Learning platform is a secure software system accessed online via a browser which supports teaching and learning through a variety of tools. In 2005 the Department of Education and Skills (DfES) stated that as a minimum learning platform should "combine communication and collaborative tools, secure individual online working space, tools to enable teachers to manage and tailor content to user needs, pupil progress tracking and anytime/anywhere access".
The Government's strategy paper Harnessing technology - transforming learning and children's services (DfES, 2005) highlighted learning platforms and encouraged their increased use. Effective and innovative use of technology throughout learning was the main purpose of Becta (British Educational Communications and Technology Agency). Becta was a government funded agency whose main aims were to develop a national education policy which utilises technology, working with the government in developing the e-strategy and working with schools to help them make effective use of ICT in order to improve educational outcomes (Becta, 2005). In May 2010 the organization was disbanded by the current government.
Becta was instrumental in recommending the use of a learning platform in school. In 2005, DfES recommended that every pupil has an access to an online e-portfolio. To encourage the parental involvement in teaching and learning, in 2007 Becta stated that every school was expected to provide a secure online access for parents. The deadline for secondary schools was September 2010 and for Primary schools September 2012. In the absence of new government guidelines this requirement still stands. However, as Becta ceased to exist, this has created a vacuum and uncertainty in schools.
This uncertainty is further acerbated by the collapse of another major project, Building schools for future (BSF). This was in initiative of the previous government to rebuild or renew most of the secondary schools in England. As part of the project, a building partner teamed up with an ICT provider to provide a complete new-built solution based around ICT. Whilst some schools have already benefited from this project, majority of the proposed contracts were halted in July 2010, creating further uncertainty in the market (BBC News, 2010).
My research proposes to look at the current situation in schools with respect to ICT strategy, and in particular to the schools strategy of using a learning platform. I want to discover the impact the demise of Becta has had on using of the learning platform within school, and the effects of the halted BSF programme. I also wish to explore the wider issues surrounding the use of a learning platform such as training, usability of the current product and management involvement in the rollout. I will then consider some of the alternatives to a learning platform.
In my literature review I will further define the terminology used, such as learning platform, VLE, MLE, Becta, Ofsted and BSF. I will try to discover the current government guidelines within this field and whether a lack of strategy for the development of a learning platform within the school will have a negative impact on a school's Ofsted report.
I will limit my research to state Primary and Secondary schools; although Becta's guidelines also cover further education establishments these will not be included in the research. Geographically I will only include schools within Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Derby City local authorities. I aim to include both schools which use the learning platform effectively and those who struggle to adopt the technology. The methodology proposed is an online or paper questionnaire with some in depth interviews.
Overall aim of the research is to discover the current situation in the education market with respect to the learning platform, and especially the feeling in the schools about the future of the learning platform within the school sector. There are many private organisations who supply both the learning platform itself and a VLE-compatible content; I feel research which brings into a foreground the current feeling of schools towards the learning platform will be of particular interest to them. It might also be of benefit to schools who are not adopting the technology by highlighting some of the benefits.
Becta and learning platform procurement
Becta stands for British Educational Communications and Technology Agency. Becta was a government funded agency whose main aims were to develop a national education policy which utilises technology, working with the government in developing the e-strategy and working with schools to help them make effective use of ICT in order to improve educational outcomes (Becta, 2005).
Becta was involved in developing and administering ICT procurement framework. The framework was set up to insure compliance with European Union (EU) and public procurement regulations (Becta, 2007). The framework agreements typically run for three to four years and are legally binding under European law. The regulations stipulate that any purchase over the EU procurement threshold must use the OJEU (Official Journal of the European Union) tendering process (DfE, 2011). As such a process can be both lengthy and costly the framework allows the schools/local authorities to purchase ICT products or services without having to conduct a full EU procurement process by selecting a supplier from the approved list. The suppliers must meet Becta's standards and specifications. The framework agreements were not designed for individual school purchases, as the procurement threshold currently stands at £ 156,442 (DfE, 2011) but rather with local authority/regional consortia purchasing in mind. The initial frameworks agreements were:
ICT Services Framework
Consultancy Services Framework
Learning Platforms Framework
Software Licences Framework
Internet Services Framework
As this review looks at the learning platforms in schools, only the Learning Platforms Framework will be considered. The Learning Platforms Framework agreement attracted a fair amount of criticism, with perhaps the best known being Early Day Motion "Software in Schools" by MP John Pugh (2006), a former teacher:
" That this House congratulates the Open University and other schools, colleges and universities for utilising free and open source software to deliver cost-effective educational benefit not just for their own institutions but also the wider community; and expresses concern that Becta and the Department for Education and Skills, through the use of outdated purchasing frameworks, are effectively denying schools the option of benefiting from both free and open source software and the value and experience small and medium ICT companies could bring to the schools market."
In support of the above motion, Crispin Weston from Alpha Learning - formerly one of the suppliers bidding for the contract - asked the European Commission to investigate Becta's Learning Platform Procurement for a breach of European regulations (Weston, 2007). Their main criticism was that majority of the successful bidders did not satisfy the mandatory criteria required by Becta at the start of the process.
"Becta did not enforce its own mandatory requirements when it realised that no-one would meet them. While smaller companies and open source products have been excluded from this competition, larger companies have been awarded contracts even though they do not meet necessary standards for interoperability." (Weston, 2007)
The Motion and the Alpha Learning case highlighted 2 major disadvantages of Becta's framework. First, none of the ten eventual successful suppliers (Appendix 1) offered free or open source software, as confirmed by the Becta's executive director of strategic technologies Stephen Lucey (Thurston, 2007). To date, only one of the suppliers across all of Becta's aforementioned frameworks claims to specialise in open-source software (Sirius, 2011). However, they are an approved supplier in the Software Licences Framework; the Learning Platforms Framework approved suppliers do not offer free or open source learning platform solution. Thus Moodle, the open source learning platform used by over 3000 sites in the UK (Moodle, 2011) including the Open University is usually not found in Primary/Secondary schools. Moodle is used mostly by further and higher education establishments.
Second, the bidding process excluded small and medium size suppliers as the tender stipulated net worth of at least £700 000. By today's standards, a very popular learning platform - Frog - was excluded because at the time they were not big enough (Davies, 2008). Despite not being an approved provider they have grown to supply over 600 schools with Frog learning platform (Frog Trade Ltd, 2011).
Another omission from the list of approved suppliers is Microsoft's offering, Sharepoint. Although on the initial tender list, it has not succeeded in becoming an approved provider. Nevertheless, some of the approved providers such as RM, Viglen or Talmos (now Core Education and Consulting Solutions Ltd) have VLE solutions based on Sharepoint technology.
Edugeek.net, a site run for educational IT support staff run a poll for its members to choose the best VLE solution. Interestingly, out of nearly 300 participants majority favoured VLE solutions not offered under the Becta Learning Platform Procurement Agreements (Edugeek, 2008).
To encourage the take-up of a learning platform in schools as set out in the government paper "Harnessing technology - transforming learning and children's services" (DfES, 2005) , the government allocated £41 million to local authorities under Standards Fund Grant 121a (Becta, 2006). The funding was designed to allow local authorities to procure a county-wide learning platform solution from Becta's Learning Platform Framework approved suppliers.
The local authorities which are targeted in this survey have the following solutions:
Derbyshire LA - Kaleidos (RM) - (DCC, 2008)
Derby City LA - Sharepoint(Microsoft) - (Novotronix, 2011)
Nottinghamshire LA - Fronter - (Brown, 2008)