers may add videos from sources such as YouTube or Vimeo. They could even make their own content for their students. They may also add links to external sources of information and content. This means that students can easily find the most useful resources for their studies. This may also include pastoral content to aid wellbeing and mental health. Teachers and administrators can make content more accessible and interactive than traditional methods.

Administration of learner information: A VLE may be used by administration to include useful information about students including their progress, special educational needs details, classes and course information. Usually, a VLE can also connect to other systems, such as an MIS (Management Information System) and specific learning software or apps. This helps to aggregate all student data into one place.

Communication Tools: A VLE may include communication either for 1:1 or 1:many communication. This may involve messaging systems, similar to emailing but within the system. There may be ‘live chat’ tools. There could be forums which teachers can use for educational purposes, allowing for general communication between students, between staff, or between staff and students. Chat rooms for groups of students all studying a particular course are also often used.

Collaboration Tools: Documents may have the option to allow multiple students to edit to work together. Groups may be created to discuss course content. They can add comments to the posts made by other staff/students. Some VLEs may also have RSS feeds, wikis, and blogs to allow for sharing of information and receiving feedback and comments.

Real-time teaching elements: VLEs may be used for allowing real-time video communication or verbal communication. This is to allow for real-time teaching. This may also include some on screen interaction, such as screen sharing or a virtual whiteboard, for example.

What is the benefit of a VLE?

There are many possible benefits of using a VLE. For the user (student or staff) it is a place which aggregates information and resources. It allows for interaction with others. This is especially useful when there is a blended learning approach and when students have time to study alone but may need support or access to materials.

VLEs can also save on costs such as printing course materials or buying multiple text books. Many textbook providers now offer affordable subscriptions for educational institutions. This is to incorporate course materials into the VLE.

A VLE can have an impact on student outcomes where they are able to access their learning from anywhere. This has a particular benefit when students are revising for exams. In cases of unexpected building closures, a VLE allows an institution to offer online learning options. Many colleges also use a VLE to allow them to offer courses to those who cannot attend college in person. The VLE can give them access to the same high quality teaching materials as those attending in person.

How difficult is it to start using a VLE?

In general, the commercially available VLEs have been designed with ease-of-use in mind. However, the VLE starts as essentially an “empty box”. It requires some work from the school or college to start making the VLE relevant for their students. There are often options to add some pre-made packages of content to get started. This helps to make the initial phase easier. Roll-out of a VLE relies on training at the start and then grows gradually over time. It is important to start with whatever needs come first. If communication is the biggest need then a VLE can begin with those tools first. If the need is to get resources to learners then those elements can be added first. VLEs take effort to curate but grow and evolve over time.

How much does a VLE cost?

This varies greatly from provider to provider. It also depends on whether you create a VLE yourself or purchase a ready made solution. Each has pros and cons. The staffing costs will need to be taken into account when considering the overall cost of a VLE. The staff who will need to update the content, especially at the beginning. Also consider the possible savings made when printing costs are reduced. Some VLEs are ‘free’ to use but may need more work to get set up and offer less flexibility or a smaller suite of tools.

Do we need a VLE?

That really depends on what you want to achieve and where you might find one useful. Solutions such as Learning Ladders combine the assessment and communication elements of a VLE, along with the ability to add content and search for ready-made content with trusted providers. To find out how we could help book a demo with one of our friendly team members.

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