There are a few things you should be considering when it comes to online safety and privacy. VLE’s are great, and we know that when students use them effectively, they can achieve remarkable results (read about the correlation between VLE use and performance here). However, when yo’re thinking of using virtual learning environment software and services, you need to ensure your students’ safety. Think about the following when discovering and making full use of digital content and consider making your students aware of the issues.
There are three facets to digital citizenship; safety, literacy and responsibility.
However, this is not the case with all learning platforms. You need to know what you’re signing up to when you register your information on sites and apps. Look at the agreement you’re making and what they’re going to require from you. Read through the agreement rather than blindly clicking on the agree button. You might realise these platforms are after more of your personal information than first thought. Students need to take overall responsibility for their online safety, but to do so, they need to understand what this means, and that’s where digital citizenship in schools comes in. As their teacher, inviting them to use a particular platform they would not have known about without you also puts the onus on you to make the right choices on their behalf.
Keeping your information secure is important. Passwords come into their own when it comes to keeping information safe. Vary your passwords; don’t use the same one to access everything, as once someone gets hold of that password, they can access all of your information. Uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters should all feature in a strong password. Digital privacy in education is more important now than it ever has been, and solid passwords are an essential first step.
Don’t trust everything you see online. Be sensible and learn to recognise when you are consuming false information, or heading to an unsecure site. Be wary and vigilant when navigating through the online world. Not every site is a good site, and if you think something isn’t quite right, then it probably isn’t. Know what you’re looking for from a service and feel safe using it. But, does that mean we should only use services we have already heard of? Not necessarily – as you could be missing out on great learning opportunities. Check out our take on Considering Non-Google Education Platforms to see what we mean.
Tips on evaluating an online service in terms of student protection:
As a teacher selecting an online service for your students to use, you have the responsibility of keeping them as safe as you can. But how do you select Virtual learning environment platforms with safety in mind? Ask these questions when considering Virtual Learning Environments for schools – they’ll help you make an informed decision. If you are answering “yes” to most of these questions; you might want to consider an alternative service.
- Does it collect information that could personally identify a student?
- Does it share information with 3rd parties?
- If you discontinue use, will student information be retained?
- Are targeted advertisements served to users?
- Are they unclear about data security processes?
- Are there any reviews online that raise red flags about the service?
Virtual learning environments are becoming more widely used. They are excellent at combatting a huge number of challenges faced in the sphere of learning; such as larger student populations and reduced budgets. But, learners sometimes find it easy to lose motivation in a Virtual Learning Environment. It’s not difficult to lose motivation in a traditional classroom if you aren’t interested in the subject, and even easier to let your motivation slip when no one is standing over your shoulder ensuring you do the work.
So, how do you motivate students to keep engaging with the subject, when they’re behind a screen? Students can be excellent at hiding their lack of motivation and engagement, and you need to be on top of your game to recognise when things are slipping. It’s far less trouble to keep them engaged in the first place than it is to try and motivate them once they’ve lost their drive. So, how do we ensure they’re getting the most from their learning, and you’re getting the most from them?
Engagement equals motivation
It’s human nature to be lazy, why waste energy? People want to do things using as little energy as possible, so if we can get away with not attending something, not paying attention or letting others do the work for us, often we will. This behaviour becomes extremely noticeable in a VLE for students. Teachers will see that some students will slow down their use of the Virtual Learning Environment software as time goes on; this is them losing motivation and their engagement levels slipping. There’s a direct correlation between the success of students and their VLE use (which you can read about here) so we know it’s imperative that we keep students engaged with their learning. However, we also know, that accessing a VLE for learners 100 times or 100,000 times, doesn’t necessarily make for greater success. Surprising eh? Take a look at our article to read more about this.
It’s all well and good appreciating this challenge, but even better knowing how to combat this as a teacher. Here are some pointers.
- Communicate with your students. Keep in touch, however that may be. Talk to them through a messaging centre, arrange 1-to-1 time or ask direct questions in a group discussion. The second students feel forgotten about, they start to disengage.
- Set expectations. If we know what is expected of us, it’s a lot easier to apply yourself to those expectations. The flexibility a VLE can provide is one of the top benefits, but it’s also one of the most dangerous. Letting your students know what you need from them in terms of participation from the get-go, will help you down the line.
- Set goals. Working with each individual to set goals for progress gives your students the opportunity to take ownership of their learning. If they’re accountable for their progress, you will start to notice them sticking to their goals more rigidly.
- Monitor progress. Don’t stop monitoring and reviewing your students. There is always room for improvement, and reviewing results on a regular basis will help you recognise when things are slipping.
- Peer collaboration. Set tasks where your students need to evaluate content from a group discussion. This reduces the temptation to log in to the VLE, show your face and then stop paying attention.
More and more universities and schools are choosing to use Virtual Learning Environments, or “VLE”. (For those uninitiated on what these are; virtual learning environment platforms deliver learning materials to their students via the Internet. The main famous examples include Open University, Coursera and Google Classroom)
With this increasing demand in Virtual Learning Environments for teachers, we need to be weary, especially as the industry is always changing, due to how quickly technology itself is changing. Many teachers are coming up with inventive means of using VLEs, which in theory are a good way to engage with your students; they enhance the construction and reconstruction of knowledge as well as the formation of habits and attitudes, all within a framework which is increasingly common in both our personal and professional lives, the Internet!
However, as it is such a recent area of education, many studies are still investigating whether students are benefitting (in real terms) from this shifting learning landscape. The Polytechnic Institute of Bragança and the University of Minho recently conducted one such study – with the aim to find a quantifiable correlation between the use of virtual learning environments for students and those students’ performance.
Using a sample size of 6347 students, researchers investigated relations between the number of accesses to the VLE and students’ performance (quantified through 3 numerical results: the number of course units the student passed or failed, the total number of units they were registered for, and the mean of the marks they obtained).
The main findings from the report:
- The number of accesses to the VLE were diverse, ranging from 0 to 1532 per student
- There is a positive moderate correlation (0.6) between the number of accesses and the number of course units passed (i.e. The more a student accessed the VLE, the more likely they were to pass)
- However, for those that didn’t pass, there was a very low negative correlation between the number of accesses and their mean marks.
Separating the 6347 students into 5 percentile groups, based on the number of accesses to the VLE, also yields interesting results; for example, the higher the mean of the group’s accesses to the VLE, the higher:
- The number of course units in which the student is registered
- The number of units they passed
- The percentage of units they passed relative to the units they are registered in
- The percentage of course units the student passed.
It was also found that the higher the mean of the group’s accesses, the lower the percentage of students who failed all the course units is.
In must be noted that these results cannot be over-generalised, as the sample concerns only one higher education institution. However, these results show almost unanimously the positive correlation between VLE use and performance.
Read the full report here.
If you weren’t aware, Google have created their own virtual learning environment called Google Classroom. It’s a decent VLE, with a number of useful features. So far, so good!
But are we not as aware of the Google Classroom disadvantages as we should be? The New York Times recently published an article on precisely this topic, titled How Google took over the Classroom. It all sounds very dystopian, although to a teacher, it might sound like a lifesaver.
As per the reporter, a social science class in Chicago starts out with each student grabbing a Google-powered laptop, and opening Google Classroom; then they write their essays in Google Docs.  And that one school isn’t alone, because more than half of America’s primary and secondary school students use either Gmail or Google Docs. That’s an incredible thirty million children.
The benefit for students is ease of use; the benefit for teachers is to have everything under one umbrella, information shareable between devices. But what else do we get?
What do we get?
There’s no doubting that Google Classroom is a well put-together online learning platform. As a virtual learning environment goes, it has a number of excellent features. It’s accessible from any number of devices and is easy to use, has a nice clean interface, and speeds up marking and review, just like other VLEs.
Google Classroom’s virtual classroom software is also another of its advantages. If you’ve never encountered anything like that before virtual classroom software is a synchronous learning solution, or in English, a VLE that operates in real time. So, they commonly feature live chat that can be used by students and teachers, for instance. It’s designed to simulate the classroom environment, but entirely online.
Google Classroom reviews paint a mixed picture, as reviewers understand the excellent symmetry and ease of use of everything that Google offer, but others are worried about just how ubiquitous Google are becoming in class. But Google Classroom reviews shouldn’t be the only thing we judge their software on.
What’s really in it for Google?
One of the key Google Classroom disadvantages is… As an online learning platform, Google Classroom stands alone as the one with outstanding privacy concerns. Indeed, a number of Google Classroom reviews point out these privacy concerns; as do hard hitting articles on NPR  and Recode.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation lodged a complaint not too long ago with the US Federal Trade Commission, accusing Google of collecting personal data on students.  The accusation is that when students log in to Gmail with their account, they log into their YouTube and Blogger accounts at the same time. The EFF say that Google then gather that data and use it for advertisement purposes. 
The benefits are great, but the Google Classroom disadvantages are simply too serious for many schools and parents. Schools shouldn’t be a testing ground for future customers, or a place for gathering data on potential consumers. That’s why we recommend considering alternative education platforms before you go all out with Google.
This isn’t the first or the last time we’re going to extol the virtues of Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) for schools. The main benefit of a VLE for teachers is that it helps you to organise all learning and course materials and cut back on the vast reams of paper we all had to wade through before. But for students, it can have a very real effect on attainment. Let’s examine what the latest research says are the main benefits of VLEs for teachers, and for students.
Different levels of access
The 2017 study The Influence of Virtual Learning Environments in Students’ Performance found that the number of times students would access the VLE varied wildly from between zero to a maximum of 1532 for the courses examined in the study. But within this range, they found that students’ use of the VLE would fall within a general set pattern: grouped into five levels, these were around 10, 60, 100, 200 and 400. This suggests that apart from a small subset, engagement with the VLE was generally good.
Now, this study was carried out at a higher education institution in Portugal. Generally, universities have so far better understood the benefits of the virtual learning environment for teachers than secondary and primary schools; so the takeaway message here is that genuine engagement really can be achieved. This is, of course, a different story in say, a secondary school; students take far more subjects, and do less self-led research than university students. But that just plays into the true benefits of a VLE.
Similar marks, but more passes overall
This particular study actually didn’t find a positive correlation between the number of accesses to the VLE, and the mean marks received on a particular course. So, for instance, whether a student accessed the VLE a hundred times or a thousand times didn’t actually affect their mark. This result certainly surprised us, but it makes sense when you think about what VLE brings to the table.
What this study did find was a correlation between the number of accesses and the number of courses passed. This suggests that students who make the most of their VLE have a broader range of success than their peers. So while the VLE didn’t help these students to achieve better grades in particular subjects, it did help them manage their workload better, so that they could take on and pass in more courses. This means that the main benefit of a VLE for teachers is that it helps students tackling a large range of subjects, all at once.
If you want to boost your students’ attainment, then, encourage their engagement with a VLE. It doesn’t have to be fun, but it does have to be useful: there has to be a good reason for students to access it. Fill it with useful information and links, things that will genuinely help your students, so that they can better deal with taking on so many subjects simultaneously.