Virtual Learning Environment in Primary Schools

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Research reports on active use of virtual learning environment (VLE) in primary schools are very scanty. The use of VLEs in a primary school setting increases with the age of pupils who study in higher grades. Activity based VLE's are the most popularly used tools in some schools while project based VLEs did not find much use in most of the schools. The reasons for this perceived lower usage of VLEs is due to the higher initial costs of setting up a good VLE tool.

Many schools in the developing and developed world cite directs costs as the main impediment to setting a robust and result-oriented VLE. Another problem cited by schools relates to the preparation of course materials by the school teaching staff. Another factor that inhibits schools from using VLEs is the low-level of enthusiasm displayed by the teachers and other staff.

The school authorities should know and understand different causes that inhibit them from setting up a robust VLE in their schools. Such schools may fail to understand the importance of experiencing the goodness of VLEs. In other words, the school authorities and management may not properly introduce the basic concept of VLEs and their benefits to their teaching staff. The amount of additional work involved in implementing VLE could also be a barrier. As VLE is an open medium, where mistake or error committed by teachers and other related staff is visible to others, it may act as another barrier to the successful implantation of the program.

A virtual learning environment is completely technology-enabled and teachers who handle this program may not have enough time to see what it is capable of doing. Some teachers need more time to get accustomed with the technology that may not be possible given the rigorous demands of the school teaching schedule. In this regard, teachers who handle the program may need timely induction and orientation to learn more about the VLE program.

One of the significant barriers to use VLEs in the primary schools is the perceived inability of young minds to master the basics of the learning program. Sophisticated interfaces, tools and techniques used in modern VLEs may be too much for very young learners. This necessitates designing and creating very simple VLE tools and techniques that every child can easily use and learn.

To implement VLEs successfully in primary and secondary schools, policymakers may need to involve teaching staff in a proactive manner. The most important goal here is to "convert" reluctant staff members and learners to take up the program in an enthusiastic manner. The process of introducing VLEs to primary and secondary school becomes easier with full commitment by both teaching staff and learners.

This article will initially evaluate how concepts of VLEs affect learning in primary schools, especially in relation to the present education practices and deployment of online and virtual teaching technologies. In the second part, we will demonstrate how this evaluation and analysis will help us in designing a primary school VLE prototype-learning model. This theoretical model will then be evaluated and precise conclusions and recommendations for its implementation will be made. Lastly, this paper will also try to assess how pedagogical learning values can affect the learning environment, especially when schools use VLEs to disseminate information through the VLE model developed.

Review of Literature

Implementation of a virtual learning environment (VLE) in primary and secondary schools could provide a number of significant benefits. There are numerous definitions for virtual learning environment. In nutshell, it is a package of tutoring and learning tools chosen that promote a student's learning-experience by including modern communication tools in the process of learning. The most important components of a standard VLE package may include standard course materials, registration portal, student monitoring tools, and online support component for teacher and students, a system to set up communication among participants and navigational links to external curriculum resources.

Several classical definitions provide precise details on the basic architecture of a standard VLE package. BECTA (2004) analyzed different issues of a standard VLE package and gave a standard definition for VLE:

"A VLE is a software tool which brings together in an integrated environment a range of resources that enable learners and staff to interact online and includes content delivery and tracking." (p1).

Another definition by Pimentel (1999) reads as follows:

. . . We define a virtual learning environment as one that allows learners to perceive the environment, assess situations and performance, perform actions and proceed through experiences and lessons that will allow them to perform better with more experience on repetition of the same task in similar circumstances. This definition of a virtual learning environment emphasizes the importance of learning."

In its publication named "Introduction to managed learning environments, JISC (2003) defines virtual learning environment (VLE) as:

"An electronic system that can provide online interactions of various kinds that can take place between learners and tutors, including online learning"

The idea of introducing a full-pledged VLE in a primary school is debatable. Not many schools are using VLEs to empower their children with modern method of education. Whether or not to use VLEs in primary schools depends on the schools' ability to install and use them, and their teaching staff's capability and inclination to use VLEs. Although several commercial flavors and versions of VLEs are available in the market, the mostly cater to higher grade schools and colleges. A virtual learning environment is very complex and dynamic. Therefore, a fully equipped and customized VLE may not be suitable for a primary school at this state (BECTA, 2004).

An efficient implementation of VLEs in primary school may encounter several barriers. Learning through an electronic medium may not guarantee user satisfaction and full learning. The main drivers that influence the success of VLEs in a primary classroom are the quality of content and the mode in which the tutor delivers the content (Obringer, 2001). Obringer (2001) also thinks, "E learning or VLE will tend to get repetitive and monotonous, especially when the course material becomes jaded and delivery method too irrelevant (2001)." Present VLE systems may need a complete overhaul, as they are almost similar in both the content and delivery system. Obringer (2001) also believes that it is possible to motivate schoolchildren by offering them plenty of "fun" activities along with a generous sprinkle of audio-visual elements.

Implementing an e learning platform could be very difficult in many countries of the world especially in those areas, where technical details like bandwidth and technical hitches assume prominence. These perceived anomalies may act as significant barriers to effective e learning as tutors involved in the program may cite them as valid excuses (Scrimshaw, 2004). Other barriers to successful implementation of VLEs in schools as identified by Pelgrum (2001) are the absence of required number of servers and computers and a percieved lack of knowledge and skills among teachers. The former barrier is most commonly obeserved in developing countries while the latter is common to schools in almost all countries of the world.

Schools in devloping countries lack access to appropriate hardware and software systems while the tutors' beliefs about learning and teaching tend to favor a traditional classroom, face-to-face system (Ertmer, 1999). Insuffcient teacher training and lack of resoruce personnel are two other barriers that can affect the successful implemntation of VLEs in primary schools (Herzig, 2004). Scrimshaw (2004), quoting BECTA resources, believes that most of the barriers that affect VLEs in primary schools relate to factors like resources, skills, attitudes, institutions and beliefs. Quoting the report the ICT Impact Report of European Schoolnet (2006), Kula (2010) grouped barriers that affect VLE into three main categories - teacher-level, school-level and system-level barriers.

System, school and institution level barriers to VLEs are considered as important by many authors. Perceived lack of an organized VLE model/software could be a big technical barriers (Ertmer, 1999; Pelgrum, 2001). Kula (2010) also cites works of other authors to record barriers like lack of up-to-date technological tools (Cakir and Yildrim, 2009) and a clear pre-determined plan and policy of technology adoption (Usluel, Mumucu and Demiraslan,2007). In some cases, both teachers and students found virtua classroom to be very confusing; this could be due to poor VLE program design, difficult interface or even difficuit to understand navigational links. Obringer (2001) believes that to make a VLE progam successful, it is very critical to evaluate the navigational links and to train students how to use them.

Siemens (2004) cited a number of drawbaks with e learning management systems used by educational institutions and organizations. This author (2004) believes that "beginning learning with an LMS is often a matter of wrong tool for wrong purposes (which results in failed elearning implementations, ineffective learning, and unnecessary expenses)." He also believes that "the learning should be a part of whole learning environment so that it extends the use flexibility to the end-user apart from controlling the learning move through different approaches driven by actual needs for learning and not by design of the e learning system (2004)." The learning tools that schools use steer the course in which they extend the learning tasks. Siemens (2004) also considers that "a well-structured e learning tool will eventually impose the actual nature of the interaction which could be instructor-learner, learner-learner or learner-content."

Using effective VLEs to integrate seamless pedagogical values

With the available school e learning tools in our hand and their perceived deficiencies on record, we will attempt to design a new primary school VLE prototype-learning model that takes into account "instructor-learner, learner-learner or learner-content" side of the VLE implementation. We will also try to assess and evaluate how we can create effective VLEs to integrate seamless pedagogical values into the learning system.

Effectively speaking, the launching of VLEs in primary and secondary schools could be extremely effective and result-oriented. BECTA (2004), in its monumental report in the effectiveness of VLEs suggests that:

"To set up an efficient VLE to implement school curriculum, the school 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 (p32)."

In other words, any VLEs used in a primary school should satisfy the above-mentioned pedagogical parameters in a way that eventually leads to success of the e learning initiative. An effective VLE designed should help seamless knowledge and skill management and further enhancement of academic standard. Before designing a prototype model, policymakers may need to look at various factors that influence the learning outcome. A conclusion to design and create a VLE working model should consider the following questions:

Are the current e learning, VLE and learning management systems (LMS) effective in a primary school setting?

If they are useful in a primary school setting, what will be the perceived learning outcome? Do instructors and learners find diverse features of such systems easy and flexible to use? Alternatively, do they find such systems confusing and challenging with their complex interfaces and links?

If the e learning tools are indeed complex to use, could we create an alternative VLE model that considers various issues those relate to learners' mental development stages, cognitive development and user pretences?

Will the new VLE model be able to integrate various aspects of e learning like flexibility, ease of use and effective interfaces?

In what manner the new VLE model will address the concerns of instructors.

E learning is a far-reaching pedagogical transformation for a traditionally inclined curriculum. Digital inequality and inequitable access to online curriculum could pose a great challenge while designing a new VLE model. An easy to use and flexible e learning tool could act as a strong foundation for effective distribution of school curriculum.

Discussions and Recommendations

Many authors and academicians believe that VLEs in a primary school setting is out of context and not useful. Many schools, both in the developed and developing countries, are finding deployment of VLEs very challenging. One of the biggest concerns that most of these schools have is whether the e learning tools used are transforming the pedagogical values of teaching in an adverse manner.

Quoting a study conducted by the European EUN Consortium Study, Vuorikari (2003) argues on three important issues:

VLE's development is witnessing a big boom as more institutions are accepting them as productive and empowering tools

However, most of them may not satisfying the expectations and needs of academicians

In many cases, schools may like to use such tools to enhance knowledge and skills of both learners and instructors.

Of late, there is an intense debate on the efficacy of commercial e learning tools in primary classroom teaching. One of the concerns expressed by Siemens (2004) is that the learning-management system vendors are trying to maneuver their tools as the focal point for e learning in organizations, eventually to remove control from the tools' end users - here, the school management, instructors and learners. Merrienboer et al (2004) believes that:

"It is not the media, but the instructional methods and the delivery systems that can enhance the overall quality of education and learning experience."

Learning process among young children is individual specific and entirely different among different children. Learning among children is process where an instructor is just a guide or facilitator to guide them towards learning content. Children will need to take responsibility for their own learning. In this regard, an e learning tool that we try design should direct or guide children to learn on their own and with their own initiative. Learning among young primary school children is diverse, multi-hued and disorderly. Most of the VLEs systems are excellent at delivering course materials. However, this cannot be the sole criteria for the success of e learning. In his article on Learning Management Systems - The wrong place to start learning, Siemens (2004) opines that:

"A good learning tool will help enhance informal learning, support superior performance and manage skills and knowledge development. In fact, as an e learning tool becomes more sophisticated and feature-rich, it tends to lose its practical utility and basic functionality."

Limitations in an e learning tool that empower virtual learning, may not help instructors achieve what they want with their course design and format. In many cases, most of the current VLE tools decide what an instructor could do with the tool and how she or he can use it; it is a situation where the tool instructs the user - "just-follow-our-system".

Significant progress has been made in designing and engineering of many e learning platforms, tools and models. Although feature-rich and good in delivery, they may lack from inherent deficiencies and user-side weaknesses. In addition, such tools have been working with a common principle as noted by Siemens (2004) - tool selection first and instructor requirements second. Simplified, it means that the tool itself tends to override the user and user's preferences.

This short paper will attempt to design a prototype model for e learning in primary school. Based on the observations made, the tool will look at user-side flexibility and convenience. Furthermore, the new model will take into consideration the learning age and cognitive development of young children, so that they can use it in an age-appropriate manner.