Virtual Learning Environments or VLEs are the new-age educational management technologies that support interactions between learners and teachers. Virtual learning environments also focus on employing various resources like online systems and virtual tools to enhance the learning experience. The learning outcome and experience realized by deploying such a system depends on how well teachers use the system in the classroom. The crucial decision to use VLEs in primary schools provides innumerable benefits to and evokes a number of critical academic management issues. The goal of this paper is to evaluate how concepts of VLEs have affected learning in primary schools, especially in relation to the present education practices and deployment of online and virtual teaching technologies. In addition, this paper also provides how pedagogical learning values can affect the learning environment, especially when schools use VLEs to disseminate information through modern communication systems.
The action to implement a virtual learning environment (VLE) in a primary school provides a number of advantages. It also raises many pertinent issues for the school management. In fact, school management should take this issue very lightly (Gill & Shaw 2004). VLEs are the new-age learning systems that provide a number of practical benefits to schools. It's, anytime and anywhere access, ability to enhance motivational levels in students, capability to facilitate independent learning, enhanced usage of modern information and communication technology (ICT) tools and active involvement of both teachers and students, are some of the most significant benefits (Becta 2004).
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Many school management boards perceive a VLE program as "facilitators of changes in education and pedagogy towards more learner centered approaches, enhancing interactivity in learning [and] helping constructional knowledge building" (Land & Hannafin 2000, Pentland 2003). However, there is a lingering confusion over the usage of terms that highlight online learning system (Gill & Shaw 2004). The most widely accepted definition for VLEs as defined by JISC (2003) is very simple: "A VLE is an electronic system that can provide online interactions of various kinds that can take place between learners and tutors, including online learning" (JISC, 2003).
Some other definitions are broader and sweeping in nature. European Schoonet uses a broader definition for VLE: "Any solutions that propose a coherent set of services with pedagogical aims, supporting learning and teaching activities" (EUN 2003, Annex VI, p81). Commercial VLE developers use an altogether different definition while schools use the term learning platforms.
The history and development of VLE is quite recent. With the advancement in computer and communication technology, policymakers from different schools started using on or the other VLEs to supplement their primary educational efforts. Although the usage of VLEs is very recent, one can trace the history of VLE back to the former days of educational computing those used technically deficient systems (Winn 2002 p332-335, Ganesan et al 2002, p94-95). If at all, some schools used this technology, it was most probably motivated by technological developments rather than the most pressing education needs (Esienstadt & Vincent 2000, Porter 2003, Gill & Shaw 2004).
There is a fierce debate on the efficacy of introducing VLEs in a primary school educational setting. Right now, there are scant reports of primary schools using a full-pledged VLE to enhance the quality of education. Becta (2003) reports that, "a fully integrated VLE [may] not be appropriate for a primary school at this stage in VLE development" (p35). On the other hand, Gill and Shaw (2004) perceives that "most of the primary schools depend "on external inputs to develop their understanding, vision and resultant use of any provided solution" (p3).
However, more numbers of schools have started to use VLEs to blend primary education into the realms of modern virtual educational concepts (DfES 2005c). Some primary schools around the world, especially in the advance countries of the West have started using "institution level" information and communication technology (ICT) to improve their teaching and management objectives. This study provides how VLEs can affect the sophistication levels of primary education in schools and in what manner primary schools can integrate many pedagogical virtual learning values in a seamless manner. This paper also presents the usage of primary virtual learning techniques that a primary school can use to train its students and realize better learning experience from them.
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VLE is essentially a network-empowered computer software program where the user takes part in an extremely simulated 3D space medium (Dickey, 2005). According to Trindade et al. (2002), VLD displays a high degree of immersion and active participation that eventually makes a user as if he or she is an artificial environment. A VLE program may include several tools like conferencing system, interactive simulation tools, shred virtual whiteboards, asynchronous and synchronous discussion threads (Britain & Liber, 1999).
VLEs offer several advantages over a traditional classroom. They are flexible, convenient, provide easy access to course materials and help students retain knowledge for a long time. VLEs also empower learning that is student-focused, interactive and self-sustaining (Harasim et al. 1995). Academicians believe that VLEs could help students with intellectual deficiencies in advanced education. Pantelidis (1993) believes that VLEs have the capability to encourage active learning and they give users an experience of self-control over the learning process.
Both engaged learning and VLEs relate with each other. Engaged learning is a very old idea. VLEs usually deliberate on active and engaged learning through inquiry. Engagement is an important concept. In essence, it is "the mobilization of cognitive, affective and motivational strategies for interpretive transactions with text' (Bangert-Drowns and Pyke, 2001, p215). An engaged learner finds learning very exciting while the attention level that he or she exhibits is far better and lengthier. An engaged learner is also a learner by participation and exploration.
The active use of information and communication technology (ICT) and its tools could assist a student become an active and engaged learner. An ICT based, VLE environment always involves challenging and real problems to solve (Savery & Duffy, 1995). It also facilitates different types of interactions like learner-content, learner-learner, and learner-teacher (Chou, 2003). Collaborative learning is possible with the deployment of VLEs. Students can easily work in groups to find solutions to a common problem or act as a team to find collaborative solutions.
Salmon (2003) explained how instructors could use VLE to help students become capable and academically empowered. A good VLE system can improve i) the student's level of accessibility to the learning process, ii) the classroom interaction between the students and instructors and iii) their motivation towards the learning (Lopez et al. 2007).
Using effective VLEs to integrate seamless pedagogical values
The implementation of VLEs in a primary school can be very effective. To set up a formidable VLE to support a school curriculum, the management may need to think of its effectiveness that in turn is influenced by three important factors: knowledge management, pupils' approach to learning, and academic performance (Becta 2003 p32). However, all the three factors show a very close relationship. The basic approach to learning in a primary school is affected by the type and effectiveness of knowledge management and its sharing pattern among different students.
These factors also lead to some critical questions:
First, how does a VLE program act as an effective tool for administering knowledge management in a primary school?
Second, can its use and deployment demonstrate a positive influence on student's viewpoint about his or her academic performance?
Third, is it possible for a VLE program to enhance the performance of student in terms of measurable academic achievement?
Although virtual learning environment is a fast expanding field of academic research, its use in primary school is rather very scanty. No much literature is available on this specific area. One of the important concerns that most schools express is how they can ensure a better delivery for traditional curriculum and act as facilitators for sweeping pedagogical transformations on the other. Another pressing concern could be the existence of the perceived "digital divide" as suggested by many authors (Sallis & Jones 2002, Valentine et al 2005).Some school management boards may also feel about the equality of access to an online curriculum (Becta, 2003).
One of the pitfalls of using VLEs in a primary classroom setting is the existence of a "digital divide". Many of the students who want to take part in the VLE drive may not have a computer with an internet connection. Students from developing countries usually face this problem. Another significant concern could be the lack of knowledge in operating a computer system. However, some students may access the course by gaining internet connection from places other than their homes.
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However, these concerns may be irrelevant now because the deployment of robust VLEs can guarantee a number of benefits and advantages. They can empower the school and its students with a far greater access to the curriculum by using a specific and confirmed technological innovation (Vincent & Whalley 1998). In addition, an efficient computer-enabled communication system can cajole even the shyest and withdrawn students to join the program (Williams 2002, p266). VLE-blended learning program acts as a solid anchor.
The teacher who handles the program becomes the anchor for his or her students. Anchored instruction will empower students to explore, query, question and study the course presented in a virtual context. VLEs are very efficient in giving a meta-environment where the system will combine numerous online resources that could be of immense use to a student (Sumner & Taylor 1998). Instructors use VLEs as a common platform to design and create brand new courses (Minshull 2004, p25). A teacher who uses a good VLE can assume the role of a "knowledge broker" (Davenport & Prusak, 2000, p29-30).
Introducing a VLE environment is a management decision. The most important question that researchers pose here is, "what can schools do to set up a VLE learning environment and ensure its complete success and maximum effectiveness?" Minshull debates that "it is â€¦ essential that the selection of the VLE and the way it is implemented are in close accordance with the institution's strategic plan" (2004, p20).
Many authors argue that VLEs in a primary school context is not useful and it may not provide the desired outcome. It is true that many schools are finding deployment of VLEs in their school curriculum. The most frequently asked question is whether this system is creating a new paradigm in education or it is just trying to improve an already existing version of program.
The European EUN Consortium Study (Vuorikari, 2003) argues about three important points:
There is a perceived boom in VLE's development
They are not meeting the expectations of the academicians
Schools, whoever is using it, deploy it as a traditional tool to disseminate new knowledge and skills
Incidentally, this report proposes two plausible reasons for the slow-paced development in the deployment of VLE. The first reason is that most teachers are still learning the techniques in which a VLE works. The second one is the system's inability to support the desired change (Vuorikari, 2003). VLEs could be highly successful tools for delivering content in a real-time manner. However, it can work only when it utilizes its technological features along with the much-needed re-analysis of the teacher's pedagogy.
At times, teachers and instructors who are involved may have some difficulties. The teacher-level barriers to the successful implementation of VLE system could be the lack of self-confidence, time and training (Guha, 2000). Teacher's apparent fear of failure could also be a big factor in adapting to the new technology. A significant change in the pedagogical practice to use the new technology may force some teachers not to accept the usefulness of VLE programs because they feel that those programs may not enhance learning process. It may be necessary to examine the existing pedagogical ambience in relation to the present style of teaching, examination and teaching practices.
The type of barriers that exist today towards the effective use of VLE systems are segregated into two distinctive groups: those relating to the instructors and those connected to the institution management (Becta, 2004). Lack of good ICT facilities could be another barrier (Pelgrum, 2001). Inadequate access to computer facilities and organization of computer systems into VLE suits could also be other barriers (Fabry and Higgs, 1997).
Introduction of VLEs into primary school environment is a relatively new phenomenon. With the advent of new communication technologies and tools, the education sector will see introduction of sophisticated delivery systems that rely solely on virtual learning environment philosophies and objectives. Barriers, when broken and shattered, will give way over to the adaption of VLEs in an extended scale. However, teachers and the institutions may need to use this system wisely and in a productive manner. Otherwise, they may simply fail to achieve the desired objectives. To quote Tony Bates' words, "Good teaching may overcome a poor choice in the use of technology, but technology will never save bad teaching; it usually makes it worse" (1995, p.12).