Primary VLEs

Apr 08, 2006

Miles Berry

As part of the NAACE transformed education project, Mike Partridge and I have started to put together a spec. for a CPD toolkit on Learning Platforms in primary (style) education.

This, and Ian Usher’s recent post has had me thinking about the differences between primary VLEs and secondary (or indeed FE/HE) ones, and more importantly between the ways they might be used.

Ian starts by citing the quote from Becta’s 2003 report, that

A fully integrated VLE [may] not be appropriate for a primary school at this stage in VLE development.

I took issue with this at the time, and set about demonstrating, through the St Ives pilot study, that actually a fully featured VLE could offer much to primary pupils. Three years later on, we’re looking to a massive rollout of learning platforms for all schools, including primaries, and yet I’m not sure that core VLE functionality, or indeed primary education, has radically changed over the intervening time.

Now, as to whether there are significant differences between primary and secondary VLEs and their use, I think it depends. There are (at least) two factors which might determine whether there are differences:

Primary pupils are, well, younger.

This could mean that a text interface, as characterises Moodle and most of the other cross phase VLEs, might make things less accessible, but:

  1. Some folk have explored ways round this, such as Ian Usher and Drew Buddie’s game style front end to a Moodle course, and Leon Cych’s notion of a simplified GUI for Moodle, using flash or AJAX.
  2. Veronica Carter at our neighbours Camelsdale, and Moodle pioneers Church Aston are making good use of Moodle in foundation stage and key stage 1, by getting the parents to act as an interface between the children and the learning platform – I think this is really cool, and a super way of getting parents involved in their children’s education, as well as using a VLE to extend and support learning at home.
  3. My own pupils, in years 5 and 6, quite appreciate the fact that our Moodle’s not full of whizz bang gimmicks, but has a fairly sober presentation, with the content coming before the presentation. They don’t like things being ‘dummed down’, a criticism which might perhaps be levelled at some of the BBC Jam materials.

Primary educational approaches are different.

I think this is relevant, but I think typical primary approaches, perhaps because they’re not quite so dominated by exam pressures, are on the whole closer to social constructivist notions than might be found in a typical secondary school, and this is going to make a difference when selecting and using a VLE. For instance (and I’m generalising wildly here…):

  1. There’s often a lot of attention paid to providing a rich and stimulating learning environment, where a variety of resources and activities are made available, and where there are at least some occasions when there’s some degree of choice in using these. Related to this is the idea that children in primary schools learn best through experience, and thus a primary VLE needs to focus more on engaging children in meaningful activities than in presenting resources.
  2. Similarly, many (although by no means all) primary teachers are quite comfortable with the idea of producing their own worksheets and resources, rather than relying heavily on particular text book schemes, particularly away from the core curriculum, and so the VLE needs to provide the tools for these teachers to make their own digital resources too: Gerry Graham’s notion of the scissors, glue and paper approach to digial content creation is highly relevant here (thanks, Ian!).
  3. Creativity, and indeed collaborative creativity, retains a vital place in the curriculum, despite the predominance of literacy and numeracy strategy, as acknowledged by Excellence and Enjoyment.
  4. Something like circle time, which can’t be that uncommon, provides an opportunity for genuine social learning, in which all have a voice, and more importantly where the class learns from the experience of all.
  5. “Show and tell” reinforces the above social learning, but also goes a long way to acknowledge that there’s more to learning than merely that which happens in the classroom, and thus informal, independent learning is validated and benefits the class.
  6. Whilst I’d acknowledge that it’s not that widespread in the UK, something like the Philosophy for Children movement indicates some openness to the notion of a the classroom as community of enquiry in the primary phase.
  7. There’s perhaps more willingness, certainly with the younger pupils, to strive to make learning fun, and closer perhaps to play, and thus a VLE which allows some room for learners to try things for themselves and experiment, rather than working through a rigid or branched sequence seems appropriate.

So, I think, with this in mind, that in the primary phase at least, whilst some attention should be paid to interface design, so that at the very least this doesn’t get in the way of the learning, more important is to ensure that the VLE has the right mix of affordances to accommodate play, enquiry, experiential learning, choice, voice, communication and collaboration. Getting these right is going to make it for more likely that the technology can help transform learning that ensuring resources are properly tagged and pupil performance is accurately tracked.